Under threat:The lastuncontacted tribesof Brazil

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Why Brazil’s last uncontacted tribes are under threat

More than a hundred indigenous communities that shun contact with white people in the Brazilian Amazon are faced with the growing danger of poachers, missionaries, drug traffickers and loggers, not to mention the coronavirus and President Bolsonaro. How should we protect this anthropological treasure?

Discovering Brazil requires having a detailed map to hand, but in much of its immense territory the actual kilometers are irrelevant: what counts is the time it takes to reach one’s destination. On this occasion, that destination is an enclave that serves as a gateway to the universe of the uncontacted Indians: namely, Atalaia do Norte, a city located in a corner of the western Brazilian Amazon. Here you can find both those who protect the uncontacted tribes and those who threaten them. It is the starting point for those in possession of the requisite permit to enter the Yavari Valley indigenous reserve, home to more isolated indigenous tribes than anywhere else on Earth. Getting there means flying to Manaus to connect with the daily flight to Tabatinga, 1,000 kilometers to the west. From there, you take a river cab along the Amazon River and then a land cab to complete the journey. But it was only when we arrived at the hotel, and saw the map of the area hanging at the reception desk, that we realized that those last two hours by cab represented a laughable distance compared to the immensity of the valley ahead of us, replete with the mysteries of its inhabitants.

The road

In 2019, 30 members of an expedition set sail in a boat, continued by canoe and then advanced on foot, hacking their way through vegetation that, from the air, resembles a dark green carpet. Beneath this carpet, towering trees shrouded the explorers in darkness. As a team from the agency created to protect Brazil’s indigenous people – the National Indian Foundation (Funai) – they had been charged with an exceptional mission: for the first time in three decades, Funai was going into the most virgin reaches of the Amazon in search of a tribe never before contacted by white people, namely the Korubo, a splinter group of one that had abandoned isolation four years earlier. Why locate them? Because their conflicts with the Kanamari were becoming increasingly violent, involving murders, kidnappings and revenge attacks.

It was a peculiar situation even for Bruno Pereira, the 57-year-old veteran indigenous advocate who had coordinated the expedition because it was the first time that the policy of absolute respect for indigenous people who want to live without contact with outsiders had been set to one side. “It was not an easy decision. It was taboo,” Pereira says. “We went to look for them to sort out the conflict. And out of respect for the Korubo, who wanted to meet their kin.”

First, they found two young men. “They were very scared. They were hunting with huge blowguns,” Pereira continues. “After a few hours they went to get the rest. There were 32 of them.”

What followed for these Korubo was a moving reunion with their relatives. “We offered to vaccinate them,” Pereira adds. There, in the middle of the jungle, he and his team explained to the Korubo that the liquid would protect them against various ailments. They accepted. They were also shown aerial photos of their village on a computer, and one by one they recognized themselves. Soon, the most daring ones wanted to take a ride in the helicopter. Nowhere else on the planet are there so many Indians who have never had contact with whites as in this valley located in western Brazil, on the border with Peru and Colombia.


Above,the indigenous lands of the Yavari Valley, as seen from a light aircraft. Nowhere else on the planet are there so many tribes that have never had contact with whites. There are 10 confirmed and six more still being studied.

In the bottomRight, the Brazilian town of Atalaia do Norte, on the banks of the Yavari River, a tributary of the Amazon.

Atalaia do Norte

Deep in the jungle, encounters with strangers are extremely tense until it is established whether they are friend or foe. Half a century after meeting a white for the first time, face to face, Ivanrapa Matis, 58, still remembers the fear. He was nine years old. There were several white men and they came in peace, but that was not initially clear. Thanks to his father, he knew they existed and had even had glimpses of them, felling trees or riding aboard boats 10 times bigger than canoes.

This indigenous man recalls an idyllic childhood, with no serious illnesses and with hunting trips on which he used miniature spears fashioned for him by his father. “We learned by imitating the elders,” he explains. “It was like a game. We would go hunting macaques.” At that time, what really terrified him was not the whites, but the revenge attacks from other tribes, as he explains now in Atalaia do Norte.

