Conservation news

Uncontacted Amazon indigenous groups reportedly attacked by outsiders

Aerial view of an illegal gold mining dredge along the Jandiatuba River in Brazil. Photo © FUNAI

Brazilian officials are investigating two reported cases of violent contact between indigenous groups that shun contact with wider society and outsiders who entered their territory illegally.

Both incidents reportedly occurred in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, a huge area encompassing 85,444 square kilometers (32,990 square miles) in Amazonas state bordering Peru, and home to the largest concentration of isolated indigenous people in the world.

One case involved gold miners operating dredges illegally on the Jandiatuba River, a tributary of the Solimões. In mid-August, reports began circulating in the town of São Paulo de Olivença, on the Solimões River near Brazil’s borders with Peru and Colombia, of an encounter between miners and isolated people that occurred in late July or early August.

At the end of August, four dredges on the Jandiatuba River were destroyed in a raid by the Brazilian Army, Federal Public Ministry and Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). IBAMA also fined a group of miners about $340,000 for environmental damage in the region.

Before the raid, miners in São Paulo de Olivença had shown off a bow, an arrow and a carved paddle taken from a canoe as proof of the indigenous encounter, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

An illegal gold mining dredge on the Jandiatuba River burns in late August during a raid by the Brazilian Army, Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry and the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). Photo courtesy of the Brazilian Army

There also were reports that as many as 10 indigenous people were killed. Those reports have not been confirmed, according to a press release issued September 11 by FUNAI, Brazil’s national indigenous affairs agency.

“So far, no material proof has been found to prove the alleged massacre, so it is impossible to confirm the veracity of the [reports of] deaths,” the FUNAI statement said.

It is difficult to confirm deaths in cases of violent encounters with isolated groups because victims’ bodies are almost never found, experts say.

Reports of such cases generally come from the outsiders involved — like the miners in this case, or loggers or hunters who invade an isolated group’s territory — or from a neighboring tribe.

In the second alleged case, villagers in Jarinal, a Kanamari community on the Jutai River reported an attack against a group of Wakinara Djapar people — a tribe of the same language group as the Kanamari — possibly carried out by people who are farming illegally in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory. That report is under investigation but has not been confirmed.

Flying over the area in December 2016, FUNAI staff saw the charred remains of an isolated group’s maloca or communal house, but it is unknown whether the burning was related to incursions by outsiders.

Charred remains of a maloca or communal house of an isolated indigenous group in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory. Photo © FUNAI

Even when the encounter itself is not violent, contact with outsiders can be devastating to isolated groups, which have no resistance even to common diseases such as colds or flu. Even indirect contact — through pots, machetes or other items carried off from a settled village or a logging camp — can cause an epidemic that decimates a group, or forces it to seek medical assistance.

The two new reports of violence come at a time when isolated tribes in the Amazon basin are under increasing pressure from drug traffickers, especially along the border between Brazil and Peru, plus pressure from dam construction, oil and gas operations, and deforestation for farming and ranching, according to Antenor Vaz, a former FUNAI official who has mapped the threats.

“This model of development is the greatest risk factor for isolated indigenous people and those in recent contact,” Vaz said at an Amazonian anthropology conference in Lima, Peru, in late July.

Although most of the isolated groups reported in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Venezuela live in protected areas, that does not mean they are safe from unwanted contact with outsiders, Vaz said.

Isolated groups are unaware of official borders and sometimes move back and forth across them. Even when they remain inside protected areas, lack of law enforcement makes them vulnerable to incursions by outsiders like the illegal miners on the Jandiatuba River.

Aerial view of an isolated indigenous group in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory. Photo © FUNAI

Although Brazil’s official policy is to protect the areas occupied by isolated groups, budget cuts implemented under the Rousseff and Temer administrations have forced FUNAI to close five of its control posts and cut staff at others. Miners moved up the Jandiatuba River into the indigenous territory after a FUNAI control post there was closed in 2012. FUNAI’s budget was nearly halved this year.

Budget reductions and a transfer of some areas of responsibility, such as indigenous people’s health care and education, from FUNAI to other government agencies, have weakened the agency’s ability to protect indigenous people, according to Luiz Eloy Terena, who is a member of the Terena indigenous people as well as a lawyer for the Coordinating Group of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Articulaçao dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil).

A bloc of legislators, the bancada ruralista, aligned with large landholders, agribusiness and ranchers is also aggressively seeking to redraw the boundaries of indigenous territories, and hundreds of requests for territorial demarcation are now on hold, Eloy said.

Road construction in the Amazon is another major threat to indigenous groups, Vaz noted. A road built in Brazil in the 1970s near the border with Venezuela led to a gold rush into territory of the semi-nomadic Yanomami people, where miners killed 16 members of the tribe in 1993.

As outside pressures increase, Vaz said, “There are groups that are coming into contact because they no longer have the possibility of remaining isolated.”

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