Rare Photos of Brazilian Tribe Spur Pleas to Protect It

November 22nd, 2016

Posted to National Geographic

Spectacular new images of an uncontacted indigenous village in Brazil are stirring pleas from tribal leaders and rights advocates for government intervention to protect the settlement from illegal gold prospectors.

The aerial photographs show villagers gathered in the center of a traditional, circular structure inside the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, a sprawling reserve of rivers and upland forest situated astride the border with Venezuela.

 

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Moxihatetema, Yanomami Indigenous Territory, Brazil.  Photo by Guilherme Gnipper, Trevisan/Hutukara

 

The images were taken in mid-September by officials from Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, Fundação Nacional do Índio—known by its acronym, FUNAI—on a surveillance flight over the reserve in the run-up to a joint operation with army troops and police agents to clear out thousands of wildcat gold miners. The same Yanomani Indians had been observed at a village in another location on a reconnaissance flight four years ago. But that communal dwelling was later abandoned, and officials feared for the fate of the group until the most recent sighting. Known as the Moxihatetema, the villagers have assiduously shunned contact with outsiders, even with other Yanomami communities.

Officials say they experienced both a sense of wonder and impending dread in their low-flying aircraft as they beheld the communal structure—built in an age-old style that has gone out of use among contacted Yanomami. “It’s incredible that they appear to be doing so well,” Guilherme Gnipper, the FUNAI agent who took the photographs, told National Geographic by phone from his home in Boa Vista, capital of the northern Amazonian state of Roraima. “Their gardens are huge, the people appeared to be healthy. But the gold strike is getting closer and closer.”

The natives showed little fear, making no effort to hide from the aircraft, Gnipper says. And unlike other communities of so-called “uncontacted tribes” that have been photographed in recent times, the Moxihatetema village appears to be completely devoid of industrial goods—such as aluminum pots, steel machetes, and cloth. “We saw no manufactured products whatsoever,” says Gnipper. “Nothing made of metal. They are living well—in complete isolation. It was like time travel.”

But that isolation could soon end, and officials as well as indigenous leaders fear it could end very badly.

“I am very concerned about my brothers, the Moxihatetema,” says Davi Kopenawa, a tribal shaman and president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, which represents the estimated 22,000 Yanomami who live within the boundaries of the Brazilian reserve. (Another 16,000 natives live in an adjacent protected zone on the Venezuelan side of the border.)

Kopenawa says prospectors have been overheard on the streets Boa Vista discussing whether to launch a raid on the village. “I’m afraid the miners are going to seek out the village and kill everyone.”

FUNAI officials and indigenous rights advocates say that concern is well-founded. Under the new conservative Brazilian government of President Michel Temer, FUNAI’s budget has been slashed by more than a third. The agents assigned to protect the Portugal-size Yanomami reserve are operating on a shoestring and find themselves overwhelmed by an estimated 5,000 prospectors illegally operating in Yanomami territory.

Mining operations have increased dramatically in recent months, and the miners are supplied not only via the vast territory’s network of rivers but by a series of clandestine airstrips as well. In an effort to curb the invasion, FUNAI has enlisted the support of a small contingent of Brazilian army troops and state military police. Government officials say that about a thousand prospectors have been expelled from the reserve since the operation began at the end of October.

An active gold strike is a mere 18 miles from the village, Kopenawa says. That encampment is supported by an airstrip, complicating efforts to dismantle it and expel the miners. Even peaceful contact with the village could spell disaster, he says, bringing death through diseases for which the isolated community has no immunity. “If the miners reach their village, they will contaminate them with white man’s disease.”

The Brazilian government established the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in the months preceding the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. At the time, the military launched a major effort, backed by aircraft and speed boats, to clear the region of illegal miners. But little by little, the prospectors have crept back in, often with the connivance of local political bosses and businessmen.

