Alleged Massacre of Uncontacted Tribe Linked to Gold Mining

December 8th, 2017

by Scott Wallace

Published by National Geographic 

In a major crackdown on illegal gold prospecting that threatens isolated tribes in the far reaches of the Amazon rain forest, Brazilian army soldiers and indigenous affairs agents have destroyed mining platforms along a remote river where an alleged massacre of tribal people was reported two months ago.


A gold dredge impounded by FUNAI officials on the border of the Javari Indigenous Land in far-western Brazil, 2002.    Photo by Scott Wallace

Officials of the indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, said that ten gold dredges were blown up on the Jandiatuba River during an expedition late last month, and more than 30 miners were detained and charged. Officials said the propectors were released on their own recognizance, and the expedition proceeded upriver to look for any enduring signs of a possible clash between miners and indigenous inhabitants of the region.

The floating mining platforms have been seen as a menace to the security of the so-called flecheiros—or Arrow People—a collection of several communities of indigenous hunter-gatherers living in extreme isolation within the Javari Valley Indigenous Land. The reserve, a sprawling territory of river-laced ravines and primal upland forest in far western Brazil, hosts the largest concentration of isolated and so-called uncontacted indigenous communities in the world. Many of those communities are scattered throughout the headwaters of the Jandiatuba and the neighboring Jutaí River.

The presence of the illegal dredging machines on the Jandiatuba River came to light in September, as reports surfaced of a possible mass murder of tribal nomads committed by bushmeat hunters seeking food for the mining crews. FUNAI had maintained an outpost on the river to control access into the depths of the Javari reserve. But budget cuts and a reduction in experienced field personnel forced its closure in 2014.

Alluvial gold dredges such as those demolished in the recent crackdown are Rube Goldberg-like contraptions, with crane-mounted drills and huge suction tubes that wreak environmental havoc, chewing up riverbanks and spewing toxic pollutants into the waterways.

In addition to ridding the river of the prospectors and their destructive platforms, the government expedition also heralded the reopening of the abandoned outpost, seen by officials as a critical step in reestablishing control in an otherwise lawless region. A small detachment remained at the site to start rebuilding the post, which had been stripped of materials, presumably by the garimpeiros, as Brazil’s gold prospectors are called.

“It will take a good two months to get the base fully up and running again,” said Bruno Pereira, FUNAI’s regional coordinator who works closely with the Javari Ethno-Environmental Protection Front, operated by FUNAI’s Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians. The department maintains 10 other similar fronts throughout the Brazilian Amazon to safeguard the territories where the presence of isolated tribes has been confirmed. Severe cuts in FUNAI’s budget under the current government of president Michel Temer have sharply reduced the agency’s ability to staff and operate the fronts.

Reached by phone in the frontier city of Tabatinga, Pereira said the expedition pushed on farther upriver to check on the status of the Arrow People. Bushwhacking through the forest, the team came upon ample evidence of the isolated group—including footprints, earthen pots, and large garden plots of manioc, sugarcane, and yams. There was no sign that anything was amiss. The agents came within a mile of an isolated village in the area where the massacre was said to have taken place. “There was nothing that pointed to a serious disturbance,” Pereira said. “On the contrary, everything appeared to be normal.”

In keeping with Brazil’s standing policy to avoid contact with isolated indigenous communities, the party retreated after documenting the tribe’s presence and apparent well-being. Like other isolated groups living in the deep recesses of the Amazon rain forest, the Arrow People remain highly vulnerable to contagious diseases, against which they possess no immunological defenses, as well as to potential acts of violence by outsiders. Of the dozens of isolated groups whose existence has been confirmed by FUNAI, the Arrow People are one of the most mysterious. No one knows what language they speak, what their ethnicity is, or what they actually call themselves.

