Politics, Sci-Tech

A brief look: ‘Uncontacted’ tribe may be lost forever

By Theresa Mallinson 10 August 2011

The video footage of an “uncontacted” tribe in the Amazon shows scenes that look as if they're from a long-lost world.  Sadly, this may be all too true, as suspected Peruvian drug-smugglers are thought to have scared this tribe away, if not killed them outright. By THERESA MALLINSON.

In January the BBC broadcast footage of an “uncontacted” Brazilian tribe as part of its “Human Planet” documentary series. The first photos of this tribe, which lives in the Javari Valley in the Amazon, about 20km from the Peruvian border, had been released in 2008, and a video clip is also available on the website of NGO Survival International.

José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, who works for Brazil’s Indian affairs department, has been studying the tribe for the last 20 years. The decision to allow the pictures and footage to be shot, and released to the wider public, was a strategic one. “Without proof they exist, the outside world won’t support them,” Meirelles said. “One image of them has more impact than 1,000 reports.”

The pictures were taken from 1km away, with powerful zoom lenses, so as not to intrude unduly. The tribe has been increasingly exposed to the danger of unwanted contact. “If illegal loggers or miners contact these people, they won’t shoot images … they’ll shoot guns,” said Meirelles. However, one threat he didn’t specifically mention was that of drug dealers.

Watch: First ever aerial footage of uncontacted Amazon tribe (Survival International)

Brazil’s National Indian Foundation has told Associated Press that last a week guard station close to the tribe was attacked by men suspected to be Peruvian drug smugglers (the 20kg package of cocaine found in the area certainly points to this). Since then, there has been no sign of any tribe members, who are presumed to have fled, or – even worse – been killed by the drug smugglers.

The only clue is a broken arrowhead contained in a backpack that one of the attackers had left behind, which suggested that contact with the tribe had been made. Carlos Lisboa Travassos, the head of the isolated Indians department, said: “Arrows are like the identity card of uncontacted Indians. This situation could be one of the biggest blows we have ever seen in the protection of uncontacted Indians in recent decades.”

At the end of the Survival International video, Moreilles said: “They (the tribe) should be free to choose whether to make contact or not. We have to protect the land, and keep out invaders. This is the only way they will survive. There’s no other way.” Sadly, it may be too late for the  Javari Valley tribe. DM


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Read more:

  • Drug dealers may have wiped out ‘uncontacted’ Amazon tribe, on Slate;
  • Peru drug traffickers ‘may have massacred Brazil tribe’, in the Telegraph.

Photo: Survival International

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