Anthropologists in Brazil have released a set of rare photos of an uncontacted Amazon tribe in an effort to save the group from the encroachment of illegal gold miners.
The aerial photos show a clearing in the jungle where the Yanonami-Moxihatetema indigenous group has built a communal house. The group lives deep in the Amazon and has avoided contact with the outside world for generations.
Activists said they released the photos, which were shot from a plane in September, in an effort to alert the world about the existence of the group and the risk they're facing.
“The place where the uncontacted Indians live, fish, hunt and plant must be protected,” says Davi Kopenawa, an activist and shaman who is part of another Yanomami group. “The whole world must know that they are there in the forest and that the authorities must respect their right to live there.”
The Moxihatetema, along with several other Yanonami groups, live in a large reservation that straddles the border between Brazil and Venezuela. But since its creation in 1992, the Yanomami reserve has suffered from incursions by Venezuelan and Brazilian settlers involved in illegal gold mining.
Now the miners are getting dangerously close to the Moxihatetema. According to Fiona Watson, a Yanomami researcher at Survival International, there is a mining camp in another jungle clearing just 35 kilometers away from the uncontacted indigenous village.
If the Moxihatetema come into contact with the miners they could die off from illnesses that they have no immunity to, such as the flu or malaria. There is also a risk of violent clashes with the heavily armed and roughneck miners.
“The miners are ranging out from their camp to dredge in the river beds, and the Yanomami have a large hunting range, so it is possible there could one day be a dangerous encounter,” Watson said in an email.
To stop this from happening, activists are calling on the Brazilian government to increase efforts to remove illegal mining camps from the Yanomami reserve.
They have some allies within the government. FUNAI, an indigenous rights agency, has a long history of fighting for the protection of vulnerable tribes. FUNAI was the group that photographed the tribe during a patrol flight to look for illegal gold mines in the Yanomami reserve.
But there are concerns that Brazil's new conservative government is not keen on protecting indigenous rights. The government has been pushing for the construction of dams in the Amazon basin and recently cut FUNAI's budget by 37%, as part of a broader set of austerity measures designed to help Brazil claw back from a long economic slump. Brazil's President Michel Temer notoriously picked a Cabinet that does not include any women or members of Brazil's ethnic minority groups.
Survival International says FUNAI needs more field agents to arrest miners who illegally intrude into territory reserved for the Yanomami and other indigenous groups. The British NGO is also calling on Brazilian courts to investigate the links between illegal mining operations and local businessmen and politicians.
“The justice system needs to be more robust,” says Fiona Watson. “The people funding the mining operations need to be unmasked, fined and put on trial because what they are doing is illegal and has terrible consequences.”
Survival International says that there are about 100 uncontacted tribes still living in the Amazon. The rainforest sprawls across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador.
“All of the (uncontacted groups) are under threat one way or another,” Watson said. “Their lands are being invaded by loggers, miners, settlers or targeted by large infrastructure projects.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.