The Javari reserve is the second-largest officially recognized indigenous territory in Brazil, nearly two-thirds the size of the Florida peninsula. Its geographical features—with all its major waterways flowing in an easterly direction—make it one of the most pristine and easily defended wilderness regions in the Amazon. Officials drew up the boundaries of the reserve in the late 1990s, and subsequently four checkpoints were strategically positioned on the major rivers to thwart any large-scale penetration by loggers, miners, or industrial fishing fleets, thus safeguarding the isolated indigenous groups living within its folds.

“When the Javari reserve was demarcated, it was done to protect all these drainages,” said Sydney Possuelo, the celebrated explorer and founder of FUNAI’s isolated Indians unit, when I traveled with him on a 2002 FUNAI expedition to gather information about the Arrow People. “The range of all the isolated tribes is on one side of the divide. That’s why the demarcation was done that way.”


News of a possible massacre of Arrow People first reached FUNAI officials in August, after miners were overheard at a frontier town bar as they boasted of killing “wild Indians”—including women and children—on the banks of the Jandiatuba and taking artifacts from the victims as trophies of their exploits. The garimpeiros reportedly spoke of dismembering the bodies and throwing them in the river to destroy any trace of their deeds.

Federal Police agents and prosecutors interviewed several suspects. They found a handmade paddle and clay pots, such as those made by isolated tribesmen, in their homes. But the suspects professed innocence. According to a source familiar with the investigation who asked to remain unnamed, the suspects claimed they found the objects in a crude canoe left by the side of the river when they went out hunting. “They all told the same story,” the source said. “The garimpeiros confessed to nothing.”

Casting further doubt on the allegations, veteran field officials said that drunken boasts of outlandish deeds are not uncommon among grizzled frontiersmen when they return to town after weeks in the bush. Investigators sometimes check out the stories and find no evidence to corroborate the tales.

Some FUNAI officials and other critics have expressed dismay over the handling of the investigation. No attempt was made at the time to reach the alleged crime scene. The police confined their inquiry to an overflight of the area and interviews with the suspects and others from the frontier city of São Paulo de Olivença, where one official reports that “everyone lives in fear” and no one wants to be seen as interfering with the lucrative gold trade that stokes the local economy.

Solid findings that could confirm or definitely discount the reports of a massacre remain elusive. Officials refuse to discuss details of the investigation, which has yet to conclude. But they acknowledged the pitfalls of pursuing a case in a wilderness region like the Javari. “Because it’s an area of difficult access, it makes everything more complicated,” said Pablo Luz de Beltrand, the Tabatinga-based federal prosecutor assigned to investigate the allegations. “There are no roads. You can only get there by aircraft or boat. Investigations require more elaborate logistics.”

Even if investigators had managed to arrive at the site, the Amazon’s vast distances, sparse population, and carnivorous fish may have conspired to foil their attempts to find solid evidence of a crime.

“The way you investigate a crime in an urban setting doesn’t work in the Amazon,” says Felipe Milanez, an expert in environmental conflict at the Universidade Federal do Recôncavo de Bahia, who in September broke the news of the alleged massacre. “In the Amazon you throw a body in the river, and with piranhas and all the other animals around, it’s gone in two days. Does that mean nothing happened?”

FUNAI officials are greeting the results of the expedition with jubilation. The gold dredges on the Jandiatuba River are gone, and so are the prospectors. For now.

But funding for the agency was slashed by 50 percent in the past year. President Temer’s government has made no secret of its hostility toward protections of the environment and indigenous lands that stymie the expansion of agriculture, mining, and other industries in the Amazon. Far to the north in the state of Roraima, a gold strike has drawn hundreds of prospectors to a remote area perilously close to one of the last remaining communities of isolated Yanomami Indians.

FUNAI officials assigned to protect the Yanomami lands despair that little is being done to halt the gold rush. “It’s spreading like a cancer,” says field agent Guilherme Gnipper. “FUNAI barely has the resources to keep its offices running.”


