October 11, 2017

The Decade of Contact: Isolated indigneous people in the 21st century [excerpt]

José Carlos Meirelles, a retired field agent from Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, refers to the current moment for isolated indigenous people of the Amazon as “The Decade of Contact." After numerous tragic experiences in initiating contact with isolated indigenous peoples in the second half of the twentieth century, almost always resulting in their decimation, the official policy of FUNAI’s Department of Isolated Indians since 1989 has been to identify, protect and patrol the territories of isolated indigenous peoples without unnecessarily initiating the process of "contact." In extraordinary cases, as was the case of Korubo people on the Javari in 1996 and the Txapanawa of the Río Envira in 2014, FUNAI has initiated contact with isolated groups, taking special medical, logistical and cultural precautions in order to avoid imminent threats. Indigenous organizations and government agencies in neighboring countries have been inspired by FUNAI's example, incorporating the principle of "no-contact" into their policies for isolated peoples.

But the paving of the Inter-Oceanic Highway (formerly known as the ”Trans-Amazon Highway”) between Peru and Brazil, the continued expansion of the agricultural frontier, the growing demand for oil and gas exploration, and the activities of loggers, gold miners, drug traffickers and other outside agents are increasingly penetrating remote regions of the Amazon that once served as refuges for isolated peoples. Because of these external pressures, but perhaps also owing to their own internal dynamics, isolated indigenous peoples from the border region between Peru and Brazil — almost never seen in previous decades — have become increasingly visible and even aggressive in their interactions with neighboring populations.

One group of Mashco-Piro on the upper Madre de Dios maintains regular contact with a team from the Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Peoples of Peru's Culture Ministry. In this photo, several Mashco-Piro have climbed aboard the Culture Ministry's boat (November, 2015).

In 2011, a Mashco-Piro archer in the Madre de Dios region of Peru killed Nicolas "Shaco" Flores, a Matsigenka indigenous man from a neighboring community who had engaged in tenuous exchanges and dialogue with the group for many years. In 2014, the isolated Txapanawa or “Xinane” people from the Envira river in Brazil took it upon themselves to approach FUNAI agents and neighboring indigenous communities and initiate contact, apparently out of desperation after being attacked by loggers and drug traffickers. In 2015, the settled Matis people of the Javari region in Brazil began a process of violent and uncontrolled contact with isolated Korubo people, leading to deaths on both sides, contagion of diseases to the Korubo, and a crisis in the Department of Isolated Indians in FUNAI. [More recently, another isolated people of the Javari was attacked by illegal gold miners].

And so began the Decade of Contact

Roads, oil and gas concessions, logging and mining interests are edging in on the territory of isolated indigenous peoples (Image: Science Magazine).

A growing wave of international media outlets have published sensational texts and photos about isolated indigenous peoples "emerging from the forest." In this context American anthropologists Robert Walker and Kim Hill suggested that contact was inevitable, and that the remaining isolated peoples should be subject to "controlled contact" for their own protection. The article generated tremendous controversy in the media and in academic circles, polarizing debates around policies for protecting isolated indigenous peoples and reducing the complexity of the subject to a false dichotomy between "forced contact" and the principle of no-contact: the so-called “Leave them alone" policy

National governments play a key role in guaranteeing the territories, rights, health and cultural integrity of isolated indigenous peoples. But the current scenario of road-building, major infrastructure projects and expansion of the agricultural, logging and mining frontier takes outside agents ever closer to isolated peoples while contributing to an increased curiosity among isolated peoples themselves. This situation demands new policies, concepts and protocols to deal with situations of imminent contact. The Decade of Contact has arrived. A naive "no contact" policy — "Leave them alone!" — has become not only a contradiction, but an act of neglect.


 Excerpted and translated from “A década do contato," in: B. Ricardo & F. Ricardo (Eds.) Povos Indígenas no Brasil 2011/2016. São Paulo: Instituto Socioambiental, 556-559 (2017).

Read the full article (in Portuguese) at Academia.edu

A revised version of this work was presented at the seminar on "Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation: Anthropological perspectives" in Rio de Janeiro, Sept. 24-25, 2018


September 19, 2017

The hummingbird shamans of Peru: Excerpt from "Agony and Ecstasy in the Amazon"

Abanti blew the tobacco with fast furious puffs. The snuff entered my nostrils as a sequence of chartreuse explosions that expanded in chain reaction and spread backwards and upwards, illuminating my brain as if from the inside. I gasped at the roaring wildfire that penetrated my sinuses and seared the trigeminal nerves throughout my face. It was more than pain: it was suffering. He was punishing me, there was no doubt, but the pain he inflicted, though intentional, was not cruel or gratuitous. It was an initiation, a right of passage: he was teaching me a lesson.  

"It was more than pain. It was suffering."

The first dose was done and Abanti was already scraping up another. There was no question of refusal. As he rang the bone against the shell, it occurred to me that he was summoning someone, or something. The jets of powdery tobacco entered me once again.  A bright green cloud of excruciating vapor expanded inside my mind’s eye and then turned in on itself, swirling both outward and inward into iridescent fractals that filled me with their luminescence while folding both us within an evolving pattern. There was no way to look at it, since it was everywhere: a million unblinking eyes, a peacock’s fanning tail, a rainbow of undulating woven patterns, the shimmering plumage of a hummingbird. 

