Twenty-five years after joining my grandfather and his Calypso crew on his expedition in the Amazon, here I was again, this time with my father and his Ocean Futures Society team, to explore how the forest and its denizens had changed over the years.
The Matis were first contacted by Brazil’s governmental National Indian Foundation in the late ’70s, and three men from my grandfather’s crew were only the 7th, 8th and 9th outsiders the tribe had ever met. So we hoped to visit them and see how the outside world had influenced these traditional people. Negotiating this visit fell into my hands, and the Matis sent me their requests for admittance into their villages. It was a long list that included a TV, satellite dish, digital video camera and 10,000 reals (US$5,000). No medications. No mosquito nets.
I turned down the Matis’s demands, not because I thought they shouldn’t have those items, but because I couldn’t be a part of a request that seemed trivial next to items that could help with life and death or even educational or environmental concerns. But we had another plan. Representatives of five tribes—Marubo, Kanamari, Mayoruna, Kulina and Matis—were meeting in the Marubo village of Rio Novo in the protected Javari Valley in western Brazil for their annual weeklong conference to discuss health, education, the environment and the local economy. No foreign film crew had ever been known to witness this event. But we had befriended Clovis, a member of the Marubo tribe, and he helped arrange for a small group of us to film the meeting. So, on March 17, 2007, we set off from Atalaia do Norte on our 500-kilometre journey to Rio Novo.
More than 3,500 Indians from seven contacted tribes—Kanamari, Kulina, Marubo, Mayoruna, Matis, Korubo and Tsohom Djapá—live in this remote jungle near the Peruvian border. And it shelters possibly the world’s largest population of uncontacted Indians, tribes who have lived in isolation from the outside world.
When we arrived, dozens of indigenous people appeared at the top of the slope. Some of the men sported tribal tattoos and ornaments, but all were decked out in T-shirts and shorts or jeans. The women wore traditional skirts with bras. They gazed at us with curious eyes. We, too, were curious about them.
At the conference, we learned that 85 percent of the contacted Indians in Javari Valley were infected with hepatitis A; 25 percent with hepatitis C; 56 percent with hepatitis B; and up to 50 percent, hepatitis D.2 Why were they not getting vaccinated? Accusations flew that FUNASA (National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples’ Health)—which no longer exists—kept dodging its promises to screen the population and deliver vaccinations on time.
We heard that more than 80 percent of the Indians in the region suffered from malaria. The indigenous people cried that they needed mosquito nets, health professionals in the area, more malaria medicine. “Our traditional medicine can’t treat these illnesses,” lamented a Matis chief. “If FUNASA doesn’t act now, we’re doomed, and this tiny population of indigenous people in this reservation could die.”
In the morning, we woke up to find the village in an uproar. The FUNASA delegation had left in the middle of the night. We were shocked. How will these health issues be resolved if the organization that’s supposed to be working for the indigenous people bails out?
It was hard to say goodbye. How could we leave after learning about the health crisis threatening their survival? “We invited you because we want the world to know what’s happening here,” Armando, one of the Marubo chief’s sons told us. “These sicknesses are killing our old, our children, and no one is listening. We want you to pass along that message to the world.”
As people lined the cliff above us, watching us drift away in our boat, I promised myself two things: We will tell their story. And I will be back.
To read more about my experience in the Amazon during the 1982-1983 and the 2006-2007 expedition please download the eBook, Return to the Amazon, available for the iPad.
Merci and à bientôt,
In honor of our upcoming expedition to the Brazilian Amazon to film Tribes on the Edge we are giving away a copy of my grandfather’s book, Jacques Cousteau’s Amazon Journey, chronicling the original 1982-83 expedition. This book is autographed by myself, my father Jean-Michel and brother Fabien. You can enter here.
Watch our teaser for the upcoming expedition, Tribes on the Edge.