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The Xatanawa, above, cross the river near the Peruvian border: Forest life had become too dangerous. (Reuters)

The young men made their way gingerly across the river and through the shallows, determination and deep uncertainty mingling on their faces. They came seeking food, and maybe help – and as they climbed the riverbank, in a moment caught in a shaky video, they stepped irrevocably into another world.

A small group of indigenous people first emerged from the Amazon forest along the Envira River, near Brazil’s border with Peru, on June 13. They had been living in complete isolation. But now they approached an assimilated tribe, returning several times over a couple of weeks.

Brazil’s National Indian Foundation learned of the encounters and sent field agents, and an interpreter who speaks a language similar to that of the newcomers, to the site, which is eight days’ journey by boat from the nearest major town.

In all, seven young people crossed the river through June and July; they entered the village, accepted food from its residents, members of the Ashaninka nation, and warily snatched up some clothing and farming implements. Predictably, they soon developed fevers and respiratory ailments; a doctor with experience treating the “uncontacted” arrived with medication and entreated them to stay for a few days and recover, lest they return to the forest and infect others in their community.

Brazil’s rain forest may harbour as many as 50 native groups who avoid the outside world. (Reuters)

In late July, the foundation informed the public what had happened, releasing photos and footage of the encounters with little fanfare. But the news caused an international sensation: It was the first official interaction with a previously uncontacted group of indigenous people since 1996. Wearing nothing more than belts made of bark, their black hair trimmed into blunt bowls and their faces brushed with a pale paste, the newcomers were “Indians” from an old edition of National Geographic.

The media portrayed them as an exotic, almost mythical, people who had lived uncontaminated by our world and were now choosing to end their isolation. But that story, say those who have for decades made the fragile bridges between isolated peoples and the outside world, is absurd. They were not ignorant of the outside world, but fleeing from it – something that may soon be impossible as their rain forest home inexorably disappears.

“They don’t live in isolation because they want to,” says Sydney Possuelo, a legendary explorer and the architect of Brazil’s policies for dealing with isolated indigenous people. “But they know: ‘Every time white people come near us, people die’ – this is in the tribal memory.”

Far from oblivious to the workings of the outside world, they have studied it carefully, and want no part of it. To be an uncontacted indigenous person today, Mr. Possuelo says, is intentional – an act of fear and resistance.

Survivors of an attack

The Indian foundation, known by its Portuguese acronym FUNAI, has pieced together roughly who these newcomers are and a couple of possible explanations for why they finally chose to seek out others. The first is violence – some have said that several members of their community, whose home seems to be just over the border in Peru, have been killed recently by outsiders, likely illegal loggers or drug traffickers. (The FUNAI base in that area was shut down in 2011 after a brutal attack by traffickers.)

But the group, who call themselves the Xatanawa (macaw people), also talked about being in need of tools – and indicated that they had stolen from the Ashaninka and other groups in the past without violent reprisal, which made them think it would be safe to make contact.

Survival International estimates that there are over 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide, and says that uncontacted tribes in the region are under increasing threat from illegal logging over the border in Peru. (REUTERS)

Or the reason may be more universal, says Carlos Travassos, head of FUNAI’s department for isolated and recently contacted indigenous people. The first to arrive were young, likely more inclined to strike out on their own. Their curiosity about other people was greater than the fear instilled in them by their elders.

Certainly, they are not ignorant of the outside world: They came with stolen machetes, and one of them awkwardly carried a gun, likely taken from the drug traffickers or an illegal logging camp.

“They know this region very well,” Mr. Travassos says. “They recognize FUNAI’s team. They have probably been watching this team for the last 10 years, much as they have been watching the tribes of contacted indigenous people around them.”

Missed: the bigger picture

The media attention subsided in a day or two, and indigenous issues slipped back off Brazil’s agenda – and so the larger significance of the Xatanawa overture was missed. It is a rare visible consequence of the squeezing of the Amazon’s indigenous people and illustrates how efforts to protect the 50 or so groups still living in isolation on the part of the countries to which they (unknowingly) belong are conflicted and under-funded.

Through much of the last century, the Brazilian government saw the Amazon as a vast storehouse of resources that should be exploited as quickly as possible. People who happened to live there were considered, at best, a needy population to be civilized, if not a nuisance to be eliminated.

In that context, FUNAI’s approach was to track down and initiate contact – particularly with groups in the path of new roads or dams – with the aim of helping them to assimilate. But it was not unusual for as many as 70 per cent of the people to die within two years, their immune systems overwhelmed by germs against which they had no defence.

They don’t live in isolation because they want to. But they know: ‘Every time white people come near us, people die’ – this is in the tribal memory.
Sydney Possuelo, explorer and the architect of Brazil’s policies for dealing with isolated indigenous people

In 1987, Mr. Possuelo, then in charge of the team for uncontacted people, ordered a total reversal. No more contact. FUNAI instead began to identify groups from a distance, set aside large areas around them as reserves and prepare to provide help, should it be sought. Otherwise, groups were left alone unless they faced immediate threat of contagious illness or violence.

