Struggles to survive in the Amazon

April 3, 2014

Me Txanava, Brazil

By Lunae Parracho

A day of navigating along the muddy Envira River brought us to a village of the Huni Kui tribe known as Me Txanava, or village of the Singing Birds.

The moon shone bright in the starry sky over the silent village that lies in the municipality of Feijó – part of Brazil’s Acre state, which borders Peru.

The night before, a Huni Kui woman had lost her newborn daughter while giving birth in a boat on the Envira River. The mother and daughter did reach a hospital, but the baby died an hour later.

In mourning, the community gathered inside a house where a small, closed coffin illuminated by yellow candlelight held the child’s remains. Village shaman Ninawa, the father of the dead child, accepted the presence of strangers openly.

“Be happy,” he said. “You’ve come home.”

Later, while strolling in the village, I stopped in front of the largest hut and stood there for a while. The starry sky was enchanting. This was a house of prayer called a shubuã, which the Huni Kui consider a type of university, a place where they learn and share their traditional knowledge. That night it was closed in mourning for the child who never had a name.

For me, Me Txanava was a stopover on my way to Ashaninka territory. I was on my way to accompany Ashaninka tribe leaders who had invited me on a trip to survey the limits of their territory. Their land is co-habited by uncontacted Indians – defined by the tribal advocacy organisation Survival International as groups who have no peaceful contact with mainstream society.

Both the Ashaninka and neighboring Madija tribe report that these unknown groups have been encroaching on their area more and more over the past three years, creating a source of conflict in this part of the Amazon rainforest around the Envira River, close to the border with Peru.

“For these groups to come as close to Ashaninka villages as they have in recent years, something must be pressuring them. According to the Ashaninka and the FUNAI [Brazil’s governmental Indian affairs agency] that pressure is the illegal action of Peruvian loggers,” said anthropologist Rose Padilha of the Catholic Church’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), which tries to help native tribes in this region.

The “Bravos,” or “Braves,” as uncontacted Indians are called in the area, carry out raids on other villages, putting communities along the Envira River on permanent alert.

“They steal pots, knives, cloth. They live naked, speak another language and don’t want to talk. They are at war with everyone. If they get close they shoot arrows at us,” Ashaninka cacique (chief) Txate told me. At 77, he is one of the oldest indigenous leaders in the region.

The Indians have reaffirmed their decision not to fight the uncontacted tribes, but they demand that the Brazilian government take steps for the surveillance of their territory and their protection.

Txate told me, “Our indigenous relatives in Peru speak to us of the loggers and we are very concerned.”

A government base called the Envira Front of Ethno-environmental Protection that was built in the region was abandoned in 2011, in an incident said to involve an attack by drug traffickers and an armed group from Peru that was prowling the region inhabited by the Ashaninkas.

“The Bravos are coming at us because Peruvian loggers are heading straight for them. And nobody ever explained to us about that story of drug traffickers or why FUNAI fled the base. Now we know that we need to take care of our territory, because if we have to leave here we don’t have any place to go,” Txate said.

Our trip to the abandoned base in the jungle took nine days of travelling up the Envira River. On the second day a canoe carrying an Ashaninka family passed us. They had left their village five days earlier in search of medical care for one of their daughters in Feijó, the nearest town.

Other families passed us in the same situation. The region doesn’t have a permanent health clinic along the river. According to the Indians, diarrhoea is the most common cause of death among children. A trip to find help can take up to 10 days, depending on the boat and the availability of gasoline.

One of the Indians on our trip told us that his three-month-old niece Orihiki had died two weeks earlier as they searched for help for her diarrhoea and vomiting. He became emotional as he showed us the place they had buried her on the riverbank.

In a village called Novo Segredo, where we arrived on the third night of traveling, Huni Kui Indians are reviving their traditional medicine and sometimes can help the Ashaninkas and Madijas. In Novo Segredo they established what they call a ‘center for spiritual concentration’ in the forest.

“It’s a place where anyone from anywhere can come to be healed,” explained shaman Bainawa. The next day Bainawa took us with other shamans along a jungle path full of plants that they claim have healing powers. The path, which they call the ‘Ministry’, ended at an immense sacred samauma (silk-cotton) tree which he told us is “like the first tree of the forest; it is spiritual and gives the people knowledge.”

Our trip continued for days up the Envira River. Cacique Ominá of the Madija tribe walked along a forest trail used by uncontacted Indians to reach his own village, called Igarapé do Anjo or Angel’s Creek.

Ominá told me that he has followed the trail of these Indians until he reached their huts. Along the way he picked up objects such as arrows that they had handcrafted and he said he delivered them to FUNAI.

He did give one of the objects, a small ceramic flute, to his son Binai, who learned to play it. Another Madija cacique, Isanami, pointed out a different area of the forest where uncontacted Indians also roam, a few meters from his village of Dsama. He reported that they had been involved in several episodes of looting.

“One night the Bravos entered my house as I slept and took my mosquito net without waking me,” he said. “They took pots and tools, but they didn’t like the salt or sugar. They opened the packages to see what they were and left them behind.”

One Ashaninka couple, Poshe and Biana, said that their three-year-old daughter Sawatxo had been taken by the Bravos some years ago. She was kidnapped at night from their village Simpatia and since then they haven’t had any news of her.

It’s hard not to think about what goes on in the heads of the Bravos as they watch their own world shrink.

While the Ashaninka confirm the abandonment of the Ethno-environmental Protection base, they talk about recent footprints they have noticed. One Indian named Xupac identified one footprint of a woman going barefoot and at least one of a man wearing boots.

Cacique Txate picked up a shotgun cartridge and scoured the ground around. He pointed to a piece of freshly-bitten fruit and concluded, “There were people here today.” They were not sure who had left the traces, but they were worried.

The next day a community meeting was called in Kokasul village and the Indians discussed what to do. Some suggested they occupy the area where the government base used to be. “We can’t be pushed out of our land. It is here that we live with our children and grandchildren,” Txate said.

A few days later Txate would be flying in a small plane over the territory with the help of CIMI, in search of answers. From above, the elderly leader observed the green immensity in silence. At the sight of a group of uncontacted Indians he sighed.

“The Bravos also no longer have anywhere to go,” he said.


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