Bookmark and Share

Last Stand of the Amazon’s Arrow People

September 23rd, 2017

by Scott Wallace

Published by the New York Times Sunday Review

Brazil is home to the largest number of uncontacted indigenous communities of any country in the world. Hidden deep in primeval Amazon forests, these groups represent the final frontier of a seemingly inexorable conquest that began with the landing of Portuguese and Spanish navigators on South America’s shores at the start of the 16th century.

The history of Brazil’s Amazon region, as elsewhere in the Americas, abounds with tales of mass death and brutality perpetrated against its native inhabitants. Entire tribes disappeared, many without a trace. Few of these atrocities figured in official accounts; rarely was anyone brought to justice.

But 30 years ago, Brazil took an extraordinary step toward halting the march of this dismal history. It recognized the right of its indigenous people to pursue their traditional ways of life, including remaining apart from modern society. It also recognized that they require intact, pristine forests and rivers to survive as they have since before the arrival of Europeans.

To that end, the government created a special unit inside Funai, its indigenous affairs agency. The unit was charged with protecting those untrammeled lands and ensuring the viability of the indigenous communities living within them. Field agents who previously sought to woo uncontacted tribes from the bush were assigned a new role: to identify the forests where such tribes live and staff outposts to block intrusions that could threaten the well-being of the native populations. The rights of these tribes — and the government’s duty to safeguard them — were enshrined in statutes, international agreements and the country’s 1988 Constitution, which remains the law of the land, at least on paper.

But Brazil is rapidly backpedaling on these commitments. Severe budget cuts to Funai and the forced retirement of its most seasoned backwoods officials have caused the withdrawal of personnel and the closing of nearly one-third of the control posts that guard access to the territories of isolated tribes across the Amazon.

And now Brazilian officials are investigating a massacre believed to have taken place in August on a riverbank deep in the Amazon rain forest. The tribe that suffered this latest atrocity is known as the flecheiros — or Arrow People — a seldom-glimpsed group of hunter-gatherers living in extreme isolation inside the Javari Valley indigenous land, one of a dozen reserves in the Amazon that are home to uncontacted indigenous populations.

I am one of few outsiders to see the flecheiros, albeit fleetingly. I trekked through their land on a 10-week expedition through the far reaches of the Javari Valley with Funai in 2002. Officials and indigenous scouts were on a mission to protect the flecheiros, collecting information from their abandoned campsites and monitoring possible threats to their territory, while seeking to avoid direct contact with them.

Many of these isolated groups splintered off from larger, now-settled communities, and their cultures are familiar to anthropologists and other experts. But the flecheiros have remained so isolated that we do not know what their ethnicity is, what language they speak or what they call themselves.

We do know that they are deft archers who have retreated into one of the Amazon’s most inaccessible redoubts, from which they shun all contact with the outside world. This latest incident goes a long way toward explaining their choice.

It’s also the clearest signal yet that Brazil’s failure to uphold its constitutional obligations carries with it lethal consequences. The Javari Valley indigenous land has been a secure bastion for the flecheiros and 15 other isolated tribal groups by dint of its rugged topography and the policies put in place to protect them. Until now.

The government outpost on the Jandiatuba River, where the massacre is reported to have occurred, was shut down in 2014 because of budget cuts. Since then, alluvial gold dredges, largely manned by itinerant desperados, have penetrated deep upriver. Some of the prospectors also venture out to hunt bushmeat, and it was such a hunting party that came upon the flecheiros. The miners’ reaction apparently was swift and definitive.

Had the checkpoint on the Jandiatuba River remained in operation, it’s likely this terrible encounter could have been avoided. There would be no gold dredges ransacking the Jandiatuba, one of the principal watersheds that sustain the flecheiros, nor hunters stalking game deep in their forests.

As we hiked through the primal homeland of the flecheiros 15 years ago, we found ample evidence that Brazil’s policies were working as intended: towering trees dripping with lianas, crystal-clear streams teeming with fish, an astonishing abundance of birds and wild animals, as well as a profound sense of security the flecheiros must have been enjoying.

