Isolados avistados no Vale do Javari em 2011 (Foto: Acervo CGIIRC/Funai)

Vale do Javari: the highest concentration of isolated indigenous peoples in the world

By Rafael Nakamura | Translation by Patrícia Ribeiro de Carvalho

At the western end of the State of Amazonas is located the Indigenous land (Terra Indígena) Vale do Javari. The satellite images show a continuous and extensive area of Amazon rainforest, broken only by a brush or other villages, or the few-and relatively small-surrounding cities. There are over 8.5 million hectares, many kilometres distant from major urban centres. The restricted access, only by waterway or air, without road or railroad near passes the false idea that the Javari is a very isolated area, unrelated to the national economic development initiatives.


Map of the Vale do Javari region.

The same idea of isolation holds the social imaginary when saying the Javari Valley as the region that hosts the largest concentration of uncontacted indigenous peoples around the world: currently, the Funai works with 16 records in its database, being 11 references confirmed, other 3 still unconfirmed and 2 “information”.

In accordance to the methodology adopted by the Coordenação Geral de Índios Isolados e Recém-contatados (CGIIRC/Funai), records about the existence or presence of isolated peoples or groups in a determined region can be classified as:

  • Information any kind of information on the existence or presence of certain isolated group that hasn’t been yet verified but is already recorded in Funai’s database.
  • Reference – When the set of Funai’s localization actions aimed at confirmation has not been yet completed but there is already a data amount and consistent information about the existence of particular isolated group.
  • Confirmed reference – When the set of Funai’s localization actions was completed and found the effective existence of certain group.

“It is commonplace to diffuse information about these uncontacted indigenous peoples as if they were people who never established contact with the national society, living in the Neolithic (period). But they are really so contemporary people as we, with different political strategies to deal with other societies“, says Conrado Rodrigo Octavio, Deputy Coordinator of Centro de Trabalho Indigenista (CTI).

Much more complex than the purism of an untouched nature, the dynamics and historic occupation in the region help to understand the current context of the isolated indigenous peoples who inhabit there. “There were times when the Vale do Javari was more populated by ‘invaders‘. At the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, there was a fairly expressive arrival of non-indigenous Peruvians and other indigenous peoples from regions of Peru, it’s the case of the Chamicuros, Arahuaca peoples, who came to work in the rubber’s exploitation. Some narratives from Marubo peoples, for example, refer to contacts with these groups“, completes Conrado.

This coexistence was often a bad experience for the indigenous ones, being one of the explanations for the option for voluntary isolation in relation to the surrounding societies. “Isolation is often a survival strategy. Many of these groups have had traumatic contacts in the second cycle of the rubber. Theft of women, rape, child abduction, enslavement, “correrias”, wars and then certain indigenous groups decide to isolate and are resistant to the contact until today“, reports Hilton Nascimento, ecologist who works in the Javari Valley region since 2001 linked to the Javari Program of Centro de Trabalho Indigenista.

The responsibility for ensuring the right to the option to remain in voluntary isolation is of Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai), performed by means of Frentes de Proteção Etnoambiental (FPE), which implement the protection policy under the supervision of the Coordenação-Geral de Índios Isolados e Recém-Contatados (CGIIRC/Funai). The FPE Vale do Javari monitors and protects the territories occupied by indigenous who refuse to establish a more systematic and constant relationship with the national society nowadays. The task is not easy, either by the extension of the area, the many threats to the tranquility of these peoples, or by the precariousness of structure, resources and human material of the Brazilian State agencies.

Precariousness in healthcare

For years, Vale do Javari accumulates alarming statistics in the health context on the indigenous peoples of the region. According to official data, from 2000 to 2010 have been registered at least 325 deaths, equivalent to 8% of the Vale do Javari’s population. Even today, the region suffers the high prevalence of viral hepatitis (A, B, C and D), in addition to filariasis, malaria and tuberculosis. “Although some surveys had been made in late 2010, this problem has never received the proper attention by the public health policy. On the contrary, has been systematically omitted”, says Conrado Octávio.

The well-being of isolated peoples depends directly on the welfare of their immediate neighbours. The isolated peoples and newly contacted groups have an immune system extremely vulnerable because they have no antibodies to diseases easily combated by the rest of the population. “If at some point some of these isolated peoples want to make contact, appear in a village Marubo, for example, and this village has the occurrence of malaria, with people with hepatitis or tuberculosis, without vaccination coverage, all the work of protection may not be sufficient to ensure that they will not suffer epidemic outbreaks”, says Octavio.

