Confirmed: Uncontacted tribe in Amazon

Photos reveal a thriving, healthy community with baskets full of manioc and papaya fresh from their gardens.
Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/Survival

RIO DE JANEIRO - The Brazilian government has confirmed the existence of an uncontacted tribe in a southwestern area of the Amazon rain forest.

The National Indian Foundation said that clearings in the area were identified by satellite, but the population's existence was only verified after airplane expeditions in April. The community is near the Peruvian border in the massive Vale do Javari reservation, which is nearly the size of Portugal and is home to at least 14 uncontacted tribes.

The discovery has raised concerns among tribal advocates who point to the unintended consequences of past interactions between tribes and outsiders. Common diseases, such as influenza or measles, spread through native tribal populations with deadly effect. At the same time, they noted that the push by land-hungry ranchers and developers into the Amazon over the course of the last couple of decades also posed new challenges for tribes who make their homes in the region.

Their culture, and even their survival, is threatened by illegal fishing, hunting, logging and mining in the area, along with deforestation by farmers, missionary activity and drug trafficking along Brazil's borders, said Funai coordinator for Vale do Javari, Fabricio Amorim. He added that oil exploration in the Peruvian Amazon could also destabilize the region.

Known by its Portuguese acronym Funai, the agency uses airplanes to avoid disrupting uncontacted groups. Funai says about 200 people are living in four large, straw-roofed buildings. They grow corn, bananas, peanuts and other crops.

Although the approximately 200 Indians who belong to this latest Amazon tribe have had with no contact with the outside world, the finding is not quite the anomaly that it sounds at first blush. About 2,000 uncontacted Indians are believed to inhabit the same area, according to the group Survival International.  Around the world, it estimates there still remain about 100 uncontacted tribes.

The region has a constellation of uncontacted peoples considered the largest in the world, said Amorim. In addition to the 14 known groups, Funai has identified through satellite images or land excursions up to eight more tribes. That adds up to a population of about 2,000 individuals in the reservation, Amorim said.

In spite of the threats, most of Brazil's indigenous groups maintain their languages and traditions. Many have long fought for control of land in which they've traditionally lived on. They won legal rights to reclaim that territory in Brazil's 1988 constitution, which declared that all indigenous ancestral lands be demarcated and turned over to tribes within five years. So far, 11 percent of Brazilian territory and nearly 22 percent of the Amazon has been turned over to such groups.