This strategy was not the brainchild of a self-righteous gaggle of environmentalists hectoring to an impoverished developing country from climate-controlled offices in New York or Oslo. Rather, it germinated in the mind of Sydney Possuelo, then a high-ranking Funai official and veteran of dozens of similar treks through the Brazilian jungles.

It was Mr. Possuelo, in league with a number of his colleagues, who steered Brazil toward a policy that stands at the confluence of human rights and environmental preservation. “In protecting the Indians,” Mr. Possuelo told me as he led our expedition by map and compass, “you’re also protecting vast areas of biodiversity.” These policies have made Brazil a shining example for other countries with isolated tribal societies.

Now Brazil stands at a crossroads. It can continue its slow strangulation of Funai, or it can enforce its own laws and reclaim its stature as guardian of its rich cultural and biological diversity.

It would be the world’s shame — and Brazil’s in particular — to stand by and watch, or pretend not to see, as the forces of short-term gain wipe the last human vestiges of pre-European America off the face of the earth.


Bookmark and Share

Rare Photos of Brazilian Tribe Spur Pleas to Protect It

November 22nd, 2016

by Scott Wallace

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.



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.”


Bookmark and Share

Brazil Seeks to Save Isolated Tribe Threatened by Loggers

May 26th, 2016

by Scott Wallace

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.

Bookmark and Share

Dodging Wind Farms and Bullets in Norway’s Arctic

March 1st, 2016

by Scott Wallace

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.



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 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.”



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.”  


Bookmark and Share

Costa Rican Murder Shines Light on Poaching, Drug Nexus

June 18th, 2013

by Scott Wallace

Posted to National Geographic

The murder of an environmental activist in Costa Rica has shaken the country’s ecology-minded public and has cast a light on what appears to be the growing overlap between animal poaching and drug trafficking on the country’s Caribbean coast.

Early on the morning of May 31, masked gunmen abducted 26-year-old Jairo Mora Sandoval from a vehicle he was using to patrol a desolate beach to protect nesting leatherback turtles from poachers.

Four international volunteers who were accompanying Mora were bound and taken to a nearby shack, from which they eventually escaped. Mora’s body was found later the same day, facedown in the sand and exhibiting signs of torture.

Almost three weeks later, police continue to search for Mora’s killers.

The murder has triggered shock and revulsion throughout Costa Rica. At recent candlelight vigils for Mora across the country, protesters called on government officials to bring those responsible to justice and to make good on promises to strengthen protections for Costa Rica’s natural treasures and the people who defend them.

“The government has failed in its responsibilities,” said social psychologist Carolina Rizo, as she stood in the rain amid hundreds of other demonstrators at a vigil last week in San José, Costa Rica’s capital.

“It’s been left to young volunteers to do what the state should do,” she said. “To be as ecological as our image suggests would require a commitment to laws and standards. People don’t do the jobs they’re supposed to do.”

With a history of political stability, a relatively low crime rate, and dozens of protected areas teeming with biodiversity, Costa Rica markets itself as an idyllic travel destination for eco-adventures and outdoor family fun.

But many officials share Rizo’s concerns that weak and ineffective enforcement of Costa Rica’s environmental laws belies the country’s image as an eco-friendly tropical paradise, especially on the sparsely populated, impoverished Atlantic Coast.

“It’s an area where there is an extremely low presence of authority,” said Juan Sánchez Ramírez, an investigator with the nation’s Environment Ministry. “The government has neglected the region. People must find a way to live by whatever means they can.”

For many people on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, Sánchez and other officials say, that means trafficking in protein-rich eggs ransacked from turtle nests. Turtle eggs flavored with hot sauce are served in popular restaurants and sold by street vendors along the Caribbean coast.

At the same time, the poachers have been drawn into the tightening grip of drug runners coming north up the coast from Panama and Colombia in souped-up speedboats designed to outrun authorities.

