Trundling along the dirt roads of the Amazon, the giant logging truck dwarfed the vehicle of the investigators following it. The trunks of nine huge trees were piled high on the back — incontrovertible proof of the continuing destruction of the world’s greatest rainforest and its most endangered tribe, the Awa.
Yet as they traveled through the jungle early this year, the small team from FUNAI — Brazil’s National Indian Foundation — did not dare try to stop the loggers; the vehicle was too large and the loggers were almost certainly armed. All they could do was video the truck and add the film to the growing mountain of evidence showing how the Awa — with only 355 surviving members, more than 100 of whom have had no contact with the outside world — are teetering on the edge of extinction.
It is a scene played out throughout the Amazon as the authorities struggle to tackle the powerful illegal logging industry. But it is not just the loss of the trees that has created a situation so serious that it led a Brazilian judge, Jose Carlos do Vale Madeira, to describe it as “a real genocide.” People are pouring on to the Awa’s land, building illegal settlements, running cattle ranches. Hired gunmen — known as pistoleros — are reported to be hunting Awa who have stood in the way of land-grabbers. Members of the tribe describe seeing their families wiped out. Human rights campaigners say the tribe has reached a tipping point and only immediate action by the Brazilian government to prevent logging can save the tribe.
Last week, Survival International launched a new campaign to highlight the plight of the Awa, backed by Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth. In a video that was launched on Wednesday last week, Firth asked the Brazilian government to take urgent action to protect the tribe. The 51-year-old, who starred in last year’s hit movie The King’s Speech, and came to prominence playing Mr Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, delivers an appeal to camera at the end of the film calling on Brazil’s minister of justice to send in police to drive out the loggers.
The Awa are one of only two nomadic hunter-gathering tribes left in the Amazon. According to Survival, they are now the world’s most threatened tribe, assailed by gunmen, loggers and hostile settler farmers.
Their troubles began in earnest in 1982 with the inauguration of a European Economic Community (EEC) and World Bank-funded program to extract massive iron ore deposits found in the Carajas Mountains. The EEC gave Brazil US$600 million to build a railway from the mines to the coast, on condition that Europe received a third of the output, a minimum of 13.6 million tonnes a year for 15 years. The railway cut directly through the Awa’s land and with the railway came settlers. A road-building program quickly followed, opening up the Awa’s jungle home to loggers, who moved in from the east.
It was, according to Survival’s research director, Fiona Watson, a recipe for disaster. A third of the rainforest in the Awa territory in Maranhao State in northeast Brazil has since been destroyed and outsiders have exposed the Awa to diseases against which they have no natural immunity.
“The Awa and the uncontacted Awa are really on the brink,” she said. “It is an extremely small population and the forces against them are massive. They are being invaded by loggers, settlers and cattle ranchers. They rely entirely on the forest.”