“When they expel the gold miners, they’re not tackling the root of the problem, which are the local politicians and some business leaders,” says Fiona Watson, a campaigner for the rights group Survival International. The organization has been spearheading an international effort to protect the Amazon’s last isolated tribes. “Uncontacted tribes like the one in the photograph are extremely vulnerable. The fact that they’re so near the gold mining operation puts them at enormous risk. It’s the constitutional duty of the Brazilian government to protect them.”

Besides the threats of violence and contagious disease, mining operations are also contaminating the waterways in the once pristine region with mercury. Widely used to separate gold from sediment, the toxic chemical accumulates in fish, posing a serious health hazard to indigenous riverbank dwellers who depend on aquatic life as a major source of protein.

The Yanomami gained international renown at the start of the new millennium, when Western scientists stood accused of perpetrating a host of misdeeds among the tribe in the course of their research. Widely known as the “Yanomami Controversy,” the imbroglio roiled the field of anthropology, with professional rivals trading accusations of using the tribe as an elaborate prop to further their own careers.

“The Brazilian government—FUNAI, the Federal Police, and the Brazilian army—should expel the miners from legally protected Yanomami land immediately,” Kopenawa implored. “The outside world should tell the Brazilian government to protect the Yanomami and expel the prospectors. It’s what we Yanomami want.”

 

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Brazil Seeks to Save Isolated Tribe Threatened by Loggers

May 26th, 2016

Posted to National Geographic

After years of delay, Brazil has approved the creation of a sprawling reserve that would protect a highly vulnerable tribe of isolated nomads along one of the most volatile frontier regions in the Amazon rain forest.

Tribal rights activists are hailing the decision, which will set in motion the labor-intensive process of physically marking the boundaries of the Kawahiva do Rio Pardo Indigenous Territory. The Kawahiva are a tribe of hunter-gatherers who for decades have been living on the run from logging crews and other intruders who covet the mineral and timber wealth in their species-rich forests.

The executive order came amid a flurry of decrees involving the recognition of land claims by indigenous groups. Facing a mounting economic crisis and corruption scandal that led to her recent ouster as president, Dilma Rousseff and her justice minister, Eugênio Aragãoa, hurriedly signed 11 executive orders aimed at establishing as many indigenous territories in her final days in office. Of those, only the Kawahiva reserve harbors an isolated tribe that maintains no contact with mainstream Brazilian society.

“This gives the Kawahiva a fighting chance,” says Fiona Watson, campaigns director for the tribal rights advocacy group Survival International, which has been leading a drive to pressure the Brazilian government to place the tribe’s land beyond the reach of loggers and other outside interests. “This is an important step. There’s no going back now.”

Brazil hosts the largest number of isolated indigenous groups of any country in the world. The Department of Isolated Indians, the agency charged with protecting such tribes, has confirmed the presence of 27 indigenous groups living in extreme isolation in Brazil’s vast Amazon region, and there may be several dozen more. Peru has the second largest number, with 14 or 15 isolated tribes.

The Kawahiva are estimated to have between 25 and 50 members. The tribe’s numbers are believed to have dwindled over years of enduring violent clashes with outsiders and harsh living conditions in a state of near-constant flight. Court-ordered anthropological studies used to determine the boundaries of the territory indicate that the nomads roam in small, family-sized groups over 1,590 square miles (4,120 square kilometers) of dense forest, an area the size of Rhode Island, in the northwestern corner of the central Amazonian state of Mato Grosso.

Granting such a large territory to just a few dozen people is not without controversy. Local business interests have vowed to fight the reserve or have its size reduced. But officials say that Brazil’s constitution clearly recognizes a tribe’s right to maintain its traditional way of life within boundaries that conform to their use of the land.

Despite signing the decrees in the waning days of her tenure, Rosseuff ordered recognition of less indigenous land than any other president since Brazil emerged from military dictatorship in 1985. Rights groups are concerned about a growing movement in Brazil’s Congress, fomented by the powerful agribusiness lobby, to reverse protections for indigenous lands and cultures.

