Friday, June 13, 2008

Death in the Amazon: Uncontacted Tribes

Photographs published two weeks ago of an uncontacted tribe in Brazil near the Peruvian border have provoked public outrage, with over 1,300 people writing letters to Peru’s government to demand an end to illegal logging. The logging is threatening uncontacted Indians in the area.

The unique pictures of the Brazilian tribe hit the world’s headlines last week. At least one other tribe in the area is thought to have fled over the border from Peru into Brazil, fleeing illegal loggers who are razing their forest home.

Since the pictures were published, the Peruvian government has said it will investigate the issue. Peru’s President Alan Garcia had previously questioned the tribes’ existence.

Survival International is campaigning to support the rights of Peru’s estimated fifteen uncontacted tribes, who are threatened by oil exploration as well as logging.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry said today, ‘These pictures have really struck a chord with people. The uncontacted tribe’s message, with their arrows pointed up at the aeroplane, could not be clearer – they want to be left alone. People understand this, and want to make sure their wishes are respected.’

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Amazon Indians from one of the world's last uncontacted tribes have been photographed from the air, with striking images released on Thursday showing them painted bright red and brandishing bows and arrows.

The photographs of the tribe near the border between Brazil and Peru are rare evidence that such groups exist. A Brazilian official involved in the expedition said many of them are in increasing danger from illegal logging.
"What is happening in this region is a monumental crime against the natural world, the tribes, the fauna and is further testimony to the complete irrationality with which we, the 'civilized' ones, treat the world," Jose Carlos Meirelles was quoted as saying in a statement by the Survival International group.
One of the pictures, which can be seen on Survival International's Web site (, shows two Indian men covered in bright red pigment poised to fire arrows at the aircraft while another Indian looks on.
Another photo shows about 15 Indians near thatched huts, some of them also preparing to fire arrows at the aircraft.
"The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made extinct," said Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, which supports tribal people around the world.
Of more than 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide, more than half live in either Brazil or Peru, Survival International says. It says all are in grave danger of being forced off their land, killed and ravaged by new diseases.

Jay Griffiths wrote an article in the Guardian on the issue of the forced invasion and unwarrented contact of the tribes; how it is racist and potentially dangerous.

The message could hardly be clearer: leave us alone. In photographs taken from a low-flying plane, men from an uncontacted group deep in the Amazon forests, body-painted in red and black, draw their bows and arrows to shoot at the intruders in anger and fear. Another tribe living in voluntary isolation is being hunted out of existence.

There was massive public interest when these images were released by the Brazilian government last week, revealing an enormous curiosity about tribal people. And many indigenous people want non-indigenous people to listen to their ecological warnings and their philosophies. But, in sharp contrast, those living in voluntary isolation, the so-called uncontacted tribes, wish no such thing. They want nothing to do with the dominant culture, and they communicate this clearly to "contacted" tribes nearby, begging their help to be left alone.

The risks are well known: uncontacted people have died in their millions from diseases brought by outsiders, whole tribes wiped out. In the Amazon, indigenous campaigners vigorously oppose people going into the territories of the voluntarily isolated. But now, as well as the loggers and miners, there will be dozens of missionaries, television companies and adventurers determined to ignore their message.

Go and talk to Tarzan, I was told, when I was in the Peruvian Amazon, at the invitation of indigenous activists there. (They had asked me to go with them as a witness when they were throwing illegal gold-miners off their lands.) Tarzan, I was told, has a tale to tell about forced contact. A Harakmbut man in his nineties, he is old enough to remember the day in 1952 when his world ended. He is gentle and thoughtful, but still angry.

Missionaries came in a plane which, said Tarzan, "we thought was a huge and frightening eagle. We fled to the hills". The missionaries set up a mission station and a school. "No one wanted to go to school, and anyway after the missionaries came, our children died." After the missionaries' arrival, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people died of the illnesses they had brought. The missionaries said they wanted people to know their God, but Tarzan didn't see it that way: "Now we know money." Further, thanks to the missionaries, he says: "Now we know we lack money, which we hadn't known we lacked before."

Astonishingly, this is still happening. Earlier this year a British film crew went to the Peruvian Amazon to find tribal people for a reality TV programme. The crew were accused of visiting an isolated community, bringing a disease that left four people dead.

In the Peruvian Amazon, I met an evangelical missionary who was hunting out uncontacted tribes, claiming he would ease the way for oil workers. The links between missionaries and the other extractive industries are well documented. He spoke of making a "responsible contact", but was risking bringing death. Which of the 10 commandments encourages that?

Anthropologists, activists and many in the media know how to report on indigenous issues with respect; but there is still a profound racism against indigenous people in our culture. The forced invasion of uncontacted peoples is the arrowhead of this racism, and it extends far beyond the irresponsibility of individuals, into whole institutions.

The publishing industry promotes the adventurer, the churches fund the missionary, the corporations send the loggers and miners, the TV company commissions the film crew. In a just world, all should be liable for attempted murder.

Power to the People.


a very public sociologist said...

Good to see the blog's back in action, comrade. I had heard about this story but haven't seen any of the images up until now. I can only add my call to the rest opposed to disturbing these tribes.

blackstone said...

its amazing, some of these tribes aren't uncontacted because they live in such remote areas, but just because they want to be left alone! They want nothing to do with "civilization" and all the death, disease and destruction it brings.

The Red Son said...

Yah Blackstone, I miss the your coverage of news stories that I don't read about anywhere else.

Also, you've been tagged.

Highlander said...

Saw the pictures at the time and, as you highlight, the message couldn't be clearer. I am constantly amazed at the arrogance shown by people purporting to offer "civilization" to these tribes. Their in-built idea that they are somehow superior, and why wouldn't these people want what they have to offer, is staggering. I just hope they are left alone and the forests preserved for their futures - not ours.

blackstone said...

exactly highlander!

the tribes don't need "civilization", if the tribes couldn't provide their own means of subsistence, they would of died off hundreds of years ago. Heck, their daily labor is probably half of ours, but they still have enough to feed themselves. How many in America living from paycheck to paycheck can say the same?

As in the article,

"The missionaries said they wanted people to know their God, but Tarzan didn't see it that way: "Now we know money." Further, thanks to the missionaries, he says: "Now we know we lack money, which we hadn't known we lacked before."

blackstone said...


Even in an age when cynical sleuths can hyper-analyze stories for truth and accuracy, the occasional hoax still slips through the cracks. Such was the case with a so-called "lost Amazon tribe."

A few months ago, mainstream news outlets (including, ahem, Yahoo!) reported that a photographer had found a lost tribe of warriors near the Brazilian-Peruvian border. Photos of the tribe backed up his claim.

As it turns out, the story is only half true. The men in the photo are members of a tribe, but it certainly ain't "lost." In fact, as the photographer, José Carlos Meirelles, recently explained, authorities have known about this particular tribe since 1910. The photographer and the agency that released the pictures wanted to make it seem like they were members of a lost tribe in order to call attention to the dangers the logging industry may have on the group.

The photographer recently came clean, and news outlets, perhaps embarrassed at having been taken for a ride, have been slow to pick up the story. Now, the word is starting to spread and articles in the Buzz are picking up steam. Expect a lot more brutal truth in the coming days.

Highlander said...

Well they had me fooled, but then South American tribes aren't my strong point.

Shame really because I've never found that trying to hoodwink people is a good way to disseminate your message - however valid or well-meaning your message may be.