The Uncontacted Awá: The World’s Most Threatened Tribe

Published February 21, 2015
Updated February 12, 2018
Published February 21, 2015
Updated February 12, 2018

Often times, the price of growth is shifted to the already marginalized. Such is the case with Brazil's Awá people, the world's most threatened tribe.

The Awá, The World's Most Threatened Tribe

Source: Vanity Fair

In some of the most remote and naturally beautiful parts of the globe, people continue to live without electricity, fast food and Saturday Night Live. They’re healthy, functional and knowledgeable, but their lifestyles and security are under threat.

Approximately 100 Brazilian tribes call the Amazon basin home, including the Awá Indians, who adopted a nomadic lifestyle around 1800 to avoid European incursion in the jungle. Today, their way of life is under attack by logging and oil industries.

Most Threatened Tribe Boy

Source: BBC

An estimated 350 Awá natives live in Brazil, and 100 of them are considered “isolated”, having chosen to live separately from the large settlement demarcated for the tribe. These worlds are converging, and not by choice. Three isolated Awá Indians made contact with a settled Awá tribe in January 2015 after hearing chainsaws and witnessing logging trucks around their encampment. The isolated tribe is concerned about survival, and rightly so.

In 2011, a young Awá girl was burned alive by illegal loggers after she wandered out of her village and into the government-protected area of Maranhão. This incident isn’t necessarily isolated; illegal loggers and ranchers are behind the deaths of numerous tribespeople and the decimation of the villages they once inhabited.

So how has the fight for land in Brazil become so violent? And what is being done to ensure that Awá tribe populations don’t continue to fall?

Awá Tribe In The Amazon

Source: BBC

It all starts-—and maybe paradoxically–with the desire to grow. In 1964, the Brazilian government passed a land law to encourage development in the Amazon region. This law gave land rights to those who could cultivate the land or produce on it. If the individual demonstrated “effective use” of the land for a year and a day-—which the Brazilian government effectively decided meant clearing large swaths of forests, those who inhabited them, and creating cattle pastures—-they could claim the land as theirs.

Most Threatened Tribe Burned Forest

A member of the Awá tribe stands before a forest burned due to logging. Source: Survival International

In other words, land would only be yours if you engaged in large-scale production activities (or if you had the power to bribe judges to grant you land titles; or you just made up the titles yourself). This type of relationship with the environment ran in obvious opposition to indigenous perspectives on land use, meaning that indigenous people would have a really hard time convincing the Brazilian government that they made “effective use” of land and that it was therefore theirs.

With the law encouraging the commercial use of land, ranchers really began to dig into areas traditionally “held” by indigenous tribes. These ranchers impertinently clear land for cattle pastures, which become unproductive within 10 years. If ranchers were to “revitalize” this infertile pasture, it would cost $110 per acre. Such a price helps explain why 50 percent of ranch lands stand abandoned and why ranchers are pushing further and further into the Amazon in pursuit of profit.

In 1982, while still under military rule, Brazil received a 900 million dollar loan from the World Bank and the European Union, under the condition that native lands would be identified and protected. Brazilian officials didn’t exactly heed to the loan’s language, and first used these funds to build a railway to the Carajas Mountains, where a state-owned mining company mined iron ore. This railway bisected Awá hunting grounds, exposing the tribe to violence and disease.

The government was very slow in meeting tribal demarcation requirements, and it was only with external pressure from advocacy groups like Survival International that the Brazilian government ever met the conditions of the loan. The Awá lands were finally defined in 2003, but it would be years before the government would take action against encroachment.

Most Threatened Tribe Deforestation

Source: BBC

Under pressure from indigenous rights NGOs and protestors who blocked dams and marched on congress, Brazil eventually agreed to send in the military to properly protect Awá tribal lands and eject interlopers in 2014.

FUNAI, the Brazilian National Indian Foundation has worked with the military to clear the indigenous lands of illegal farmers. Said farmers have been given notice by the Brazilian government to leave the demarcated tribal zones and will, in return, be given another parcel elsewhere in the state.

The Brazilian environmental protection agency has also engaged in raids on mills and logging sites to check for proper paperwork and ensure that the trees being processed are permitted under Brazilian law. Mills on tribal lands have been destroyed.

Members Of The Awa Human Tribe

Source: Earth Tribe

These solutions work for now, but what will the Awá do when the operation is over? One-third of their tribal land in Maranhão has already been destroyed. How much more will be felled once the military leaves?

This question has become all too familiar to tribes living in the Amazon. With a country hoping to claw its way out of recession and the appointment of Kátia “Chainsaw Queen“ Abreu as the Minister of Agriculture, environmentalists are worried.

Abreu is in favor of loosening forest protections and adding more roads and dams across the basin. While both are sure to generate some short-term economic growth and provide for cheaper energy, in the long term their costs—both human and ecological—will be staggeringly high.

FUNAI estimates that almost 50 additional tribes are isolated in the Brazilian jungle. If the Brazilian government’s slow response to the needs of the Awá people is to serve as any guide on how these other tribes might be treated, indigenous decline is imminent.

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