The region is one of the most violent and lawless in all of Brazil, characterized by rampant illegal logging, theft of public land, and widespread resentment toward federal officials responsible for safeguarding the rain forest and its indigenous inhabitants. Precious hardwoods have been logged out of most of the surrounding forests, Indian protection agents say, putting the timber-rich Kawahiva lands in the crosshairs.

“Invasions of the territory have been very intense,” says Elias Bigio, technical advisor to the government’s Fundação Nacional do Índio, or the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). “The perpetrators are very aggressive. They have no fear. They respect nothing.”

Bigio, former director of FUNAI’s Department of Isolated Indians, says agents assigned to monitor and protect Kawahiva land are bracing for intensified incursions—and possible revenge attacks—in the wake of the Justice Ministry’s announcement.

“We know that invasions could increase, along with retaliations against the isolated Kawahiva and FUNAI,” he says. “The loggers are bound to view the demarcation of the Indigenous Territory as a huge loss for their profits.”

In response to stepped-up government vigilance, logging gangs are deploying new tactics to evade detection as they trespass into Kawahiva land to steal valuable timber. Lumberjacks enter the forest by foot or motorbike along narrow trails, then set about toppling precious hardwoods, including mahogany, cedar, ipê, and Brazil-nut trees. Only at the last minute do they bring in heavy machinery to cut roads to haul out the logs.

“They create small clearings to gather timber under the forest canopy to avoid attracting attention,” says Evandro Selva, who heads field operations in northwestern Mato Grosso for Brazil’s environmental protection agency, Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA). “When it comes time to take out the logs, they bring in a tractor and cut a track for the trucks to come in. It’s very quick.” By the time IBAMA agents arrive on the scene, Selva says, the loggers have made off with their ill-gotten gains

The rough-and-tumble municipality of Colniza, which overlaps Kawhiva land, is the focal point of some of the most intense rain forest destruction in the state. Mato Grosso Governor Pedro Taques told delegates gathered last year at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris that 92 percent of all logging and land clearing in his state is conducted illegally. While deforestation rates have plummeted nationally in recent years, Mato Grosso has bucked the trend, with illegal logging and clear-cutting continuing unabated through 2015. Taques has pledged to end illegal deforestation in Mato Grosso by 2020.

The region is also rife with grilheiros—land speculators—who clear forest on public land, then draw up phony titles to sell off the lots. Bigio said his team recently came across a path hacked nine miles (15 kilometers) into Kawahiva territory that led to lots marked by surveyor flags for clearing.

A small cadre of wilderness scouts assigned to FUNAI’s Madirinha-Juruena Ethno-Environmental Protection Front have been patrolling Kawahiva territory for years. Constantly on the lookout for intruders, the agents also check on the well-being of the tribal nomads, documenting their presence while seeking to avoid direct contact. Last June, the team came upon a temporary lean-to erected by Kawahiva hunters.

Reached by internet phone at the FUNAI post inside the reserve, the protection front’s chief, Jair Candor, said the Indians fled just moments before he and his colleagues arrived. They left behind their scant belongings and a smoldering campfire. Candor estimated that a dozen people were sheltering in the lean-to. “It was clean, everything neatly arranged,” he says. “They must have been nearby. They must have been watching us.”

Such discoveries are usually a welcome sign that the Indians are doing well. But his team later detected a large area of deforested land, where loggers and land speculators were setting up operations. It was a mere six miles from the Kawahiva encampment. With the help of agents from IBAMA, the operation was shut down, the culprits expelled. “We managed to get them out of there,” Candor says of the intruders. But without permanent reinforcement from IBAMA or the police, he says, “there’s always the risk they will come back.”

Five years ago, Candor filmed dramatic, up-close footage of a band of Kawahiva hunters making their way through the forest as he hid behind a tree. After the Department of Isolated Indians released the video in 2013, local politicians accused FUNAI of “planting Indians” and staging the scene to bolster the case to place the territory off-limits to development.

