Modern Day Nomads
By Drew McLaughlin
Throughout the twentieth century, recognized groups have come together in the hope of achieving self-determination and land liberation, leading the fight for international indigenous rights. Historically, the international community has disregarded the claims by these groups, which has led to widespread marginalization and human rights violations. Arguably the most troublesome, however, are the quiet battles happening in South America near the Amazon. In this region, there are numerous non-contacted tribes actively fighting for their land and their lives. With loggers and government officials starting to leak into their territory, groups like the Tupi-Kawahiva are engulfed in a battle that the non-contacted tribe cannot win on their own. Although international indigenous rights are expanding for documented groups, non-contacted groups—like the Tupi-Kawahiva of Brazil—continue to be exploited by government tactics that deny the tribe’s existence, spread diseases by intentionally sending malicious groups to study them, and allow loggers to break protection grounds in order to further endanger the group, which happens to live on a prime wooded area for industry.
The Tupi-Kawahiva is a small tribe located in the Rio Pardo area of Mato Grosso, Brazil. Not formally discovered until 1999 by a group of loggers—ironically, this tribe has managed to avoid main civilization for potentially hundreds of years.[i] Most tribes in this Amazonian area of Brazil live near rivers in order to maintain a subsistence agriculture lifestyle, focusing most of their attention on growing plants such as corn, beans, and fruits such as bananas and manioc.[ii] The Kawahiva, on the other hand, have become somewhat famous in the region for being a nomadic tribe. The group is able to sustain its on-the-move lifestyle because of its small size—only having an estimated 50-150 members. Groups such as Survival International and the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) have been researching the groups of this region since the 1980’s, which makes their millennial discovery that much more impressive.[iii] Despite researchers’ best efforts, the tribe has been able to avoid any true contact with the outside world—aside from recent malicious interactions with illegal loggers in the area. Before a discussion on the logging efforts in the Kawahiva’s territory, though, it is important to understand the Brazilian government’s involvement in their country’s indigenous issues.
The Brazilian government has been busy over the last thirty years trying to resolve any indigenous issues in their country. Starting in 1988, when it adopted a new Constitution, Brazil appeared to have made leaps and bounds at openly appreciating and protecting their indigenous community. This was made particularly evident with a direct inclusion of human and indigenous peoples’ rights and cultural protection. Specifically, Article 231 stated a recognition of indigenous people’s territorial and cultural rights, emphasizing their “right to permanently live on their traditional territories, including the exclusive use of the natural resources necessary for securing their cultural integrity and welfare.”[iv] Taking this further, the government in Brazil went so far as to add Article 67, which ordered the demarcation of all indigenous territories in Brazil by 1993. Almost ten years later, in 1998, more than 291 of 559 groups were still awaiting their right to self-determination and demarcation of land.[v] With more than fifty percent still awaiting demarcation, the government went back on its word, in 1996, when it passed Decree #1775 into law, which established a legal mechanism for individuals of non-indigenous descent to claim rights to indigenous territories for commercial purposes.[vi] Following this decree, Brazilian indigenous groups immediately felt the effects when hoards of loggers and miners began pushing into their forests, which were supposed to be protected. Since the implementation of Decree #1775 in 1996, no new demarcations have been allowed for the indigenous communities. Despite efforts by the government, violent interactions between commercial logging groups and tribes, such as the Kawahiva, have been making international news as recently as the summer of 2014. Interestingly, the Brazilian government has not made much effort to comment on the genocide and human rights violations that are occurring in their Amazonian territories. This is having diverse effects on researchers’ exploration of the Kawahiva and their neighboring tribes.
