Brazil’s Isolated Amazon Indians Are a Link to the Past and a Life Lesson

Brazil's uncontacted Amazon Indians What is it about the recent photographs of the “uncontacted” indigenous tribe of the Peruvian-Brazilian Amazon region that has caused such a stir? The provocative photos of painted natives in loincloths, including several holding bows ready to loose their arrows at the aircraft filming them from overhead, are eliciting worldwide concern over how the government will treat these people.

The image of brandished arrows seems pretty clear: these natives want to be left alone. The government recently released the photographs taken by FUNAI, Brazil’s National Foundation for Indians, in order to provide substance to the debate over isolated and uncontacted groups who exist in the Amazon.

Survival International, an organization that monitors the status of indigenous tribes worldwide, estimates that there are at least 100 isolated tribes remaining in the world, with half of them in Peru and Brazil. These native peoples and their ways of life are in constant peril due to new roads, dams, logging, mineral mining and especially disease brought from outside, and there are growing concerns that these threats endanger the many indigenous tribes’ ways of life.

Contact with outsiders brings only violence, exploitation and death. The recent photos have intensified a long-standing disagreement about whether Peru and Brazil are doing enough to protect isolated indigenous tribes and the prospective ethnological fate of the entire Amazon region.

Despite recent re-affirmations of their commitment to protection policies by both the Peruvian and Brazilian governments, experts insist that not enough is being done. More proactive policies must be put into place in order to preserve the Amazonian cultures.

One of the longest existing threats to the livelihood of the Amazonian indigenous peoples is legal and illegal logging. Carlos Minc, Brazil’s new environment minister, announced on June 2 that the pace of deforestation is rapidly increasing.

Satellite imagery from the Brazil’s space agency INPE shows that from August 2006 to July 2007, 4,964 square kilometers (1,917 square miles) of the Amazon were cleared, while 5,850 square kilometers (2,259 square miles) were cut down between August 2007 and April 2008. This represents a considerable increase in logging, and demonstrates that current policies are clearly not working.

On the Peruvian side of the border, the government has been exceptionally unsuccessful in halting the logging that forces native peoples to migrate across the border to Brazil or into the territory of other tribes, which often leads to violent conflict and death. Both governments have been criticized for their failure to adequately protect these tribes.

Indigenous tribes living in the Amazon basin are also faced with the threat of a US$ 6 billion hydroelectric dam on Brazil’s Xingu River. Known as the Belo Monte project, the dam would be built in the state of Mato Grosso to provide Brazil with the energy needed for its continued economic development.

However, the 10,000 square mile Xingu Indigenous Reserve, the first federally-recognized indigenous territory in Brazil, is located along the river and will almost certainly be devastated by the dam. “Hydroelectric dams have severe social impacts,” explains Philip Fearnside, one of the world’s leading rainforest scientists, “including flooding the lands of indigenous peoples.”

The Xingu reserve is home to 14 indigenous nations, while another 10,000 native peoples live just beyond its boundaries. Construction of the Belo Monte dam proceeds despite its potential for severe repercussions on local indigenous populations.

The Trans-Oceanic Highway, which will connect the Amazon to the Pacific Ocean, is also a cause for concern. This 711-mile road will link Assis, a Brazilian river port, with Peru’s Pacific ports of Matarani, San Juan and Ilo. The highway is designed to transport agricultural products, mainly cattle and soybeans, to international markets.

Soy production in Brazil has recently increased due to global demand for food and increased prices. As a result of the high demand for soy products, a great deal of rainforest is being stripped in order to create additional farmland, while additional land is then cleared for cattle grazing. The emphasis on these two products has enormously increased deforestation, accounting for about 70% to 80% of the total area cleared.

All of these dangers are interrelated and enhance the principal threat facing indigenous tribes: the spread of disease. Deforestation – whether to construct roads and dams or to increase access to farmland – not only cuts into the land occupied by indigenous people, but also brings modern civilization into closer physical contact with isolated tribes.

Natives are being exposed to diseases to which they have no immunities. Further encroachment could trigger a pandemic reminiscent of the those that swept through the Americas during the time of European exploration, when disease was the single most important factor in wiping out the majority of the American indigenous populations.

“After contact was made with the Suruí people, for instance, half of their 400 members died from ‘Western’ illnesses within a few years,” explains John Hemming, an author of Brazilian ethnology. Over the past two hundred years, an estimated three to four million indigenous people have been killed by foreign disease, such as the flu, chicken pox or the common cold.

In fact, the groups that isolate themselves and hide from modernity, such as the ones recently photographed, are likely survivors of formerly large tribes whose members were decimated by exposure to a range of fatal diseases.

Policy on Isolated Peoples

In spite of the high visibility of the issue, both Peru and Brazil’s policies regarding isolated indigenous people are vague, inconsistent and almost always irresponsible. Policies aimed at halting deforestation and protecting isolated indigenous territory are repeatedly altered to the detriment of the indigenous peoples.

Many governing officials do not believe that uncontacted tribes still exist in the Amazon, and therefore question the importance of protecting the land. Even those who recognize their existence debate the value of avoiding contact. Some believe that since modernity will inevitably intrude, contact should be made now under controlled conditions. It would be worse, they claim, to wait until the natives confront illegal loggers and petroleum company officials.

