Sunday, July 08, 2007

In Amazonia, Defending the Hidden Tribes

In Amazonia, Defending the Hidden Tribes

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 8, 2007; A01

COLIDER, Brazil -- At first, few believed the story that two brothers told about four unknown Indians who suddenly appeared to them one afternoon on the outskirts of their village.

Like most Kayapo Indians, the brothers -- named Bepro and Beprytire -- live in a government-demarcated reserve, wear modern clothing and get energy from solar-powered generators. But the four unclothed visitors were a different kind of Kayapo.

They spoke in an antiquated tongue that seemed a precursor to the language spoken in the village, located in the Capoto-Jarina Indian Reserve in central Brazil. The four men had come from a tribe that had remained in the forest, the brothers said, untouched by the modern world.

Over the next seven days, the doubt expressed by the villagers evaporated when they saw more than 60 of the Indians emerge from the forest, sleeping in huts on the edge of the village.

Then as quickly as they had come, the Indians disappeared. They haven't been seen since.

The Indians' brief appearance this spring was enough to put them into the center of a debate that is increasingly challenging governments throughout the Amazon region: How should the rights and territories of isolated populations be protected when the locations of those groups remain largely unknown?

In recent months, Brazil and Peru have set aside protected areas for so-called uncontacted groups, which have never been spoken to and rarely -- if ever -- glimpsed. Brazil is believed to have more uncontacted tribes than any country in the world, and the government this year announced that as many as 67 tribes could be living in complete isolation -- considerably more than the 40 estimated earlier.

Previously uncontacted tribes have been discovered periodically since deep Amazon exploration began in the late 1800s. In the 1970s, for example, such tribes as the Panara were found as construction crews built roads into the forest, and periodic discoveries of small tribes continued in the following decades.

Today, because the Amazon region is shrinking by thousands of square miles a year, the chances of unintentional encounters involving such groups grow. The issue has become a significant focus for the Federal Indian Bureau, or Funai, the government agency that oversees indigenous groups.

Indigenous rights advocates have issued calls to protect largely unexplored areas of the forest from logging and mining. But the renewed focus on uncontacted groups has also sparked suspicions among skeptics, who believe the groups could be more mythical than real and suspect the numbers are exaggerated by special interest groups seeking to block exploration projects.

"It is like the Loch Ness monster," said Cecilia Quiroz, legal counsel for Perupetro, the Peruvian state agency in charge of doling out prospecting rights to energy companies eager to explore the country's vast interior. "Everyone seems to have seen or heard about uncontacted peoples, but there is no evidence."
'Why Now and Why There?'

Megaron Txucarramae grew up in the village where the uncontacted Indians approached the two brothers in late May. He was 2 years old when anthropologists first made contact with his own branch of the Kayapo tribe in the 1950s. He regularly heard his elders tell the story of how one part of the tribe had fled the anthropologists' advances to remain alone in the woods, never to be seen again.

Now Megaron is the regional representative for Funai in Colider, the nearest city to Capoto and two nearby reserves. The land, set aside for the Indians and protected from development, is a sprawling green expanse of dense jungle. Together, the three Kayapo reservations in the area are roughly the size of the Czech Republic.

When he heard of the isolated tribe's recent appearance, Megaron quickly flew to the village of Kapot to collect evidence. He took a miniature tape recorder with him, giving it to one of the brothers to slip into the pocket of his shorts while he spoke to the Indians. Taking pictures, he concluded, was out of the question.

"No one had a camera, and even if someone had had one, they were afraid of machines," Megaron explained later. "If anyone pointed a camera at them, the situation could have been very dangerous."

The group remained highly suspicious of the villagers, agreeing to talk only with the two brothers whom they had initially approached. They accepted bananas and cassava offered by the brothers but rejected rice because it wasn't part of their traditional diet, Megaron said. One of the old men in the group had a scar on his side, a wound that the villagers attributed to a run-in with illegal loggers, who occasionally were involved in bloody confrontations with Indians in the region in the 1990s.

"The man told Beprytire he had been hurt by a 'strong sound,' " Megaron said. "So we are guessing that he had been shot."

Most of the Indians were unclothed, though some of the men wore penis sheaths and most were partially covered by body paint. Some of the men also had plates inserted in their lower lips, creating the decorative protrusions seen in various Amazonian tribes.

