Deep in the Amazon forest thousands of people still live in relative isolation from the rest of the world.
In a recent press release, the Brazilian government confirmed the existence of another uncontacted tribe of about 200 people living in the Vale do Javari reservation. The reservation, located near the Peruvian border, is roughly the size of Portugal. At least another 14 uncontacted tribes, with a total population of about 2000 individuals, call the area home.
The newly observed group lives in four large thatch-roofed buildings and grows corn, bananas, peanuts and other crops.
Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, known by its Portuguese acronym FUNAI, first noticed clearings in the forest using satellite maps. But it wasn’t until April that an airplane expedition was able to confirm the tribe’s existence.
“The work of identifying and protecting isolated groups is part of Brazilian public policy,” said the FUNAI coordinator for Vale do Javari, Fabricio Amorim, in a statement to the Associated Press. “To confirm something like this takes years of methodical work.”
FUNAI estimates there are 68 uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon. The organization uses airplanes to avoid disturbing the tribes through personal contact (I wonder what they thought of the airplane), but that doesn’t mean others are so respectful of the tribe’s right to privacy.
Illegal fishing, logging, and poaching brings people into the protected area. Oil exploration on the Peruvian side of the border is another threat. Missionaries and drug traffickers also invade the lands of the indigenous groups, said Amorim.
Ever seen Medicine Man starring Sean Connery? The movie is a fictionalized account of what can happen when native peoples and colonists collide. The outsiders can damage the land and influence the culture of indigenous peoples. They can also bring diseases which can wipe out whole populations.
Brazil’s indigenous peoples won the legal right to their traditional lands in Brazil’s 1988 constitution. The document mandated that all indigenous ancestral lands be demarcated and turned over to tribes within five years.
Indigenous groups now control 11 percent of Brazil’s territory, including 22 percent of the Amazon.
Allowing indigenous groups the right to their homelands is not just a matter of human rights. The rest of the world can benefit from their knowledge. I recently attended a lecture by Mark Plotkin, author of Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest, at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He has spent years living with the people of the Amazon and learning from their traditional healers.
In his lecture, he pointed out the numerous medicines and other useful materials and knowledge that can be gained from listening to the indigenous groups of the Amazon. They are also more effective at protecting the land and less expensive than hired park rangers.
IMAGE: Compilation of pictures of Native Brazilians from the tribes Assurini, Tapirajé, Kaiapó, Kapirapé, Rikbaktsa and Bororo-Boe (Wikimedia Commons).