Following the release of the photographs of the uncontacted tribe on the Peruvian-Brazilian border, both countries have re-affirmed their no-contact policies. Brazil’s current strategy is to delineate indigenous land and make it off-limits to outsiders. Contact is only to be made if the natives are in danger or if they initiate contact of their own volition. A team of Peruvian experts is currently investigating whether logging is intruding on the tribe’s territory and forcing them across the Brazilian border.

If this is the case, Peru has promised to take measures to stop this activity. However, just as it is difficult to curb illegal logging, it will be a challenge for both governments to ensure that isolated tribes have no unsolicited exposure to the outside world. Moreover, mounting economic pressures threaten to affect policy toward Amazonian territory in the future. Thus, the future of these no contact policies remains uncertain.

Why Protect?

There are a number of reasons why we must work to preserve the indigenous way of life of the people on Earth who live beyond the realm of modernity. First, Amazônia’s isolated indigenous tribes represent the astounding diversity of humankind, and observation would provide us with an incredible learning opportunity.

The indigenous Amazonians’ culture has not yet been altered by contact with outside ideas, a unique situation in today’s increasingly globalized world. They are inherently valuable in that they provide a link to our past and show us an alternate way of life from which we can learn. Humanity has a great deal to gain from preserving diverse ways of life, especially when are so different from our own. Knowledge of distinctive cultures has intrinsic value.

Additionally, these indigenous people, as Survival International states, “deserve to be able to defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures.” As human beings, they have autonomous rights just like everyone else. In fact, not protecting the tribes from contact might be considered a form of genocide, or the deliberate and systematic destruction of this distinct group of people.

Mário Lúcio Avelar, a Brazilian public prosecutor, believes that loggers who contribute to the eradication of traditional ways of life are guilty of genocide. “We are not necessarily talking about assassination, but they are making the survival of the tribe’s way of living impossible,” Avelar explains.

“The loggers invade, prevent them from growing crops, hunting or practicing their culture. Without those things, the tribe cannot survive.” These tribes must be safeguarded in order to demonstrate our commitment to defending universal human dignity.

Furthermore, the isolated tribes offer a “reflection of the economic and political drama surrounding the international effort to preserve the rainforests as part of the struggle to combat climate change,” writes Dan Rabinowitz, professor of anthropology at Tel Aviv University and deputy vice chair of Greenpeace U.K.

Because their lives depend precisely on the existence of the Amazon rainforest, the dilemma surrounding the need to protect the isolated tribes draws valuable attention to the climate change issue. The Amazon rainforest is vital to global ecology. It acts as a climate regulator, affecting rainfall patterns worldwide. It is in the interest of surrounding regions to protect the rainforest, as it provides the rainfall that supports agriculture.

According to Meg Symington, Amazon director for the World Wildlife Fund in the U.S., destruction of trees in Brazil is responsible for half of the world’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions. In this way, destruction of the territory of the isolated natives also means elimination of the indispensable rainforest. This essential resource for all the world’s people hangs in the balance.

What to Do

Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has attempted to staunchly maintain his image as Brazil’s first “green” president. However, the recent increase in the rate of deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest is marring this reputation. The prospective construction of the Trans-Oceanic highway, combined with increasing agricultural demand during a time of soaring food prices, will inevitably contribute to a further consumption of land.

Destruction of the rainforest will be disastrous for all indigenous peoples living in the Amazon basin area; particularly those who have managed to remain isolated. Policy needs to be focused not only on protecting the environment, but also on safeguarding those whose precarious way of life is in danger of extinction.

Critics of government policy will argue that a proactive policy is needed, and that Peru and Brazil must immediately draw clear and unyielding boundaries for Amazon territory. Rather than ignore the uncontacted tribes, both Peru and Brazil’s governments should enforce a strict policy of protection. A stringent zero-tolerance policy must be enforced. The governments should monitor and punish anyone intruding on or misusing indigenous land.

Only severe prosecution of those who defy national and international law by invading and deforesting will deter these criminals. The federal governments should also require that individual states take on greater responsibility to protect land that is off-limits to poachers and severely punish transgressors. Moreover, they must ensure that from this point forward there would be no more deforestation and construction of roads or dams that disrupt tribal lands and lives.

Governments must ensure that landowners re-use and increase the productivity of land that has already been cleared. Since contact with native peoples have had disastrous effects in the past, strict no-contact laws must be implemented. All nations with Amazon territory need to recognize, respect and protect tribal land and rights.

The destruction of a civilization is not a new phenomenon, especially as a result of environmental change and deforestation. Easter Island, now consisting mainly of scrub, once had a sizeable forest that natives used in the construction process of their stone statues. The disappearance of the island’s forest has been shown to coincide with the decline of the civilization that built the famous monoliths.

What went through the mind of the person who cut down the last tree? Eventually, if we’re not careful, we’ll fell our last tree as well, and the rainforest’s citizens will be wiped out. In the case of the Amazonian natives, outsiders deforest their home, but the lesson is the same: indigenous tribes need to be protected, lest we risk the consequences of their permanent destruction.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Emily Dunn. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email:


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