As mentioned before, groups such as Survival International and FUNAI have spent a good amount of the last thirty years researching the fleeting tribes of Brazil’s not yet protected territories. What researchers are finding is that these Mato Grosso groups have made complete lifestyle changes to compensate for the increased logging presence. The Kawahiva specifically have seen a large decrease in their population—which was originally estimated at around 50—because of a necessity for undetected movement around dangerous logging groups; and “it is believed they stopped having children because they are constantly fleeing loggers and other intruders.”[vii] This encroachment on indigenous lands and peoples with no understanding of modern technologies and civilization has transformed an otherwise peaceful, nomadic people into a warlike and protective tribe that does not trust outsiders.[viii] Unfortunately, disease transfer and unintentional deaths caused by research teams is also plaguing the group. The tribe is facing its most prominent threat near the Rio Pardo town of Colniza, which is known for being one of the most violent towns in one of the most deforested areas of the Mato Grosso.[ix] Within this area, the Kawahiva and its sister tribes are facing atrocities such as bondage, severe beatings, and even genocide at the hands of loggers and violent commercial enterprises, which continue to push into the land for financial gain. Daily Mail in the United Kingdom recently reported stories of natives being bound and beaten by logging teams, which feel the tribe is an unnecessary barrier between them and their business needs.[x] Researchers claim that the tribe was originally peaceful—aside from some modern civilization misunderstanding—when it was first discovered some fifteen years ago; however, the tribe is now combative and quick to flee at the sight of other humans.[xi] Researchers who discovered varying reactions to planes flying over the tribes presented an illustration of this change in temperament. In most cases, outside of the Mato Grosso, observers found that non-contacted tribes would often stop and watch the aircraft as it circled them. In the Mato Grosso, however, researchers have found that indigenous people tend to flee the area when any foreign machinery enters, which can logically be attributed to the violence that the government is facilitating. Because of this, the question of how the groups can be protected is gathering international attention.
The question mentioned above is gathering attention from places like the United Nations and beyond. Because of this attention, the Brazilian government has made improvements in the last couple of years. First, the Brazilian government listed the area as a protected wildlife zone in 2012.[xii] Although this is a step in the right direction, other similar actions were taken in 2006, but were subsequently revoked by Brazilian courts in order to extend their business interests into the region. Since the group is non-contacted, though, it is hard for them to receive much protection from the outside world. Unlike historical indigenous movements, the issues in Brazil have a complex lack of voice that most other movements do not experience. Along with the government expression of the Mato Grosso being a protected area, the country also began investigating claims of genocide and human rights violations in as early as 2006; however, no group or individual has been tried in any formal setting.[xiii] Because of this, it is important for the international community to embrace their struggle and fight for the reinstatement of the demarcation process that all groups—along with the Kawahiva—were promised some thirty years ago. Unfortunately, the United Nations and its declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples only acknowledges issues coming from recognized tribes within member states, which the Mato Grosso Indians are not. Despite the steps of recognition in Brazil, though, there is still more that needs to be done to protect the uncontacted groups of the Amazon.
In conclusion, it is seemingly straightforward that non-contacted groups—like the Tupi-Kawahiva of Brazil—continue to be exploited by government tactics that deny the tribe’s existence, spread diseases by intentionally sending malicious groups to study them, and allow loggers to break protection grounds, which further endangers all native people in the area. Without further governmental and international accountability, the tribes of the Mato Grosso do not have a true chance of survival in the face of such atrocities.
[i] "Caught on Camera: Isolated Amazon Tribe Captured for the First Time on Video before Vanishing into the Woods after Encounter with 'the Enemy'" Mail Online. August 15, 2013. Accessed November 3, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2394233/Brazils-isolated-Amazon-Kawahiva-Tribe-captured-time-video.html.
[iii] Borges, Beto, and Gilles Combrisson. "Indigenous Rights in Brazil." Indigenous Rights in Brazil. January 1, 2000. Accessed November 7, 2014. http://saiic.nativeweb.org/brazil.html.
[vi] Borges, Beto, and Gilles Combrisson. "Indigenous Rights in Brazil." Indigenous Rights in Brazil. January 1, 2000. Accessed November 7, 2014. http://saiic.nativeweb.org/brazil.html.
[vii] "Uncontacted Indians of Brazil: The Last Ones." Survival International. January 1, 2014. Accessed November 12, 2014. http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/uncontacted-brazil/the-last-ones.
[viii] "Caught on Camera: Isolated Amazon Tribe Captured for the First Time on Video before Vanishing into the Woods after Encounter with 'the Enemy'" Mail Online. August 15, 2013. Accessed November 3, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2394233/Brazils-isolated-Amazon-Kawahiva-Tribe-captured-time-video.html.
[ix] "Uncontacted Indians of Brazil: The Last Ones." Survival International. January 1, 2014. Accessed November 12, 2014. http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/uncontacted-brazil/the-last-ones.
[x] "Caught on Camera: Isolated Amazon Tribe Captured for the First Time on Video before Vanishing into the Woods after Encounter with 'the Enemy'" Mail Online. August 15, 2013. Accessed November 3, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2394233/Brazils-isolated-Amazon-Kawahiva-Tribe-captured-time-video.html.
[xii] "Uncontacted Peoples." Quazoo. January 1, 2013. Accessed November 12, 2014. http://www.quazoo.com/q/Uncontacted_peoples.