An aerial photograph shows the construction site of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam at Pimental, near Altamira in Para State, November 15, 2012. After years of gains against destruction of the Amazon rainforest, Brazil appears to be suffering from an increase in deforestation as farmers, loggers, miners and builders move into previously untouched woodland, according to data compiled by the government and independent researchers. Picture taken November 15, 2012. (Photo : BRAZIL-AMAZON/ REUTERS/Stian Bergeland/Rainforest Foundation Norway/Handout )
Although Brazil’s government has pared down deforestation of its Amazon rain forest land, large amounts of logging activity continue, much of it illegally, according to conservationists. And it’s not just tropical wildlife that lose habitats in the process. Indigenous tribes who call the rain forest home likewise risk permanent displacement if the logging continues unabated.
The Awa, who number no more than 450 and live as hunter-gatherers on four tracts of rain-forest land in northeastern Brazil, are one of these tribes. Thousands of loggers, ranchers, and settlers have converged on Awa lands, and while a judge last year ordered all of the newcomers to vacate within 12 months, the 12-month deadline passed with none leaving and the government making no efforts to evict them.
On one of the Awa’s four lands, 30% of the forest cover is already gone. Survival International, a London-based NGO, calls the Awa “the world’s most endangered tribe” and warns that, at the current rate, activists warn, the Awa will end up losing their forests and being reduced to living on government subsidies.
Last December, Survival International-sponsored protests against the illegal logging took place in Madrid, Paris, Milan, Berlin, London, San Francisco, and the Hague. And together with actor Colin Firth, the NGO oversaw a letter-writing campaign in which 50,000 respondents from around the world wrote to Eduardo Cardoso, Brazilian justice minister.
Deforestation in the Amazon declined substantially from 1988 through 2010, as the government enacted and enforced new restrictions on logging in the Amazon. But environmentalists worry that Brazil’s protection of its forest land may be waning. In 2012, President Dilma Rousseff approved an easing of many tree-conservation regulations. For example, she struck down a longstanding requirement that smallholders who chop down forest land illegally must restore it.
Development has impacted many Amazon tribes over the years, and no one knows for sure how many more might be in danger, or even how many live in the Amazon in total. No one knows for sure just how many indigenous tribes might live within the Amazon. There are 30 confirmed tribes, so far, but Brazil’s National Indian Foundation estimates that as many as 77 could live within the region, the vast majority of them hidden.
The Awa have been particularly hard-hit by outside development, ever since geologists’ discovery in the 1960s of rich iron-ore reserves in their region. After a rail line for conveying mined iron ore from Awa land was built in the 1980s, outsiders swamped the area, bringing disease and violence.
In addition, a booming commodities market in China and India have greatly contributed to demand for natural materials, including iron and other ore. The increased demand has boosted prices for commodities and nickel and coal, major commodities found in the region, exports have tripled since 2000.
While scientists have long sought to study the impact of environmental degradation on the isolated tribes of the region, scientists have struggled to even take the first step in discovering tribes. As recently as early 2012, scientists had yet to capture images of one of the Amazon’s most isolated tribes, the Mashco-Piro. The clan, which captured attention after a series of bow and arrow attacks, lived in Manu National Park, which borders Diamante.
Survival International notes, however, that conservation efforts have saved other threatened tribes whose survival was in question. Hope remains that the Awas’ future can be secured, as well.