Out of the rainforest they’ve come, asking for food and clothes. On June 29, they approached a local environmental protection group for help, speaking an unknown language and using animal sounds to express emotions. It was the first time anyone in Brazil had officially made contact with an isolated Indian tribe for twenty years. For 500 years, they’ve lived in seclusion within the depths of the western Amazonian jungle, hunter-gatherers who avoided contact with the outside world. In the past, they have shot arrows at outsiders and airplanes, avoiding intruders by retreating deeper into the rainforest.
Seen only rarely, they are as elusive as the prey they hunt for food. Sightings of the tribe increased on June 13 and first contact was made when a large group, perhaps seventy in number, approached an Asháninka village on the Upper Envira River and met with an indigenous adviser from the local state government and members of Frente de Proteção Etnoambiental Envira. Their arrival wasn’t unexpected; for a few weeks, the tribe had been moving through the rainforest, coming closer and closer to the village.
The village of Sympatico is just 25 miles from the Peruvian border, in the Brazilian state of Acre. It sits a week’s travel by foot and canoe from the nearest road. It was in this same patch of rainforest that, four years ago, an uncontacted tribal group was filmed. Contact of the physical sort is a massive change for the isolated natives and a momentous one.
It’s not what most settled villages experience, it seems, when nomadic bands come to the edge of the rainforest, pushed across the Brazilian border by illegal logging and violent drug runners. With the removal of FUNAI ground personnel from the region, two years ago, there was a marked rise in raids. Isolated tribes enter villages and steal goods such as clothing, machetes, axes, and aluminum pots. There are attempted kidnappings of women and children that make villagers afraid to tend their gardens, often planted in rainforest clearings.
So far, things look peaceful in Sympatico, despite the language and culture barriers. The villagers are deeply concerned for the problems faced by the nomadic group who have come to them for help. Sarah Shenker, a representative of the human rights organization Survival International, which advocates on behalf of indigenous people, has stated:
“This is clearly a conscious decision to make contact because they must have felt they had no other choice. They really could face the prospect of being wiped out.”
It’s against the law to make direct contact with isolated native tribes; there’s the risk of wiping them out with diseases such as chicken pox, measles, influenza, or even the common cold. It’s happened before, to hundreds of others. Being off the grid has left them without biological immunities that we take for granted. By fleeing deep into the jungle at the approach of outsiders five hundred years ago, they avoided contact with European invaders and escaped the genocidal death tolls seen among other Indian tribes.
Just as difficult to monitor are the negative changes to culture which can occur when an uncontacted group is forced into contact. But as of yet, there is no name for the isolated tribe and no way of knowing if the group is the entire tribe or only a part of one.
FUNAI, the Brazilian National Indian Foundation, claimed in a press release that it “has the premise of no contact, respecting the self-determination of peoples and doing the work of territorial protection with the presence of these people.” Medical experts and interpreters have been sent in, to give assistance in keeping the tribal group safe. The band will be offered the chance to settle into a village, but it is understood that they might choose to return to life in the rainforest.
The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world. It is the ancestral home to 1 million Indians who are divided into approximately 400 tribes, each with an individual language and culture and territory. Only a few tribes are nomadic and live far from the rivers, in the densest reaches of the rainforest, growing crops in regular areas that are visited seasonally but relying heavily on hunting and gathering for food. Most tribal groups have settled down into villages close to the rivers, where they grow crops like bananas, corn, beans, and manioc. Natives living in the villages often have access to Westernized healthcare and education. Many have had contact with the outside world.
There remains, in Peru, some refusal to believe in the existence of uncontacted Indian tribes living in the rainforest. Senior figures in the government have continued to suggest, despite visual evidence, that the isolated tribes are a myth being used to prevent exploitation of the region’s natural resources.
Along the border between Brazil and Peru, land is a prize. It is rich in natural gas, timber, oil, and minerals. There is hydroelectric and farming potential that, according to some, is going to waste. The region is a lawless place, where the gap between policy and enforcement is difficult to fix.
Mahogany and teak are harvested illegally on tribal lands. There are international laws set in place to protect traditional territories, but corruption and lack of funds make it difficult to enforce those regulations. The dense, remote forests are vulnerable to drug trafficking, illicit logging, and other crimes which cross political borders. A government research outpost used to monitor uncontacted groups was seized by drug traffickers in 2011.
Peruvian farmers, struggling in poverty, turn to cultivating coca, which is, in turn, made into cocaine — Peru produces more cocaine than any other country, a cash crop that travels through the Amazonian rainforest to reach the world. Through murder and intimidation, the traffickers drive the tribal bands away from the areas where they live, pushing them closer to civilization.
Just as problematic are farmers and loggers who have illegally settled on land reserved for indigenous peoples. The military works with the environmental protection service, coordinated by FUNAI to serve and enforce eviction notices to settlers who are, as incentive, offered plots of land elsewhere.
The work of protecting the reservation lands is hard and often fruitless; the evicted often return as soon as the army and government agents have left the scene. The 1988 Brazilian Constitution recognized the native tribes’ rights to pursue traditional ways of life and to the permanent and exclusive possession of traditional lands, demarcated as Indigenous Territories. It’s a long, slow process to demarcate parcels of native tribal land; legal battles and a lack of sufficient funds makes legal protection difficult to enforce.
With the arrival of an isolated tribal group in the larger world, the concerns mount. Entering outsider society, the band are vulnerable to violence and devastating diseases which could wipe them out. Having no method of communication means that the group will have to rely on assistance from the villagers and the state for an undetermined amount of time.
Concerns mount. But so do the questions. Will there be more Indians emerging from the rainforest? If so, how can the larger world, having promised to protect them from influence, give them protection from the dangers of first contact?
[Image courtesy of GleisonMiranda/FUNAI/Survival]