Fears for uncontacted tribe in Brazilian Amazon

August 18, 2020

Uncontacted Indigenous people spotted from a Brazilian government research plane above the Amazon in the state of Acre near the Peruvian border, May 2008. © G. Miranda/FUNAI/Survival

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A group of around 10 uncontacted tribal people is reported to have entered an Indigenous community in Brazil’s western Amazon region.

The encounter happened about 10 days ago and was reported by Cazuza, a leader of Terra Nova, a Kulina Indigenous community on the Envira river in Acre state.

He told Globo News, “It’s the first time they’ve appeared here…There were women, children and adult men.”

They helped themselves to axes, cassava, bananas, hammocks and clothes before returning to the forest.

This news is alarming as uncontacted tribes are extremely vulnerable to flu and other diseases against which they have no immunity. Many have been virtually wiped out from diseases caught during first contacts with outsiders.

There are fears their sudden appearance could be a sign that they are being pushed out of their territory by invaders.

Uncontacted people in Brazil seen from the air during a Brazilian government expedition in 2010. The photos reveal a thriving, healthy community with baskets full of manioc and papaya fresh from their gardens. © G. Miranda/FUNAI/Survival

José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, who worked for 40 years in FUNAI’s uncontacted tribes team in Acre is fearful for the tribe’s future. He told Acre based journalist Altino Machado that: “The state FUNAI is in now…this is a harbinger of a lot of death.”

As the death toll of Indigenous people contracting Covid-19 continues to rise, remote and uncontacted tribes are increasingly at risk of contracting the disease through encounters like this.

FUNAI, the government’s Indigenous affairs department, has been severely weakened under President Bolsonaro and this has greatly exacerbated the threats to Indigenous peoples and their territories throughout Brazil. Experienced field workers have been dismissed, its budget slashed and many of its field posts which protect uncontacted tribes closed down.

Its uncontacted Indians unit is headed by an evangelical missionary linked to the controversial New Tribes Mission (now rebranded as Ethnos360) whose objective is to convert uncontacted tribes. He remains in office despite legal challenges by the Indigenous organization UNIVAJA and public prosecutors to have him removed.

Survival’s Advocacy Director Fiona Watson said, “The news of this recent contact is extremely worrying as there is a real possibility that the group might have caught flu and spread it to neighboring uncontacted communities. This encounter underscores the urgency for FUNAI to re-open and fully equip all its field posts which protect uncontacted tribes and to work with SESAI (the Indigenous health secretariat) to develop appropriate procedures and ensure experienced medical teams are in place to treat and contain outbreaks of flu and coronavirus among the communities living near uncontacted tribes.”

In the last decade Indigenous peoples in Acre have reported increasing signs of uncontacted tribes. The last major contact in this state occurred in 2014 when a group of uncontacted Sapanawa came to an Ashaninka community fleeing violent attacks by illegal logging gangs. Within days many fell seriously ill with flu and survived due to the quick intervention of an experienced medical team.

Uncontacted people made contact with a settled Ashaninka community near the Brazil-Peru border, June 2014. The uncontacted people appeared young and healthy, but reported shocking incidents of a massacre of their older relatives. After first contact, they contracted a respiratory infection and were treated by a medical team. © FUNAI/Survival

Last month, several uncontacted tribal people from the Uru Eu Wau Wau territory in Rondonia state appeared just outside the territory where much forest has been destroyed for farming. Invasions of the Uru Eu Wau Wau territory by loggers and farmers are on the rise exposing Indigenous peoples to violence and disease. Ari Uru Eu Wau Wau, a forest guardian, was murdered in April 2020.

Uncontacted Indians of Brazil