Amazon Catholic leaders: Isolated Indigenous peoples must be protected

By Barbara Fraser and Lise Alves | Catholic News Service
Wednesday, September 14, 2022

After the death in the Brazilian forest of an Indigenous man who was thought to be the last of his tribe and who shunned all contact with outsiders, Amazonian church leaders said it is more important than ever to protect the region’s remaining semi-nomadic, isolated peoples.

The man, who lived alone in the Tanaru Indigenous Territory in the western state of Rondônia, was known as the “man of the hole,” because of his practice of digging concealed pits, probably to trap game.

Little is known about him or his tribe, which was decimated as loggers and cattle ranchers moved into the area in the 1980s and 1990s. He had lived alone for at least 26 years and resisted all efforts at contact, according to the Brazilian government’s Indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, which monitored him. He was found dead in his hut in late August.

“Another age-old culture disappears without our knowledge, due to the genocide perpetrated by farmers and loggers,” the Brazilian bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council, or CIMI, said in a statement. “He must be remembered and perpetuated as a symbol of the resistance of all peoples who, in defense of autonomy, adopt the strategy of voluntary isolation.”

The Amazon basin is home to more than 100 semi-nomadic Indigenous groups that shun contact with the outside world. Most live along rivers in the densely forested region along the borders between Brazil and Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela, and along the border between Peru and Ecuador.

The people, who build huts and plant gardens, but also migrate through large areas to gather food, are thought to be descended from groups that fled toward the headwaters of rivers to escape the brutality of the rubber boom in the early 1900s, when tens of thousands of enslaved Indigenous people are believed to have died.

“When a people disappears, a culture disappears, a history of thousands of years disappears. That’s a wake-up call to humanity that the process of extinction of biodiversity is followed by the process of extinction of human beings,” José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, a leader of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, or COICA, an umbrella group of Amazonian Indigenous organizations, told Catholic News Service.

“For us, a unique human being dies — unique peoples that existed and were exterminated. It’s a process of extermination that began with the rubber boom, later with oil production and now with pressure from climate change,” added Diaz, who participated in the Vatican’s 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Amazon.

“Unfortunately, there is no strong, clear policy for the protection of these brothers,” he added.

In Brazil, FUNAI’s official policy is to monitor those groups from a distance, without attempting to contact them. But funding and safeguards have been rolled back under President Jair Bolsonaro, resulting in invasions of Indigenous territories by illegal loggers, fishers and miners.

“There is a plan to exterminate free or isolated Indigenous peoples,” Gilderlan Rodrigues, a member of CIMI’s Support Team for Free Peoples, wrote in a statement delivered to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April. “This is the worst possible scenario for the survival of free or isolated Indigenous peoples.”

The CIMI support team’s 11 members work in the field, gathering information about isolated groups without contacting them, and urging the government to take protective measures, especially for groups whose existence has not been reported before.

While FUNAI has recorded 114 isolated groups, CIMI has reports of 117 in the Amazon region and one in the central Brazilian state of Goiás.

But Brazil’s federal government officially recognizes only 28 such groups, according to Guenter Francisco Loebens, a missionary and expert on Indigenous peoples who has worked in the Amazon since 1978 and is a member of the CIMI support team.


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