The new policy was a recognition, Mr. Possuelo says, of indigenous peoples’ right to self-deter- mination – and the fact that they were well aware of what was out there and wanted no part of it.

He was fired in 2006 after publicly criticizing FUNAI’s director for saying that indigenous people had too much land, but the policy he created has endured. Under a controversial law, 13 per cent of Brazil is designated as indigenous territory. Less than 1 per cent of that land is for uncontacted people, but even that, some argue, is too much for what may be no more than 20,000 individuals. Some groups number fewer than a dozen – the last of their people.

Today FUNAI spends about $15-million a year to protect such groups – but that money doesn’t go far, given the ever-intensifying pressure on the forest. (Since August of last year, 2,044 square kilometres of the Amazon have been cleared in Brazil alone.)

Mr. Travassos says his agency cannot defend the reserves or their inhabitants: “Today we have 24 bases for our protection forces,” he explains. “We need at least eight new ones urgently … double the number of people we have – and not only people, but financial support as well.”

Reserve land no haven

However, the government remains preoccupied with the economic potential of the Amazon and merely pays lip service to indigenous rights, according to Felipe Milanez, a political ecologist and the author of a historical study of Brazil’s contact with isolated peoples.

He says that 33 infrastructure or development projects in the government master plan would use indigenous reserve land. “They know these Indians are there and they know they are going to be affected … By not investing in protection, this government has actually done the opposite: It has institutionalized destruction.”

FUNAI also faces heavy pressure from Brazil’s agro-industries, which want access to the land.

“If you talk about preserving land for indigenous people, in no time there will be a bunch of soy farmers saying, ‘but I need that land to produce … This is not for this bunch of naked people to hang around doing nothing,’” Mr. Possuelo says by telephone from his home in Brasilia.

Members of an unknown Amazon Basin tribe and their dwellings are seen during a flight over the Brazilian state of Acre along the border with Peru in this May 2008 photo distributed by Survival International. (Reuters)

And if the situation is bad in Brazil, it is considerably worse in the other Amazonian countries, which have no agency with FUNAI’s skills or resources. Peru’s culture ministry oversees the affairs of indigenous people but has no capacity to protect their territory.

Mr. Travassos says that FUNAI is trying to work with the Peruvians to increase the exchange of information and to conduct joint expeditions to identify groups as well as threats against them.

But Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist who works with the Goeldi Museum, a research institution in the Amazonian city of Belem, says that he believes the Peruvian government has no control over what is happening in the forest.

He also predicts that more isolated groups will make contact in the near future, because the heart of the continent is squeezed from all sides by the pressures of development. “They’ve been sandwiched.”

Anthropologists suspect that the Xatanawa were once in regular contact with their neighbours but chose to cut themselves off at the turn of the last century, fleeing the violence and enslavement that came with the rubber tappers who were feeding the boom market for automobile tires.

Today it’s the market for mahogany and cocaine. “We have to work quickly, to make it safe” for others who will make contact, Mr. Shepard says.

So far, another 16 Xatanawa have emerged from the forest to join the initial group, and Mr. Travassos says they are talking about clearing land to plant crops.

Two members of a previously uncontacted tribe make voluntary contact with a team of researchers from Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) on the bank of the Envira river in Aldeia Simpatia, Acre state, in this June 30, 2014 handout photo.(Reuters)

FUNAI also wants to keep a close watch on their well-being. Douglas Rodrigues, who has worked with the Federal University of the State of Sao Paulo’s Xingu Project to provide health care to isolated indigenous people for 33 years, was called in to treat them. “The fact that I was there for the first and second contacts really helped,” he says. “If there is a new white person, they think: ‘Is this one a nice one or an angry one?’”

They responded well to standard antibiotics, Dr. Rodrigues says, but “the hardest part is convincing them to be treated. They get scared. You tell them to swallow something they don’t know, and they are suspicious.”

Equally difficult, says Mr. Shepard, is keeping them from carrying their illness into the forest. “You can’t keep these people in a concentration camp – they’re going to want to go back and, if you keep them too long, they get freaked out. So the medical treatment gets iffy – how long can you keep them to let a cold run its cycle? How do you negotiate sticking needles in their arms?”

‘They are curious’

FUNAI’s work is further complicated by the fact that, when successful, it can have unanticipated consequences. In places where the agency has managed to control illegal logging and mining, the populations of threatened indigenous people have begun to rise, and once-isolated groups begin cautiously showing themselves.

“Many times they come because they are searching for tools, but also because they are curious, they are interested.” Mr. Travassos says. “This means a protection well done, and no one predicted that could stimulate contact. Is that good or bad?”

Mr. Shepard takes a darker view, both of the latest contact and those he says will soon follow.

“It’s not unique and special as everyone wants it to be,” he says. “It’s happened over and over – one group is contacted, and half of them die. A road expands and people move in, and half of them die.

“It’s not unique, or any less tragic. You know exactly what’s going to happen, and you watch it happen in slow motion all over again.”

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail’s correspondent for Latin America, based in Rio de Janeiro. She wrote this story with additional reporting from Manuela Andreoni.