May 31, 2008

Discovery of Amazon Tribe Highlights Danger of Contact

The discovery of a previously unknown Amazon Indian tribe in the western Amazon rainforest, in the Brazilian state of Acre, demonstrates the threats such "lost" tribes face from contact with outsiders.

The Brazil-Peru border area is one of the last habitats on Earth for such groups, with more than 50 out of the 100 non-contacted tribes believed to live in the area.

Brazil's Indians now number about 350,000, but were 5 million during the time the first Europeans arrived.   Contact with outsiders has historically been disastrous for the tribes.

The tribes face an increasing risk from development, particularly on the Peruvian side of the border, since Peru has not kept up with Brazil in providing protected areas for indigenous people.

The dramatic photographs of the tribe, released Thursday, reveal bow-and-arrow wielding Indians that are likely the remnants of a larger tribe driven deeper into the forest by approaching developments, according to experts.

"Rather than being "Ëœlost', they have likely had plenty of contact with other indigenous groups over the years," Thomas Lovejoy, an Amazon expert and president of The Heinz Center in Washington, told Reuters.

"I think there is an ethical question whether you can in the end keep them from any contact and I think the answer to that is no," he said.

"The right answer is to have the kind of contact and change that the tribes themselves manage the pace of it."

Jose Carlos Meirelles of Brazil's Indian protection agency, who was on the helicopter that flew over the area, said the tribe should be left alone.

"While we are getting arrows in the face, it's fine," he said, in an interview with Brazil's Globo newspaper. 

"The day that they are well-behaved, they are finished," he told Reuters.

"In 508 years of history, out of the thousands of tribes that exist none have adapted well to society in Brazil," Sydney Possuelo, a former official with Brazil's Indian protection agency, told Reuters.  Possuelo is founder of the agency's isolated tribes department.

However, in recent years tribes like the Yanomami have received better protection by becoming politically organized and working in partnership with foreign conservationists.

"It's not about making that decision for them. It's about making time and space to make that decision themselves," David Hill of the Survival International group told Reuters.

More than 50 percent of Peru's Murunahua tribe died of colds and other illness after they were contacted for the first time in 1996 as a result of development, Hill said.

Sightings of such tribes are not unusual, and typically occur once every few years in the Peru-Brazil border area, where half of the undiscovered tribes are believed to live.

In 1998, Possuelo discovered a 200-strong tribe living in huts under the forest canopy near the Brazil-Peru border in Acre state.  Last September, an obscure nomadic tribe was discovered deep in the Amazon by ecologists searching for illegal loggers.

The sighting highlights concerns among human and environmental rights organizations that exploration for oil and gas exploration being driven by the Peruvian government is threatening both logging and the tribes at risk.

Currently, the government of Peru does not have a counterpart division equivalent to Brazil's long-standing Indian affairs department, which has established a policy of no contact with unknown tribes.

"There is a lot of logging going on over on the Peruvian side," said Hill.

"It's had all kinds of effects on the groups living there, particularly on the uncontacted groups -- it's led to violent conflicts and deaths."

In May, Perupetro, Peru's petroleum agency, announced it would exclude areas inhabited by isolated tribes from an auction of gas and oil concessions.  The agency had been urged by activists to limit exploration near the tribal areas, but had previously expressed doubts about the existence of isolated groups.