BRASILIA (Reuters) - Far more Indian groups than previously thought are surviving in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest isolated from the outside world but they risk extermination at the hands of encroaching loggers and miners, experts said on Wednesday.
A study by Funai, the government’s National Indian Foundation, and seen by Reuters estimates that around 67 Indian groups live in complete isolation, up from previous estimates of around 40.
“With the rate of destruction in the Amazon, it is amazing there are any isolated people left at all,” said Fiona Watson, campaigns coordinator with Survival International, an advocacy group for tribal peoples.
Funai reviewed old and new discoveries of footprints, abandoned huts, and other signs of human life in the thicket of the world’s largest rain forest.
“There are still vast unexplored areas and new indications of (Indian groups),” Marcelo dos Santos, head of Funai’s department of isolated Indians, told Reuters.
Brazil is likely to have the largest number of uncontacted tribes in the world, Watson said.
With a few exceptions, most of the uncontacted tribes, generally live like they would have when Portugal’s Pedro Cabral became the first European explorer to land in Brazil in 1500. Most hunt with blow guns or bows and arrows, dos Santos said.
Their lives do not include televisions, microwave ovens or cars.
Anthropologists say most of the uncontacted Indians are likely to know of white men or even have had accidental meetings with them but choose to remain hidden.
After a policy that sought to actively integrate Indians into Brazilian mainstream culture during the military dictatorship of 1964-85, the government adopted a policy of avoiding contact with isolated Indians unless they are in extreme danger.
Funai envoys for years tried to contact an individual in Rondonia, a state in the southwestern Amazon forest, because he is believed to be the last survivor of his tribe.
They tried to introduce him to an Indian woman to procreate. But the “Hole Indian” as he is nicknamed because he lives on branches over a hole, shot arrows at them, sending the potential bride running.
Some isolated groups live in large Indian reserves that are at least occasionally protected by federal police. Others obtain little aid to face encroaching wildcat miners and loggers.
This week the federal police and the environmental protection agency Ibama will forcefully remove hundreds of illegal settlers that invaded the Uru Eu Wau Wau indigenous territory in Rondonia, where uncontacted groups live.
“If we don’t expel the invaders now, those Indians won’t survive,” said Rogerio Vargas Motta, an environmentalist.
When Motta photographed one of the groups by air nearly two years ago, “an elderly woman shot arrows at the helicopter 200 metres (656 ft) high.”