Logging companies keen to exploit Brazil's rainforest have been accused by human rights organisations of using gunmen to wipe out the Awá, a tribe of just 355. Survival International, with backing from Colin Firth, is campaigning to stop what a judge referred to as 'genocide'

Trundling along the dirt roads of the Amazon, the giant logging lorry dwarfed the vehicle of the investigators following it. The trunks of nine huge trees were piled high on the back – incontrovertible proof of the continuing destruction of the world's greatest rainforest and its most endangered tribe, the Awá.

Yet as they travelled through the jungle early this year, the small team from Funai – Brazil's National Indian Foundation – did not dare try to stop the loggers; the vehicle was too large and the loggers were almost certainly armed. All they could do was video the lorry and add the film to the growing mountain of evidence showing how the Awá – with only 355 surviving members, more than 100 of whom have had no contact with the outside world – are teetering on the edge of extinction.

It is a scene played out throughout the Amazon as the authorities struggle to tackle the powerful illegal logging industry. But it is not just the loss of the trees that has created a situation so serious that it led a Brazilian judge, José Carlos do Vale Madeira, to describe it as "a real genocide". People are pouring on to the Awá's land, building illegal settlements, running cattle ranches. Hired gunmen – known as pistoleros – are reported to be hunting Awá who have stood in the way of land-grabbers. Members of the tribe describe seeing their families wiped out. Human rights campaigners say the tribe has reached a tipping point and only immediate action by the Brazilian government to prevent logging can save the tribe.

This week Survival International will launch a new campaign to highlight the plight of the Awá, backed by Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth. In a video to be launched on Wednesday, Firth will ask the Brazilian government to take urgent action to protect the tribe. The 51-year-old, who starred in last year's hit movie The King's Speech, and came to prominence playing Mr Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, delivers an appeal to camera calling on Brazil's minister of justice to send in police to drive out the loggers.

The Awá are one of only two nomadic hunter-gathering tribes left in the Amazon. According to Survival, they are now the world's most threatened tribe, assailed by gunmen, loggers and hostile settler farmers.

Their troubles began in earnest in 1982 with the inauguration of a European Economic Community (EEC) and World Bank-funded programme to extract massive iron ore deposits found in the Carajás mountains. The EEC gave Brazil $600m to build a railway from the mines to the coast, on condition that Europe received a third of the output, a minimum of 13.6m tons a year for 15 years. The railway cut directly through the Awá's land and with the railway came settlers. A road-building programme quickly followed, opening up the Awá's jungle home to loggers, who moved in from the east.

It was, according to Survival's research director, Fiona Watson, a recipe for disaster. A third of the rainforest in the Awá territory in Maranhão state in north-east Brazil has since been destroyed and outsiders have exposed the Awá to diseases against which they have no natural immunity.

"The Awá and the uncontacted Awá are really on the brink," she said. "It is an extremely small population and the forces against them are massive. They are being invaded by loggers, settlers and cattle ranchers. They rely entirely on the forest. They have said to me: 'If we have no forest, we can't feed our children and we will die'."

But it appears that the Awá also face a more direct threat. Earlier this year an investigation into reports that an Awá child had been killed by loggers found that their tractors had destroyed the Awá camp.

"It is not just the destruction of the land; it is the violence," said Watson. "I have talked to Awá people who have survived massacres. I have interviewed Awá who have seen their families shot in front of them. There are immensely powerful people against them. The land-grabbers use pistoleros to clear the land. If this is not stopped now, these people could be wiped out. This is extinction taking place before our eyes."

What is most striking about the Funai undercover video of the loggers – apart from the sheer size of the trunks – is the absence of jungle in the surrounding landscape. Once the landscape would have been lush rainforest. Now it has been clear-felled, leaving behind just grass and scrub and only a few scattered clumps of trees.

Such is the Awá's affinity with the jungle and its inhabitants that if they find a baby animal during their hunts they take it back and raise it almost like a child, to the extent that the women will sometimes breastfeed the creature. The loss of their jungle has left them in a state of despair. "They are chopping down wood and they are going to destroy everything," said Pire'i Ma'a, a member of the tribe. "Monkeys, peccaries, tapir, they are all running away. I don't know how we are going to eat – everything is being destroyed, the whole area.

"This land is mine, it is ours. They can go away to the city, but we Indians live in the forest. They are going to kill everything. Everything is dying. We are all going to go hungry, the children will be hungry, my daughter will be hungry, and I'll be hungry too."

In an earlier interview with Survival, another member of the tribe, Karapiru, described how most of his family were killed by ranchers. "I hid in the forest and escaped from the white people. They killed my mother, my brothers and sisters and my wife," he said. "When I was shot during the massacre, I suffered a great deal because I couldn't put any medicine on my back. I couldn't see the wound: it was amazing that I escaped – it was through the Tupã [spirit]. I spent a long time in the forest, hungry and being chased by ranchers. I was always running away, on my own. I had no family to help me, to talk to. So I went deeper and deeper into the forest.

"I hope when my daughter grows up she won't face any of the difficulties I've had. I hope everything will be better for her. I hope the same things that happened to me won't happen to her."

The Survival campaign reflects growing international concern over the plight of the world's remaining indigenous tribes. Earlier this year the Observer revealed how police were colluding with tour operators in India's Andaman Islands to run human safaris into the jungle heartland of the protected Jarawa tribe. A video showing half-naked Jarawa women and girls dancing in return for food caused outrage in India and around the world. Further revelations followed, exposing human safaris in Orissa, in India, and in Peru, where tour operators are profiting from the exploitation of Amazon jungle tribes.

