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Fighting for the Survival of Uncontacted Tribes

By James Owen Conserving virgin rain forests and their fauna is one thing. But preserving their people? For many Westerners, the ideal wilderness would seem to be one without humans. From safari reserves to television wildlife documentaries, their spoiling presence is excluded. But in countries where these indigenous tribes persist, there’s another perception: this being...

By James Owen

Conserving virgin rain forests and their fauna is one thing. But preserving their people?

For many Westerners, the ideal wilderness would seem to be one without humans. From safari reserves to television wildlife documentaries, their spoiling presence is excluded. But in countries where these indigenous tribes persist, there’s another perception: this being the 21st century, not some prehistoric Eden, they should get with the program. If they choose to live like savages, that’s their problem.

Fiona Watson of Survival International, the only group to campaign for tribal rights worldwide, first saw the attitude towards South American Indians in their own lands in the 1980s, when, in her previous incarnation as a linguist, she studied the language of the Quechua in the Peruvian Andes.

“Here were the Quechua, who’d been here since pre-Inca times–it was their land and their country–and yet there was so much discrimination and racism against them,” Watson recalls. “That’s when I got interested in the whole issue of indigenous tribes.”


Survival researcher Fiona Watson, with the Akuntsu tribe in Brazil.

Photo © Survival 

In her 20 years as a researcher and field director with Survival, Watson has followed the trail of discrimination up to ministerial level. “A lot of the governments look on these people as backward and primitive, and that is often used as a pretext for taking over their land,” she says. “There’s a tendency to look at them and say, ‘Oh, well, actually, they’re the ones who have to catch up and join our world.’ ”

Her campaigning work currently focuses on the “uncontacted tribes” of the vast Amazon Basin. These elusive–and, in the opinion of many officials, mythical–peoples made the headlines globally in 2008 when photographs showed brightly painted members of one such tribe firing arrows at a government surveillance aircraft.





Uncontacted Indians in Brazil, May 2008. Many are under increasing threat from illegal logging over the border in Peru. Survival International estimates that there are over 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide.


The photos were taken in the state of Acre, northwest Brazil, where the country’s Indian affairs department, FUNAI, estimates there could be up to 600 uncontacted Indians living in four groups.


The Matis are a recently contacted tribe.

Photos © Fiona Watson/Survival

Another uncontacted tribe of some 300 individuals, living in the Massacó territory, has been identified in the neighboring state of Rondônia. Watson says the overall estimated number in Brazil has grown rapidly–from an estimated 20-40 uncontacted groups to more than 70 in the space of just several years. Similarly isolated Amazon tribes are reported in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Ironically, “the more penetration there is of the Amazon, the more reports there are of these people,” Watson says. She suspects the reason why they have remained hidden for so long from the outside world is that they have deliberately avoided contact with it.


Fiona Watson on a research trip to the with the Waiapi tribe in Brazil.

Photo © Survival

Those in western regions likely represent the remnants of rain forest peoples who were decimated during the Amazon rubber boom of the late 19th century, when colonists tapped into the latex-producing rubber trees. “I think that historic memory is still there, so they regard any outsider with suspicion,” she adds. “They aren’t so isolated that they aren’t aware what’s happening around them.”

Common infections that didn’t hinder those who carried them into the Amazon proved deadly to native populations. “Isolated indigenous people are much more susceptible because they haven’t got immunity to things like flu or measles,” Watson said. “The uncontacted people have no immunity at all.”


An aerial photograph of an Urueu Wau Wau village. 

Photo © Fiona Watson/Survival

Before 1987, when FUNAI ended its policy of establishing contact with these groups and trying to integrate them into mainstream society, it wasn’t unusual for 50 percent of a tribe to be wiped out in the first year, Watson says. Today’s colonizers carry an additional threat–automatic weapons. “If there’s a chance encounter with an uncontacted group it could easily escalate into violence. Indians with bows and arrows are simply no match.”

