Brazilian authorities are investigating reports of a massacre of about 10 members of an uncontacted tribe living in a remote part of the Amazon, the New York Times reports.
The tribe members were reportedly gathering eggs along a riverbank in a remote area before they encountered some gold miners. Reports of the mass murder that followed the unlucky encounter abounded when the gold miners bragged about the killings at a bar near the Columbian border. Funai, the Brazilian agency on indigenous affairs, first lodged a complaint with the Amazonas state prosecutor’s office. The agency reported that the miners “brandished a hand-carved paddle,” a trophy they brought back with them after coming in contact with the tribe.
The “crude bar talk” is what led Funai to send a team of three out to investigate. Leila Silvia Burger Sotto-Maior, Funai’s coordinator for uncontacted and recently contacted tribes, told the Times, “They even bragged about cutting up the bodies and throwing them in the river.”
The alleged murderers are claimed to be gold prospectors, illegally dredging in the region’s rivers. According to Sotto-Maior, the miners claimed it was either “kill them or be killed.”
The killings are reported to have taken place in the Javari Valley. The Javari Valley is the second-largest indigenous reserve in Brazil. According to The Guardian, about a fifth of Brazil’s uncontacted tribes live there. It took investigators a 12-day boat trip just to reach the site of the alleged murders.
Shasta Darlington, reporting with the Times from Sao Paulo, Brazil, points to the case being just the “latest evidence that threats to endangered indigenous groups are on the rise in the country.”
The Guardian also alleges that if reports are proven, the murder case would “confirm that severe budget cuts to Brazil’s indigenous agency are having deadly effects.”
The date of the violence appears to be unknown. Pablo Luz de Beltrand, the prosecutor from the remote Amazon town of Tabatinga, said his team was informed of the possible attack of the uncontacted tribe members at the beginning of August.
Beltrand said he and his team received communications from the federal government in regards to the alleged murders. “The ongoing investigation,” he says, “is about the possible death of indigenous people.”
“We are following up, but the territories are big and access is limited,” Beltrand told the Times. “These tribes are uncontacted—even Funai has only sporadic information about them. So it’s difficult work that requires all government departments working together.”
The only further information Beltrand was able to offer in regards to the investigation was that two men were recently arrested in an operation into illegal gold prospecting in the Javari Valley region. The men, however, were not connected to the murder case. The current investigation is the second such episode Beltrand is investigating this year.
Survival International, a global indigenous rights group, also weighed in on the murder case’s proceedings. The size of similar uncontacted Amazon tribes is known to be small, the group warned. As such, this episode could mean that a “significant percentage of a remote ethnic group was wiped out.”
“If the investigation confirms the reports,” Sarah Shenker, a senior campaigner with Survival International, warns, “it will be yet another genocidal massacre resulting directly from the Brazilian government’s failure to protect isolated tribes—something that is guaranteed in the Constitution.”
Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, has been under fire for slashing funds for indigenous affairs. Due to budget cuts, Funai was forced to close five of their 19 bases in April. The bases were used to monitor and protect isolated tribes. Other bases received staffing cuts. Funai uses the bases to prevent illegal logging and mining, as well as to communicate with recently contacted tribes.
Recently, the president found himself in hot water after pushing forward a decree to open a large reserve in the Amazon to mining. An international outcry ensued; a judge blocked the decision; and, the government revised the original decree.
Temer has been able to fend off a corruption investigation by accumulating support of powerful agricultural, ranching and mining lobbies, the Times reports. Just last month he escaped standing trial for corruption in the Supreme Court when a lower house of Congress voted in his favor. This was after the president “doled out jobs and agreed to a series of concessions, many of which affected long-standing deforestation and land-rights regulations.”
Land disputes are reportedly on the rise in various remote areas of Brazil. Indigenous tribes, rural workers and land activists are all targets of violence. As of the end of July, more than 50 people have been killed this year alone in connection with land disputes, according to the Land Pastoral Commission.
Activists are concerned that such disputes are most dangerous for the indigenous tribes, both contacted and uncontacted.
“When their land is protected, they thrive,” Shenker, the rights campaigner with Survival International, says.
Conversely, “When their land is invaded, they can be wiped out.”
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons