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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Uncontacted Group Kills Two Natives in Ecuador

March 11th, 2013

Posted to National Geographic

Reprisals, “forced contact” campaign feared after attack in Yasuní National Park

Native officials and conservationists fear possible reprisals in eastern Ecuador following an attack by uncontacted tribesmen that killed two Waorani Indians last week.

 

Waorani hunters, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador, 2012 photo by Scott Wallace
Waorani hunters, Yasuní Rainforest, Ecuador, 2012  Photo by Scott Wallace

 

According to a preliminary investigation by officials from the Orellana Province public prosecutor’s office, the victims were speared to death last Tuesday morning while walking near their village of Yarentaro, located along the Maxus Oil Road within the Yasuní National Park. The victims were identified as Ompore Omeway, 70, and his wife, Bogueney, 64.

An elderly woman named Nemongona is said to have witnessed the attack after she fell behind the couple during their walk in the forest. In a statement released by the Organization of the Waorani Nationality of Orellana (ONWO), the witness said the assailants belonged to a clan of Taromenane , a branch of the Waorani who spurned contact with evangelical missionaries in the 1950s and continue to roam the forests of Yasuní as nomads.

As I reported in “Rain Forest for Sale,” National Geographic, January 2013, the contacted Waorani and their elusive bretheren maintain a complicated relationship, characterized by both fear and admiration. Contacted Waorani villagers often cultivate crops for their nomadic relatives to take as they wish, but they also remain wary of a people who have yet to be “civilized” and resort to violence in response to perceived threats.

ONWO’s statement indicates that the victims had sustained previous encounters with the elusive Taromenane, who reportedly conveyed their growing irritation over an influx of outsiders and increased industrial activity in the zone. The victims may have been attacked because of their inability to effectively channel the complaints. The incident occurred in the environs of an oil processing facility operated by the Spanish energy company REPSOL.

The Yasuní rain forest harbors some of the richest biodiversity in the world, as well as two uncontacted clans of Waorani, the Taromenane and the Tagaeri. But the region also holds large deposits of petroleum, and oil exploration continues to advance within the boundaries of the national park. Government agencies and oil companies are required to avoid activities that would endanger the wellbeing of the isolated indigenous groups. The government of President Rafael Correa has offered to postpone indefinitely oil exploration in the far eastern portion of the Yasuní in exchange for $3.6 billion in compensation from the international community.

ONWO has called on the government of Ecuador to immediately implement “precautionary measures” to protect the Taromenane and Tagaeri and vigorously opposes any efforts to make “forced contact” with the groups, as some authorities are advocating. Meanwhile, Waorani officials are seeking to dissuade relatives of the victims from launching a reprisal raid, which could have disastrous consequences for contacted and uncontacted Waorani alike.

Leaders of another native rights group, the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador (NAWE), say that oil exploration and illegal logging in the region have put mounting pressure on the isolated groups.

 

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Illegal Logging Takes Its Toll in the Amazon

April 18th, 2012

Posted to National Geographic

New study says U.S. firms importing millions of dollars worth of ill-gotten timber

The timber industry in Peru is rife with corruption and illegality, and international buyers are complicit in a “well-oiled machine” that is plundering the Peruvian rain forest, endangering its rich biodiversity and undermining the welfare of indigenous communities, according to a major new study by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

(more…)

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Why Would Isolated Tribe Kill Its Point of Contact with the Outside World?

February 1st, 2012

Posted to National Geographic

Authorities are scrambling to establish security in a remote Amazonian frontier region following recent attacks by isolated tribesmen that have left one man dead and another wounded in the wilds of southeastern Peru. The attacks — in October and November of last year  — come amid an upturn in the number of sightings of nomadic Mashco-Piro Indians along major waterways in the dense forests bordering the Manu National Park, posing an increasingly volatile situation for communities, travelers, and the isolated tribespeople.


Isolated Mashco-Piro Indians on Madre de Dios River, Peruvian Amazon, photo by Diego Cortijo/Survival/uncontactedtribes.org

The rights group Survival International released dramatic photographs earlier today of the same group of Mashco-Piro that is believed to have launched the November attack. Witnesses say the victim, a Matsigenka Indian named Nicolas “Shaco” Flores, was killed when struck in the heart with a bamboo-tipped arrow as he tended a garden on an island in the middle of the Madre de Dios River, just outside the community of Diamante on the edge of the Manu Park. Survival described the photos as the most detailed, up-close images ever taken of uncontacted Indians.

