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Brazilian officials made contact with one group of Korubo people, shown here, in 1996. After violent encounters last year, another group of previously isolated Korubo recently made contact with local settlers and government officials.

Brazilian officials made contact with one group of Korubo people, shown here, in 1996. After violent encounters last year, another group of previously isolated Korubo recently made contact with local settlers and government officials.

Isolated tribespeople receiving care after violent contact in Brazil

In the wake of several encounters, Brazilian government workers are tending to 21 formerly isolated Korubo people in a remote corner of the Brazilian Amazon. A recent statement by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the Brazilian agency charged with protecting indigenous peoples, reports that settled Matis villagers had attacked Korubo last December, leaving at least eight dead. The killings apparently were in revenge, as Korubo had killed two Matis a few days earlier. Most recently, in late September and October, a group of Matis—indigenous people who settled down in the 1970s—deliberately contacted Korubo near the Matis village of Tawaya on the Branco River. FUNAI officials arrived in Tawaya in September and have been caring for the Korubo since then, according to the statement.

The tragic events are fueling ongoing debate about how to manage the process of contact between isolated and settled indigenous people. FUNAI’s policy is one of no contact unless initiated by the isolated group, but anthropologist Robert Walker of the University of Missouri, Columbia, says the deaths are “a good example of why the ‘leave them alone’ strategy doesn’t work.” Anthropologist Barbara Arisi of the Federal University of Latin American Integration in Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil, says the hands-off policy has advantages, but should be more flexible, allowing for rapid response in emergencies. But FUNAI officials and others have argued that a no-contact policy is vital to the health and self-determination of isolated people.

The most recent events, which occurred in the Vale do Javari indigenous territory, are the latest in a series of sometimes-hostile encounters between Matis and isolated Korubo that began in December 2014, when a group of isolated Korubo killed two Matis men. The killings were triggered by the death of a newborn Korubo baby and the Matis’ refusal to give objects to the Korubo, according to the FUNAI statement. After the two men were killed, the Matis requested permission to establish contact with the Korubo, according to a letter from the Matis indigenous association to the Brazilian attorney general’s office. But the Korubo’s hostility suggested a rejection of outsiders rather than a wish to contact them, according to the FUNAI statement.

So instead of contact, FUNAI helped the Matis village relocate to another area in order to prevent conflict. The agency flew over the region in an effort to map the area being used by the Korubo. After the overflights, however, Matis villagers attacked the Korubo, and at least eight Korubo died, according to the statement.

Then, in September, a group of Matis encountered isolated Korubo near the Matis village of Tawaya and took them to Tawaya to live. A week later, on 7 October, the Matis contacted a second group of 11 Korubo, including four children, two infants, and a pregnant woman, and took them to join the first group, according to the FUNAI statement. A team from FUNAI and the Health Ministry’s indigenous health service arrived in Tawaya on 29 September and began to care for the 21 Korubo, some of whom were survivors of the December attack. At this time, FUNAI learned of the earlier Korubo deaths, according to the statement. FUNAI issued a public statement on the September contact and previous deaths in November, after a Brazilian website published an account of the events.

In September, health workers moved the Korubo to a camp farther from the Matis village, to protect against illnesses to which they have no natural resistance. For isolated people, even a case of flu can be deadly. Several outbreaks of respiratory illnesses reportedly have occurred in the camp, but Health Ministry reports indicated that they were controlled. A baby also was born there, according to Douglas Rodrigues, a physician and public health expert at the Federal University of São Paulo in Brazil.

Acute respiratory illnesses are common in cases of initial contact, and are the most common cause of death from contact, said Rodrigues, who has provided medical care in five cases of initial contact. Recommendations include making sure health teams are disease free before they enter an area, treating illnesses, and vaccinating newly contacted people, giving priority to flu, measles, and hepatitis B, he said.  

The area where the December encounter occurred was historically occupied by both the Matis and the Korubo, who had a history of sporadic contact, says Arisi, who has studied the Matis. The Matis themselves settled down in the 1970s; in 1996, they assisted FUNAI in making first contact with one group of Korubo, a contact FUNAI initiated in order to protect the Korubo from incursions by outsiders (see photo).

After decades of sparse contact with isolated peoples, encounters are happening more rapidly in Brazil and Peru. The encounter in September was the fifth initial contact in Brazil in less than 2 years. Rodrigues and other experts fear there could be more such cases in the future, as dams, highways, mines, and other development projects planned for the Amazon encroach on indigenous territories. Some question whether FUNAI, which has suffered budget and personnel cuts in recent years, will be able to manage potential encounters; others, such as Walker, argue that it is appropriate to initiate contact in some circumstances.  

Although Brazil has the largest number, isolated groups also live in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Chaco region of Paraguay. The forest along the border between Brazil and Peru, where the Rio do Javari indigenous territory is located, is home to the largest concentration of isolated people in the world. The border is a hot spot for illegal logging, and drug traffickers ship cocaine from Peru to Brazil along the rivers. Illegal fishing of ornamental fish for the aquarium trade has also been reported. Although FUNAI has a guard post at one key point of entry to the Javari reserve, loggers and fishermen enter along other rivers, according to anthropologists who have worked in the area.

 The Rio do Javari indigenous territory, which covers an area nearly the size of South Carolina, was officially established in 2001 to protect isolated groups. It is home to about 4500 people who are in contact with the outside world, as well as two groups in recent contact and 16 that still avoid contact, according to FUNAI.