In the Amazon, World’s “Most Threatened Tribe” Faces Extinction

Illegal Logging and Development in Brazil Is Destroying Protected Habitat of the Nomadic Awá

Deep in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest live the Awá hunter-gatherers — an ancient, partially-contacted Indigenous peoples, now thought by some to be the “Earth’s most threatened tribe”.

Photo © Survival

The nomadic Awá have always treaded lightly on Earth, carrying only their most precious possessions as they move through the forest — their children, pets, and bows and arrows. The rest, the forest provides: food in the form of babacu nuts, acai berries, and fresh meat; palm leaves to weave baskets from; sturdy vines to use as ropes, and resin from trees to burn for light.

The matrilineal Awá’s love for animals, especially monkeys, is unique and endearing. Women are encouraged to suckle monkeys and other animals alongside their own children, an act they consider sacred. Most families raise a host of pets — from talkative parakeets to wild pigs, owls, and tamarins. A small number of Awá who avoid contact with outsiders are among few of the last uncontacted people on the planet.

After the Awá were first contacted by outsiders in 1973, the Brazilian government opened access to the forests they had called home for generations. In 1982, after massive iron ore deposits was discovered in the area, the European Economic Community and the World Bank helped fund a railway and other developments in the region that ushered in a waves of settlers. The Awa’s forest became a prime target for loggers and ranchers, who are often armed and trigger-happy.

Now, nearly four decades later, the dense forests that used to cover vast swathes of northeastern state of Maranhão have all but disappeared under the onslaught of outsiders swarming into Awá territory — territory formally recognized as belonging to the Awá only as recently as 2005 (following years of campaigning by human rights groups). Mining and logging on Awá land is illegal, but there’s little enforcement of these laws.

The Awa’s forest is facing one of the highest rates of deforestation of all Indigenous areas in the Amazon, says Survival International, which launched a massive campaign to save the Awá last month. Satellite images show over 30 percent of rainforests in one of the four territories inhabited by the Awá has already been destroyed.

Legal efforts to save the forest have had little impact so far. In 2009 a federal court ordered illegal settlers to leave Awá territories within 180 days, but an appeal by a cattle rancher delayed the ruling. Now there’s a second ruling, from another federal judge, ordering the settlers to leave by December 2012. But many fear that, like before, this order too will get stuck in legal wrangling in the courts for years to come. And in the mean time, the Awá’s will continue to be at grave risk.

Several experts, including officials at Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) — the government body responsible for protecting Indigenous lands, have warned that the Awá face extinction unless more is done to protect their land from outsiders who not only clash with the tribespeople, but also bring in common diseases like the flu, that uncontacted people are often immune too .

A Brazilian judge, who visited the region to investigate the situation said they were “dealing with a real genocide,” as did anthropologist and Awá expert Dr Eliane Cantarino O’Dwyer. Survival International estimates there are only about 360 contacted Awá remaining, and about another 70 to 90 uncontacted tribespeople hiding in the rapidly vanishing forest.

We’ve seen, again and again, in forests and wilderness areas across the world, that the Indigenous people are some of the best stewards of our environment. Yet world over, they are losing out in the rush for resources to feed our ever-expanding economies. But there’s a chance the Awá can be saved. That is if enough pressure is put on Brazil to honor the Awá‘s right to their land and protect it from illegal encroachment. International pressure helps. Survival International’s campaign, that hopes to persuade Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo to clear out loggers, ranchers, and settlers who are threatening the safety of the Awa tribe, is already starting to make a difference.  has already generated over 20,000 protest emails to the Brazilian government. “The sense of urgency is being felt around the world, especially as this is a cause that can be won — a people who can be saved,” says Survival’s campaign head, Fiona Watson,who has worked with Brazil’s Indians for more than 25 years. “Brazil’s government must take firm action on illegal logging and uphold it’s own demarcation laws, if the Awá are to be saved from extinction.” Learn more about the Awá and what you can do to help them at


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