World News

Group denies misleading media over Amazon tribe

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - A group that campaigns for tribal peoples’ rights denied on Tuesday that it and the Brazilian government had misled the media over photographs of an uncontacted Indian tribe in the Amazon last month.

Members of an unknown 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 distributed by FUNAI, the government agency for the protection of indigenous peoples. REUTERS/Funai-Frente de Proteção Etno-Ambiental Envira/Handout

Britain’s Observer newspaper reported on Sunday that the tribe, rather than being “undiscovered”, had been known by the Brazilian government for nearly 100 years and the photos were an attempt to publicize the risk it faced from logging.

Its story prompted some other media to call the photographs a hoax.

But Survival International, the London-based group that helped publicize the photographs on May 29, said that it had not described the tribe as “lost” and had said at the time the aim was to show the world they existed.

“These Indians are in a reserve expressly set aside for the protection of uncontacted tribes: they were hardly ‘unknown’,” Survival International Director Stephen Corry said in a statement.

“What is, and remains, true, is that so far as is known these Indians have no peaceful contact with outsiders.”

The dramatic pictures of pigment-covered Indians threatening the photographer’s aircraft with bows and arrows were carried by media worldwide, with many reporting the tribe was “lost” and a completely new discovery.

The Observer said the images had been presented as an “apparently chance encounter” and that the fact the Indians were already known raised “awkward” questions over the decision to photograph them -- “a form of contact in itself”.

But the Brazilian official who took the photos, Jose Carlos Meirelles, was quoted by Survival International at the time as saying: “We did the overflight to show their houses, to show they are there.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera, which the Observer used as a source for its story, Meirelles made it clear that finding the tribe had been no easy task. Using satellite coordinates, he said he flew over a wide area of rain forest for three days and only found the tribe with hours remaining on the last day.

The Observer had no immediate comment on its story.

Survival’s Corry said the decision to photograph the Indians was justified because it had raised pressure on the Peruvian government to act against logging near its border with Brazil, which conservationists say is the main threat to tribes there.

“The publication of the pictures has pushed the Peruvian government into investigating their plight, a huge step forward given that just a few months ago Peru’s president publicly questioned whether uncontacted Indians exist at all,” he said.

The Brazil-Peru border area is one of the world’s last refuges for such groups, with more than 50 uncontacted tribes thought to live there out of the estimated 100 worldwide.

Contact with outsiders has historically been disastrous for Brazil’s Indians, who now number about 350,000 compared to up to 5 million when the first Europeans arrived.

Editing by Anthony Boadle