The dark side of Brazil: Oil giant Petrobras moves into 'deepest Amazon'

March 27, 2014

The Suruwaha are an isolated tribe, highly vulnerable to introduced diseases. © Adriana Huber/Survival

This page was created in 2014 and may contain language which is now outdated.

Brazilian state oil company Petrobras has started exploring for oil and gas in one of the most isolated parts of the Amazon, endangering several isolated Indian tribes.

Local sources report that Petrobras has installed 15 barges with high-capacity generators, pipelines and mining machinery on the Tapauá River in Amazonas state. The exploration is taking place close to seven Indigenous territories including the lands of the Suruwaha, Banawa, Deni and Paumari Indians.

Although Brazil’s constitution stipulates that Indigenous people must be consulted about all projects that will affect their land, Petrobras has failed to consult the Indigenous peoples in the area. FUNAI, the government’s Indian affairs department, was not informed about the exploration either, despite the fact some tribes in the area are very isolated and contacted relatively recently.

When asked about Petrobras’s recent exploration in the Tapauá River basin, Brazil’s National Oil Agency stated that ‘no exploration for oil and gas has been called for, or authorized, by this agency in that region.’

Oil exploration barges photographed last week moving into position on the Tapauá River, Amazonas state, Brazil. © Comissão Pastoral da Terra/Prelazia de Lábrea

In a letter to Public Prosecutors, Brazilian experts emphasized the Indians’ right, enshrined in international law, to be consulted about this activity and warned, that ‘over 1,300 people could suffer irreversible impacts’. A Congresswoman and a Senator have raised the issue in congress.

The exploration could prove fatal for the Hi Merimã, an uncontacted tribe living close to the exploration site. Uncontacted Indians are extremely vulnerable to any contact with outsiders as they have no immunity to common diseases.

In the 1970s and 1980s Petrobras explored for oil in the Javari Valley, home to the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes in the world. Several uncontacted Indians, as well as FUNAI and Petrobras employees, died in conflicts sparked by the exploration activities.

Last year the Indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley re-stated their opposition to any oil exploration on or near their lands. In a letter they warned that they do not want to see a repetition of the tragedy they suffered when Petrobras ‘destroyed our homes and gardens, blew up our lakes and streams polluting the springs and leading to the death of several Indians.’ They ’brought disease to our communities and malaria to the region, and brought an accumulation of equipment to our territory, damaging the flora and fauna’.

Petrobras has started exploring for oil and gas (red circle) in one of the most isolated parts of the Amazon. © Survival International

Survival International has written to Petrobras urging it to immediately halt its work in the area.

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘Brazil is ready and willing to sacrifice innocent Indian lives in its greedy scramble for profit. Its economic growth is coming at immense human cost: the lives and livelihoods of the country’s Indigenous people. Make no mistake – when the lands of uncontacted Indians are invaded, disease, death and destruction inevitably follow. This is the dark side of Brazil.’

Note to editors:

- In the run-up to the FIFA World Cup, Survival International is highlighting ‘The dark side of Brazil’. Five hundred years after colonization, Brazilian Indians are still being killed for their lands and resources. Now the government and landowners plan to open up Indian territories for massive industrial projects.

- Download Survival’s letter to Petrobras (Pdf, 137 kB)

- Download a letter by the Indians of the Javari Valley rejecting all oil exploration on or near their lands (Pdf, 3.9 MB) (In Portuguese)

- The Suruwaha whose territory is close to the exploration site have been under attack by fundamentalist missionaries for years. The missionaries falsely claim they regularly kill newborn babies. In 2012 the tribe became the target of an Australian Channel 7 TV report that called the Suruwaha a ‘suicide cult’ from the ‘Stone Age’; and the ‘worst human rights violators in the world’. Survival complained to Australia’s regulator ACMA, which ruled that the Channel was guilty of breaking its racism clause.

Uncontacted Indians of Brazil