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. The recently discovered tribe is reported to have planted tracts of corn, banana, and low-to-the-ground bushes that might be peanuts or cassava.
Into the Jungle
The Javari — a sprawling rain forest reserve half the size of Florida — is home to the largest concentration of uncontacted tribes in the entire world. There are at least eight uncontacted indigenous communities, and perhaps as many as fourteen, inhabiting the upland forests in the headwaters of the rivers that drain the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land. It’s an area with which I have more than a passing familiarity. In 2002, I accompanied a team from FUNAI’s elite unit, the Department of Isolated Indians, on a three-month expedition through the reserve’s primeval forest to track a mysterious indigenous tribe known as the flecheiros — the Arrow People.
If true, the news would amount to a strong vindication of Brazil’s policy to locate and protect its isolated tribes. Such groups are highly susceptible to communicable diseases and to cultural dislocation unleashed by contact with the outside world. The Javari reserve is especially well protected from intrusions. The territory is overseen by the Javari Valley Ethno-Environmental Protection Front — administratively part of the Department of Isolated Indians. The Front’s director Fabricio Amorim told the Estado de São Paulo newspaper that the settlement appears to have been built within the past year. The Front operates three control posts along major rivers leading into the depths of the reserve, and the Javari Valley remains a bastion of tribal vitality and a rich repository of biodiversity.
Not the Only Ones
FUNAI has now confirmed the existence of more than two dozen uncontacted tribes within Brazil’s national territory, more than any other country in the world. The Department of Isolated Indians has received reports of dozens of others, but they have yet to be confirmed. Peru comes second, with fourteen or fifteen such groups roaming its Amazonian regions. They are under mounting threat from loggers, gold prospectors, and energy companies exploring for oil in the deep jungle. Peru recently announced new measures to protect its isolated tribes.
Scott Wallace writes about the environment and indigenous affairs for National Geographic and other publications. His forthcoming book, The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, will be published by Crown in October 2011. For more information, please visit www.scottwallace.com.