Matis – a man whose gestures suggest the shooting of an arrow or the chasing of an animal – is an extraordinary witness to one of the most unique ways of life that has fascinated anthropologists and adventurers throughout history.

Five centuries after the Portuguese conquered Brazil and exterminated or decimated countless tribes, more than a thousand Indians still refuse all contact with the outside world. The figure is a pure estimate. We are talking about small groups of a few dozen people who move with great stealth, ever vigilant, almost always invisible. The jungle, which is a hostile habitat for any outsider, is all the universe they need. It gives them food, medicine and the resources with which to build their families and have fun.

The Yavari Valley is home to a true anthropological heritage, a mosaic of cultures about which little is known. The multiple threats that hang over this heritage include the traditional ones of disease and missionaries, and newer ones in the shape of drug trafficking and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president. We know for certain that there are at least 10 uncontacted tribes in the Yavari Valley, an indigenous reserve larger than Panama. There are unconfirmed accounts, rumors and sightings of six other tribes. In the whole of Brazil, there are 28 confirmed uncontacted tribes and indications that there are another 86. More than in any other country.

On a mission to protect them, a number of indigenous advocates, working in close collaboration with NGOs and indigenous peoples already integrated into society, move between the depths of the jungle and the courts. The first thing is to prove that these tribes exist. But, most importantly, to prove this without contacting them. This has been Brazil’s official policy since 1987: to watch over them without interfering, except in extreme circumstances. It is an approach that President Bolsonaro is undermining by weakening Funai. Critics accuse the ultra-right president of using this official body to serve the interests of those who want to plunder the world’s largest rainforest.

The moment of contact

Ivanrapa Matis continues his story, which is translated by a young member of his tribe, also called Matis as the Indians use the name of their tribe as a surname. When they lived with no contact with whites, they hunted in groups, ate together from the same ceramic pot and drank a fermented drink, called caiçuma. “Our mothers used to tell us, ‘Watch out for snakes, watch out for jaguars.’ They still say that,” he says. The tribe members shared a large maloca (communal hut) where each family enjoyed a degree of privacy. “The husband’s hammock was on top, and the wife’s was underneath. Next to it, they had a fire and they slept there with the children,” he says, hanging up his monkey-tooth necklace, earrings and shell nose piece to pose on the banks of the Yavari, a tributary of the Amazon while his wife, Koka Matis, hand-weaves a hammock.

Koka, Ivanrapa Matis’ wife, hand-weaves a hammock.
Koka, Ivanrapa Matis’ wife, hand-weaves a hammock. Avener Prado

Ivanrapa Matis’ father was the first to talk to the white strangers. After he got over the fright, he returned to the village with his report, an axe, a machete and a dog – treasure that, even today, can revolutionize the life of a jungle dweller. Seven other Indians approached the visitors, and then four more. The distrust began to dissipate. “It went, little by little,” says Matis. They made new requests: for aluminum pots, matches, flashlights. The relationship began to develop. As an adult, Matis completed what had been started by participating in Funai expeditions. Given how delicate the actual encounter is in these sensitive missions, people like Matis are crucial to reassuring the natives and even to avoiding an attack. He proudly recalls the time he accompanied Brazil’s most prestigious indigenous advocate, Sydney Possuelo.

Ivanrapa Matis

“Our mothers used to tell us, ‘Watch out for snakes, watch out for jaguars.’ They still say that.”

Ivanrapa Matis, 58, who grew up in an uncontacted tribe until the age of nine and, as an adult, participated in expeditions to protect other isolated tribes. Nowadays, he lives in a stilt house on the Yavari River.

Misunderstandings that end in tragedy are rare these days, but they do still happen. The fact that government official Rieli Franciscato, 56, was killed by a bow and arrow in 2020 shocked the world. “I think they mistook who he was because he was going in with armed police,” explains indigenous advocate Neidinha Suruí, 62, from Porto Velho in the state of Rondônia. “When you go through the jungle, you don’t see them, but they see you. What they don’t know is whether you are from Funai; they don’t know what your intentions are.”

