The Motivation Behind the Uncontacted Amazon Indians

Remember that sensational set of photos of the ‘uncontacted’ people from the Brazilian-Peruvian Border? Well a couple weeks ago, Simon from HENRY, shared link that I think some of you maybe interested in. The link I speak of is this news piece, “Secret of the ‘lost’ tribe that wasn’t.”

In the news piece, Peter Beaumont, the author clarifies somethings that the press didn’t quite cover thoroughly. Firstly, the tribe photographed hasn’t been completely unknown to outsiders. In fact, ‘the tribe’s existence has been noted since 1910.’ Al-Jazeera got a chance to interview one of the sertanistas behind those photographs, Carlos Meirelles. Meirelles works for FUNAI, the Brazilian Indian Protection Agency  dedicated to searching out remote tribes and protecting them,

“Meirelles described how he found the group, detailed how they lived and how he planned the publicity to protect them and other tribes in similar danger of losing the habitat in which they have flourished for hundreds of years.

Meirelles admitted that the tribe was first known about almost a century ago and that the apparently chance encounter that produced the now famous images was no accident. ‘When we think we might have found an isolated tribe,’ he told al-Jazeera, ‘a sertanista like me walks in the forest for two or three years to gather evidence and we mark it in our GPS. We then map the territory the Indians occupy and we draw that protected territory without making contact with them. And finally we set up a small outpost where we can monitor their protection.'”

So Meirelles is a conservator of indigenous peoples and interested in finding more about them. He further explained the motivation behind the photos,

“…the Brazilian state of Acre offered him the use of an aircraft for three days. ‘I had years of GPS co-ordinates,’ he said. Meirelles had another clue to the tribe’s precise location. ‘A friend of mine sent me some Google Earth co-ordinates and maps that showed a strange clearing in the middle of the forest and asked me what that was,’ he said. ‘I saw the co-ordinates and realized that it was close to the area I had been exploring with my son – so I needed to fly over it….’

When I saw them painted red, I was satisfied, I was happy,’ he said. ‘Because painted red means they are ready for war, which to me says they are happy and healthy defending their territory….’

…But the revelation that the existence of the tribe was already established will provoke awkward questions over why a decision was made to try to photograph them – a form of contact in itself – in order to make a political point.”

So what do you think? Was photographing these people ethical?

9 thoughts on “The Motivation Behind the Uncontacted Amazon Indians

  1. Yes, it was ethical.

    It’s a delicate balancing act, but these people don’t live in total isolation. Meirelles notes that they were painted red, which signifies their readiness for war in defence of their territory, so they obviously have the concept that other people exist.

    And Meirelles has been tramping through the forest, and their territory, for a number of years. Though this is not direct contact, his presence is a contact of a kind, and will have some influence on them.

    The problem is the way the media have treated the story: as a sensation. The ethical issue here, I think, is the way the media will report a story, choosing the sensational story – or at least the sensational headline – of the ‘lost tribe’ (with the implication of ‘look, wild savages!’), rather than reporting on the anthropological significance of these people, and the humanistic concerns of their continued existence.

  2. I agree with Steven that the media’s response is problematic (although expected). However, I am going to disagree on the ethics of the whole situation (if only to play devil’s advocate). It is my understanding that most FUNAI experts shun contact for many reasons, and a flyover is no exception, especially if planes might be associated with spirits. Also, I’d like to think that the experts responsible for the photos knew the media’s response would be as such, but apparently they felt releasing them was more necessary for preserving their culture than trying to prevent the knee jerk reaction of the public that reinforces the myth of noble savagery.

  3. The article (or at least the version of that same Al Jazeera article I read two weeks ago) said that one of the reasons behind the photo was that Peru is offering virtually no protection to their side of the Amazon basin, nor the natives living in it, what means they flee to the Brazilian side (sometimes causing conflicts with other groups).

    The main issue here seems to be what happens in the Peruvian side of the Amazon, which is quite large and is wide open to loggers on the pretext there are no natives (or whatever other idiotic claim they can make). In fact, the Peruvians have cynically denied the existence of this perticular tribe, so the picture is, largely, the ultimate evidence of their actual existence.

    Obviously those things are contradictory sometimes but you can’t help that up to a point. Everything even eating is ethically contradictory and requires of some balance for the conscious person.

    And, yes, it’s political: everything is. Specially everything that affects people. When this tribe has found itself being forced out of their lands in the Peruvian side of the border, it was political too.

    But overall I understand that the Brazilians nowadays (not in the past) have a much better approach to the native issue and specially that of uncontacted tribes. I bet the Peruvians would, if anything, send missionaries. That’s strictly forbidden under Brazilian ethical regulations.

    I think they did the right thing, or at least one of the possible right things to do. As mentioned the issue is media coverage: just sensationalist hype, no background story, no sense of proportion. It’s a shame, I think, that one has to reach out to the public media of an exotic authocratic principality (Al Jazeera) to get that info straight.

  4. I don’t think that tribe is doing so well at all. Their huts were in disrepair, there were only two women and I saw no children in the pictures. More could have been inside the huts hiding but that seems unlikely unless the two women outside were “warrior” women or somehow differentiated from the supposed women and children inside the huts. But it’s hard to tell anything from just a few pictures. So I’m probably wrong about the whole thing.

  5. They must have some knowledge of the tribe to say the red colour means painting for war. Many use the red for protection.

  6. maybe we could study them to figure out what the next trend in athletic hiking gear should be? :D

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