"Uncontacted" Tribes Fled Peru Logging, Arrows Suggest

Sabrina Valle in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
for National Geographic News
October 6, 2008
Arrows and abandoned camps found in remote western Brazil are fresh evidence of isolated Amazon tribes fleeing Peru to escape the encroachment of illegal loggers, indigenous rights groups say.

London-based Survival International said the arrows were recovered by Brazilian authorities near a site where photos were taken earlier this year of tribal people apparently shooting arrows at the photographer's airplane.

The tribes have been described as "uncontacted"—so remote that they may have had little or no substantive contact with the developed world. (See video.)

Peruvian President Alan Garcia suggested last year that such indigenous groups might be an invention by those who were opposed to oil exploration.

Conservationists, scholars, and Brazilian government agencies that do recognize the isolated tribes have struggled to determine how best to protect them, an effort that has spurred calls for Peru to stop the illegal logging and development that is displacing the indigenous people.

(Related: "Photos Spur Debate on Protecting "Uncontacted" Tribes" [June 3, 2008].)

A Different Kind of Arrow

"There is plenty of evidence for the tribes fleeing and that logging is taking place on the Peruvian side," said David Hill of Survival International.

Logs cut down illegally in Peru have been reported floating downriver to Brazil, and abandoned Indian huts have been found between areas of deforestation.

Brazil's Indian-protection agency, FUNAI, has found traces of fires and footprints at campsites on its side of the border with Peru, as well as newly built houses and the arrows three miles (five kilometers) from the border.

"These houses cannot have been built by anyone else, and the arrows they are using differ from the ones used by 'uncontacted' groups permanently on the Brazilian side of the border," Hill said.

"FUNAI officials have monitored the area for years. They know the lay of the land—who is who, where they are," he said.

Reports of "Contact"

Reports from less isolated tribes who have met the "uncontacted" groups also attest to the dislocation.

Beatriz Huertas, a top official with CIPIACI, an international committee comprised of indigenous organizations from six South American countries, was among a small group of specialists that spent nearly three weeks in the area researching and documenting the displacement.

"We haven't made direct contact, since we have to respect them and take care not to spread diseases they are not protected from, but we've flown over the area and spoken to other tribes from the region who have had first-hand contact," Huertas said.

"There is no doubt," she continued. "It is proven that they are fleeing."

Huertas said the "uncontacted" tribes affected by the illegal logging activities are probably from the Peruvian region of Ucayali, which borders the Brazilian state of Acre.

She said the indigenous people are believed to be either Pano speakers or else from the Mashco Piro ethnic group, whose language derives from Arawak.

Sydney Possuelo, who was responsible for implementing Brazil's policies protecting Indians in the late 1980s, stressed that such details of the "uncontacted" tribes are not known for certain.

"We know the location of some, and there are reserves to protect them. But everything about their language, culture, and habits has to be treated as supposition," he said.

Infighting and Inaction

The Brazilian government has confirmed the existence of 40 such tribes, and there are estimates that the number could be as high as 67. Another 15 live in Peru, according to Survival International.

Huertas said logging pressure has also caused other problems for the Indians. Tribes that used to live far from each other are being pushed closer together, forcing them to fight among themselves for food and territory.

"There have been attacks, fires, and killings by loggers. The area available to the tribes has shrunk. Now they have to compete for food and space," Huertas said.

While there are problems in the Brazilian side, Indians are more protected by the government than they are in Peru.

No report has been published and no action has been taken since the Peruvian government promised earlier this year to investigate the logging problem, Hill said.

"Either because [Peru] does not have the political will, or because it does not want to allocate the necessary resources to tackle the problem, these 'uncontacted' tribes' lands are being invaded and devastated," he said.

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