Deaths in the uncontacted frontier

Why isn’t Brazil protecting its indigenous population?
Photo by Marco Verch / (CC BY 2.0) / Source: Flickr

On September 8th, 2017, the Brazilian government confirmed the killing of indigenous people, members of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon. Tribe members were reported to have been killed by illegal gold miners – the exact number of victims and any details about their deaths have not been released so as not to interfere with federal investigations, but the independent news website Amazônia Real estimates between 18 and 21 deaths, which would mean around a fifth of the tribe.

According to an interview with a Brazilian government official, people had been taken in for questioning after the seizure of guns by the police. Nonetheless, three days later, the government sent Amazônia Real a retraction, stating that it did not confirm the killings and that “an investigation on the possibility of these deaths” was taking place.

The story told by the Brazilian government contradicts the information of both local indigenous activists such as Adelson Kora Kanamari and international organisations such as Survival International. Not only have they reported on the deaths of the “flecheiros”, but they have also criticised the handling of the case by the country’s government.

Who are the flecheiros?

Uncontacted tribes have chosen to avoid contact with outsiders, often due to previous disastrous encounters. The indigenous people murdered are believed to be part of an uncontacted tribe known as the “flecheiros” (roughly translated as “arrow-users”). They live in the Javari Valley, which is also known as the Uncontacted Frontier as it is home to the highest number of uncontacted tribes in the world. The valley has also been suffering from pressure by illegal gold miners which has been increasing in the past 10 years, according to the coordinator for the region’s Front of Ethno-Environmental Protection, Gustavo Sena.

How did this case come to light?

The violence against the “flecheiros” became an official matter through a complaint to the government by Funai, a Brazilian agency in charge of protecting indigenous people. Funai became aware of the case through the bragging of gold miners at a bar in a city near the border of Colombia. There the gold miners brandished indigenous artefacts as proof of the deed and talked about cutting up the bodies and throwing them into the river.

In an interview for The Independent, Leila Silva Burger Sotto-Maior, Funai’s coordinator of uncontacted and recently contacted tribes, stated that the organisation had done some interviews and then decided to call the police.  She said there was “a lot of evidence”, which also includes numerous reports of audio files from the gold miners confessing to the killings.

Why is the government being criticized?

The handling of this case is being criticised by international and regional organisations as it comes in the wake of a cut in government funding for the protection of indigenous people in Brazil. In April, Funai had to close five bases for monitoring the safety of indigenous people, including the one in Javari Valley, the region of the murders. These closures were followed by a cut in more than 60 million reais in the budget of Funai in May, which had already lost 50 million reais in 2016.

A declaration by Survival International at the end of 2016 already stated that the cuts were endangering uncontacted tribes and putting them at risk of violence. Therefore, organisations are feeling justified in their blame of the government, which did not give attention to the concerns they raised when speaking to the media.

Furthermore, there have been numerous complaints regarding other government measures which have been named anti-Indian – such as the PEC 215, an amendment of the Brazilian Constitution that would give Congress the power to change the demarcation of indigenous lands. And more recently, a new rule implemented by the president Michel Temer states that indigenous people who were not living on their lands in 1988, when the constitution was implemented, have no right to reclaim the territory.

What does the latest news tell us about the situation for Brazilian indigenous people?

The death of the “flecheiros” people is very telling due to both its genealogy and the handling of the case. The incident happened after several warnings by NGOs and activists that the situation in the region was precarious and that government cuts were worsening it. The lack of response to those warnings by the current government demonstrates a lack of interest in protecting the human rights of indigenous groups in the country.

On top of that, the unwillingness of the government to confirm the deaths, as well as the retraction of the information it had initially released, suggests that what is keeping the case in the media is the work of NGOs and indigenous activists. The Brazilian government has a lot of questions to answer regarding its treatment of indigenous people and several campaigns are established worldwide to try and exert pressure for this to happen. The NGO Survival has a list of action points to help uncontacted tribes in Brazil and there are several organisations in the country supporting indigenous people.

Deaths in the uncontacted frontier
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Joana Midena Perrone

Joana Midena Perrone has a Bachelors' degree in International Relations from the University of Sussex and is currently doing a Masters in Women's Studies at the University of Oxford. Her main research interests are gender-based violence and women's rights, especially in Latin America. You can find her on Twitter at @jollyjellyfish_
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