In the western Amazon region, where encroachment by cattle ranchers, loggers, miners and farmers is greatest, at least one vulnerable group, known as the Indians of the Rio Pardo, is thought to have been the victim of a genocide which is under federal investigation. Miners have reportedly boasted of killings, but because the tribe is uncontacted, and its numbers are unknown, gathering evidence is a difficult task, Watson says.


Uncontacted indian’s abandoned hut, Rio Pardo, Brazil

Photo © FUNAI
The overriding issue, according to Survival, is land. If the territories of uncontacted tribes are not protected, they will disappear completely. “You might argue they have the most to lose because they depend so utterly on their land–it’s their entire livelihood,” Watson says. “And because they are uncontacted, they won’t know what their rights are–they can’t stand up and defend themselves. That’s one of the reasons why Survival is focusing on these people.”
The latest major threat comes from a massive hydropower dam construction program, a centerpiece of Brazil’s Accelerated Growth Program, launched in 2007 by President Lula.

One of the tribal peoples in Rondônia who will be affected by the Madeira dams and related infrastructure.

Photo © Adrian Cowell/Survival
Survival is campaigning to halt two of these dams, both in the early phases of construction on northwest Brazil’s Madiera River, the largest tributary of the Amazon River. The scheme received government approval despite the fact that FUNAI says at least five uncontacted groups are in the area impacted by the Santo Antonio dam.
FUNAI also has evidence of uncontacted Indians just 10 to 30 kilometers from the Jirau dam. “The Indians are thought to have moved from this area–presumably frightened by the noise and machinery–towards a nearby area where gold miners are working,” Watson says. “There is clearly a real risk of conflict between the Indians and miners which could result in violence and transmission of disease. A group of miners report seeing eight uncontacted Indians.”

The Akuntsu were contacted in 1997 and live in Rondonia in the Madeira dams region.

Photos © Fiona Watson/Survival
Despite FUNAI’s findings, the electricity company Furnas Centrais Eléctricas, and federal environmental officials, dispute the existence of such people, Watson reports.
She says the infrastructure associated with these largescale projects, such as roads, are just as damaging because they fuel the colonization and destruction of the rain forest. “Before you know it you have thousands and thousands of people flooding in, cutting down trees, invading indigenous territories, hunting the wildlife they depend on, and so on.”

The Santo Antonio dam being built on the Madeira river is very near to several groups of uncontacted Indians.

Photo © Survival
The recent huge success of the movie Avatar may be timely. Set on the planet Pandora, the sci-fi epic tells of the eco-warrior Na’vi tribe who must defend their sacred and fabulously biodiverse forests from invading human miners.
It isn’t a coincidence that James Cameron, Avatar’s director, visited the Amazon this month.
This time in front of the camera in tribal face paint, he was there to highlight the threat posed by another vast hydroelectric project, the Belo Monte Dam in the state of Pará.
If Cameron isn’t yet aware of the Madiera dams campaign, he soon will be, Watson promised. The Avatar parallel to the Amazonian situation is a powerful one. “It really encapsulated that monumental struggle, where people, particularly the uncontacted people, can just be crushed so instantly if these projects go ahead,” she says.
“They are the most vulnerable people on our planet,” Watson adds. “Are we going to stand by and let a whole people be destroyed for what some think is progress. Progress for who? It’s certainly not progress for them.”


James Owen has been a journalist for 15 years, first as a news and sub-editor for national and regional newspapers in the U.K., then as a freelance writer and columnist. Specializing in science, history, the environment, natural history and fly-fishing, he writes both for print and online media, including National Geographic News. He is currently writing a natural history book about trout.



Additional information about uncontacted tribes:

Survival’s campaign for the uncontacted Indians of Brazil

Survival film about uncontacted tribes around the world

James Cameron in the Amazon

Five “Uncontacted Tribes” Most Threatened With Extinction



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