Talk to Al Jazeera: In the Field

Murder in the Amazon: Brazil’s natives under threat

Talk to Al Jazeera meets the leaders of some of the Amazon’s most endangered tribes and those trying to protect them.

The Brazilian Amazon is home to nearly one million indigenous people, who have lived in and from the rainforest for thousands of years.

Many of them live in the Javari Valley Indigenous Reserve, which comprises eight million hectares – roughly the size of Austria. Among them are the largest number of uncontacted tribes in the world, photographed only rarely from the air.

Last month, 10 indigenous people were reportedly massacred in the reserve by illegal gold miners who roam these rivers, the second such incident this year.

The reason is that the government body in charge of protecting the reserves, the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), is barely functioning.

“With the deactivation of the [FUNAI] bases, it’s much more difficult to know what goes on, and at the same time, stop invaders from entering,” says Fernando Soave, Amazonia’s state prosecutor.

“They can be illegal hunters, miners, fishermen, loggers … Our rivers are like roads, because there aren’t roads in the Amazon. If you install a base at the entrance to a river, you can block illegal entries. If you don’t have these bases, it’s free passage.”

We have sickness killing our people. I wish we could live in the forest again … the outsiders are still killing our people.

by Chief Tomi Flores, Maioruna tribe

Soave paints a dire picture of the dangers facing the Amazon’s indigenous tribes since the government massively reduced FUNAI’s budget.

“There are the groups that are voluntarily isolated … when they have contact with non-indigenous or whites, they can easily become ill. A simple flu can kill them … So the fact of allowing the white man into their areas is a big danger for them that can lead to their extinction. If they don’t die from the violence, the murders that we think have taken place here, they can die from disease. So if you don’t place a barrier, an effective policing of the area, which is not happening now, the danger from extinction is huge … it’s practically impossible to protect them,” says Soave.

Deeper in the Amazon, in Atalaia do Norte, Brazil, Colombia and Peru share a border along the Amazon or Solimoes river. The area has become a major corridor for drug traffickers.

Manuel Chorimpa, of the Marubo tribe, explains that drug traffickers are now co-opting indigenous youth.

“We have evidence of young people who have been seduced by money. They carry drugs to other states. That creates serious problems for us, it’s one of the biggest threats we face,” Chorimpa tells Al Jazeera.

“If the state doesn’t offer projects to allow local communities to make a living through other means, the temptation will be great.”

Chorimpa says since the FUNAI budget cuts “the invasions of our territory have resumed, putting at risk the lives of the people, especially the non-contacted groups, who are many … The state should guarantee their protection.”

According to Daniel Toru, who is one of the very few people who have been in contact with the Kuruba tribe, the isolated tribes are forced to fight back, because they are no longer protected by FUNAI.

He explains that the Kuruba are feeling threatened by loggers and miners coming into their area, because they destroyed their village. “That’s when they started attacking the white man … Ever since the loggers started attacking them, that’s when they started fighting back.”

About 5,500 people belong to the reserve’s six contacted tribes. Chief Tomi Flores, of the Mayoruna tribe, says that 50 years after their tribe was contacted, it is difficult to maintain their way of life.

“My father raised me in the jungle, FUNAI came and tamed us so we would stop killing the loggers and the ones who exploited rubber,” Flores says. “My father taught me that we should not kill more people, so we moved into the reserve nearer to the river.”

“It’s better, but it’s not good. We have sickness killing our people. I wish we could live in the forest again … the outsiders are still killing our people,” he continues. “As leader of the community, when they come here we will defend ourselves.”