Finding Brazil’s isolated tribes

Al Jazeera speaks to the man who found a previously unknown Amazon tribe.

amazon tribe main pic

The tribe may have thought the expedition aircraft was a large bird [FUNAI/State of Acre]

Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo speaks exclusively to the man who discovered a previously unknown tribe in the Amazon, and who hopes to protect them from destruction by the outside world.

Jose Carlos Meirelles is the man who led the expedition that produced the remarkable images of the isolated indigenous people released by the Brazilian government earlier this month.


Speaking to Al Jazeera in his first interview since then, Meirelles has revealed how he found the tribe after spending 37 years working and living deep in the Amazon.

Now 61, he is responsible for finding evidence of dozens of previously unknown indigenous peoples.

He is a “sertanista” – the name given to a select few people who scour the Amazon jungle is search of isolated peoples and then set up a remote outpost to monitor and protect them from contact with “civilisation”.

“When we think we might have found an isolated tribe, a sertanista like me walks in the forest for two or three years to gather evidence and we mark it in our GPS [global positioning system],” Meirelles told Al Jazeera.

“We then map the territory the Indians occupy and we draw that protected territory without making contact with them. And finally we set up a small outpost where we can monitor their protection.”

Locating the tribe

To find the tribe, Meirelles had dozens of new GPS co-ordinates he wanted to explore from the air, but budgets were tight so getting an aeroplane was difficult.

Jose Carlos Meirelles has dedicated his
life to the Amazon [Meirelles family]

Finally the Brazilian National Indian Foundation (FUNAI)  and the Brazilian state of Acre – where the tribe had been spotted – provided him an aircraft, pilot, and two photographers.

He could use the aircraft for three days or 20 hours – whichever came first.

“I had years of GPS co-ordinates and a friend of mine sent me some Google Earth co-ordinates and maps that showed a strange clearing in the middle of the forest and asked me what that was,” Meirelles said.

“I saw the co-ordinates and realised that it was close to the area I had been exploring with my son – so I needed to fly over it.”

Logging fears

For the first two days Meirelles flew a 150km radius route over the border region with Peru and saw huts that belonged to isolated tribes. But he did not see any people.

“When the women hear the plane above, they run into the forest, thinking it’s a big bird,” he said.

“This is such a remote area, planes don’t fly over it.”

The tribe lives in one of the remotest regions
of the Amazon [Funai/State of Acre]

But the pictures of the huts and indigenous agricultural areas were valuable evidence that the communities were growing, according to Meirelles, and that the policy of no contact was working.

On the last day, with only a couple hours of flight time remaining, Meirelles spotted a large community and numerous women running into the forest with their children. He flew back over the exact area later, knowing the men would be back from hunting.

Upon a second flyover, he captured the iconic images of red-painted tribesmen throwing spears at the aircraft were taken.

“When I saw them painted red, I was satisfied, I was happy,” he said. “Because painted red means they are ready for war, which to me say they are happy and healthy defending their territory.”

On this expedition he identified three new communities, as well as one community Meirelles said was displaced into Brazil from Peru due to illegal logging across the border. 

“Many other states in Brazil have illegal logging that is threatening indigenous people, but not in the state of Acre – there is no logging here,” Meirelles said.

“It’s coming from Peru, especially mahogany wood, because the Peru side of the Amazon is a no man’s land where everything is permitted.

“The Indians are being pushed into Brazil, which causes conflict with Indians already here, but if they stay in Peru they know they will die after contact with loggers.”

Contact danger

Meirelles will not give his GPS co-ordinates to anyone – “not even under torture,” he says – fearful that if their exact location got out they could be in danger, as even one physical contact with an outsider could kill the entire tribe in a matter of weeks.

Meirelles says there are about 70 isolated
tribes in Brazil [FUNAI/State of Acre]

He says the pictures and video that are being released to the world are powerful and undisputable evidence to those who say isolated tribes no longer exist.

“Alan Garcia [president of Peru] declared recently that the isolated Indians were a creation in the imagination of environmentalists and anthropologists – now we have the pictures. Now the pictures exist for the whole world.”

For nearly two decades Meirelles has lived in an outpost in Acre state near the border with Peru.

It is one of the most remote areas of world and the nearest town is seven days by boat.  He has limited electricity, no phones or internet, and his only communication with the outside world is a two-way radio.

For three months of the year he lives in a modest one-bedroom wooden home in the small town of Feijo, itself in one of the more remote corners of northwest Brazil, and this is where he spoke to Al Jazeera.   


Being a sertanista and living deep in the jungle is difficult work on many levels. It is said there are only five authentic sertanistas left in all of Brazil – and most of them are older men.

Meirelles was once hurt in the neck by an arrow shot by a tribesman he accidently confronted in the jungle, although he laughs it off as part of the job.

“This region of Brazil [the Amazon] probably has the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes in the world,” he said.

He claims Brazil has 69 references to isolated tribes with little to no contact with the outside world – 22 of which have been confirmed, several by Meirelles himself.

Previously the government policy was to integrate isolated tribes into society after contact, but studies showed two-thirds died within months of the first contact.

“That is not contact, that is genocide,” Meirelles said. 

So he and some colleagues were instrumental in changing policy to “no contact”.

“These people have lived on their own for 500 years and that is their choice,” he said.

“They can decide when they want contact, not me or anyone else. The policy of FUNAI is protection, we do not want to contact them; to run experiments on them to know about who they are, how they live or what ethnic group they belong too.”

“As long as they are there, they are fine.”

Source: Al Jazeera