Endangered Amazon tribe is facing a new threat

Pyray-Ama-A Aw? rests in the village of Juriti on Aug. 1. Brazil has hundreds of indigenous tribes and is believed to have more “uncontacted” people in its forests than any other country. 
Pyray-Ama-A Aw? rests in the village of Juriti on Aug. 1. Brazil has hundreds of indigenous tribes and is believed to have more “uncontacted” people in its forests than any other country. 
Published Nov. 9, 2015

AWÁ INDIGENOUS LAND, Brazil — In January 2014, the Brazilian government sent the army into this corner of the Amazon, deploying soldiers backed by bulldozers and helicopters to clear out hundreds of families living illegally on a reserve for indigenous people.

The three-month offensive was aimed at saving what has been called the world's most endangered tribe — the Awá —from extinction. It was Brazil's biggest-ever operation of its kind and was hailed by activists internationally.

But now, signs of the settlers' return are rife. Cattle are back grazing on this sprawling reserve. Plots of vegetables have been found growing in isolated areas. Loggers are culling the valuable wood in the forests.

It took more than 200 Brazilian soldiers, police officers and government agents to evict 427 families of farmers and settlers last year and flatten their homes and outbuildings. But today there are just half a dozen employees from the government's indigenous agency to protect the 450-square-mile reserve in northeastern Maranhao state.

Raimundo Oliveira, 54, is one of them. On a recent morning, he pointed a stick at the thick forest to show where loggers had built a rough road a couple of miles away from the Awá tribe's tiny village of Juriti.

"They are squeezed," he said of the indigenous people. "Loggers one side, settlers the other."

Brazil has hundreds of indigenous tribes and is believed to have more "uncontacted" people living in its forests than any other country. But the Amazon has been subjected to waves of development, starting with a 19th-century rubber boom. In recent decades, roads were built through this area, and a new railway sliced through the Awá tribe's homeland.

Today the Awá are down to about 450 tribe members, from an estimated 600 in 1960. Most live in small villages on this reserve and an adjacent one, staying close to their hunter-gatherer traditions, unlike other tribes that survive on government welfare payments. About a hundred Awá tribe members still roam the rain forests with no contact with society.

Washington Post journalists were given rare permission by the tribe to visit the Awá reserve. In the main village, Juriti, residents share their mud-brick homes with animals they keep as pets: small raccoonlike creatures called coati, large rodents called agouti, as well as tortoises, birds and monkeys. Hunting provides the tribe's main sustenance, though its members also do some farming.

Their land was declared a protected indigenous reserve in 1992, but in the lawless Amazon, little was done to keep outsiders from moving in. Over time, an estimated 34 percent of this reserve was deforested by loggers and settlers. As the activity edged closer to Juriti, a village of 67 Awá, the sound of trucks, tractors and chain saws scared off the prey hunted by the tribe.

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"My family were hungry," said Pyray-Ama-A Awá, 35, chief of Juriti. "There is no prey when the loggers are close."

In 2012, Survival International, a British-based group that advocates for tribal people, launched a campaign to save the Awá, featuring British actor Colin Firth and designer Vivienne Westwood. Supporters bombarded the Brazilian Justice Ministry with 57,000 emails demanding action. The pressure increased as Vanity Fair featured the Awá in an article titled "The Last of Eden," illustrated by Sebastião Salgado, the renowned Brazilian photographer.

In 2014, the Brazilian government acted. Settlers were given a 45-day warning to leave the territory. Some had to be removed by force. Now, said Pyray-Ama-A Awá, "it is beautiful. They took the people out."

And the Awá can hunt. "The prey comes closer," said Hamõ-Koma-Á Awá, 28.

But the gains are limited. There are areas of the forest where loggers still operate. And sightings of the remote Awá are increasing.

That is a problem because the "non-contacted" tribal members have low immunity to infections such as the flu and can die after exposure to outsiders. In the 1980s, the Brazilian government reversed decades of policy and decided it would leave isolated indigenous groups alone unless they are in danger.

Two employees of the government's agency for indigenous affairs were recently manning the gates of the Awá's reserve. One, Claudmiro Silva, wore a pistol in the waistband of his shorts. Both men said they felt vulnerable in this dirt-poor area, where gunmen can be hired for $100 or less and local landowners and loggers have been known to resort to violence. "We hope for an improvement here, for our security," said Joao Sampaio, Silva's colleague.

There are clear signs that the settlers still are active in the reserve. All that remains of one village, Cabeca, is a goal post sagging into the long grass, the shell of a white church, and a few squashed wooden roofs.

But on a recent day, mules wandered through the village. Men passed on motorbikes. There were hoof prints a few miles up the dirt road. In nearby towns, there were reports of three farmers grazing herds of up to 600 head of cattle on the reserve. Sampaio and Silva have found plots of vegetables in more-isolated regions.

"Things improved here," Sampaio said, "but there are still big difficulties."