Gold, Guns and the Amazon’s Last Frontier

August 25, 2018

Francisco Lima sits in the wooden watchtower, flicking a searchlight on and off as he surveys the dark river for the commercial fishermen who pillage the rivers of the Javari Valley, a remote indigenous reserve on Brazil’s Peruvian border.

His watchtower guards rivers leading into this reserve, home to 6,000 people from eight tribes, each with its own languages and customs, and the world’s highest concentration of “non-contacted” indigenous groups. Only authorised visitors and indigenous locals are allowed to enter. But the 12-volt light that Lima, 55, is operating is unlikely to stop intruders.

“There’s a shortcut,” he says, pointing into the gloom to show how a waterway bypasses the base, which belongs to the Brazilian government’s indigenous agency, Funai. He explains how fishermen flood their canoes, immerse themselves in water, and float silently under the searchlight’s beam.

This gaggle of wooden huts perched on stilts above the river is one of four Funai bases in the Javari Valley, a wilderness of thick forest, steep ravines and corkscrewing rivers with no roads or cellphone networks – or police. Anacondas and alligators lurk in Javari’s rivers; snakes, jaguars and scorpions roam its forests; monkeys screech in its trees; and it has a lush, tangled beauty mankind has yet to spoil.

For more than a decade after the reserve was set up in 1998, its 16 uncontacted indigenous tribes were among the best protected in Brazil. Yet today it is invaded on multiple fronts, leaving its isolated groups – who hunt with bows and arrows or blow-pipes, and avoid contact with modern society – at risk. Contact with outsiders can be deadly for these groups, who lack immunity to diseases like flu.

“The vulnerability of these peoples is growing,” Beto Marubo, a Javari indigenous leader, told the United Nations permanent forum on indigenous issues in New York in April. “There is no effective protection.”

Indigenous leaders and Funai staff say the conservative government of President Michel Temer is deliberately starving the agency of resources to appease a powerful agribusiness lobby. “Michel Temer wants to end indigenous lands,” says João Gomes Kanamari, 49, a member of the reserve’s Kanamari tribe. “We have a lot of wood. We have a lot of gold and mining resources.”

At the Funai base in Atalaia do Norte, the town nearest the reserve, telephones are cut off and the internet has stopped working. Contracts for fuel and other supplies are being wound up amid rumours it will close. “When you weaken the apparatus, it does not work,” says Bruno Pereira, a Funai official who works with isolated and recently contacted indigenous people here.

Deep inside Javari Valley, fishing teams haul away up to half a tonne of pirarucu fish and 700 turtles – both protected species – in one trip and hunt prey on land, depriving isolated groups of valuable food sources.

Illegal gold mining dredgers pollute rivers with mercury in its eastern regions. Cattle farmers are encroaching from the south. Narcotics flow down the Solimões River near its northern borders – 776kg of cocaine were seized last October after a gunfight.

The Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley has asked the Norwegian government for funding. “These invasions are going to regions where the isolated live,” says Paulo da Silva, its coordinator. “We are there with folded arms, and we can’t do anything.”

Following an invitation from his organisation, Guardian reporters travelled by open-top boat to villages deep inside Javari with a Funai team and indigenous locals, before trekking into the forest to track the movements of an isolated group – a journey of some 1,020km. The team would investigate reported sightings by Marubo villagers of the non-contacted tribe near a tiny, remote hamlet called São Joaquim.

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