Brazilian authorities claimed recently to have pinpointed the location of a community of uncontacted tribespeople in one of the most remote corners of the world's largest rainforest.
This indigenous Amazonian community of about 200 individuals was discovered after three small forest clearings were detected on satellite images, according to Fabricio Amorim, a regional coordinator for Brazil's indigenous foundation, FUNAI. Flyover expeditions commenced in April, confirming the community's existence.
The government agency, known by its Portuguese acronym FUNAI, uses airplanes to fly over the isolated groups as Brazil has a policy of not contacting such tribes but working to prevent the invasion of their land to preserve their autonomy. FUNAI estimates 68 isolated populations live in the Amazon.
What is an uncontacted tribe?
By definition, uncontacted tribes are peoples who have no peaceful contact with anyone in the mainstream or dominant society. There are about 100 uncontacted tribes in the world. The term does not mean that they have no contact with anyone else. Everyone has neighbors, even when they're some distance away, and they'll know who they are. If it's another tribe, perhaps also uncontacted, they may or may not have friendly relations with them.
Many of these tribes may have been in touch with the colonist society in the past, even in past centuries, and then retreated from the violence which that brought. Some may once have been part of larger tribal groups, and split off and moved away, fleeing contact.
The terms 'undiscovered' or 'lost' tribe are inherently empty sensationalism. It is extremely unlikely that there are any tribes whose existence is totally unknown to someone else. It's also unfair to say that they are living as they were in past centuries. No one is. Some Amazonian groups even had guns, from intertribal trading, before they'd ever met a non-Indian. Most uncontacted tribes have used some metal tools, which they have found, stolen or traded with their neighbors, for many years or even generations.
View First Ever Arial Footage of Uncontacted Tribes of the Amazon:
So why do organizations like FUNAI fly over their lands? And why do organizations like Survival International support this?
Over the past days, many readers have voiced concerns that this 'contact' is at odds with what the organizations are trying to do. However, press officer Christina Chauvenet of Survival International argues that flying over the land is occasionally necessary to check whether the tribes have moved elsewhere, and whether their lands are being invaded.
The idea that this damages their self-image and/or spiritual beliefs belongs in the realm of fiction, and is based on the false supposition that their cultures are fragile. Experience shows that such peoples are in fact robust and well able to adapt to outside goods - most have been doing so for a very long time. Tribal peoples are not destroyed when they get or see things from outside, but by violence and disease as their lands are invaded.
View What would have happened if the plane had landed?
What is the relationship between FUNAI and Survival International?
According to Chauvenet:
Survival communicates with FUNAI as one source of news about tribes and their current situation. Survival closely monitors the situation of the uncontacted Indians of Brazil. We support FUNAI's uncontacted Indians policy, which is that FUNAI will not make contact with an uncontacted tribe as its own experience in the past showed that this is very dangerous for the Indians, who have little immunity to outside diseases. Rather, FUNAI monitors the land to make sure the uncontacted tribes' lands are not being invaded.
Survival also regularly lobbies and puts pressure on FUNAI to fulfil its legal obligations to uphold and protect indigenous rights, whether that be by mapping out their territories, preventing invasions, or fully consulting the Indians about projects which may affect them.
We have a long history of lobbying FUNAI, adds Chauvenet.
As a matter of point, Chauvenet mentions Survivals efforts to lobby FUNAI to map out the land of the Guarani Indians, south of the Amazon. An agreement signed by the authorities and the Guarani stipulates that FUNAI must do this by 2010, but the demarcation programme has come to a near-standstill and the Indians are living in awful conditions.
Photos like the ones below of the most recently discovered tribe are important tools of drawing attention to their existence, even to prove it in the face of countless skeptics. Chauvenet adds, Regarding the idea that it may all be a publicity stunt, groups like FUNAI have been monitoring the Amazon for decades, and have countless pieces of evidence that uncontacted tribes exist. Abandoned camps, testimonies from other contacted tribes who have seen these groups, and the flyovers that FUNAi have done are just a few examples of such evidence.
Here's a look at the the dwellings of the recently found 'uncontacted' tribe:
These tribal people are at risk from outsiders who want their land or its resources for timber, mining, dam or road building, ranching, or settlement. Contact is usually violent and hostile, but the main killers are in fact common diseases like influenza and measles to which the uncontacted people have no immunity. For example, the Zo'é tribe's population was devastated in the 1980s after first contact with outsiders. For those that survive contact, they still face difficulties if they are then forcefully brought into 'mainstream society'. Tribal peoples who are forcefully settled oftentimes end up with shorter life expectancies and higher risk of health problems such as diabetes, obesity, depression, and suicide.
The tribe's culture and even their survival is threatened by illegal fishing, hunting, and mining in the area along with deforestation by farmers, missionary activity and drug trafficking along Brazil's borders. Yet, despite it all, most of these groups manage to maintain their distinct languages and traditions.