Alleged Massacre Of “Uncontacted” Tribes People In Brazil: Violence With Far-Reaching Significance

Brazilian authorities are investigating the alleged massacre of 8 to 10 members of an “uncontacted” tribe in the country’s Javari Valley.

Allegations of the massacre first arose after illegal gold miners reportedly boasted of the murders, for which they claimed responsibility, in a bar near the Colombia border. The incident was subsequently taken up by the prosecutor for the town of Tabatinga, Pablo Bertrand, in early August. Brazil’s agency on indigenous affairs, known as Funai, has also become involved.

“There is a lot of evidence, but,” as Funai’s coordinator for uncontacted and recently contacted tribes, Leila Silvia Burger Sotto-Maior, cautioned, “it needs to be proven.”

Still, the alleged violence is egregious and, if confirmed, will become only the latest in a series of clashes between indigenous populations and non-indigenous Brazilians in a region said to contain nearly a fifth of the country’s uncontacted tribes.

“It was crude bar talk,” said Sotto-Maior, as quoted in the New York Times, but the men carried items they claimed they had taken from their victims, namely a hand-carved paddle and a small bag used for carrying food. “They even bragged about cutting up the bodies and throwing them in the river.”

Given the small size of most of the uncontacted Amazon tribes, global indigenous rights organization, Survival International, warns that the murder of 8 to 10 tribes people could threaten the survival of a whole ethnic group. As the organization specifies on their website, “Uncontacted peoples must have the right to decide whether to live in isolation or not. But in order to exercise this right they need time and space to do so.”

And that right, the right of uncontacted populations to protect the time and space necessary for their survival, is under immediate and increasing threat under President Michel Temer’s government. Earlier this year, Temer made a decree which opened up reserve territory to mining in the Amazon, prompting international outcry. The decree was, at least temporarily, halted last month by Judge Rolando Valcir Spanholo who cited the executive branch’s inability to rescind protection to a 17, 700-square-mile region known by the Portuguese acronym, Renca, within the confines of its authority. The ultimate fate of the Renca region rests, however, with congress and that decision has yet to be made.

In the meantime, Temer’s government has slashed funding for indigenous affairs such that 5 of the 19 bases Funai uses to monitor and protect indigenous tribes from potentially dangerous encounters have been forced to shut down, while other bases have had to reduce non-superfluous spending and cut staff.

“We had problems with previous governments, but not like this,” said Sotto-Maior.

The situation, as a whole, amounts to a call for help and identifies a startling new trend in the neglect of indigenous safety in Brazil.

“It’s not something that was happening before,” Tabatinga official, Bertrand, said identifying the summer’s attack as only the second emerging from what was previously a period of relative stability. The first attack happened in February. Of that case, Bertrand said simply, “It was the first time that we’d had this kind of case in this region.”

The point is that times are changing for Brazil’s Amazon region and that these changes, as well as the budget cuts and general failure to regulate and educate non-indigenous workers heading into the region, have begun to result in a predictable but nonetheless tragic series of consequences.

The immediate solutions seem obvious: reinvigorate support and funding for agencies like Funai and prevent congress from releasing more protected territory to companies intending to exploit the region’s natural resources. Necessary long-term and more lasting solutions will not, however, be so easy to formulate, let alone come by.

The protection of isolated tribes is supposed to be secured by the Brazilian Constitution. In order to make good on that promise, the country’s whole attitude towards indigenous populations has to change. That even just a couple of illegal miners would see the massacre of indigenous tribes people as a sport to brag about is despicable. That this could be just the second in a series of violent interactions yet to come is truly haunting.

Genevieve Zimantas