“The geographical position of the country makes it an ideal place for the transit and warehousing of drugs,” said Erick Calderón, commander of Costa Rica’s uniformed police, the Civil Guard, in the palm-fringed coastal city of Puerto Limón.

“But it’s not all in transit,” he said. “Some of it stays here and, worse yet, traffickers are using drugs to pay local distributors. That means it has to be consumed here, which creates and sustains a local market.”

According to officials and residents of the Limón area, cash-strapped users are turning to turtle eggs to finance their addiction, even trading the eggs directly to drug dealers for powdered cocaine. A single nest can yield up to 90 fertile eggs, and egg poachers, known as hueveros, frequently dig up several nests in a single night’s work. The eggs are sold on the black market for $1 each.

Poachers now brandish high-powered weapons that were rarely seen before on Costa Rica’s shores, most notably AK-47s. “The police don’t even have AK-47s,” said Sánchez, the environmental investigator, “but the traffickers have them.”

His claim is borne out by colleagues who worked with Jairo Mora and have reported confrontations with heavily armed poachers while patrolling Moín Beach, a hauntingly beautiful and desolate stretch of coastline just north of Puerto Limón.

The very conditions that have made the area’s beaches a favorite nesting spot for magnificent leatherbacks and other turtles—their remoteness and the lack of artificial light or human infrastructure—make them a haven of choice for smugglers and poachers.

And that makes them ever more dangerous for the environmentalists who are trying to save the critically endangered turtles.

“Sometimes the [drug] boats come directly onto the beach,” said one resident. “That’s why they don’t want anyone out there patrolling. They don’t want people to see what’s going on.”

There’s no comprehensive way to prevent turtle nests from being pillaged, advocates say, without a permanent police presence on every stretch of beach during the four-month nesting season.

“The poachers are always watching us from the trees,” said Vanessa Lizano, head of Moín’s Costa Rican Wildlife Sanctuary, who was a close friend of Mora’s. “So if we hide the nests or move the eggs to another place on the beach, they find them anyway.”

For Lizano and her colleagues, the preferred method is to gather eggs shortly after they’ve been laid—or even while the mother turtle is laying them—then bury them in a hatchery that’s guarded by volunteers.

But one night last year, masked assailants raided the hatchery at gunpoint, confiscating cell phones and walkie-talkies while making off with the entire trove of 1,500 eggs.

Activists have reduced their own nightly patrols along Moín since Mora’s death, even as police have stepped up their presence. Like NGO personnel and volunteers, the police typically employ foot patrols out on the sand, shadowed by a vehicle that must maneuver through dense palm groves along a narrow dirt track paralleling the beach.

It’s an assignment fraught with risk, said police commander Calderón, and also with frustration.

“The poachers can see our headlights from far off,” he said. “They hide their eggs and run into the forest. They pick up where they left off as soon as we’re gone.”

While much of Costa Rica’s Atlantic Coast is protected as part of the national park system, Moín Beach is not.

Supporters of Jairo Mora Sandoval are petitioning the government to make the 15-mile-long beach a national park to honor the memory of the valiant young man who gave his life to protect the turtles he loved so much.


Bookmark and Share

Threats Fly as Peru Cops Seize Timber

June 2nd, 2013

by Scott Wallace

Posted to National Geographic

Natives seek protection from irate loggers

Ashéninka indigenous leaders are calling on authorities to guarantee their safety after receiving alleged death threats from irate loggers whose wood was impounded this week at a sawmill in the timber hub of Pucallpa on the Ucayali River.

National Police agents and investigators from the environmental crimes prosecutors office seized more than 750 logs (930 cubic meters) at the Forza Nova sawmill on the Manantay River this week after members of the Alto Tamaya-Saweto indigenous community claimed the wood had been illegally extracted from their land. As I reported in “Mahogany’s Last Stand,” in National Geographic, April 2013, the natives of Saweto have been locked in a struggle to gain title to their land and expel illegal loggers who have been pillaging their forests in a remote headwaters region along Peru’s border with Brazil.

