An isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest along the Upper Envira River in Brazil is willingly making contact with the outside world, "a momentous and potentially tragic step." Members of the tribe approached Brazilian government scientists on June 29th and asked for help. The Brazilian Indian affairs department, known as FUNAI, had known about the tribe and had maintained a no-contact policy until the tribespeople requested contact. The meeting was somewhat expected, as villagers in the area had reported tribal raids on their crops and tools. FUNAI believes the tribe may be in danger, from other tribes, encroaching illegal loggers, or armed participants in the cocaine trade.
Either way, the tribe’s decision to move and make contact with the outside world leaves them vulnerable. The top priority now, says anthropologist Robert Walker of the University of Missouri, Columbia, is to prevent disease transmission by quarantining the area, giving access only to individuals screened by medical personnel, and providing food and medical care to the elderly and young, who are at the highest risk of infection. “Vaccinations are a possibility at some point,” Walker says. But he adds that immunizations may frighten tribespeople, causing them to flee and carry “pathogens to currently uncontacted people.”
In the end, Hill says, the fate of the newly contacted people may depend on whether FUNAI is willing to provide long-term medical monitoring and assistance, as well as a parcel of land that they can call their own. “So often in the past, people have been abandoned,” says Fiona Watson, research director of Survival International, a nongovernmental organization based in London. “And that first year of contact is extremely important, because that’s when you see these astronomically high figures of people dying.”