Ten Years on: Uncontacted Tribe in Danger as Land Protection Stalls

The last of the Kawahiva are forced to live on the run from armed loggers and powerful ranchers. Still from unique footage taken by government agents during a chance encounter. © FUNAI

Ten years after Brazilian authorities released extraordinary footage showing the existence of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe, their lands have still not been fully protected – and loggers and land-grabbers surround them.

In 2013 Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs Department FUNAI released video that they had filmed during a chance encounter with the Kawahiva people of Mato Grosso state, deep in the Amazon.

Award-winning actor Mark Rylance recording the narration for The Last of the Kawahiva. © Survival 2015

Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance later narrated a film about their plight, “The Last of the Kawahiva,” for Survival International.

A global campaign by Survival International, alongside Indigenous people, pressured the authorities to act, and in 2018 cattle ranchers and loggers who had occupied the Kawahiva territory were evicted.

But since then the land protection process has stalled – loggers and landgrabbers are surrounding their territory, and an illegal road has been built just 2km away.

A FUNAI team at a protection post nearby have been working to keep the loggers and ranchers out, despite the dangers – their post has been attacked several times.

Massacres and disease have already killed many Kawahiva – the only chance of survival for those who remain is if their territory is finally demarcated (legally recognized and marked out).

The government has already been given two deadlines to finish demarcating the Kawahiva territory: in 2013 – the year the video was first released – a Brazilian court ordered the demarcation to be carried out. Ten years on, this still has not happened, and in August of this year, Brazil’s Supreme Court gave FUNAI 60 days to finalize a plan for the definitive demarcation of the territory.

Eliane Xunakalo of Indigenous organization FEPOIMT (Federation of Indigenous peoples and organizations of Mato Grosso) said today: “It’s vital to finish the demarcation for our uncontacted relatives. The “Kawahiva do Rio Pardo” territory is coveted by outsiders, and it’s also extremely dangerous for the FUNAI employees who work on the protection post there. We will only be able to guarantee the survival of our uncontacted relatives if the territory is demarcated.

“It’s up to us to protect our relatives, to protect their way of life, because they are the resistance and resilience in the midst of all these threats and challenges that exist here in Mato Grosso,” she added.

This is one of the most crucial cases concerning uncontacted tribes anywhere in Brazil. The Kawahiva are survivors of countless genocidal attacks which have wiped out many of them; the land demarcation process has ground to a halt; and loggers and landgrabbers see the territory as open for business. We know that they have been active inside the Kawahiva’s forest, and any encounter between the Kawahiva and these outsiders, who are usually armed, could be deadly. The authorities must act now to finish the job, and legally protect the Kawahiva territory once and for all.

Survival International, founded in 1969 after an article by Norman Lewis in the UK's Sunday Times highlighted the massacres, land thefts and genocide taking place in Brazilian Amazonia, is the only international organization supporting tribal peoples worldwide. Contact Survival International at: info@survival-international.org. Read other articles by Survival International, or visit Survival International's website.