Whole groups of some indigenous peoples have already been decimated by diseases. It’s the case of the Matis, who in the early years after contact, in 1976, lost approximately 1/3 of their population due to epidemics of colds and other contagious diseases. “Our elders always used leaves, the traditional medicine to cure diseases. What affected us was not understood as a disease. Spiritually we were sick but we had the remedy that in the woods. But the whites’ disease is that bad that puts an end to the person”, explains Raimundo Mean Mayoruna, Chairman of the Organização Geral Mayoruna (OGM).

Indian Matis with Blowpipe in the Bayou manhole covers, Ituí, TI Vale do Javari, a year after the official contact in 1985 (photo: Isaac Amorim Son).

Indian Matis with Blowpipe in the Bayou manhole covers, Ituí, TI Vale do Javari, a year after the official contact in 1985 (photo: Isaac Amorim Son).

Persistence of invasions

Along with the diseases came other misfortunes. The presence of fishermen, hunters and illegal logging must be constantly monitored by FPE Vale do Javari. There are information about raids in the territory, even where the FPE can be present and control the entry into the area. However, throughout the southern limit and in the eastern part of the indigenous land, in places of more difficult access, the challenge of ensuring the presence and therefore the actions of protection is even greater.

In 1996, Funai promoted the contact with a Korubo group in an extremely vulnerable situation and suffering an imminent risk of retaliation on the part of the population of the surrounding areas who worked in extractive fronts. After this contact, the FPE stepped up its presence in the rivers Ituí and Itacoaí. Today, the constant surveillance in this area inhibits the action of illegal fishermen and poachers. But even on a smaller scale, sporadic raids still occur which put at risk the isolated group that passes through that territory.

In the last years, in times of drought, more than one group of isolated Korubo intensified the presence on the banks of the rivers Ituí and Itacoaí. On these occasions, peoples like the Korubo move from “igarapés” region and go to the edge of the rivers to collect eggs of chelonians, turtles or “tracajás”. In 2014, one of these groups has established new contact. “They were camped on the edge for few days, calling, signaling to passing boats of other indigenous, of health professionals, or Funai. And this process caused two contact situations last year“, says Conrado Octavio.

Korubo group which established contact in 2014 (photo: CGIIRC/Funai).

In the case of the illegal timber extraction, the rivers on the north of the T.I. Vale do Javari have always been the main gateway for the activity. In recent years, however, it has also changed and the south of it became the main target of trees felling for cattle ranching and logging.

As aggravating, there are projects under the initiative for integration of Regional infrastructure in South America (IIRSA)-replaced recently by the Council and South American Infrastructure Planning (COSIPLAN), the organ of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which aim to support the region’s economic activities and can intensify these invasions. Presently, it’s being discussed the opening of a railway connection linking the municipality of Cruzeiro do Sul (AC, Brazil) to Pucallpa, Peruvian city that is a great timber pole. Therefore, the close proximity of the River Juruá, on the south of the indigenous land, region that was once difficult to access and served as a refuge for the groups, is becoming increasingly susceptible to the pressures.

Problems that lurk beneath the ground

A “new” old problem is the interest of oil companies in the region. The issue is even more difficult to resolve than others since the interest lies on an area of border territory shared by Brazil and Peru, which have different policies directed to the indigenous peoples and where inhabit groups who are unaware of the existence of a geopolitical line that divides them and gives them different rights.

In the past, in the mid-1980, the Matsés people (as the Mayoruna calls themselves) suffered from Petrobras’ activities in the region, and till today they remember the deaths and illnesses from that period. “In oil exploration they arrive deforesting, exploding and bringing more fear for the indigenous who don’t even know what it is. With these works arrive also diseases, influenza, which has always been fatal to the indigenous who were in the woods”, recalls Raimundo Mean Mayoruna.

Durante a V Reunião Binacional Matsés Brasil - Peru, lideranças Matsés repudiam a atividade petroleira no território Matsés e de povos isolados que habitam a região do rio Jaquirana, TI Vale do Javari (Foto: Acerco CTI).

