Planet Earth

Out Of The Woods

An Amazonian tribe seeks help for a deadly problem.

By Andrew CurryJan 22, 2015 6:00 AM
These normally self-isolated tribespeople sought help from the established Ash Anika community to handle threatening outsiders. | FUNAI/


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In June, an isolated tribe known to semi-permanently reside in Peru emerged from the forest on the neighboring Envira River in Brazil to make contact with the outside world. Such contact happens surprisingly often, but it is usually brief. “This is unique in that they’ve chosen to stay,” says Chris Fagan, director of the nongovernmental group Upper Amazon Conservancy.

Reportedly under threat from illegal loggers, a few dozen tribespeople remain near the village where they first emerged. They are under the supervision of FUNAI, Brazil’s agency for Indian affairs. During many past contact events, members of the isolated groups died after encountering modern diseases for the first time. But experts hope the group that emerged in June will fare better because members have stayed long enough to receive medical care. There’s still concern that other members of the group’s tribe may have remained in the forest, vulnerable to disease and unreachable by medical personnel.

“The worst-case scenario is that some people get sick and go back to the original tribe,” says University of Missouri anthropologist Robert Walker, who studies Amazonian populations. “That’s the huge worry.”

Walker, who studies satellite imagery of the rainforest for evidence of isolated villages, says four or five such nomadic hunter-gatherer groups live in the Envira River watershed, though he estimates between 50 and 100 isolated indigenous groups live in Greater Amazonia. These groups often make fleeting contact to steal tools from frontier towns, but most, he says, remain isolated out of fear. “Some of these folks’ ancestors have been massacred,” he says. “They were contacted, violently, in the past.”

Now, with illegal loggers and drug smugglers invading land reserves established to protect the tribespeople’s way of life, these isolated groups are feeling pressured out of their homes. And although activist groups and government anthropologists train locals to temporarily leave the area when isolated tribes arrive as a way to prevent the spread of disease, lack of official protocols, consistent enforcement and regular compensation for villagers often make it an ineffective solution.

These tribespeople “have a right to continue their lifestyle as long as they want to,” Fagan says. “There are [land] reserves set up to allow them to do that, and [those reserves are] failing.”

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