Illegal Loggers Threaten Fate of Brazilian Tribe in Amazon Rainforest (Video)

First Posted: Apr 19, 2013 08:53 AM EDT

Deep within the Amazon rainforest in northeastern Brazil, the Awa people survive as hunter-gatherers. Only numbering at 450 people, 100 of them have never had contact with outsiders. For years, though, their home has been whittled away by settlers and loggers who now outnumber the Awa by ten to one, prompting a judge to rule last year that all outsiders should leave the area within 12 months. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened.

According to a British-based advocacy group of indigenous people's rights, Survival International, the deadline has passed for the removal of illegal settlers from the Awa's territory. In fact, no settlers have been evicted thus far, and it seems likely that the issue will continue to persist. Of particular concern are the 100 Awa people that have not had contact with outsiders.

"They don't have immunity to common diseases like a cold or a flu, which could kill them," said Sarah Shenker, a campaigner for Survival International, in an interview with LiveScience.

Their worries aren't unfounded. In the 1980s, the Awa's population was decimated by exposure to outsiders when a railway line to transport iron ore from the Carajás mine to the coast, part of the Great Carajás Project, cut through their land. The influx of outsiders brought violence and diseases and many Awa were massacred, according to Survival International.

It's not only sickness that can impact the Awa, though. The tribe's four protected territories are being encroached on; in fact, one territory of almost 300,000 acres has had over 30 percent of the forest cover removed. Since the Awa people rely heavily on hunting, this lack of forest cover has helped discourage game in the area.

"The Awa talk about hearing chainsaws and their game being scared away," said Alice Bayer from Survival International in an interview with BBC News.

Although the Awa have tried to fight back in courts for the territories that they are guaranteed by the Brazilian constitution, they've met with little success. Even though the courts ruled in their favor, authorities haven't done anything to evict the illegal settlers.

"We're very worried, more and more, that the Awa are going to find less food in the forest and become dependent on government handouts in the end," said Bayer in an interview with BBC News. "If their forest is being destroyed, they will end up living on handouts and lose their way of life."

That's not to say that the situation is hopeless, though. If authorities act, the Awa could reclaim their land relatively quickly. In addition, Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) has built at least one base camp from which to launch evictions. Currently, the organization is waiting for support from Brazil's Justice Ministry.

"It's not too late for the Awa, but it soon will be," said Survival International director Stephen Corry in a statement. "It is entirely within the Minister of Justice's capabilities to evict loggers, but he must act today."

Want to learn more about the Awa? Check out the video below, courtesy of Survival International.

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