The whereabouts of a remote Amazonian tribe who appeared in remarkable footage earlier this year aiming bows and arrows at a plane flying over their jungle homes was unknown Monday after government officials sent to protect them were forced to abandon their post and flee from armed drug traffickers.
Traffickers crossed the border from Peru and threatened officials from the National Indigenous Foundation (Funai), the government body charged with protecting Brazil’s isolated Indians, a foundation spokesman said, underlining new threats for isolated Indians as traffickers seek new territory and routes.
"This is extremely distressing news,” says Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, an indigenous rights group based in the UK. “There is no knowing how many tribal peoples the drugs trade has wiped out in the past, but all possible measures should be taken to stop it happening again."
The officials monitoring the tribe fled and the traffickers ransacked their jungle camp before Brazilian police reinforcements could reach the area.
Police have now retaken the base close to Brazil’s western border with Peru, and Funai officials are once again on the ground.
Two dozen officers tracked down and arrested one man, named as Joaquim Fadista. Mr. Fadista had already been detained in Brazil on trafficking charges and extradited to Peru.
Officials believe Fadista was involved with a group trying to carve out new cross-border cocaine routes, or was working for loggers who covet the timber growing in the untouched forests where the group, called the Xinane, live.
They are particularly worried at finding an arrow head in one of the trafficker’s abandoned backpacks.
"Arrows are like the identity card of uncontacted Indians,” says Carlos Travassos, the Funai official in charge of the isolated Indians division. “We think the Peruvians made the Indians flee…We are more concerned than ever. This could be one of the biggest blows in decades to the work of protecting isolated Indians."
Although Funai sent an official report on the events, it did not mention the whereabouts of the Xinane and it is not known if they are safe. Officials hope they fled the commotion and sought refuge deeper in the forest.
The Xinane came to worldwide prominence at the start of this year after they were filmed for a BBC nature program. The incredible scenes showed the clearly frightened Indians pointing bows and arrows at the plane flying overhead.
The footage turned them into unlikely – albeit unknown – celebrities and indigenous rights activists were today lamenting the developments and praying for their safety.
"The world’s attention should be on these uncontacted Indians, just as it was at the beginning of this year when they were first captured on film," says Mr.Corry.
Isolated Indian tribes like the Xinane are often kept on reservations for what officials say is their own good. Funai creates the fenced-off areas not to keep the Indians in, but to keep loggers, farmers, miners, and other threats out.
The policy is designed to protect the Indians and allow them to continue to live the same way they have lived for centuries.
Around 18 percent of the Amazon has been chopped down, and although deforestation rates have slowed in recent years, there are traces or reports of 39 uncontacted tribes still living in remote parts of the rainforest.
Today, there are around 350,000 Indians in Brazil, down from between 3 and 5 million before European colonizers arrived.