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

Near the Brazil-Peru border, there are various uncontacted tribes fending off drug lords and loggers in an area often considered lawless.

The Xatanawa have never been alone nor "uncontacted" in their century-long history of resistance.

Isolation and resistance go hand and hand in this remote borderland region outside the reach of the Peruvian and Brazilian states. The Mashco-Piro have been photographed and even filmed in recent years in Peru. One Mashco-Piro group is believed to be responsible for an attack on FUNAI’s Xinane base in 2004, during which veteran FUNAI agent José Carlos Meirelles was wounded with an arrow. A Matsigenka man who had been attempting for many years to contact a Mashco-Piro group in Peru was slain by a Mashco-Piro arrow in late 2011. Isolated groups have made incursions on the Xinane base on several other occasions to take food, implements and trade goods, and at times have attacked FUNAI employees, set fire to the base and even killed the guard dogs there, sending a clear message that they intend to protect their territory from invasion. Their hostility must be understood in context, since they are as yet unable to distinguish between the loggers and drug traffickers who have attacked them, and the FUNAI employees who are there to protect them.

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

Meirelles, who recently retired, was replaced by the young indigenous agent Guilherme Dalto Siviero, who heads the new “Envira Ethno-Environmental Protection Front.” FUNAI has announced it will reopen the Xinane post with about 10 employees, including FUNAI specialists, interpreters and a health team. The plan is to add three additional bases on the D’Ouro, Muru, and Mamoadate rivers to monitor isolated populations. The project would cost about $500,000 dollars initially.

Meirelles was one of the last remaining sertanistas (‘backwoods agents’) in FUNAI, a special category of indigenous agents responsible for carrying out expeditions to attract, contact and pacify isolated indigenous groups along the regions of frontier expansion during the second half of the 20th century. With the employee reforms carried out at FUNAI between 2009 and 2012, and the new policy of “no contact unless necessary,” the category of sertanista was extinguished. In addition to the sertanistas responsible for contacting isolated peoples for the Brazilian state, missionaries of many denominations have taken it upon themselves to contact and study the languages of various Indigenous Peoples, included hitherto isolated ones, in order to carry out evangelization and Bible translation.

Frontiers of violence

Indigenous populations who have refused contact with the state fall into a no-man’s land along this social, political and economic frontier. They are threatened by illegal loggers and gold miners as well as drug traffickers who are active in the lawless border region. Elsewhere in the Brazilian and Peruvian interior, isolated indigenous populations are threatened by ranchers, oil and gas industries, hydroelectric dams, highway-building and other large infrastructure projects.

RELATED: Banana Diplomacy: Making First Contact With Uncontacted Tribe in Amazon

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FUNAI currently recognizes 69 distinct locations with evidence of isolated indigenous populations, defined as being those living with no permanent relationships with the state, with non-Indigenous Peoples, or with neighboring settled indigenous populations. FUNAI’s current policy is “no contact,” respecting the self-determination of peoples and protecting the territory they occupy but maintaining monitoring activities to identify and repel threats. Intervention is only authorized if an isolated group seeks contact of their own will (as was the case of the Xatanawa), or when they are under immediate threat by outsiders or illnesses.

According to FUNAI agent Antentor Vaz, 114 of the projects currently slated within the Brazilian governments “PAC” infrastructure development plan will affect regions inhabited by groups in voluntary isolation or recent contact. In all, 33 locations where isolated groups have been registered—nearly half of the 69 registers—are at risk of being affected by these big government projects. FUNAI has established so far a total of 12 Ethno-Environmental Protection Fronts to protect territories with isolated populations.

Isolated groups and drug trafficking along the Peru border

The massacre of the Xatanawa on the upper Envira may be connected with the drug trafficking operations of a Peruvian drug lord named Joaquim Antônio Custódio Fadista. Fadista has been arrested twice in Brazil for invading territories occupied by isolated indigenous groups. He was arrested in March 2001, put in jail and then released. He was arrested again in November 2011 by Federal Police, but again freed. He has been charged with drug trafficking in different states in Brazil and also in Luxembourg.

The attack described by the Xatanawa emissaries, speaking through Yaminawa interpreters, matches Fadista’s modus operandi. Furthermore, when Fadista was arrested in 2011, Federal Police found part of an indigenous arrow in his bag, and Travassos, who examined the arrow, said that it probably belonged to one of the isolated groups in the region. At the time, he said he “feared the worst,” and claimed that the arrow was "proof of genocide." Since this arrest was made, however, no further investigations have been carried out by Brazilian or Peruvian police. The new testimonies of the Xatanawa should provide pressure to re-open these investigations.

At a recent conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA) in Sweden a group of specialists on the subject including Conrad Feather, Vanessa Grotti, Glenn Shepard, Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, and Peter Gow led a debate about the status of isolated indigenous groups in the Amazon. The key themes they highlighted were the notion of self-determination for isolated peoples who refuse contact, the multiple risks posed by economic development and legal and illegal resource extraction in frontier zones, and the severe risks such populations face due to introduced diseases, social exploitation and even genocide. As long as they remain steadfast in their resistance, government agencies, indigenous communities, missionary organizations and scientists should respect their right to self-determination. However as the Xatanawa case exemplifies, the activities of loggers, gold miners and drug traffickers operating beyond the margins of the state and the law threaten the territories, well-being and very existence of isolated peoples. Urgent, coordinated actions along the Peru-Brazil border must be maintained and expanded.

Second Video of Recently Contacted Tribe: