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A Tale of Two Contacts: The Government Approach to Isolated Peoples

The Brazilian Federal Indian agency, FUNAI, has been criticized over its handling of the recent contact with the Xatanawa people in Acre.
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ICTMN recently reported on the story of the Mashco-Piro, the most recent isolated peoples to make contact with the outside world, most of which according to FENAMAD is through what is known as “human safaris,” where tourists entice the indigenous out of the Amazon for photos.

RELATED: From Head-Ball To Hunter-Gatherers: The True Story Of The Mashco-Piro

The Brazilian Federal Indian agency, FUNAI, has been criticized over its handling of the recent contact with the Xatanawa people in Acre, referred to by FUNAI as the “isolated peoples of the Xinane River.” In an interview with the BBC, American anthropologist Kim Hill dismisses FUNAI agents as “quasi-amateur… with no medical, anthropological or epidemiological training.” Sensational headlines on a Brazilian news site declared that the Xatanawa “could be exterminated due to FUNAI’s lack of competence.”

And yet the situation of the Mashco-Piro in Peru is far more grave, since there is no governmental organization like Brazil’s FUNAI with funding (however limited), institutional structures and experienced field agents. José Carlos Meirelles, who was himself wounded by a Mashco-Piro arrow in 2004, spent more than 20 years living in Acre and documenting the situation of isolated peoples. He retired from FUNAI in 2010 but has continued to advise younger employees throughout the tense Xatanawa contact

RELATED: Mashco-Piros: Missionaries and ‘human safaris’ initiate contact in Peru

FUNAI’s “Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians,” was created in 1987, and within Brazil is solely responsible for identifying and protecting isolated Indigenous Peoples. FUNAI only initiates contact in cases of imminent threat, as was case for the Xatanawa earlier this year, and the Korubo eight years prior. In 1990, under the leadership of Sydney Possuelo, FUNAI specifically banned missionary groups from being involved in contacts with isolated peoples.

FUNAI developed partnerships with NGOs such as Centro de Trablho Indigenista (CTI), Comissão Pró-Índio Acre (CPI/AC) and Kanindé and received funding from agencies like the Moore Foundation and USAid to set aside and monitor vast “Ethno-Environmental Protection Fronts” in Acre, the Javari River basin, Rondonia, and other remote areas that harbor biodiversity as well as isolated indigenous populations. RELATED: Mashco-Piros: Missionaries and ‘human safaris’ initiate contact in Peru.

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Yet anthropologist Robert Walker worries that FUNAI’s “hands off” attitude implies risks of its own: “Everywhere you look, there are these pressures from mining, logging, narcotrafficking and other external threats. My worry is that if we have this ‘leave-them-alone’ strategy, at the end of the day the external threats will win. People will just go extinct.”

Predictably, soon after the Xatanawa were contacted, they fell ill with viral respiratory infections to which they have little immunity. Overcoming budgetary limitations and bureaucratic hurdles, FUNAI quickly developed, in collaboration with a special Indian health division (SESAI) in Brazil’s Health Ministry, an emergency response team consisting of indigenous translators, FUNAI agents including Meirelles and Guilherme Dalto Siviero, and the physician Douglas Rodrigues of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the medical school of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). Rodrigues studied under Robert Baruzzi, a pioneer of preventative health for Indigenous Peoples who worked with legendary Brazilian indigenist Orlando Villas Boas in implementing health care in the Xingu Indigenous Park in the 1960s.

FUNAI has been trying for over a decade to develop a partnership with the Peruvian government to deal with the precarious situation along the Peru-Brazil border over issues ranging from isolated indigenous groups (who cross unaware back and forth over the porous, forested border) to a growing problem with illegal logging and drug trafficking. Just recently, an Ashaninka indigenous leader in Peru was assassinated in this region, apparently over his denunciations of illegal logging in his people’s territory.

Only recently, however, has concrete progress been made. In March of this year, FUNAI signed formal terms of cooperation with Peru's Ministry of Culture. Meirelles subsequently visited Peru to carry out reconnaissance flights along the Peru-Brazil border, gather and share other evidence on isolated populations, and begin developing a joint work plan. Information provided by the recently contacted Xatanawa confirmed the existence of at least four more isolated groups nearby. The two countries are now collaborating on a mapping project.

The indigenous federation FENAMAD is also an important partner in this process, given their important protagonism in documenting and calling attention to the situation of isolated peoples, especially in the Madre de Dios region.

By Peruvian environmental law, and unlike the situation in Brazil, the national park system specifically recognizes the territorial rights of indigenous peoples within even the most strictly protected “untouchable” natural protected areas like Manu National Park and Purus National Park, where isolated groups like the Mashco-Piro live. Thus Peru’s National Service for Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) would be another logical partner in these ongoing collaborations. However because SERNANP focuses more on biodiversity, with few if any anthropologists on staff, the possibilities for dialog are limited.

On September 9, a large group of Mashco-Piros (a separate group from those observed days prior in Manu Park) approached the indigenous village of Monte Salvado, brandishing their bows and arrows and demanding food and assistance. Peruvian authorities remain largely absent from the scene and FUNAI continues its slow, top-down diplomatic negotiations. But according to FENAMAD, a film crew for Brazil’s TV Globo was on the scene in Monte Salvado even before any health care team was sent: human safaris, it seems, have won the day.