Megaron closed the village to visitors -- a lockdown that remains in force. Officials were afraid that the previously uncontacted Indians could easily become sick. As has been proved in the past when uncontacted tribes are introduced to other populations and the microbes they carry, maladies as simple as the common cold can be deadly. In the 1970s, 185 members of the Panara tribe died within two years of discovery after contracting such diseases as flu and chickenpox, leaving only 69 survivors.

Antonio Sergio Iole, head of health services for Funai in Colider, quickly assembled a team of doctors and Kayapo assistants ready to travel to the village on a moment's notice. The team immediately realized how many difficult questions the tribe's appearance had raised for local authorities.

"Even the simple things are complicated," said Iole, who said his team remains on call to travel to the village should the tribe reappear. "How should we act in the first moment we approach them? Would they accept vaccine? Would they let us inspect their mouths? Listen to their hearts? Would they allow a doctor to treat the women? How would they physically react to treatment? Some vaccines have side effects -- how would they interpret a fever? And how would they react if we had to take someone away, even if it was for their own good?"

After the tribe left the village, Iole -- still in Colider -- began to notice that some other people around town were asking different questions:

Why couldn't anyone get a picture? Why was no one except the Kayapo allowed into the village? How could a group of people remain uncontacted in the 21st century? Could someone be making this whole story up for some sort of personal or political gain?

"I don't believe it -- this is an area with lots of loggers and farmers who are always going out into the forest, making studies," said Albeni de Souza, 22, a university student who works in a hotel in Colider. "Even the Indians from the tribes on reservations walk around the forest all the time. Someone would have seen them before."

That kind of doubt spreads easily in towns such as Colider, where logging companies and farmers have cleared most of the surrounding area and small planes regularly fly overhead. From the air here, the land looks much like the American Midwest -- a patchwork of farms. The picture is much different less than 250 miles away in Kapot -- unreachable by car and boat -- on the edge of an Amazon forest that is almost as big as the continental United States.

But even some officials have expressed doubt. In Peru, the representatives of Perupetro have questioned the timing of the appearance, which came weeks before the country plans to auction 19 oil and gas exploration licenses. Some of the concessions are located near the border with Brazil, where some nongovernmental organizations argue that uncontacted tribes reside.

Last month, the Peruvian government rejected oil exploration plans by Barrett Resources, a U.S. company, and by Spain's Repsol YPF, in part over concern about uncontacted tribes.

While not denying the existence of some isolated groups, Quiroz -- Perupetro's legal counsel -- was skeptical about the recent appearance of the Kayapo tribe.

"In this age of globalization," Quiroz said, "you have to wonder why now and why there."
Vanishing Without a Word

Several years ago, Brazil's government changed its policy regarding isolated tribes: Instead of taking the initiative to try to contact them, it now aims only to protect them. Contact is made only if the Indians themselves initiate it or the tribe is in imminent danger.

Funai officials plan to fly over the forest in the coming weeks to try to locate the area where the tribe is based, Megaron said. The plan after that is to build a small field station in the forest -- not to contact them but to protect the area and make sure loggers and farmers do not come near them.

That plan, of course, would be unnecessary if the Indians chose to make contact again -- a possibility that many of the local Kayapo hope happens.

"Everybody wants to see them, because we love to compare them with ourselves," said Bepko, 26, a Kayapo who lives in the village of Kubenkokre in a nearby reserve. "We just want to hear their stories and learn about what their lives have been like."

According to the stealth tape recording made by the brothers, there is evidence that at least some in the tribe would like to return.

Megaron said he was able to decipher the language sufficiently enough to determine that a young member of the tribe was trying to convince his elders that the contact was a good thing.

"The son told his father not to be afraid, that they would protect each other," Megaron recounted. "He then talked to his mother and tried to tell her that everything was okay and that the other group of Kayapo was their relatives."

It was later, Funai said, that a tribal leader emerged from the forest and persuaded everyone to leave the village.

"They might have been scared of the sound of airplanes," said Luis Sampaio, a biologist who for 12 years has worked with the Kayapo in the reserve, which features a small landing strip. "Or they could have been scared by the clothes they saw people wearing -- we are not sure."

Megaron said they left without explanation or warning.

"Uncontacted Indians," he said, "don't say goodbye when they leave."

Special correspondent Lucien Chauvin in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

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