Official documents from the prosecutor’s office in Pucallpa recorded statements from Saweto community chief Edwin Chota Valera and treasurer Jorge Ríos Pérez indicating they had received death threats from the man who claimed ownership of the wood, which officials valued at $100,000.

“Someone from Saweto will die, and I will denounce you as a drug trafficker,” logging boss Hugo Sorio Flores allegedly told Chota, who claims to have GPS coordinates to identify the exact locations where the timber was extracted. A third community official, Leandro Comacho Ramírez, says he was threatened last Friday, April 5th, by Eurico Mapes Gómez, one of the loggers the Ashéninka accuse of cutting the timber and selling it to Sorio Flores.

Chota said the people of Saweto hope the regional Ucayali government will soon title their homelands and shut down logging operations in the Alto Tamaya region. In the meantime, the community is living through moments of high anxiety.

“The timber and loggers are now under investigation,” Chota wrote in a statement from Pucallpa. “But who will protect the people of Saweto and their leaders from the armed and dangerous loggers?”

Lumberjacks have long since hauled off the most valuable timber from the Alto Tamaya watershed. The haul impounded by officials this week includes several lesser-known species that are nonetheless of incalculable value to the ecology of the Amazon rain forest, includingishpingocopaíbatornillo and estoroque.

According to University of Richmond professor David Salisbury, who serves as an advisor to the Ashéninka of Saweto, officials from the prosecutors office and the environmental protection service are at odds over what to do with the timber. Fearful the logs could vanish if left in the hands of  local environmental protection agents, prosecutors are urging the Ashéninka to dispose of the timber. Salisbury says such a plan is fraught with risks for the natives, underscoring the need to move forward with final titling of the land and a definitive expulsion of the loggers.


Bookmark and Share

Uncontacted Group Kills Two Natives in Ecuador

March 11th, 2013

by Scott Wallace

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.


Bookmark and Share

Massacre Feared in Venezuela

August 30th, 2012

by Scott Wallace

Posted to National Geographic

As many as 80 Yanomami Indians are feared dead in a village deep in the jungles of Venezuela, victims of an alleged massacre carried out last month by Brazilian gold prospectors.

According to a criminal complaint filed this week with prosecutors and military authorities in Puerto Ayacucho, capital of the state of Amazonas, the incident occurred on July 5th at the native settlement of Irotatheri at the headwaters of the Ocamo River in Venezuela’s remote Upper Orinoco region.


Yanomami Father and Son, Upper Orinoco, Venezuela, 2001. Photo by (c) Scott Wallace

The charges indicate that the gold prospectors may have arrived by helicopter, illegally entering Venezuela from Brazil to carry out the raid. Details were provided by three survivors who had gone out hunting early that morning and were away from the shabano – a circular communal structure typical of a Yanomami village – when the attack occurred.

“Survivors of the community who were in the jungle heard gunfire, explosions and even a helicopter in which the miners landed,” Luis Shatiwe, executive secretary of Horonami, the Yanomami rights organization that filed the complaint, told reporters. Witnesses from a neighboring village are said to have seen charred bodies and the burned remains of the shabano.

The presence of Brazilian garimpeiros – or wildcat prospectors – in the headwaters of the Ocamo River has been extensively documented since 2009, when several community members were sickened, apparently by mercury poisoning. Mercury is commonly used by miners to separate gold from ore in the field, creating a serious health hazard in wide stretches of the Amazon rainforest.

Brazilian prospectors have been invading Yanomami lands on both sides of the thinly-patrolled border for the past several decades. Roundups and crackdowns by police and military temporarily interrupt the operations, but enforcement efforts are stymied by the vast distances and a lack of resources committed to safeguard the rugged upland forest region.

The ongoing presence of miners in Yanomami lands has sown strife among natives suffering from disease, despoiled forests and rapidly changing social mores. There are an estimated 20,000 Yanomami living in small communities scattered throughout southern Venezuela and northern Brazil.