(more…)

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Peru Releases Dramatic Footage of Uncontacted Indians

October 28th, 2011

Posted to NationalGeographic.com

The Peruvian government has released dramatic new footage showing a near-encounter with a group of uncontacted Indians along a riverbank in the Amazon rain forest. The video was taken by travelers on the Manu River in southeastern Peru in recent months, according to officials from Peru’s Ministry of the Environment, who released the images on Monday.

In the video, travelers appear to be playing a game of cat and mouse with the naked tribesmen, drifting close to shore only to flee in panic in their motorboat as the natives approach. Some of the Indians brandish bows and arrows, and at one moment, one of them prepares to launch an arrow at the boat. The travelers are heard debating among themselves whether to approach, whether to back off, and if they should leave gifts of food or clothing on the shore for the Indians to take.

Officials said there have been multiple sightings in recent months of nomadic bands of Mashco-Piro Indians in the area of Manu National Park. Isolated Indians are known to travel extensively by foot during the dry season, now at its height, appearing along the riverbanks as they search for turtle eggs buried in nests along the sandy beaches of the western Amazon. But mounting pressure from logging crews, wildcat gold prospectors, and seismic teams exploring for oil and gas are flushing isolated indigenous out of the forests as well, according to Roger Rumrill, a special advisor to the Environment Ministry.

(more…)

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Concern for Uncontacted Tribes as Armed Gang Invades Forest

August 8th, 2011

posted to National Geographic.com

Five Brazilian Indian rights officials are holding out in a remote jungle outpost in a desperate attempt to protect uncontacted indigenous groups from heavily-armed drug traffickers who have moved into the area from Peru in the past two weeks, according to dispatches from the scene. Officials fear the traffickers may have unleashed a manhunt to track down and exterminate the highly vulnerable tribal populations in order to clear the forests for their coca-growing operations.

Isolated Indians in the headwaters of the Envira River on the Brazil-Peru border take aim at
a low-flying aircraft with bows and arrows in 2008. Credit: Gleison Miranda/FUNAI

 

The drama began last month, when Asháninka Indians three hours upstream from the base warned by two-way radio that a heavily armed band of intruders had crossed the border from Peru into Brazil. Nearly two weeks later, 40 armed men appeared in the dense forests around the control post, which sits on the banks of the Xinane River, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) inside Brazil’s border in the western Amazonian state of Acre.  (more…)

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Uncontacted Tribe Discovered in Brazilian Amazon

June 22nd, 2011

posted on NationalGeographic.com

Officials from Brazil’s Indian affairs agency, FUNAI, say they have confirmed the existence of a previously unknown indigenous group in the rugged folds of the western Amazon. The tribe, believed to number as many as 200 people, was initially discovered through the examination of satellite images of rain forest clearings and confirmed by aerial reconnaissance flights earlier this year.

The overflights revealed three separate clearings and four large communal dwellings, known as malocas, clustered in the dense jungles of the Javari Valley Indigenous Reserve in far western Brazil. Specialists in matters pertaining to isolated Indians estimate the population of uncontacted tribes by examining the size and number of dwellings, as well as any gardens the inhabitants might have under cultivation. (more…)

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Fisticuffs Erupts in Peru Over Uncontacted Tribes

June 7th, 2011

posted on NationalGeographic.com

Peru says it will bolster protections for uncontacted tribes roaming the deep Amazon after a public row erupted last week that sent indigenous affairs officials scrambling for cover.

The debate began in recent days after officials from the outgoing administration of president Alan Garcia let slip a series of statements hinting at plans to modify—and perhaps even revoke—protected status for two so-called territorial reserves set aside for isolated indigenous groups and the rain forest that harbors them.

As many as 15 nomadic or seminomadic indigenous groups are believed to inhabit remote stretches of eastern Peru in willful isolation from the rest of the world. They figure among the very last uncontacted tribes on Earth. That’s not an arbitrary number; it’s based on extensive documentation of sightings of furtive tribespeople or the vestiges they leave behind—footprints, spears, ceramic pots, shelters—as they move through the forest. (more…)

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