After disappearing from view for an entire year, an uncontacted Amazonian tribe has been photographed by a government plane in Brazil. And although the publishing of such images raises ethical concerns, campaigners believe that they can help raise awareness of the tribe and the potentially deadly threats that face it. Indeed, without protection, the tribe may soon be extinct.
The 100-strong Moxihatetema tribe has apparently expanded by at least two families since it last came in within the view of the outside world in 2015. The tribe belongs to the Yanomami, a broad ethnic group of around 35,000 people. And of its many vulnerable tribes, three have never had contact with the modern world.
Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, said that the photos are “further proof” that uncontacted tribes still exist. “It’s obvious that they’re perfectly capable of living successfully without the need for outside notions of ‘progress’ and ‘development,’” he explained. “[But] all uncontacted tribal peoples face catastrophe unless their land is protected.”
Contact has so far been scarce thanks to the scale and geography of the tribes’ homeland. Encompassing 37,000 square miles of impenetrable rainforest, Yanomami territory spans an area more than twice that of Switzerland. And though it’s large enough to be a nation state, it falls under the jurisdiction of Brazil and Venezuela.
We know little about the Moxihatetema’s history, but it’s thought that prior to the European conquest the tribe’s ancestors comprised a rainforest society of up to 50 million people. What we do know for sure, though, is that the Moxihatetema people have so far avoided contact with outsiders.
Yanomami tribespeople know everything there is to know about the rainforest’s botanical resources. Indeed, they use around 500 plants for housebuilding, food and medicine. Among them is yakoana, a snuff that comes from the sap of the Virola elongate. It’s also, in fact, an arrow poison used for hunting.
Shamans believe that yakoana, a powerful hallucinogen, allows them to speak to spirits. And some, namely the hekura, supposedly control certain aspects of the forest’s physical realm.
Day-to-day life, however, revolves around relatively mundane activities like hunting, fishing and farming. Fruit and root vegetables – especially cassava – are dietary staples, with tribespeople regularly relocating their plots to prevent soil exhaustion.
The typical Yanomami village lives under just one roof. Indeed, the recent images depict shabanos – the communal homes of the Moxihatetema people. Exteriors consist of palisades forged from rainforest materials; interiors, meanwhile, are divided into sections that house individual families.
But sadly, despite a long-standing cultural connection with their land, the Moxihatetema people – and others in the Yanomami group – are under threat. And that’s because as many as 5,000 outlawed gold miners have inundated their region.
The threats posed by the miners, or garimpeiros, are existential. Indeed, the illegal miners could infect Moxihatetema people with viral diseases for which they have no immunity or cure. Their activities, meanwhile, may pollute water and sustenance sources.
There are precedents to back this theory up. During the ’80s and ’90s a febrile gold rush saw around 40,000 miners descend on Yanomami ancestral land. And, as a result of mercury poisoning, malaria and conflict, the indigenous population plummeted.
Indeed, one of the ugliest episodes in the struggle was 1993’s Haximu Massacre, which occurred near Brazil’s border with Venezuela. There, a group of miners slaughtered 16 Yanomami people and destroyed their village. In retaliation, the Yanomami killed a pair of garimpeiros.
“They are like termites,” Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman and activist, told Survival International. “They keep coming back and they don’t leave us in peace.” He added that “the whole world” should know about his people’s plight.
On paper, in fact, the Yanomami people have some rights and protections. Indeed, in 1992 the Brazilian government gave them 36,000 square miles of land for their exclusive use. Without adequate patrols, however, the demarcation offers little protection.
The Brazilian constitution ostensibly provides for the rights of the Yanomami people. Indigenous peoples, it says, have the right to occupy traditional lands and practice traditional lifestyles. The reality on the ground, however, is unfortunately very different.
The future, then, may not bode well – especially with funding having been cut at Brazil’s department of Indian affairs. It has a group monitoring the Yanomami tribes, but if funding continues to dry up then the body may disband.
Indeed, the government department has already closed a local field base. This, in the words of Survival International’s Fiona Watson, who was speaking to the The Guardian, is “effectively abandoning the Moxihatetema to their own fate.”
Even more disturbing, however, is the Brazilian government’s proposed mining bill. If successful, it would permit mining firms to exploit indigenous Amazonian territory. And, so far, Yanomami territory alone has received 654 mining requests.
Kopenawa, in his interview with Survival International, said that mining will “destroy the streams and the rivers and kill the fish and kill the environment – and kill us.” Whether his words prove to be prophetic; well, only time will tell.