A Journey With the Last Survivor of an Amazon Massacre
© S Shenker/ Survival International
“Follow me. I want to show you something,” Rita Piripkura beckoned as we sat by a stream on the edge of the Piripkura Indigenous territory in the western Brazilian Amazon.
We set off: Rita, her husband Aripan, four land protection agents from the Brazilian government’s Indigenous affairs department, and me.
We walked and walked. The air was humid and full of the constant thrumming of insects. We navigated tree roots, crossed streams and hacked at branches to carve our way, admiring the lianas and the ever-thicker forest as we moved. A forest which has witnessed many generations of expert stewardship by its Indigenous guardians, as well as the most appalling atrocities.
We walked in curves, zig-zags and straight lines. Rita knew exactly where she was going. “This is Piripkura land. This is my land” Rita said. “My mother and I lived here, on this land. Me, my sister, my father, my mother, my brother…”
Rita asked me if I had seen certain types of bark before, and if I’d heard of the bodó catfish which make their home in holes in the riverbeds of shallow waters. Her acute sense of which species and surroundings may be unfamiliar to other people has been heightened by her own migration from her birthplace in this forest.
When Rita was born, her tribe, the Piripkura, were uncontacted. They shunned contact with outsiders, fishing, hunting, collecting fruit and honey, and sleeping in tapiri shelters made from forest fibres.
But their forest had been targeted and invaded for decades: rubber tappers in the region hunted down the Piripkura from the late 1800s, and colonists, loggers and land grabbers flooded into the region from the 1940s. They brought with them both their greed for the forest’s riches, and their guns, changing the Piripkura’s lives forever, and almost annihilating them completely.
“The loggers arrived and cut down the forest here. My grandmother told me: ‘The white men are cutting down the trees!’ They cut down lots of trees, and we stopped hunting over there.”
To the white man’s desire to enrich themselves from the forest’s bounty, the Piripkura were an inconvenient obstacle. So they shot them. “White men arrived at dawn” Rita told me, recounting one massacre. “They killed nine of my relatives.”
To escape this genocide, the Piripkura were forced to live on the run. “My family came here, to the other side of the river. They used a jatobá tree to make a canoe. It was the early hours of the morning. It was very dark. There were lots of mosquitos, it was very windy, the river was big.” Rita gestured north, south, east and west, pointing in different directions to illustrate the constant movements of the Piripkura – their survival strategy.
In the midst of the invasions of the Piripkura’s home, Rita came into contact with non-Indigenous society and was taken to live on a local ranch where she was forced to work as a laborer. She later married a man from the Karipuna tribe. She is the only Piripkura person with regular contact with outsiders.
But her surviving relatives remain uncontacted: “Now, my brother [Baita] is there [in the forest], and Tamandua, my nephew. There are two of them there.” Beyond Baita and Tamandua, it is believed that other Piripkura still survive in the territory, having retreated to the depths of the forest.
We carried on walking. And then Rita stopped, and we all stopped with her. In a clearing in the forest, Rita introduced to us an abandoned tapiri built by Baita and Tamandua – their temporary home long ago before they moved far away to another part of the forest. She proudly showed us where they would have made their fire to cook and keep warm at night, and where they would have slept. Rita wanted us to see this proof of her relatives’ existence, to fuel her plea for people around the world to help them in their fight to survive.
Uncontacted tribes are the most vulnerable peoples on their planet. Where their lands are protected, they thrive, but without their forest intact they cannot survive. Brazil’s constitution and international law say their land must be officially mapped out and protected, but the “demarcation” of the Piripkura territory has been paralysed by political pressure and the interests of powerful ranchers who want this land for themselves.
Now, an emergency Land Protection Order is in place to shield the territory from invasions until the full demarcation process is complete. This Order makes it illegal for loggers and others to invade and its proper enforcement is the only thing standing between the uncontacted Piripkura and total extinction.
But it’s not enough: encouraged by President Bolsonaro’s racist rhetoric and genocidal policies to try to open up uncontacted tribes’ territories, loggers are invading with impunity. Satellite data shows that in 2020, the Piripkura’s forest was destroyed more than any other uncontacted tribe’s territory in Brazil. Three ranches have already established themselves inside the territory.
And the Land Protection Order is due to expire imminently, on September 18. Anti-Indigenous politicians and ranchers are trying to get it scrapped, to allow the land to be fully opened up and destroyed once and for all, as one element of the Bolsonaro government’s all-out assault on Indigenous rights.
Six other tribal territories are currently protected by similar Land Protection Orders, and in total they cover one million hectares of rainforest. The Orders shielding the Jacareúba/Katawixi, Ituna Itatá and Pirititi Indigenous territories are also due to expire at the end of 2021 and the start of 2022.
Rita is all too aware of the catastrophic impacts of the invasion of uncontacted tribes’ territories. Reflecting on the plight of her relatives with a combination of fear and an unshakeable commitment to help them survive, she said: “There are lots of land grabbers around. I’m worried that they might kill them. If they kill them, there won’t be anyone left.”
Rita’s harrowing and urgent words should be heard far and wide, and people must take action. International pressure on the Brazilian government to properly protect these forests stands a chance of working. Standing by and doing nothing will almost certainly mean that yet more uncontacted tribes will be wiped out. Please join Rita’s fight – for the Piripkura, for uncontacted tribes, and for all humanity.
Rita’s appeal can also be watched on film. It is backed by a global campaign calling for the Land Protection Orders to be renewed, for all invaders to be evicted, and for uncontacted tribes’ territories to be fully demarcated.
Sign the petition: https://en.isoladosoudizimados.org/
Send an email: svlint.org/LPOemail
See campaign updates and actions on social media: #IsoladosOuDizimados #AssinaFUNAI
By Sarah Shenker, head of Survival's Uncontacted Tribes campaign.
This article was originally published in CounterPunch, September 14, 2021.