Out Of The Amazon, Uncontacted Indians Face Diseases Of A New World

An uncontacted Amazonian tribe has ended its isolation in Brazil. Audie Cornish speaks with Fiona Watson, the field and research director for Survival International, who explains what happened to make this tribal people leave its village.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last month in the Brazilian rainforest, something extremely rare happened. A small group of men and women so-called un-contacted Indians made contact. They appeared in a village deep in the Amazon. This week the Brazilian government released new details about the group. They are believed to have crossed into Brazil from Peru where they faced threats from illegal logging and drug trafficking. And now that they've made contact they are highly vulnerable to illness. A health team from Brazil's Indian Affairs Department - known as FUNAI - treated seven of the Indians for flu. For more on this, we're joined by Fiona Watson. She's field and research director for Survival International, a group that advocates on behalf of un-contacted and tribal people and works closely with FUNAI. Welcome to the program.

FIONA WATSON: Thanks very much for having me on.

CORNISH: Begin by helping us understand this term un-contacted. Does it mean that no one knew these people existed?

WATSON: Well, what we mean by un-contacted tribes is people who have no sustained contact either with neighboring tribes or with the wider national society - in this case Brazil. They are tribes who are living usually in very remote areas.

CORNISH: And when FUNAI reported this week on their encounters with the seven people from this group, how did they describe the individuals they met and how they were able to communicate with them?

WATSON: Well, they said they were five men and two women roughly between the ages of 12 and 21. The encounters are very peaceful. They came into the village, they sat there for several hours talking and they were able to communicate because FUNAI had brought in linguists and people from neighboring tribes who said that they could understand some of the language because they think they belong to a grouping of people who are known as Penan peoples. And the other thing that they managed to glean or understand from these encounters were that they were a long way from their community or village which the FUNAI people believe is in Peru from the way they described it. And the most worrying thing is that they said they had already had encounters with non-indigenous people. And that these had been violent and they showed that they had been shot at with firearms.

CORNISH: Did Brazil's Indian Affairs Department - did they give a sense of who they thought that those encounters might have been with?

WATSON: They think on the Peru side and survival knows from reports that we have received is that there's certainly a lot of invasion of indigenous peoples lands on the Peru side. We know that there are drug traffickers trafficking cocaine and cocoa plants have been planted there. There's a lot of logging activity - mahogany, the hardwood is prevalent in that area - and you can imagine if you're a non-contracted tribe who has some knowledge but very little knowledge of that world out there and what you see is people coming in, stealing your resources, scaring off the game that you rely on for food and most dangerously wielding firearms - this must be an incredibly frightening experience. And we think that has pushed them over the border into Brazil where they've now appeared.

CORNISH: As we mentioned a health team treated seven of the Indians for flu. What are the concerns there?

WATSON: This is incredibly worrying because these people have been in isolation for hundreds of years. So they have no immunity against things that we take for granted that, you know, are not harmful like the common cold or flu or indeed other things like measles. And so if they come into contact with people who are carrying these viruses they are frequently, well, almost always lethal. And we know of case where almost entire tribes have been wiped out and it's been a tragic history really throughout the Americas in the last 500 years. Disease is by far and away probably been the biggest killer of these isolated and remote peoples. So this is the huge worry now. In this case, the seven people appeared. They have treated them but the big question is when they went back into the forest every night were there other people in their community who were there in the forest who they might have unwittingly transmitted the flu virus? We don't know.

CORNISH: Fiona Watson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WATSON: Thank you.

CORNISH: Fiona Watson works for the group Survival International. She was speaking about what are known as un-contacted Indians. A small group of them appeared last month deep in the Amazon rain forest.

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