Last Thursday, the government of Brazil released photographs of a hidden tribe living deep in the Amazon, a tribe that the outside world has never seen or communicated with before.
The people in the photos are obviously disturbed by the low-flying plane-they have painted themselves in red and black body paint and are threatening it with arrows. Undoubtedly, the story of the day the plane flew by will be passed down among these people for generations to come… if they are protected and allowed to continue living undisturbed.
These photographs remind us how much of the rainforest is still left to protect: a jungle large enough to shelter tribal groups that have never come into contact with modern society. This jungle is important to all of us on planet Earth, no matter where we live. The rainforest contains an astonishing number of plants and animals, some with untested medicinal potential.
The vegetation in the Amazon also stores carbon from the atmosphere. However, the photos should also remind us of another important reason to protect as much of the remaining forest as possible: there are people who have called the Amazon rainforest home for thousands of years. Destroying the forest will also destroy their traditional way of life.
Unfortunately, native groups that live in the Amazon rainforest have been under increasing pressure as the forest is exploited by farmers, ranchers, oil and gas companies and loggers. Much of the logging is against the law.
For example, Greenpeace estimates that somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 80% of the trees that are cut in the Amazon are felled illegally. However, enforcement is difficult due to the size and remoteness of the affected areas, so the laws are often ignored.
Also, some South American governments will sell oil, gas or mineral rights even if the land involved is recognized as tribal land. For example, in Ecuador, indigenous tribes such as the Shuar and the Achuar have been subjected to intimidation from oil companies. In Brazil, the Yanomami have had their lands disturbed by miners, and the government is considering a bill to allow more mining into the area.
Sometimes, even the slightest brush with the outside world can have deadly consequences. Time and time again, the first contact between isolated tribes and the outside world has resulted in a deadly exchange of germs. For example, in 1996, more than half of the Murunahua tribe of Peru died as a result of modern illnesses such as the common cold.
Deforestation has also pushed tribes off of their ancestral homes. For example, in May of last year a tribe of indigenous people called the Metyktire were forced to abandon their homes due to illegal logging. This group had been contacted but had chosen to stay isolated-until the choice to join the outside world was made for them by loggers.
Many native groups in the Amazon have already been contacted by outsiders. They know the modern world is out there, and while some do leave traditional ways behind for a more modern lifestyle, there are also many tribes that choose to live in the forest, the way they always have.
No one, except the tribes themselves, can say which way is right for them. If we let the Amazon be destroyed, cut down for timber and dug up in search of oil and gold, then we take away something from these tribes that we take for granted for ourselves: the right to decide their own fate.