Franciscato was, in fact, heading up one of Funai’s ethno-environmental protection fronts and trying to confirm the presence of uncontacted Indians in an area of Rondônia to prevent clashes with local farmers who were invading their land, and putting them in peril. A few months before his death, the Indians visited a farm. They left the spoils of a hunt and took a machete. In the eyes of the experts, this was a friendly barter. It is believed that they were the isolated people of the Cautário River. When almost nothing is known about them, the reference is the nearest river.

Among those under greatest threat are the Piripkura, so called because they move like butterflies. There are only two left in the jungle, an uncle and his nephew. Survivors of a massacre, they have never wanted to leave their territory, which is shrinking in the face of the illegal expansion of agriculture. But in 2016, they strayed from their usual trails to approach a government guard post. They were looking for fire. Their torch, alight for years despite torrential rains, had gone out. The gentle encounter with the Funai official, Jair Candor, 61, who watches over them and is in charge of annual confirmation that they are still alive, is touching. Together, they star in the documentary, Piripkura, (Amazon Prime), in which they are filmed leaving days later with their torch smoking again.

The isolated ones are survivors of epidemics and massacres. They are always alert as they have had their share of trauma. When their lives become a constant flight, they tend to stop procreating and cultivating. If the tribe itself abandons isolation, it is because it sees no alternative; because it is the only option for survival, experts explain.

Anthropologist Conrado Octavio, 38, knows the Yavari Valley well, thanks to his previous work for the Centro Trabalhista Indigenista, an NGO that supports Funai on its expeditions. Like most experts, he is irritated by the romantic notion of exotic beings living as if still in the Neolithic era; as if the jungle were an Eden of happy, prehistoric people. “They are groups that opt for an alternative way of life, but they are as contemporary as we are,” he says. “We are also constantly making decisions, making collective agreements and facing emergencies, conflicts and crises. Only they have other paths and solutions.”

These isolated people are the minority of a minority. The predictions of the 1970s that the indigenous people in general would become extinct have not proved accurate. They continue to make up 0.5% of Brazilians, amounting to one million people from 256 tribes, bringing with them a unique linguistic, cultural and anthropological heritage. Seven out of 10 live in villages. Any Internet user can browse through the comprehensive database of the NGO Socio-environmental Institute for the figures.

The natives do not remember a Brazilian president as openly anti-indigenous as this one. A professional firebrand, Bolsonaro’s first act was to place an evangelical missionary in charge of the official policy towards the uncontacted tribes; and, in a controversial move, Brazil’s Justice Ministry recently awarded this president the Medal of Indigenist Merit.

The expeditions

Beto Marubo, 47, was born in an indigenous village and has spent half his life defending the isolated groups that inhabit the 85,000 square kilometers of Yavari indigenous land. He protects them as a lobbyist in Brasilia, on site in the jungle, at international events and on his Twitter account. These days, he is in Atalaia do Norte to plan projects and embark on a trip to a remote village called Lobo.

A source of endless stories of the jungle, Marubo recalls a Funai expedition years ago set up to investigate rumors that poachers had perpetrated a massacre of isolated Korubos. For days, they searched the territory, sweating, sleeping in hammocks, enduring insect bites, until finally they discovered children’s footprints on the banks of a river. “They were the footprints of two-year-old children,” he says. “They were collecting turtle eggs. When the kin [Marubo uses the word kin in the way that the Indians refer to other Indians] are on the alert, they don’t take the children or women with them. So, the killing wasn’t there,” he says, pointing to dots on a map at the headquarters of Univaja (União dos Povos Indigenas do Vale do Javari), an association that is a small miracle: the seven local ethnic groups that form it have put aside ancestral hatreds to defend the land together.

According to Marubo, the next day they found a freshly-traveled trail, took it and stumbled upon them! “They were fishing with a fish-killing poison,” he explains, adding that this is a method used when they are on the move. One of the Indians – a guide and translator – understood. It didn’t take long for those on the expedition to learn that the natives knew they were there. “When we raised the drone, there were the kin, a bunch of them, sharpening arrows,” says Marubo. “We took the boat and left. That was the end of the expedition.” Mission accomplished. Killing ruled out. The Korubo were still there.

