Rare Amazon Tribe Nearly Extinct From Deforestation

awa guaja suckling monkey photo
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It was the 'civilizing' spirit of colonialism which first drove the Awa-Guajá from their settlements along the eastern shore of Brazil and into the Amazon rainforest. There, under self-imposed isolation from a world that's changing so rapidly around them, they live in remarkable harmony with nature -- going as far breastfeeding animals alongside their own children. Nowadays, colonialism has given way to developmentalism, and the bearers of 'civility' to loggers and businessmen. But for the Awa-Guajá, perhaps there is little difference; both signal the destruction of their land and their very way of life. After a century fleeing from logging and development, today the Awa-Guajá are among the most threatened cultures on Earth and one of the last two surviving nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil. Most remarkable is their incredibly intimate relationship with the forests and its wildlife. In their matriarchal society, from the age of puberty onwards women are encouraged to suckle monkeys and other animals alongside their own children, an act considered sacred by tradition.

Beyond what has been garnered from the limited contact of a few outsiders, little more is known about their culture or language. To them, equally little is known about us. They don't know that there are 6.7 billion of us out there who have long abandoned our native ways of life.

It was only recently, with the pressure of indigenous rights organizations, that the tribe was first contacted in order to move them into a reserve intended to protect them from outside forces. Logging interests in the region, however, have thus far refused to retreat from their territory, further dwindling their chances of survival. Now, with an estimated 360 members, many of whom have are classified as 'uncontacted', the Awa-Guajá face near-certain extinction.

According to a report from Brazil's National Indian Foundation made available to the NGO Survival International, 31 percent of the forest in indigenous reserves has already been illegally logged. Also, as they come in contact with outsiders, they are highly susceptible to diseases, like the flu, to which they have developed no resistance and that could prove fatal in contracted.

Awa-Guaja deforestation map photo
Deforestation of the Awa-Guajá's land, seen in red, between 1996 and 2010. Survival / Funai / Disclosure

Contacted members of the tribe report of food shortages due to the loss of their habitat, bringing with it hunger and starvation. Loggers and ranchers continue to encroach upon their territory, creating situations that occasionally result in violence. Some reports even suggest that disgruntled plantation owners have offered money to those who kill an Indian. And despite threats of legal action, the threats faced by the Awa-Guajá persist, says Survival International.

A federal judge ruled in June 2009 that all invaders must leave the Awá territory within 180 days. However, some of the ranchers have appealed against the ruling which has been suspended, and illegal logging and invasions are increasing.

"A tragedy is unfolding before our eyes due to the complete failure on the part of Brazilian authorities," Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, told Brazilian media.

Deforestation and the encroachment of development throughout the Amazon not only threatens the region's lush biological treasures -- but the rich cultural ones as well. There was once a time when spreading 'civilization' to people throughout the world was thought commendable, though in this day an age perhaps we have much more to learn from them about what it means to be human.

A denuded forest may one day regrow; the decimated culture that called it home sadly will not.