August 16, 2014

Quiet War in the Amazon: "Uncontacted" tribes vs. drug lords and loggers

The Txapanawa[1] have never been alone nor "uncontacted" in their century-long history of resistance. Isolation and resistance go hand and hand in this remote borderland region outside the reach of the Peruvian and Brazilian states. The Mashco-Piro have been photographed and even filmed in recent years in Peru. One Mashco-Piro group is believed to be responsible for an attack on FUNAI’s Xinane base in 2004, during which veteran FUNAI agent José Carlos Meirelles was wounded with an arrow. 

Mashco-Piro arrows recovered after people from a settled indigenous community on the Manu river tried to approach: The Mashco-Piro rained arrows on them in self defense.

A Matsigenka man who had been attempting for many years to contact a Mashco-Piro group in Peru was slain by a Mashco-Piro arrow in late 2011. Isolated groups have made incursions on the Xinane base on several other occasions to take food, implements and trade goods, and at times have attacked FUNAI employees, set fire to the base and even killed the guard dogs there, sending a clear message that they intend to protect their territory from invasion. Their hostility must be understood in context, since they are as yet unable to distinguish between the loggers and drug traffickers who have attacked them, and the FUNAI employees who are there to protect them.

Meirelles, who recently retired, was replaced by the young indigenous agent Guilherme Dalto Siviero, who heads the new “Envira Ethno-Environmental Protection Front.” FUNAI has announced it will reopen the Xinane post with about 10 employees, including FUNAI specialists, interpreters and a health team. The plan is to add three additional bases on the D’Ouro, Muru, and Mamoadate rivers to monitor isolated populations. The project would cost about $500,000 dollars initially.

Meirelles was one of the last remaining sertanistas (‘backwoods agents’) in FUNAI, a special category of indigenous agents responsible for carrying out expeditions to attract, contact and pacify isolated indigenous groups along the regions of frontier expansion during the second half of the 20th century. With the employee reforms carried out at FUNAI between 2009 and 2012, and the new policy of “no contact unless necessary,” the category of sertanista was extinguished. In addition to the sertanistas responsible for contacting isolated peoples for the Brazilian state, missionaries of many denominations have taken it upon themselves to contact and study the languages of various Indigenous Peoples, included hitherto isolated ones, in order to carry out evangelization and Bible translation.

Indigenous populations who have refused contact with the state fall into a no-man’s land along this social, political and economic frontier. They are threatened by illegal loggers and gold miners as well as drug traffickers who are active in the lawless border region. Elsewhere in the Brazilian and Peruvian interior, isolated indigenous populations are threatened by ranchers, oil and gas industries, hydroelectric dams, highway-building and other large infrastructure projects.

CONTINUE READING the full article, the final in a three-part series by Felipe Milanez and Glenn Shepard at Indian Country Today:

Part 1: Drug traffickers force isolated group into contact
Part 2: Banana diplomacy
Part 3: Quiet war in the Amazon

Read more from this blog on the history and origins of isolated indigenous peoples and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

[1]. Note: original reports suggested these people were known as the Xatanawa, close relatives of the Chitonahua of Peru. However more conversations with the group carried out by FUNAI through translators suggest they belong to a distinctive group speaking a language with important dialect variations, and that their name should be rendered as Txapanawa (J.C. Meirelles, personal communication).


  1. what we need to do is just legalizw drugs so these challenges would NOT exist!
    Here are my recent adventures in the Amazon, hopefully it inspires people to go for eco-tourism and helps preserve the jungle! ... huge trees of the Tombopato Reserve and ... the macaw clay-lick on the Tombopato River of Peru hope it might help!

  2. Well that's certainly one valid perspective, but in the mean time, more must be done to keep gun-toting drug traffickers, loggers and gold miners out of the territories of all indigenous people, and isolated peoples especially. Ecotourism, especially that which benefits local people, can also provide a strong motivation for conservation, but only if the proper economic and political incentives are provided to keep logging, mining and agriculture away from threatened ecosystems and peoples.