Last week, the Brazilian government released aerial photographs of an indigenous tribe living in the Amazon that has never been contacted by outsiders. These intriguing pictures show tribe members in black and red body paint, threatening the intruding plane with bows and arrows. We've become so used to thinking of the rainforest as threatened that it's heartening to see proof of how much still remains - enough to shelter 50 or more uncontacted tribes
However, as vast as the Amazon is, it's not big enough to sustain the current rate of deforestation for very long. A report issued in January of this year predicts that if current trends continue, 55% of the rainforest could be cut or damaged beyond repair by 2030. Also, according to a story in the Christian Science Monitor, 2010 square miles were cut in Brazil in the last 5 months of 2007 alone. Although most South American countries have laws in place to protect the forest, enforcement is difficult and the laws are often ignored. Greenpeace estimates that anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of all logging in Brazil's portion of the Amazon is illegal, but that doesn't seem to be stopping the loggers. Of course, the Amazon is a vital hotbed of biodiversity and is also one of the planet's few remaining natural weapons against greenhouse gases. However, as these photographs illustrate, even the parts we consider "pristine" are not uninhabited. The rainforest is the ancestral home of at least 200 different tribes. Deforestation presents a direct threat to these people and their traditional way of life. First of all, deforestation destroys their homes, destroying valuable plants and driving game animals away. In May of 2007, a group of indigenous people called the Metyktire were driven out of their homes by illegal loggers. Lest you think that indigenous people are better off learning how to live in the modern world, consider this quote:
"In 508 years of history, out of the thousands of tribes that exist none have adapted well to society in Brazil."- Sydney Possuelo, a former official of Brazil's Indian protection agency, quoted in Reuters.
Many tribes choose to live in isolation, including the Metyktire before they were forced out of their homes. They know perfectly well that the modern world exists, but they prefer their traditional ways of life. If the current rate of deforestation continues, these tribes that live in voluntary isolation will lose what most of us would consider a basic and fundamental right: the ability to determine their own destiny. Additionally, indigenous groups that live in isolation have never had a chance to develop immunities to diseases that we take for granted. A cold that would be a week-long annoyance to one of us could be a death sentence to someone without any immunity to the virus. In the past, contact between native tribes and outsiders has frequently resulted in devastating epidemics. For example, in the 1970's the Brazilian government began construction of a road that cut through territory inhabited by the Yanomami people. The contact with outsiders and their germs resulted in an epidemic that killed 20% of the population. In Peru in 1996, the common cold killed half of the members of the Murunahua tribe. Illegal logging does not simply destroy these people's homes, it can take their lives, as well. Fortunately, the public release of the pictures has prompted the Peruvian government to act. Well, sort of. The government is now sending out a team of investigators to verify if the photos are real. Apparently, Peru's president thinks that these native people may be a figment of environmentalist's imaginations.
The AP reports that "In a column for the newspaper El Comercio, Garcia wrote that the "figure of the jungle native" was "created" to prevent oil exploration in the region."-AOL News
Hopefully, the research team sent by the government will be able to verify these people's existence without forcing them into contact with the outside world. What can we do to protect these people and the unique, vibrant ecosystem they live in? Of course, land conservation projects help, as does putting pressure on the governments involved to do a better job protecting tribal lands. Of course, never buy any products made from rainforest wood such as mahogany. One of the biggest obstacles to conservation right now is that the forest is worth more dead than alive to loggers, oil companies, farmers and others. One tactic that has been suggested is to change this equation by paying landowners in the area to keep the forest intact-basically, paying them for the carbon dioxide that their forest takes out of the atmosphere each year. Some scientists believe that providing incentives and concentrating development in carefully selected areas might preserve the majority of the remaining rainforest.