Officials caution that it could take many months before the task gets under way to delimit the 200-mile (329-kilometer) perimeter of the Kawahiva do Rio Pardo Indigenous Territory. The process could also become mired by bureaucratic inertia and political infighting, leaving the land and the tribe it harbors vulnerable to potentially fatal incursions.

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Dodging Wind Farms and Bullets in Norway’s Arctic

March 1st, 2016

Posted to National Geographic

A lone reindeer emerges from the forest, prompting the Sami herders to bring their snowmobiles to a stop in the middle of a clearing. All three are bundled in sheepskin hats and wool capes, called luhka, against the chill wind of a late-January morning in the Norwegian Arctic.

Johann Anders Oskal scans the snowy hills with binoculars, on the lookout for stragglers from the herd, while his younger brother Danel shovels food pellets from a sled. Their cousin, Aslak Tore Eira, hops back on his snowmobile to round up animals as they trot into the clearing. Within moments, dozens of reindeer gather for a mid-winter snack, their antlers silhouetted against white mountain slopes and a twilight-blue sky.

“The animals are looking good,” Danel Oskal says as he tosses another shovelful of feed onto the fresh snow. “They’re healthy.”

After an unusually warm autumn brought forth clouds of biting insects that relentlessly pursued their reindeer, the early weeks of 2016 have been a herder’s dream. Light, powdery snow blanketed the undulating hills and mountains that make up the Oskal family’s winter grazing grounds in central Troms County, a few hours’ inland drive from the Norwegian Sea coast. The dry snow makes it easy for the family’s 2,000 reindeer to reach nutritious grasses and lichens buried beneath the surface.

 

Sami Reindeer Herders, Troms County, Norwegian Arctic. Photo by Scott Wallace

 

The daily feeding runs into the backcountry serve not only to bolster the animals’ winter diet. They also discourage the semi-domesticated reindeer from straying too far into the woods, where bobcats, lynx and wolverines lurk. “One lynx can kill up to 100 reindeer in a year,” says Johann, who then describes a particularly violent lynx attack on a doe as she was giving birth.

 

DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS?

Troms County is a sprawling region of broken coastline, labyrinthine fiords, and rugged alpine forests, situated some 700 miles (1,150 km) north of Oslo. This is the heart of Sami country, where Lapp nomads once moved their herds across vast distances to the rhythm of the seasons, oblivious to national borders. Those days are long gone. Of the estimated 100,000 Sami spread out across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula, only about 10,000 still herd reindeer for a living. Reindeer meat is an important part of a herder’s diet, as well as the sole source of income for some families. For part-time herders, the animals’ meat and hides augment their earnings from other sources.

Today, reindeer herders find themselves increasingly boxed in by powerful interests competing for their traditional grazing lands. Dams, roads, live-fire military drills, high-voltage power lines, even green energy projects such as wind farms all have nibbled away at grazing territory. Of particular concern to the Sami leadership are a proposed copper mine in Finnmark County to the north and a windmill park just to the south.

So far, no single project has posed an existential threat to the herding culture of the Sami, Western Europe’s only indigenous people who inhabit the Arctic. But the cumulative impacts–a road here, a pipeline there–have reduced Norway’s undisturbed reindeer habitat by 70 percent in the past century and reshaped the way reindeer herding is done.

 

TECHNOLOGY A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

Technology is a double-edged sword for the Sami. On the one hand, it provides herders with the comforts of modern life–warm houses, GPS collars and smartphone apps to track their animals, snowmobiles and ATVs to round them up. On the other, the steady encroachment of industrial infrastructure has reduced their range and freedom of movement, requiring them to move herds by truck and boat between summer and winter pastures. It’s an expensive undertaking, and herders receive just a one-time payout to compensate losses when courts override their objections and approve large-scale projects.

As Norway, one of the world’s wealthiest countries per capita, pushes forward with plans to extract more resources and build more industry in the Arctic, Sami leaders fear their languages and culture, largely sustained by herding families, will be sacrificed to produce wealth for the larger society.