Beto Marubo

“Inter-ethnic relations are not so friendly. People think all Indians are the same. And they are not.”

Beto Marubo, 47, representative of the Univaja association, which brings together the indigenous people of the Yavari Valley.

Marubo recalls the curiosity of an old man regarding those huge and noisy devices flying over the village – the drones that were once sporadic but are now frequent. He said: “They are like flying canoes, full of whites.”

Over the decades, Funai’s lookout posts have changed both their mission and name. The attraction fronts became contact fronts, and are now called ethno-environmental protection fronts. Only the State (i.e., Funai) can undertake expeditions on indigenous lands. Organizing them has always involved strict periods of quarantine and a massive logistical effort.

Although drones and satellite imagery have facilitated the monitoring process, it is still vital to go deep into the jungle in search of clues. The job requires physical and mental endurance, endless doses of patience and detective skills. Only those with a trained eye can see traces of the tribes in the midst of so much visual and acoustic stimulus: broken twigs in a bush that isolated indigenous people leave to orient themselves or a honeycomb from which honey has already been scooped, all in inaccessible places. As if they were forensic experts, the indigenous advocates verify not only the tribes’ existence but also how many days ago they passed a spot and how many of them there are, thanks to the size of the huts and the cultivated areas.

Denominating them is also a challenge. The most widespread terminology is “uncontacted,” which simply means without contact with us, the whites. But, as the activist Marubo emphasizes, isolation is never total. They know they are not alone in the world. Sooner or later there are encounters, lasting varying lengths of time, and involving varying degrees of hostility. “Interethnic relations are not so friendly. People think that all Indians are the same. And they are not,” says Marubo.

The current policy of non-intervention was born from the realization that, after the first encounters, deaths were multiplying, explains Pereira, who coordinated the one-off 2019 mission. This former director of Funai’s department of isolated peoples says that, “until 1987, the official policy was to attract them. The Amazon was being cleared, roads and hydroelectric dams were being built, but after a few months they died of disease; they did not have a good diet. It destroyed their social structure. That’s when the philosophy of the State changed to a policy of no contact. And it became a world reference.” Tribes that had survived for centuries succumbed to influenza, measles, malaria and tuberculosis. The last plague, Covid-19, killed 900 indigenous people in the villages.

With Bolsonaro, Funai is experiencing an exodus of employees. Pereira is among those who have fallen into disgrace. He was already on unpaid leave when Funai took him to task over a conflict of interest, accusing him of coordinating inspections of indigenous people.

The threats

The colonizers in America decimated the native tribes and disrupted the lives of those who survived. In the 20th century, they were ruthlessly expelled from their lands to make way for progress in the shape of telegraph lines, roads and hydroelectric dams.

Who knows how many groups disappeared from the face of the Earth with no record of their name, culture or worldview? But why should they be protected? “First, because they have the right to live and they know nothing about the law, our humanity or our civilization,” says Pereira. “I believe that humanity makes progress when it understands that these minorities also have the right to exist.”

The range of threats to their existence is extensive: fishing and poaching gangs, evangelical missionaries, gold prospectors, drug traffickers, agricultural expansion, the coronavirus and, since Bolsonaro came to power, Funai itself, according to NGOs.

There have always been poachers who have entered the indigenous reserve. The latest thing now is that they come in organized gangs, according to Univaja. The pirarucu, a prized Amazonian fish weighing up to 300 kilos, has become a much sought-after delicacy, especially in neighboring Colombia.

Atalaia do Norte market, where some of the inhabitants belong to poaching gangs who fish in the indigenous Yavari valley.
Atalaia do Norte market, where some of the inhabitants belong to poaching gangs who fish in the indigenous Yavari valley. Avener Prado

“I know it’s wrong to go into indigenous land, but there are no opportunities here,” says Alacy, 23, who uses a pseudonym. He says poaching is the only way to make a living in a city like Atalaia do Norte, where only the City Hall and the Health Department offer good jobs. “And the rest of us – what do we live on?” Alacy is already a father of two who has left behind a past involving guns and alcohol. As his river cab driver’s license and training as a bricklayer have never earned him enough to feed his family, he goes poaching with several colleagues, a shotgun and salt with which to preserve the fish. There are so many poachers that sometimes two or three boats will run into each other on a stretch of the river.

