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Banana Diplomacy: Making First Contact With Uncontacted Tribe in Amazon

After unsuccessful attempts at spoken communication Fernando Ashaninka entered the water to offer bananas to the recently contacted tribe.

They were separated only by the narrow course of the Envira river. From a distance of a few meters they tried to speak to each other. As the video clip recently released by Funai shows below, Fernando Ashaninka entered the water as two Xatanawa mirrored his motions from the opposite bank. One Xatanawa man remained behind with a gun (apparently captured from an unfortunate logger) in case of an attack. After unsuccessful attempts at spoken communication they turned to gestures and eventually Fernando gave them bananas. The Xatanawa then follow the Ashaninka and FUNAI team to the village and ask for clothing. Watching the video, one only hopes that the used clothes the Xatanawa received aren’t contaminated with flu virus or other harmful diseases. The speaker on the video announces that this was the "first contact" with the Xatanawa people. But there had been several previous interactions between the Xatanawa and the Ashaninka community of Simpatia.

FUNAI’s recent video

The seven Xatanawa survivors of the recent massacre who reached out to Simpatia included five men and two women, in addition to some 40 to 100 that stayed behind in the forest. They first appeared on June 10, to take iron goods, clothes and food. An Ashaninka man, Raimundinho, initially considered this an act of “thievery,” but the village leader “Carijó” quickly informed FUNAI and organized and informed the village to avoid violent confrontations. Rather than thieves, they were more like diplomats, coming on an urgent peace-making mission.

RELATED: Murderous Drug Traffickers Force Isolated Group in Amazon to Make Contact

Members of the same group had already made enigmatic appearances at other Ashaninka and Kulina villages along the Envira River, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI). In March of 2014, Renato Santana from CIMI told journalist Scott Wallace, “Women are afraid to go into the forest to tend their gardens for fear of abduction.” CIMI released additional aerial photographs of the group in April and demanded that FUNAI act to protect their territory. The FUNAI post at Xinane, which had been established as an advanced base to handle this situation, has been closed since it was attacked by drug traffickers in 2011.

After their dramatic, brief appearance at Simpatia on June 10, FUNAI began preparing for an eminent contact, which came on June 27 with an initial peaceful encounter followed by additional visits on June 29 and 30, culminating in a longer meeting on July 4, when the Xatanawa emissaries remained for several hours at Simpatia before returning to the forest.

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Since 1987, with the creation of FUNAI’s Department of Isolated Indians, the official policy in Brazil has been “no contact unless necessary,” with major investments made in identification, monitoring and territorial protection. In 1988, the veteran FUNAI employee José Carlos Meirelles established the base on the Xinane River, at its confluence with the Envira, since it was, in his words, “Equidistant in location between various groups living in isolation, and the Ashaninka community, and also a strategic place to control the territory through river access. Because there on the upper Envira, as we first suspected, and have now confirmed, is the territory of several indigenous populations who refuse contact.”

The most recent contacts FUNAI has established with populations in voluntary isolation have been in 2007, with two Kawahib-speaking (Tupi-Guarani) men from a group known as the Piripkura, in the northern part of the state of Mato Grosso, and in 1996, with a group of Korubo (Panoan) in the Javari Valley.

The seven young Xatanawa who emerged from voluntary isolation have provided important information to FUNAI employees that will be useful to protect their own kin and of other isolated populations living in this lawless border region between Brazil and Peru. In addition to Panoan speakers like themselves, they have also mentioned the nomadic, Mashco-Piro from the unrelated Arawakan language family, an isolated group likewise known from several regions in Peru.

After surviving the attacks: disease

Isolated populations like the Xatanawa/Chitonahua are extremely vulnerable to contagious diseases including the flu. All seven of the Xatanawa contracted colds during their first days of contact. According to Carlos Travassos, the head of FUNAI’s Department of Isolated and Recent Contacted Indians, flu symptoms were noted since June 30. On July 6 all seven accompanied the FUNAI team to the Xinane base, where they remained for a full 24 hours of health treatment and monitoring. The health team included professionals from the Ministry of Health and doctors from the Federal University of São Paulo, lead by the experienced Douglas Rodrigues, a group that has worked with health care for recently contacted Indians in Brazil since 1965. After receiving treatment, the seven have now returned to their settlement on the Xinane river. According to Travassos, no vaccines were given. "But with the very good assistance of interpreters, they did accept taking oral medicines."

Travassos, who has returned to the base, denounced the Brazilian government’s lack of support and worries that the situation could get much worse if more Xatanawa arrive. Meirelles stated even more bluntly in a recent interview: “Either it takes action and provides assistance, or else the Brazilian state should just say, ‘Oh well, another genocide on my CV.’” Dr. Rodrigues writes in his official report that they have managed to control the flu epidemic so far only due to the dedication of their staff, and despite a critical like of infrastructure, supplies and equipment. He fears that measles and fatal pneumonia could soon arrive.

Tomorrow: Quiet War in Amazon: The Uncontacted Tribes Vs. Drug Lords and Loggers