They were gathering eggs along remote reaches of the Amazon River when 10 tribe members of an Indian “uncontacted tribe” were allegedly massacred by illegal gold miners, Survival International, an NGO that campaigns for indigenous peoples, reported.
According to Survival International “uncontacted tribes” are tribal peoples who have no peaceful contact with anyone in the mainstream or dominant society. These could be entire peoples or smaller groups of already contacted tribes.
The Brazilian government has opened an investigation into the killings alleged to have occurred last month in the Javari Valley. The valley is located in the still-wild Amazonas state of western Brazil. It is known to locals as the Uncontacted Frontier.
Authorities only found out about the incident when the gold miners visited a bar near the Colombian border last month and were boasting about the killings.
“It was crude bar talk,” said Leila Silvia Burger Sotto-Maior, coordinator for the Brazilian governmental protection agency for indigenous affairs known as Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI). “They even bragged about cutting up the bodies and throwing them in the river,” Sotto-Maior told The New York Times.
According to Sotto-Maior, the illegal miners felt that they had to kill, or they would have been killed.
FUNAI confirmed that women and children are believed to be among the dead. Survival International reported that two miners have since been arrested.
The incident adds to the concerns surrounding escalating tensions between “uncontacted” Amazonian tribes and the chaos of the modern world.
There are an estimated 1 million Amazonian Indians still living a traditional lifestyle, according to Survival International. These people represent around 400 culturally distinct, linguistically and territorially independent tribes.
Some tribes maintain contact with the outside world. But there are a number of “uncontacted tribes,” that have never encountered modern peoples—more than 500 years after the first European colonists set foot in Amazonia.
The Brazilian government has registered 103 “uncontacted tribes,” reported The New York Times, and there may be more than 15 “uncontacted tribes” on the Peruvian side of the border, according to journalist Scott Wallace from National Geographic.
FUNAI was established in 1967 to replace the corrupt Indian Protection Service. It was charged with the delicate task of integrating the Amazonian Indians into Brazilian society, while at the same time, protecting their constitutional rights.
But at times, the government agency acted in violation of the welfare of the Indians. For example, to facilitate the construction of the trans-Amazonian highway, FUNAI officials attempted to relocate many tribes, resulting in a staggering number of indigenous deaths caused by first contact—mainly from disease but also from outbreaks of violence when the tribes mobilized to protect their land.
Explorer Sydney Possuele who was sent to relocate “uncontacted tribes,” witnessed firsthand the suffering their contact caused indigenous peoples. Possuele’s experience propelled him to spearhead policy change away from integration toward preservation of the indigenous way of life and the Indian’s right to remain in isolation.
Due to Possuele’s efforts, the practice of wilderness scouts leaving the so-called wild Indians with gifts to initiate contact was abolished when Brazil adopted a “no contact” policy in the 1980s in order to protect the rights of such tribes to remain in seclusion if so desired.
Today, FUNAI officers operate under the assumption that tribes prefer isolation over contact, according to National Geographic. FUNAI agents only engage with tribes if there is an imminent threat from disease or violence from encroachers.
But this strategy is now being reconsidered following more frequent interactions between even the rarely seen uncontacted tribes and the outside world as the frontier of contact pushes further into these last remnants of the Amazonian wilderness.
The state prosecutor for the Javari Valley case, Pablo Luz de Beltrand, told The New York Times that this is the second such incident he is investigating this year. The first incident occurred in February.
“It was the first time that we’d had this kind of case in this region,” Beltrand said. “It’s not something that was happening before. These tribes are uncontacted—even FUNAI has only sporadic information about them.”
But at a time of heightening tensions over land use, the Temer government has been criticized for its significant cuts to FUNAI funding in April, which activists see as a rowing back on the country’s environmental and indigenous rights issues.
According to Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, “The slashing of FUNAI’s funds has left dozens of “uncontacted tribes” defenseless against thousands of invaders—[illegal] gold miners, ranchers and loggers—who are desperate to steal and ransack their lands.”
He continued, “If these stories are confirmed, President Temer and his government bear a heavy responsibility for this genocidal attack.” Sadly if confirmed true, the incident would have wiped out one-fifth of the tribal population—a major blow to the already endangered people.
The long-standing issue is not likely to be resolved anytime soon as pressures from illegal activities and developer interests continue to encroach upon remnants of wilderness in the region.
Over the last few years, there have also been an increasing number of previously “uncontacted tribes” who are now initiating contact, reported National Geographic.
Some tribes make contact out of necessity; fleeing drug traffickers, loggers, or oil exploration crews. In 2014, a group of Indians on Brazil’s Xinane River, just bordering Peru, emerged from the jungle sick and exhausted. With the help of interpreters, the Indians told of their tribe’s bloodshed at the hands of encroachers on their territory, possibly illegal loggers or drug traffickers, reported National Geographic.
“Many (indigenous) are being killed in isolation, but we don’t know the exact dates or number of deaths,” Adelson Kora Kanamari, leader of the Warikama Djapar tribe, told the Amazon Real portal.
In other cases, tribes desire the goods that they have come to know through village raids or other human encounters. For example, the Mashco-Piro tribe in the border regions of the Peruvian Amazon is causing authorities particular concern. Their tribespeople started making consistent appearances about five years ago along the upper Madre de Dios River, reported National Geographic. Although they also tended to vanish suddenly, their increasing interaction, usually raids on surrounding villages, is causing mounting tensions in the region.
According to Luís Felipe Torres, adviser to the Peruvian Ministry of Culture’s Directorate of Indigenous People Living in Isolation and Initial Contact, the tribe is exposing itself to grave danger from the devastation contagious disease can bring upon an indigenous population without access to medical care.
“I believe we’re going to see a succession of first contacts in the coming ten years,” José Carlos Meirelles, a veteran tribe protector, told National Geographic.