Poaching is not a subject that is openly discussed with outsiders in Atalaia do Norte; even less so the day after a police operation that, thanks to information gathered by the indigenous people, resulted in two arrests and the seizure of dozens of pirarucu, turtles and other wild animals. It is a small town where everyone knows everyone. The torrential rains each morning flood the unpaved streets where every few meters there is a church – the Evangelical Foursquare, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Assembly of God, the Fundamentalist.

Emulating the Jesuits who arrived with the colonizers 500 years ago, contemporary missionaries come here looking for impure souls. Atalaia do Norte is a mecca for evangelicals who believe that Jesus will only return to Earth when the truth has been revealed to all its inhabitants, including the isolated Indians. The New Tribes Mission is the most famous and controversial. For decades, it has sent pairs of US missionaries to places never before trodden by whites, thereby breaking the law.


Above,sculpture of Saint Sebastian, patron saint of Atalaia do Norte.

BottomLeft, churches of different evangelical denominations in the city of Atalaia do Norte.

denominación evangélica denominación evangélica denominación evangélica

The coronavirus and the risk of infection were the perfect opportunity for an indigenous lawyer to get a judge to expel a couple of missionaries who had been living in the Yavari reserve for decades. In recent times, the soul hunters have adopted a more sophisticated strategy, giving scholarships to young indigenous people to study theology in big cities. These young indigenous people then return to their villages to preach.

Josiah McIntyre, 38, is a Christian from Alabama in the US who settled in the Amazon more than a decade ago. He is now accompanied by his wife and four children. “I already know what they say about me,” he says, denying that his intention is to evangelize the uncontacted, although some local sources say they have heard him proclaim that he wants to die from their arrows as a martyr. “I am in Atalaia do Norte to preach the truth, to teach young people to do the right thing because there is a lot of drugs, alcohol and pornography here.” To keep them away from these temptations, he organizes races of up to 8 kilometers, a real incentive for the kids in a city where entertainment is scarce: they can’t even escape with YouTube or Instagram as the connection is terrible.

The drugs have arrived. Major drug routes cross the triple border. One of the many concerns harbored by Kora Kanamary, 37, is that traffickers recruit young indigenous people to grow coca in Peruvian territory. Some are even involved in processing it. The temptation is great because they have few legal ways to make a living. A member of the Univaja association, Kanamary leads a team of 36 forest guards who monitor the territory to stop loggers and large-scale agriculture.

Marubo, Kanamari and the rest of their colleagues are part of a major shift in the policy of protecting the uncontacted. The indigenous people themselves are taking on increasingly relevant roles in the vacuum left by the withdrawal of Funai since its official Rieli Franciscato was assassinated shortly after Bolsonaro took office. They combine the knowledge of their ancestors with science and technology and patrol the reserve with training and resources donated by the World Wildlife Fund to better document their reports. They now know how to read and produce maps and, on their field patrols, they use satellite-connected cell phones that allow them to easily record coordinates and countless other details.

Josiah McIntyre

Above, evangelical Christian missionary Josiah McIntyre, wearing a headscarf. The woman in the center is his wife.

BottomRight, Kora Kanamari, 37, an indigenous leader from the Javari Valley and Univaja representative.

Kora Kanamari

Those who watch over the uncontacted feel that, under Bolsonaro, Funai’s leadership has abandoned its original mission to serve, instead, the interests of political and economic sectors that see the tribes as an obstacle to development. Speaking before the UN, the Brazilian president made his position clear: “Unfortunately, some inside and outside Brazil, supported by NGOs, insist on keeping our Indians as real cavemen [...]. The Indian does not want to be a poor landowner on the world’s richest lands.” The ultra-right-wing president, who dismisses the climate crisis, is determined to authorize the exploitation of territories that have previously been protected by law. On account of this, a fierce battle is being waged in Congress and in the courts on indigenous and environmental issues.

One of this battle’s hot spots concerns seven territories that are home to isolated tribes, which are protected by an emergency mechanism that prevents unauthorized entry as they have not been denominated as indigenous reserves. But with the Bolsonaro government, the length of these mechanisms’ validity has been shortened, according to Survival International. The latest ones have been renewed for just six months.

Survival International’s Sarah Shenker explains that “uncontacted indigenous peoples do not simply disappear from the Earth, as some would have it; it is not their destiny, nor is it a chronological certainty. It is a deliberate and genocidal process by governments and companies that want to eliminate them in order to steal their lands and profit, a process driven by the international demand for timber, gold, oil and other resources.” Shenker mentions the invaluable contribution of these tribes as protectors of the rainforest. The lands they inhabit conserve vegetation and biodiversity in unparalleled abundance.

Complaints against Bolsonaro’s Funai are multiplying. One of its monitoring teams recently discovered vestiges of an unknown tribe near the Purus River, yet the agency failed to adopt any precautionary protection measures, according to complaints from several indigenous organizations. Funai says it is investigating the evidence.

The transition

Contact usually gives way to a long period of transition. Each tribe decides at what pace and in what direction. Anthropologist Dominique Gallois, 71, is familiar with the intense dialogue that unfolds with the newly-contacted. She was the first to study the Zo’é people in the jungle, in 1989, a couple of years after missionaries went looking for them.

“When I arrived, there were 170 of them. And there were few children,” she explains from her home in São Roque, near São Paulo. Easily recognizable by the wooden cone they wear embedded in the lower lip, the Zo’é live in a remote area even in Brazilian terms. But what was a two-week hike to find them in the 1990s has been reduced to six days as trails have been opened up. But it is that distance from the rest of the world that has protected this group where young wives hunt alongside their husbands. “The Zo’é are in this wonderful situation because access is very difficult. But there are already trails...,” says the anthropologist.

Gallois stayed for long stretches with the Zo’é, conversing in their language, sleeping in their huts, eating their food and taking copious notes. “You can’t bring in anything from outside,” she says. “The sugar would be deadly.” Commissioned by Funai, Gallois worked for three years with the Zo’é and 39-year-old Funai official Fabio Ribeiro to draw up a plan regarding how they wanted to manage their lives, which was laid out in 140 pages.

The Kanamari Indians go to Atalaia do Norte to withdraw money and resolve bureaucratic formalities. The journey home is by boat and can take more than a week.
The Kanamari Indians go to Atalaia do Norte to withdraw money and resolve bureaucratic formalities. The journey home is by boat and can take more than a week.Avener Prado

Step by step, they addressed a myriad of issues from land to money in a dialogue that required diplomacy and devilishly complex logistics. According to Ribeiro, now executive coordinator of the NGO, the Observatory of Isolated Peoples, “all the State’s action has to adapt to a seasonal calendar. Even a vaccination campaign is complicated because you have to gather 300 people in one place. They come from around 20 villages up to 40 kilometers away. We talk a lot by radio because if you organize it badly you interrupt their activities.”

Having satisfied their most immediate needs, these people whose culture is strictly oral wanted to learn to read and write. And they are doing just that, learning to read and write in their own language, with the help of Gallois and her anthropology students. The teaching materials, which are shipped in via a small plane, are adapted to the context of their daily lives.

Ivanrapa Matis, who grew up without contact with whites, has been away from home for months. A temporary job for Funai, creating a sanitary barrier against Covid, has brought him to Atalaia do Norte, but as soon as he can he will return to his village, located, he explains, “three days without sleep” in a pec-pec – a light canoe with a small motor. In this vast territory, rivers are the main highways. And distances are measured according to the horsepower of the outboard motor. Air taxis are reserved for the privileged.

Matis complains about the heat in the city. “There are no trees offering shade here,” he observes. He also finds the constant noise of motorbikes and cars trying. “I prefer to live in the village,” he explains. “We go out hunting and fishing. It’s another world. You don’t buy things there. Living here is very difficult. You need money.”


Coordination: Guiomar del Ser
Art direction: Fernando Hernández
Design: Ruth Benito
Graphic edition: Gorka Lejarcegi
Infographics: Nacho Catalán

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