When first contact is not welcomed

Brazilian researchers believe many "lost tribes" prefer to remain isolated

On June 6, 2004, José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, a Brazilian specialist in lost tribes, was fishing peacefully at a certain location in the Amazon jungle state of Acre (in northeast Brazil, on the border with Peru) when suddenly an arrow hit him in the neck.

It was a rudimentary weapon that hit him directly under his left ear. Without thinking twice, the researcher from the National Indian Foundation (Funai) broke the wooden arrow and removed it with his own hands. Minutes later, he was hovering between life and death while being evacuated from the area in a helicopter.

According to the experienced specialist of isolated Amazonian tribes, it was not a random attack: "There were timber poachers in the area, which even killed some Indians. To these Indians there is no difference among whites. In their view, whites are few and all from the same family. They decided to avenge their dead by attacking me," Meirelles recalled without bitterness.

"It's not us who isolate them; they want to live that way and it's their right"
"Some tribes think whites are few and all from the same family"
Indian reservations are systematically invaded by timber poachers

The life threatening experience of Meirelles is an anecdotal example of the pernicious effects caused by economic and political pressures on the indigenous tribes who have lived for centuries without any contact with the outside civilization. Oil concessions, the growing timber industry, miles of farms and ranches that are gradually gaining ground over the lush Amazon, or the roads leading that bring in progress to where there was peace and nature, are cancers that spread slowly with incalculable consequences.

Meirelles was also aboard a Funai helicopter when pictures were taken recently and later released by released by the NGO Survival International that proved once again the presence of isolated Indian tribes. According to the indigenous tribe researchers who are familiar with the area where they flew over, it is likely that individuals in the pictures belong to the Pano Indian tribe. They reached this conclusion judging by the paintings on their bodies, the type of maloca (communal homes), their gardens, and the bows and arrows they use.

In one of the photographs, a small metal bucket can be seen on the floor while a child holds a machete. Both these items lead to an early conclusion that this community has had contact with the outside world, but Meirelles flatly denies it: "They get these objects by robbing our bases of operations that are located on the sidelines of their territories. It also has been the case that we have also thrown these things out during our flight inspections."

Researchers conclude that there are 77 isolated groups scattered among the states of Rondônia, Roraima, Amazonas, Acre, Mato Grosso, Pará and Maranhão. Of these, seven have been contacted by now. After years of study, there is strong evidence that 30 groups have never been contacted, and, according to Funai, there are 40 others still under investigation.

The latest aerial photographs taken by Funai in the border area of the Brazilian state of Acre prove there are isolated communities which little is known about.

The body paint made with the dye from annatto seeds, the traditional headdresses or bows and arrows demonstrate that they have kept alive their ancestral traditions. According to Survival International, the people in the pictures belong to a community that is "healthy and prosperous, with baskets of cassava and fresh papayas from their gardens." The NGO believes that some 600 people may be living in isolation in this area, but Funai estimates it is more close to 1,000 individuals.

"The Brazilian government has taken the right decisions, but more can be done to protect these people. The Federal Police and the Ministry of Environment should always be present to prevent abuses by mayors, deputies and senators, who have economic and political interests in these areas and want to capture votes from businessmen and landowners by allowing them to deplete these territories," warns Fiona Watson, campaigns director for Survival International.

An isolated group is not considered an indigenous tribe that has no knowledge that human life exists beyond the borders of their territory. In fact, it may have had some contact with the outside world, but it didn't last long.

The Brazilian government has set aside so far more than 105 million hectares of territory, or the 12.41 percent of the national area, for Indian reservations. But the borders are systematically invaded by timber poachers and landowners who are in agri-business.

Although the Constitution recognizes and protects these peoples, Funai decided in 1987 to change its policy direction and not make contact with isolated tribes. "We concluded that most of the Indians, who had not been contacted, avoided the contact and so we began to guarantee their rights to live in isolation. So don't isolate them; they want to live that way," says Elias Bigio, Funai coordinator for isolated and recently contacted indigenous groups.

The decision to protect these minorities of outside contact is based on several arguments. The first and most powerful is that the immune system of the Indians who have always remained isolated is very different from that of people living beyond their borders. "Contact with foreign people can easily result in an outbreak of flu, hepatitis or other disease within the community," explains Meirelles, the head of Funai. "Similarly, contacts with these communities have also led to our research teams having contracted diseases unknown to the white man."

Meirelles, 62, has worked 40 years at the Funai and during the time when expeditions began to make contact with isolated Indians. "In the same way that the Indians are afraid of seeing a plane flying over their territory, a group of four or five researchers are also afraid to be in front of 50 or 60 men from a totally isolated tribe with which you can not communicate verbally. A first contact with an isolated community is somewhat unpredictable, you never know what will happen," he explains. "It is rarely a positive experience and it always them who come out on the losing side."

An isolated tribe in Brazil's Amazon jungle was photographed for the first time from a research helicopter.
An isolated tribe in Brazil's Amazon jungle was photographed for the first time from a research helicopter.NATIONAL INDIAN FOUNDATION (FUNAI)

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