Isolated nomads are under siege in the Amazon Jungle


At Posto Awá, villagers enjoy a morning bath. The red- and yellow-footed tortoises they’re holding will probably eventually be eaten. PHOTO/Charlie Hamilton James

Protected forests in Brazil and Peru hold some of the world’s last remote indigenous groups, increasingly threatened by resource-hungry outsiders.


The tread marks in the blood-red earth are deep—and fresh. Tainaky Tenetehar climbs off his dirt bike for a closer look.

“From this morning,” he says, with the conviction of a veteran tracker attuned to any sign of human movement in these lawless borderlands.

Through binoculars, he scans the rolling hills of fire-scorched savanna that lead out to a tree-crowned ridge in the distance. Here, on one of Brazil’s most hotly contested frontiers—where denuded scrubland pushes up against old-growth forest and private homesteads breach the boundaries of Indian land—the tire tracks bear a singular, ominous meaning.

Tainaky, who also goes by his Portuguese name, Laércio Souza Silva Guajajara, turns to his companions, four other Guajajara tribesmen, as they dismount road-beaten motorbikes. The patrol forms a motley crew: patched jeans and camouflage and aviator shades and bandannas to shield their faces from the ubiquitous dry-season dust. Bearing an equally modest array of weapons—a single-shot hunting rifle, a homemade pistol, a few machetes dangling from cinched waistbands—they call to mind a strange, cross-genre film. Think Mad Max meets The Last of the Mohicans.

“Shall we go after them?” Tainaky asks.

Going after illegal loggers here has become the hallmark of patrols like this. They’ve set logging trucks ablaze, seized weapons and chain saws, and sent irate loggers packing. Patrol leaders, the 33-year-old Tainaky among them, have received multiple death threats. Some patrolmen use fake names to mask their identities. Three were murdered in one month’s time in 2016.

They belong to a hundred-member, homegrown force of indigenous volunteers who call themselves the Forest Guardians. This group and others like it have sprouted up in recent years to meet a rising tide of illegal logging that is decimating protected woodlands in the eastern Amazonian state of Maranhão, including the 1,600-square-mile Arariboia Indigenous Land. Along with the forests, the wild game that has sustained the Guajajara’s hunting culture for generations is vanishing. The lakes that give birth to their rivers and streams are drying up because of deforestation. Fish and birds are dying off.

A fire set by settled Awá clears manioc fields outside the government post of Juriti. They practice a mix of farming, fishing, hunting, and foraging, whereas isolated nomadic Awá live mainly by foraging and hunting. PHOTO/Charlie Hamilton James

The stakes are certainly high for the Guajajara, but they’ve adopted effective survival strategies since their first bloody contacts with outsiders centuries ago. Most of them know the ways of the outside world; many have lived in it. Far more dire is the plight of another tribe, with which they share the Arariboia reserve: the Awá. Several bands of Awá nomads—the easternmost isolated, or “uncontacted,” people in the Amazon—roam the woodlands in the core of the territory, living in a state of near-constant flight from the whine of winches and chain saws and, in the dry season, the smoke of wildfires.

Confined to a shrinking forest core, the Awá are especially vulnerable. But even in the still largely untouched expanses of rain forest straddling Brazil’s western border with Peru, isolated groups must live on the run to escape the depredations of illegal logging, gold prospecting, and now drug trafficking. All across the Amazon Basin, in fact, threats to the security of the estimated 50 to 100 isolated and uncontacted tribes—perhaps some 5,000 people in all—are rising. These groups represent most of the world’s remaining isolated tribes.

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