RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazilian authorities have expelled a group of illegal loggers and ranchers from a remote area of the Amazon in a risky and rare operation to protect a threatened indigenous tribe.
The Kawahiva are nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in one of Brazil’s most lawless areas and have no contact with mainstream society. Campaigners say their survival is threatened by intruders seeking to profit from the forest’s vast resources.
On Tuesday, Funai, the government agency that represents indigenous people’s interests, said it had evicted five “non-indigenous” people from the area in a joint operation with the environmental protection agency.
Defending the territory was “fundamental for the survival of isolated indigenous peoples,” Funai official Geovanio Pantoja Katukina said in a statement.
The Kawahiva are one of the world’s last remaining “uncontacted” tribes, who have no peaceful contact with the outside world. Campaigners say only a few dozen are thought to survive after decades of encroachment on their land.
They lack natural immunity to many diseases, making them doubly vulnerable to encroachment by outsiders, who risk bringing disease as well as destroying the unspoiled forest they depend on.
In 2016 the Brazilian government approved the creation of a reserve in the Amazon rainforest to protect the Kawahiva.
But that process is not yet complete and campaigners fear their situation could worsen under the right-wing government of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who takes office in January.
He has pledged to open up protected land and demarcate “not one centimeter” for indigenous people or quilombolas – descendants of runaway slaves.
Survival International said more needed to be done to protect the Kawahiva’s reserve before Mr Bolsonaro took office.
“If their land is protected they can thrive … But they’re going to need all the help they can get to see the legal process to protect their land completed,” said the group’s director Stephen Corry in a statement.
Some 517,000 natives, about two-thirds of Brazil’s indigenous population, live on reservations that represent 12.5 percent of the country’s territory.
Environmentalists say the indigenous people on the reservations are the best guardians of Brazil’s tropical forests and their biodiversity.
There are also suspicions that Mr Bolsonaro will try to weaken Funai. He considered putting the agency under the agriculture ministry, which would give farmers who backed his election an upper hand in land conflicts.
The agency, which currently sits with the justice ministry, will instead come under a new ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights.