Amazon Tribes: Still Uncontacted
and Already Facing Mortal Danger
The latest wave of heavily armed criminal groups operating in the Amazon may eliminate your chance to get to know some of the tribes that dwell in the region.
In 2008, aerial photographs showed a group of a previously unknown indigenous community pointing arrows and bows at the aircraft. Now, disturbing reports about the sight of armed gangs nearby their dwellings may represent the biggest threat yet to the survival of some of those recluse native Brazilians.
For the record, the threat affects all indians living in the area, not just those who were photographed for the first time three years ago. They’re but one group of a still unknown number of tribes that have been successfully avoiding direct contact with civilization for centuries.
Given the latest reports, who can blame them?
The current crisis started last month, when Peruvian drug traffickers were seen invading the land, a stretch of the Brazilian Amazon bordering Peru, considered the largest concentration of uncontacted peoples in the world. In addition to 14 known groups, up to eight more tribes have already been identified through satellite images or land excursions.
Even though the police recently raided the region and made a few arrests, groups of men with rifles and machine guns were still at large in the rainforest. Some believe they may have been attempting to set up new smuggling routes through that part of the jungle.
Drug traffickers are just the latest threat to the survival of tribes you don’t even know about living in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon. But all the headlines that this fact may attract notwithstanding, crime is a still a minor challenge to their survival.
Oil exploration, logging, indiscriminate clearing of land, pollution, even misguided government policies may cause much bigger devastation and drive to extinction such fragile societies, for all accounts, still leaving in a Stone Age-like social and economic organization.
In recent years, Peru has intensified its oil and mining exploration in the Amazon, with disastrous consequences to the environment of the region, according to organizations dedicated to environmental protection.
And despite the support of many of these organizations to Brazil’s indigenous policies, a recent overhaul of the country’s Forest Code, heavily favored by landowners and the logging industry, has been widely criticized for its potential negative impact on indigenous communities living in the Amazon.
There’s a lot of opposition, for example, to Brazil’s plans to build the mega-hydroelectric dam complex of Belo Monte, on the Xingu River basis. What’s supposed to become the world’s third-biggest dam will flood large areas of the forest and displace or affect an estimated 25 thousand people, indians included.
Survival International estimates that there are around 100 uncontacted tribes in the world, of which 40 or so live in the Brazilian Amazon. For such a huge territory, mythically depicted for centuries as an impenetrable realm of magic creatures and unknown riches, this is no longer a jaw-dropping figure.
And despite the staggering number of species it shelters, potential as a medicinal repository for cure of diseases its amazing array of plants may hold, the scope and importance of the Amazon could never be quantified by numbers and mind-numbing stats.
What’s at stake is the fact that such a relatively low number of native Brazilians, known or unknown, are under mortal danger, represented by their fellow human beings who’re supposed to belong to a more advanced society than theirs. That what is way harder to grasp.
The coward murders of a Chico Mendes, of a José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, and so many other community activists, even those we don’t hear about or know the names, are utterly devastating because often they represent the last bastion between indiscriminate greed and the communities they defend.
But the Brazilian indigenous peoples don’t even have anyone coming close to such visibility and leadership to speak for them. There’s the government agency Funai, and then there’s no one else. No wonder they choose to hide in what’s left of the forest, and are resistant to make contact.
It’s too bad that not even that will be enough to guarantee their survival. Be it organized crime, or landowners’ greed, or government’s grandiose dreams, even you and I, with our bodies ridden with germs to which our immune system can cope with and theirs can’t, everybody has become a threat to their existence.
Their demise would be an irreparable tragedy, it’s never enough to point it out, because their culture, language, habits, vision of the world and of their mortal enemies may be lost forever. We’re not talking about people who lived thousands of years before us, but people who are still around but have lived for thousands of years in a world that’s all but extinct now.
While we shouldn’t sound so discouraged with the plight of the Amazon and its peoples, we do need to be alarmed by what’s happening with them in our lifetimes. That’s the part when we can easily become preachy and lose all perspective on how to captivate your attention without snakes or promises of eternal damnation.
So, let’s try that: dwellers of big cities, we easily feel robbed when a neighborhood is taken over by gentrification, right? Or our favorite corner is demolished for another luxury rental building to rise.
It’s time to connect our grief to what’s really being lost and is way more inestimable than a set of old-brick walls, or that deli in the East Village where we score our first hit.