"As he rang the bone against the shell, it occurred to me that he was summoning someone, or something"

"A bright green cloud of excruciating vapor expanded inside my mind's eye and then turned in on itself, swirling both outward and inward into iridescent fractals" 
(art: Titia van Beugen)
The two of us were in some secret and enveloping holy place: a cave, a sacred grove. What he was transmitting to me through that bone tube was no longer a physical substance, it was knowledge, a living power: a sacrament. Some part of Abanti was entering me. Not Abanti exactly, but rather a silent twin, a shamanic dopplegänger that had been transmitted to him by some other master. It was both part of him and yet also more than him. It was ancient and eternal, but needed a human host. It could confer practical insights and mystical powers, but was also capricious and probably had its own agenda. This invasive alien force was melding with my spirit through a portal opened up by tobacco. The sensation was both euphoric and frightening.

"A capricious hummingbird seemed to be playing hide and seek with me"
(art: Clancy Cavnar)

I don’t know how many doses he gave me. At some point I whimpered, “Intaga,” and Abanti stopped. Tears streamed down my face. My breath came in sobs. My hands trembled, my face went slack and numb. Thick, dark mucus began to flow out of swollen sinuses onto my lips, neck and chest.  

An eerie buzzing sound surrounded me, sometimes near, sometimes far, sometimes in front or behind, on one side or the other. I could never locate it, much less identify its source. A capricious hummingbird seemed to be playing hide-and-seek with me. There was something unbearable about that sound, not so much menacing as utterly incomprehensible and disorienting. I was confused, with no sense of space or time, and the euphoria had drained out of me and in its place came the nausea, rising like a sickening tide that rolled and spun me to that dizzy, unsettling hum. There are times when one can hold firm and fight off ayahuasca nausea through force of will. This was not one of those times.

“Jiromanka,” I called out: ‘The pot.’


Read the full article at Medium.

Read another excerpt from "Agony and Ecstasy" on this blog.

February 15, 2017

Lessons from the Catwoman: Extinction and resilience of Amazonian fauna [exerpt from SAPIENS]

Francisco Evangelista, a Paumari Indian who grew up along the Piranha River within the Purus River basin in the Brazilian Amazon, tells a tale from his boyhood about a pelt hunter who went mad from his own excess. Speaking in backwoods Portuguese, Evangelista—who was raised by a rubber tapper whom he called patrão (“boss”)—recalls the day he and the patrão came upon this commercial hunter in distress.

“My boss found [the pelt hunter] on the river bank by a whole herd he had just killed, must have been 12 or 15 peccaries skinned and left to rot,” Evangelista recounts. “We had seen two more herds he had slaughtered a little farther up the river. He was crazy, scared, shaking, screaming about how the jaguars and peccaries were coming to get him because he had killed so many. We took him in our boat but he kept screaming and going crazier and crazier till finally he died, right in front of my eyes,” Evangelista says. “Our people know you can’t just go killing animals like that. It’s perverse. And the forest has its guardians.”

Hunting by local forest-dwelling people in the Amazon for subsistence and commercial purposes has long been considered by many conservationists to be a major threat to biodiversity conservation. In the 1990s, conservationists warned that unbridled hunting could result in “empty forests”—places where trees remain but large animals are eerily absent, hunted out by local people... But a recent study published in Science Advances analyzing historical data on commercial hunting throughout the 20th century tells a different story, showing that many terrestrial Amazonian species have proven more resilient than most experts expected... 

"The jaguar-fur suit worn by Catwoman in the 1966 film Batman: The Movie helped drive the trend..."
The international trade in Amazonian animal hides gradually increased after the collapse of the "Rubber Boom" in 1912, then experienced its first peak during World War II when the U.S. again sought wild rubber from the Brazilian Amazon after the capture of Malaysian rubber plantations by the Japanese. The influx of tens of thousands of rubber tappers meant more hunters in the forest taking advantage of a secondary income stream. The 1960s saw a second peak of Amazonian animal hide exports as exotic furs came into fashion in Europe and the United States. The jaguar-fur suit worn by Catwoman in the 1966 film Batman: The Movie helped drive the trend...

At least 23 million wild animals were killed for their pelts and skins in the Amazon during the heydey of commercial hunting in the 20th century.

But apart from the white-lipped peccary, terrestrial animal populations were surprisingly resilient in the face of all that hunting. In contrast, aquatic species like the giant river otter, black caiman, and manatee showed rapidly dwindling export numbers during the age of commercial hunting, despite steadily rising prices—proof that their population had collapsed under hunting pressure. The result was local extinction in aquatic and semiaquatic habitats—an “empty river” scenario… [but not] the “empty forest” scenario that some experts predicted.

Continue reading the full article in SAPIENS by Glenn Shepard and Emma Marris

Based on the paper "Empty forest or empty rivers? A century of commercial hunting in the Amazon," published in Science Advances 2(10).