llegal loggers have put the survival of the last isolated indigenous groups increasingly at risk

Jan Rocha in São Paulo
The Guardian
Article history

Monday 27 April 2009 00.05 BST

Lost tribe found in Brazil

Members of an unknown Amazon basin tribe brandish weapons as a flight over the rainforest passes their settlement in 2008. Photograph: Reuters

The last isolated indigenous tribes, located deep in the Amazon rainforest, may need to be contacted for the first time to protect them from illegal loggers, according to Brazil‘s agency, Fundação Nacional do Indio (Funai).

The Funai official José Carlos Meirelles, who has been monitoring the groups along the border between Brazil and Peru for over 20 years, told the Guardian that he believes their survival is increasingly at risk.

The decision to make contact with the tribes is not one to be taken lightly. The last time isolated groups were contacted in the Amazon was in 1996, but the Korubo in the Javari valley have since suffered epidemics of malaria and hepatitis, resulting in many deaths.

Establishing contact, however, could be the only deterrent from the looming danger of loggers. If friendly contact were established, Funai would build a post inside their area to deter the loggers and offer healthcare, vaccinating tribe members against the many diseases that contact with the outside world inevitably brings.

The risk comes not only from the loggers, but gold prospectors and coca planters who have also invaded the region, bringing disease and violence.

Meirelles wants to see an international boycott of mahogany products: “Americans should know that with each mahogany coffin they use to bury a dead person, they are also burying two indians,” he warned. He said 80% of the world’s mahogany comes from the region where the isolated indians live, logged illegally, but sold to consumers in Europe, Asia and the USA through legal companies.

Meirelles, 60, spends most of his time almost as isolated as the tribes, living at a base deep in the forest, powered by solar energy, linked to Funai HQ in Brasilia by radio. He has acquired an intimate knowledge of the territory, trekking through the forest and travelling the rivers and inlets to record signs of their presence and map out the area they inhabit. This area is now officially recognised by the Brazilian government and designated as an indigenous area.

Over the years he has caught many glimpses of the tribes. At first, he says, they were hostile, but now they seem to realise that he does not wish them harm, but they never go near him: “They don’t want contact.” Meirelles said he has suffered over 30 bouts of malaria in the forest and last year survived a deep arrow wound when a tribesperson shot him, apparently mistaking him for a logger.

Another threat to survival is the increasing presence of international oil companies like Anglo-French Perenco, Canada’s Petrolifera and Brazil’s Petrobras, eager to drill in a huge oilfield located in the Peruvian Amazon. The Peruvian government at first denied there were any uncontacted tribes in the area, but has now admitted their existence.

Indigenous groups have already begun fleeing across the border, invading areas of isolated tribes on the Brazilian side, leading to conflicts and deaths.

“If this situation continues, contact will become inevitable, and it is better that it happens with us than with loggers or goldpanners,” says Meirelles.

Before any contact is made, Funai is organising meetings with anthropologists, NGOs, and especially with the accultured tribes living in the same Amazon area, to build up a consensus about how and what should be done.

Meirelles estimates that there are approximately 600 indigenous people on the Brazilian side, divided among four groups, and an unknown number on the Peruvian side. Some groups are nomadic, hunting, fishing and collecting fruits and nuts from the forest. Others are sedentary, growing crops and living in settlements of straw-roofed huts, like the ones who were filmed last year firing arrows at a Funai helicopter which overflew their area.

The Brazilian indigenous population is at least 500,000. Most are in the Amazon, speaking over 180 languages and dialects, at different stages of acculturation, but until contact is made, nobody knows the origin of these particular isolated groups.