During the Binational Meeting Matsés people-Brazil V Peru, Matsés people leaders repudiate the oil activity in the Matsés people and territory of isolated peoples inhabiting the region of the river Javari Valley Jaquirana, TI (photo: CTI as close).

The Brazilian State company activities in the region have been stalled in 1984, when a Korubo isolated group killed two officials who provided services to a company hired by Petrobras in the vicinity of the Itacoaí River by blows of a bludgeon (“borduna”). Although the indigenous land is being officially protected in Brazil, the economic front has gradually increased the oil pressure on it, even if still incipient form.

On the other side of the border, the exploration is already more advanced. The Pacific Rubiales, a Canadian petroleum branch company, won the concessions and research in areas of occupation mainly of Matsés peoples and Matís peoples, besides the isolated ones. “The Peruvian State doesn’t have a protection policy, doesn’t know how to deal with the isolation. Inclusively, the previous Government (President Allan García) did not recognize their existence and said they were an invention of the NGOs that didn’t want the Peruvian Government to take oil from the land“, says Hilton.

The aggressiveness of the prospection, with the movement of employees, machinery, explosions and everything that involves the activity and research, has already caused changes, according to the indigenous peoples who live near to the petroleum lots. “The biggest threat is on Peru’s border, in Rio Jaquirana, where other isolated indigenous peoples have been seen and, at the same time, where the oil companies are arriving. This exploration is pushing the isolated groups to the other side and this may generate conflicts, since they may think that the contacted indigenous are the ones threatening them“, says Raimundo Mean.

A matter of autonomy

In the Vale do Javari as elsewhere, the autonomy guarantee of isolated indigenous peoples depends on the protection of the vast territory against the pressure from several expansion fronts. Therefore, in addition to the strengthening of the Frente de Proteção Etnoambiental, the local indigenous movement claims greater participation in politics. “The indigenous already know about the territoriality, they only need to be prepared and encouraged. There are cases of indigenous who live in contacted villages and are afraid of the isolated ones, fail to dialogue. They need to be prepared to avoid conflicts“, opines Paulo Marubo, General Coordinator of the União dos Povos Indígenas do Vale do Javari (Univaja).

“White people are not all the time in the indigenous lands. So, what we claim as indigenous movement is that the State prepare their own indigenous peoples, who live directly in the region and cohabit with the isolated ones, to act in the area”, completes Manuel Chorimpa Marubo also from Univaja’s coordination.

For Raimundo Mean, it regards to ensure the right to a free and autonomous way of life. “The term ‘isolated‘ passes an idea that indigenous don’t know how to live in society, when in fact they are living as their ancient traditions and do not want to have contact with the white society. They don’t need what the whites have, are living without relying on nothing. I think that’s why white people see them as ‘isolated‘. In fact, whites wanted all the indigenous were the same, dressed like them. We are also ‘isolated‘, even wearing clothes. When we’re distant from the whites, we’re isolated too“, he says.

Remembering the time when his Mayoruna people lived “isolated” (on the terms as non-indigenous consider the expression), Raimundo coments about the intelligence of voluntary isolation strategy in face of so many problems of which the contacted indigenous people have: “if they have made contact, they would have to depend on the whites to live. Medicines, engines and other things. Their idea of not wanting to depend is very smart, not wanting to ask for things for white people. The best way to live is the way they are: hunting and harvesting.”

Days before the closing of this edition, Funai published on its website a contact involving a group of Matís people and a group of isolated Korubo, in Terra Indígena Vale do Javari (AM, Brazil). The isolated group consists on 21 people, including adults and children. The contact occurred at the end of September, after some Matis approach to the Korubo group, while they were crossing the River Branco, in the area next to the Matis villages.

Accordkorubo5-seting to Funai, the Matis undertook the contact to feel threatened by the presence of isolated near their territory. Such fear stems from the consequences of an encounter established in November 2014, when the isolated Korubo from Rio Coari came near the plantations of the Matis village Todowak and settled a conflict between them resulting in the deaths of two Matis.

By the State’s part, was put into practice a plan for epidemiological protection and promotion of intercultural dialogue. On the other hand, the Matis have been expressing their recurrent dissatisfaction with the indigenist organ, claiming that they are not being allowed to put in practice their leading and autonomy in the conduct of the contact with the Korubo group.

(Photo: Korubo group contacted by Matis. Credit: CGIIRC/Funai).