“As all traditional livelihoods of the Sami are nature-based, all activities that disrupt that way of life will be a challenge,” says Aili Keskitalo, the first woman president of the Sami Parliament, which represents indigenous interests before government and industry, though it has no say in final decisions. “We are used to having to adapt. But we cannot adapt ourselves to death.”

Keskitalo said the proposed Kalvvatnan wind farm and associated power lines in Nordland County will severely impact the summer grazing lands of a core group of reindeer herders who still speak South Sami, one of five Uralic languages traditionally spoken by the Sami that are listed by UNESCO as endangered. The wind farm is still under judicial review. A final decision is expected later this year.

The Norwegian government says it’s sensitive to Sami concerns, but warns that to meet its ambitious targets for renewable energy, more hydroelectric and wind power projects will be built.

Such projects often have an impact on reindeer herding, as well as on biological diversity and wilderness landscapes, Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tord Lien acknowledged. In a statement provided by the ministry, Lien said that “thorough discussions with all affected parties are of great importance in the licensing process for applications” of renewable energy projects.

Finnmark County’s proposed Nussir mine holds a potential of 66 million tons of copper ore and lesser amounts of silver and gold. The government green-lighted the project after the company agreed to dump waste tailings into a nearby fjord, rather than into open pits on land. That was meant to minimize the loss of reindeer habitat, but dumping the waste at sea could affect small-scale fishermen, who are also Sami.

“It will still impact the reindeer herders, though not as much,” says Oyvind Ravna, a law professor at University of Tromso and legal expert in indigenous affairs. “Now it will be much more of a challenge for the local fishermen. So they just moved the problem from one place to another.”

 

GUNFIRE ACROSS THE TUNDRA

The Oskal brothers and their cousin Aslak have been locked in a long-running battle over land and grazing rights with the Norwegian Armed Forces. Since the Cold War, soldiers have been training here for a possible Russian thrust across the top of Scandinavia. The crackle of gunfire echoes across the hills on a daily basis as troops in white winter camouflage stage exercises in Arctic warfare within earshot of the reindeer. The drills often force the three herders to take circuitous routes through the forests to stay safe while tending to their animals.

“These are the guys who are going to protect us from the Russians,” Johann Oskal darkly jokes as a caravan of snowmobiles bearing soldiers in helmets and winter jumpsuits zooms past. For the Oskal family, the presence of Norwegian troops represents a more immediate challenge to their livelihoods than a Russian invasion that may never come.

Like other indigenous reindeer herders in Norway, the Oskals enjoy the right to use their traditional lands for grazing animals but the land belongs to the government. The case dragged on for 20 years before the court ruled that military expansion could proceed with the Oskal’s receiving a cash payment.

The Norwegian military has settled four such cases with reindeer herders since 1990, according to Maj. Vegard Finberg, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense. In one case, the herders were forced off the land for good. In the other three, the Sami were awarded compensation. “The main intention,” says Maj. Finberg, “has been to secure the interests for reindeer husbandry co-existing with the Norwegian Armed Forces.”

“We got compensated,” Johann Oskal acknowledges, warming his hands by the fire in a hut on a hilltop deep in the forest. “But you can’t really compensate for the land. It’s gone forever.”

Nicholas Tyler, a wildlife biologist at the University of Tromso, says that such compromises will diminish the reindeer herding culture. “The problem is that you’re compromising on a downhill slope,” he says. “It’s the cumulative effect of all the encroachments that is eroding the basis for reindeer husbandry.”

Danel Oskal stirs the ashes of the fire, his face aglow in its flickering light. He pulls a Bowie knife from a sheath and carves pieces of dried reindeer meat off a bone. More and more, he says, he finds himself thinking about his infant daughter and what life will be like when she is grown.

“I fear the government is taking more and more of our land,” he says. “I’m afraid that in the future, there will be no more land for the reindeer.”  

 

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