“This is a slaughter against the Yanomami people,” said Shatiwe.


Bookmark and Share

As the Clock Ticks, Trees Fall in the Brazilian Amazon

May 15th, 2012

by Scott Wallace

Posted to National Geographic

As Brazil braces for president Dilma Rousseff’s forthcoming decision on whether to sign or veto recent legislation that would alter the country’s Forest Code, rights groups are decrying a surge in illegal land grabs that is wrecking environmental havoc and threatening vulnerable tribal populations.

According to the rights organization Survival International, a gold rush mentality seems to have taken hold of loggers, ranchers and settlers in the eastern Amazonian state of Maranhão, as intruders bore their way deeper into reserve areas set up to protect the forests of the Awá tribe. In addition to 355 contacted members of the tribe, about 100 Awá remain uncontacted, making them one of the very last groups of nomads still roaming the forests of the eastern Amazon. The majority of the 60 or more uncontacted tribes that still survive in the Amazon inhabit the more secluded and remote western regions on the vast Amazon Basin.


This aerial photograph shows the boundaries of the Awá Indigenous Land, one of four protected areas where members of the tribe live. More than 30 percent of the reserve has been invaded by loggers, ranchers and settlers. Credit: Survival

Survival has launched a public campaign in recent days that includes a video featuring British film star Colin Firth, best known for his portrayal of a stammering King George in the blockbuster hit “The King’s Speech.” Looking into the camera, an earnest Firth urges supporters to call on Brazil’s Justice Minister to send agents into Maranhåo to halt the destruction. “One man can stop this,” says Firth, “Brazil’s Minister of Justice. He can send in the Federal Police to catch the loggers and keep them out for good.”

According to Survival, logging trucks continue to rumble out of Awá land carrying centuries-old trees with astonishing impunity, “continuing the destruction of the rainforest and its most endangered tribe, the Awá.”

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles to the west, a climate of fear has gripped a series of communal settlements outside the boom town of Lábrea in the state of Amazonas. According to Amnesty International, activists are facing a wave of intimation, including assaults and death threats. Several communal leaders have gone into hiding amid a campaign aimed at ousting residents of legally-recognized extractive reserves from their land. “Many have fled the region in fear for their lives,” says an AI report.

President Rousseff has until May 25th to act on the changes to the Forest Code passed last month by the Brazilian Congress. One of the most troublesome provisions calls for an amnesty for violators who have been illegally clearing the rain forest to make way for cattle pasture and soy plantations. Environmental groups fear the amnesty will send a message of impunity to those who operate outside the law, triggering a fresh and evermore determined assault on the Amazon. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 55% of the Amazon could disappear in the next two decades at current rates of destruction.

In the view of environmentalists, loosening controls on rain forest clearing would further compound the destruction of huge swathes of the Amazon occasioned by a surge in hydroelectric dams under construction or planned for construction in the coming decade. Brazilian officials say that hydropower represents a cleaner way to produce energy that burning fossil fuels. But the only place left to build dams in Brazil is in the Amazon, and opponents say the Rousseff government is underplaying the environmental and social costs of those projects.

“The Amazon region, which seemed infinite only a few decades ago, is now facing the prospect of extinction,” wrote Brazilian journalist Leão Serva in the New York Times late last year. “Projections that seemed apocalyptic at the end of the 1980s — that the forest would disappear by 2030 — are now coming true.”

According to WWF, the Amazon rain forest contains 90-140 billion metric tons of carbon, playing a critical role in stabilizing the global climate.


Bookmark and Share
  • The Unconquered

    Scott Wallace's heart-stopping adventure on the trail of an uncontacted tribe in the deep Amazon is now available in paperback!

    Order Now

  • Scott’s Photography

    All Photos Copyright 1983-2011
    © Scott Wallace

  • Archives

    • 2017 (2)
    • 2016 (3)
    • 2013 (3)
    • 2012 (4)
    • 2011 (7)