As It Happens

Uncontacted tribes face 'extinction' under Brazil's new president, advocates say

President Jair Bolsonaro wants to take away land set aside for Indigenous people, including the estimated 100 uncontacted tribes who live in the country's rainforests.

President Jair Bolsonaro puts agriculture ministry in charge of Indigenous land regulation

Brazil's new President Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated on New Year's day. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

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Policies implemented by Brazil's new president could mean "extinction and genocide" for the country's uncontacted Indigenous tribes, advocates say.

President Jair Bolsonaro issued an executive order effectively defanging FUNAI, the government agency charged with protecting Indigenous people and their territory.

Funai's biggest responsibility — to create and regulate Indigenous land — has been handed to the agriculture ministry.

The far-right leader has also said he wants to annul land demarcation decisions made by previous administrations, opening protected rainforests to commercial activities. 

That could have disastrous consequences for the estimated 100 uncontacted tribes living in Brazil, says Sarah Shenker, senior campaigner with Survival International, a non-profit that advocates for Indigenous land rights.

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

Jair Bolsonaro has assumed the presidency in Brazil. What might that mean for the country's Indigenous Peoples in the short term?

It could mean disaster for Brazil's Indigenous Peoples in the short term— and in the medium term, and possibly in the long term as well.

And I'm talking about the Indigenous people of Brazil, including uncontacted tribes, because they all depend on their land for their survival. Their land provides them with their food, with shelter, with everything that they need.

Uncontacted tribe members in the Brazilian Amazon, filmed from the air in 2010. (Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/Survival International)

Why is there such particular concern for the uncontacted peoples of the Amazon?

Uncontacted tribes are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet. They, more than any other Indigenous people, depend completely on their land. They have no contact with mainstream society.

So they don't buy food in the cities or anything like that. They fish. They hunt. Many of them are nomadic. They'll collect fruits and nuts in the forest. They depend completely on that land. 

And we've seen time and again in the past that when that land isn't protected and invaders move in, uncontacted tribes can be wiped out by violence at the hands of the invaders. 

And the other problem is disease because, of course, invaders going into uncontacted tribes' territories might be carrying germs. 

Would these uncontacted tribes even know that there was political change?

Of course, uncontacted tribes are unaware that there is a man called Jair Bolsonaro who doesn't want them to have their land and who would rather that they be extinct because then it would be much more convenient.

But, of course, what they do know is that they want to live in peace on their land.

And they show that time and again, for example, by leaving crossed spears on forest paths to show that they don't want contact with outsiders, or by pointing arrows up at passing planes, again, to show that they want to be left alone.

Members of an uncontacted Amazon Basin tribe and their dwellings are seen during a flight over the Brazilian state of Acre along the border with Peru in this May 2008 photo. (Funai-Frente de Proteção Etno-Ambiental Envira via Reuters)

Given the extent of the mineral wealth of the forest lands, what is the view in Brazil among non-Indigenous people? I mean,  Bolsonaro won this election. His record on this well-known.

Well, of course there's all sorts of opinions in Brazil — some people completely supporting Bolsonaro's ideas, and other people supporting Indigenous people.

Actually, just a few hours ago Bolsonaro ... tweeted a message, which I'll do a very rough translation of. He said: "More than 15 per cent of the national territory is mapped out as Indigenous territory and territory of slave descendant communities. Fewer than one million people live in these isolated parts of Brazil."

So what he's saying is the sort of comment that we hear quite often, actually — this idea that there's too much land for too few people.

That resonates with lots of Brazilians, especially those who are ranchers or who are involved in big business and who want to use Indigenous lands and who think it's not fair and it's quite inconvenient that there are Indigenous territories, which are large expanses of land, in their opinion, with few people living in them.

But the point is that these people need that land to survive and the reason that the populations in some places are relatively low is that others have been killed because of the invasions of that land.

Your colleague Fiona Watson has gone so far as to say this could mean genocide for some Indigenous Peoples. Does the record so far show that that is potentially likely?

Stealing Indigenous people's land means genocide. It means extinction of some uncontacted tribes. There are more than 100 uncontacted tribes in Brazil, and they all face extinction and genocide if their land isn't protected.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.