Peru: uncontacted tribe flees massacre in the Amazon

Uncontacted Indians making contact with a settled Ashaninka community near the Brazil-Peru border, June 2014. Photos: © FUNAI.
Uncontacted Indians making contact with a settled Ashaninka community near the Brazil-Peru border, June 2014. Photos: © FUNAI.
Survivors of a previously unknown Amazon tribe have escaped gunmen in Peru, seeking refuge with settled indigenous communities in Brazil. But as Alice Bayer reports, their problems are far from over. Many remain under threat in Peru, and even the refugees are at risk of common but potentially lethal infections.
This may be the last time we see these youngsters, tomorrow they could be dead from diseases or from gunshots.

Violence, deadly diseases, and encroachment on their lands by logging, mining, oil and gas companies and hydroelectric dams: these are the gravest threats to the approximately 100 uncontacted tribes around the world.

These are also the factor that drove the most recent contact between uncontacted Indians and outside society in Brazil's Amazon rainforest.

At the end of June 2014, a group of seven uncontacted Indians were spotted near Simpatia, a settled Asháninka indigenous village in Brazil's western Amazon rainforest, close to the border with Peru. The Asháninka immediately notified the relevant authorities to the sightings of uncontacted Indians near their community.

Brazil's indigenous affairs department, FUNAI, dispatched a team of health experts, linguists and agents trained in first contact situations to deal with what would be the first sustained contact in this region in nearly 20 years.

First contact, caught on video

The moment of contact between an Asháninka man and the uncontacted Indians was caught on camera and provides an extremely rare glimpse into the tension surrounding such an event.

"Xara, xara!" ("Good, good"), a man is heard shouting in the scene, in an apparent attempt to signal good intentions to the uncontacted people, who in the past have had violent run-ins with outsiders and could, at any point, flee. In a gesture of good will, a bunch of bananas is handed to the Indians.

Later, the markedly young, and by all appearances healthy, Indians are filmed helping themselves to items of clothing and tools from the Asháninka's houses, despite FUNAI workers trying to stop them.

They were concerned that the seven uncontacted Indians at Simpatia could have contracted diseases to which they have little or no immunity, just from picking up objects from the Asháninka community which could carry deadly germs.

Deadly diseases

Uncontacted tribes have been decimated after epidemics of diseases such as measles and flu spread like wildfire through their vulnerable communities. Around 50% of the Nahua in Peru died after first contact with loggers, and 20% of the Yanomami population was wiped out after goldminers invaded their land in the Amazon rainforest.

"We didn't know anything about gold back then. Then the epidemics started to come. We got ill - women, children, everyone. A lot of people died here", a Yanomami man from the Brazilian rainforest recalls.

According to government reports, the Indians at Simpatia remained at a nearby government base for several days, until the authorities were certain that any threat of passing on viruses to the rest of their community had passed. During these days, interpreters who speak a Panoan language similar to the uncontacted Indians, learnt their story.

This may be the last time we see these youngsters, tomorrow they could be dead from diseases or from gunshots.

What was revealed to them must have been the stuff of their worst nightmares:

"The majority of old people were massacred by non-Indians in Peru, who shot at them with firearms and set fire to the houses of the uncontacted", Zé Correia, one of the interpreters told Amazonia Blog, a Brazilian website where the video was first published.

"They say that many old people died and that they buried three people in one grave. They say that so many people died that they couldn't bury them all and their corpses were eaten by vultures."

After several days of medical treatment, the Indians recovered from an acute respiratory infection, and returned to their communities in the forest.

Logging and drug trafficking

Brazilian experts believe that the uncontacted group had fled over the border from Peru into Brazil, from an area known for illegal logging activity and cocaine trafficking. In 2011, a Brazilian government monitoring post in the area was abandoned after being ransacked by drug smugglers.

Carlos Travassos, head of FUNAI's Uncontacted Indians unit, told Amazonia Blog: "This may be the last time we see these youngsters, tomorrow they could be dead from diseases or from gunshots."

Lack of government action

Both Brazil and Peru have signed and agreement to work together to protect the lands of uncontacted tribes in this area, and, in theory, both sides of the border lie within protected indigenous reserves in which an estimated six other uncontacted tribes inhabit.

But Brazilian experts believe that a catastrophe was narrowly averted in this case, and pointed to the lack of infrastructure, personnel and funding to deal with similar contact situations in the future.

Increasing pressure on uncontacted tribes' land in Peru could mean that more groups are forced to flee over the border, coming into potential conflict with other tribes and increasing the incidents of first contact, making a fully equipped, trained and funded ground staff, including specialized health teams, even more necessary.

But there has been a glaring lack of action from the Peruvian authorities, and incredibly, many top-level authorities have denied uncontacted tribes exist at all, including former President Alan García.

On top of that, over 70% of Peru's Amazon rainforest has been leased out to oil and gas companies. Camisea, the country's biggest natural gas project, was recently given the go-ahead to expand further into the land of uncontacted tribes. Contact between gas workers and uncontacted tribes could spell disaster for the highly vulnerable Indians.

Threat of extinction

Nixiwaka Yawanawá, an Amazon Indian working for Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples' rights, said,

"I'm sad to see that my uncontacted relatives are threatened with extermination, and that Peru has failed to take responsibility. Both the Brazilian and Peruvian authorities must provide the necessary funds to protect them, while there is still time, otherwise one more innocent people will be wiped out in full view of the international public."

Last week, Brazilian officials reported that 24 more Indians, including men, women and children from the same tribe have also made contact.

According to the authorities, they are in stable health. But there are fears that there could be other members of this group who remained in the forest and who could now have contracted diseases from those who made the initial contact.

Uncontacted tribes are the most vulnerable people on the planet; they wholly depend on their land for their survival, and their choice to remain uncontacted should be respected.

It's a matter of life or death, of survival or extinction of whole peoples. It's a matter for all humanity.



Alice Bayer is the Press Officer at Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples' rights, where she has worked since 2009.

Alice studied Economics and Politics at Bristol University and has a Masters in Development Studies from SOAS, University of London, where she focused on indigenous-led approaches to development in Mexico. She has visited tribal communities in India facing eviction from their lands.

Support Survival's Uncontacted Tribes campaign.

All Photos © FUNAI. Uncontacted Indians made contact with a settled Ashaninka community near the Brazil-Peru border in June 2014. The uncontacted Indians appeared young and healthy, but reported shocking incidents of a massacre of their older relatives. After first contact, the Indians contracted a respiratory infection and were treated by a medical team.


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