Meanwhile, drug traffickers are posing a threat to other Amazon tribes. Last year a previously uncontacted tribe was photographed from the air close to the Peru-Brazil border only to go missing a few months later after a gang of drug traffickers overpowered guards protecting their land.

The Brazilian embassy in London referred requests for a response to the president's Human Rights Secretariat, which did not respond. However, Brazil has recently been able to point to research that shows it has been making progress in tackling illegal logging. The country's National Institute for Space Research estimates that 6,238 sq km of rainforest was lost between 2010 and 2011, down dramatically from the 2004 peak of 27,700 sq km. The same year, Brazil pledged to cut deforestation by 80% by 2020.

The year-on-year fall last year was 11% and in March Brazil's forestry department raided and closed down 14 illegal sawmills on the borders of the Awá's land. Even so, the figures also show that two states recorded sharp rises in deforestation, and illegal logging is destroying the Awá's jungle at a faster rate than that of any other Amazon tribe.

In a statement, Survival urged the Brazilian government to give more support to Funai and to increase its efforts to shut down illegal activities in the Awá's territories. "Timing is crucial, and the timing of this is now, because while all hope is not lost an entire people are on the verge of being lost, most critically the uncontacted Awá. And we have a moral responsibility to act. EU and World Bank money has helped fund huge projects in Brazil that have exploited the Awá's land resources and made infrastructure ripe for developers."

VIDEO Uncontacted Amazon Tribe: First ever aerial footage

Write a letter for the Awá

Responses to "'They're killing us': world's most endangered tribe cries for help (TAKE ACTION)"

  1. It is incredible what is done to tribes all around our world in the name of civilization and industrialization. The Awá people like so many others are being pushed away from THEIR land.... stop the senseless killings and abuse of human beings. It is against GOD will to kill. Become aware. Be educated. Be humanistic. Be fair, stay away! Leave them be in peace! Everyone has the right to live as they will in the communities they make and in the cultures that they belong to. BE RESPECTFUL.
    Jackie Centeno, Orlando, Florida.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Amen couldn't have said it better

  3. Anonymous says:

    I was sitting in the walmart parking lot yesterday thinking how the "average consumer" doesn't even consider the real cost of the things we buy. All most people care about is how cheap they can buy something. Few people consider the suffer that went into extracting and manufacturing the cheap stuff they buy. I pray people will consider the real cost of consumer goods and remove the demand for goods produced by exploitation and genocide.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Leave them alone in peace please

  5. Anonymous says:

    Please stop destroying what can't ever be replaced before the damage is realized as a very big mistake of the human species.

  6. Broken Heart ...Juanita Zimmerman says:

    When all the waters are polluted, the native peoples forever gone and the last of the trees are destroyed then those greedy men will have all the money in the world to eat, because the money in the end will be as worthless as they are......

    Broken Heart....Juanita Zimmerman

  7. Sarge (Joe Sargent) says:

    Man never learns...just takes and takes until all is gone....the land and all the people upon it.....Please help these native peoples because they need our help.

    Joe Sargent.......Sarge

  8. Anonymous says:

    Please keep them safe.
    Please keep them safe.
    Please keep them safe.

  9. Unknown says:

    Our Prayer's and support in prayer will be with them !! Encouragement to these indigenous people!!! Grace Family

  10. Leah says:

    Well said!! Xactly how I feel...

  11. let them live the way they have been for thousands if years

  12. Anonymous says:

    need to stop it........

  13. Anonymous says:

    why always destroyed our culture, our, land, our language, our mind, our people, our children's, elders, women, men, why, we din't do nothing, the globe , the eart his big, why, tell me, I won't the know, we do not distube other people, land ... WHY

  14. Carey mayfield says:

    This is wrong.Carey mayfield

  15. Anonymous says:

    You have my Axe. have no way of getting out there but f someone wants to put together a team to neutralize the threat to these people I am down. I am sick of seeing shit like this go down with everyone silent and complacent.I am pissed that this is aloud to continue. evantspurrell@hotmail.com

  16. Anonymous says:

    Please ... stop with the destruction of the Earth ... the inhabitants ... let everyone live in peace on his own spot where he is supposed to be ... have respect for everything is, all plants, all animals and all people etc ... ... as you have respect for yourself and your loved ones too ... your loved ones ...
    Let us all live in peace ...
    Please be aware that we can do it together ...
    Enjoy this beautiful Mother Earth, without damaging her ...
    Our mother earth has also need your help ...
    You are allowed to make use of her, but with respect ... and reverence.
    As you have respect for yourself ...
    With lots of love and light.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Stop The Loggers........Leave these Beautiful people In Peace

  18. Robert James Schneider USA Oregon says:

    I remember years ago watching the tv special about these beautiful people. At the time I thought, "Oh, Oh", is this a bad mistake to show these people to the world. Well, I guess it had to come. Sooner or later they would have been found. More than likely the loggers, farmers, miners and whoever and it might have been a slaughter if the loggers, farmers, miners and others had found the Awa people first.
    The Awa people should be left alone, but first run out all that don't belong.

    I am 76 years old and due to bad health, I live from day to day, not knowing when the Creator will take me. Before I go I'd feel much better leaving, knowing that everyone's efforts was a complete success and the Awa people are at ease in their forest and homes.

    With that I say, Take Care and Stay Well everyone,
    Robert (Bob) Schneider

Write a comment