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Death in Javari

The Matis

In 1976 the Matis first appeared on the banks of a river waving to FUNAI (the Indian Protection Service) representatives. The first visit to the Matis was by an anthropologist in 1978 and after this point they had contact with FUNAI, who were persuaded to make contact with the Matis as outsiders were encroaching. Sadly, as a result of outside contacts, the Matis suffered terrible epidemics of illness in the later 1970s and 1980s. A FUNAI census in 1985 found only seven Matis were over 40, and only three over 50; the tribe suffered huge demographic shock, in which they claimed that at times there were not enough healthy people to bury the dead.

This clip from Tribe shows the Matis chief Txema describing the first time he saw outsiders

In the 1980s the Matis traded their blowpipes and logged hardwoods but continued to have a fear of whites. But by the mid 1990s the shock of disease and mortality had abated and the tragic episode had been absorbed into the oral history of the Matis. The Matis and Marubo wear clothing and often attend schools and sometimes travel around the area into towns such as Benjamin Constant.

Leti with members of the Matis tribeLeti and the Matis Tribe

Bruce and the crew are revisiting the Matis two years since Bruce filmed Tribe with them in 2006. Find out more about Bruce's first visit to the Matis.

 Two Matis men in Atalaia do NorteTwo Matis men just before the public hearing in Atalaia do Norte

During her recce of the area, Leti met some of the Matis community that Bruce filmed with in Tribe after the health conference in Atalaia do Norte. The video beneath shows Leti with the Matis watching another Tribe DVD, in which Bruce visits the Suri (a tribe in Ethiopia).

The Marubo

Marubo is the collective name for a cluster of tribes in the Javari area, who traditionally had pyramid thatch houses, decorated themselves with geometrical body paint and strung distinctive white beads between the nose septum and ears. Some Marubo became partially acculturated during the rubber boom, which collapsed in 1915, though other groups remained uncontacted. Most Marubo then remained in isolation until the 1960s, when protestant missionaries established benign relations with them. In the 1970s missionaries treated a range of illnesses among the Marubo, many deathly and often resulting from contact with outsiders. The Marubo remained active rubber tappers and traded timber throughout this period and FUNAI first established relations with the Marubo from 1973, by establishing posts along the rivers to which they could come.

The Health Crisis in Javari

In the Amazon, and indeed across the globe, first contact with white people has historically wiped out tribe after tribe by introducing illness against which the Indians have no defence: particularly flu, measles, chickenpox and TB. The tribes of the Javari River Reserve, where Bruce and the crew are travelling to meet the Marubo and Matis tribes, have recently been suffering again from an epidemic of disease and mortality. In 2004 there were the first recorded instances of hepatitis D in the Javari area, an illness known as river madness because it causes an infection of the brain. It starts with bleeding from the mouth and usually ends in death. It has been estimated that up to 50% of contacted Indians have been infected with the disease, which is thought to be contracted initially as hepatitis B, which then transmutes into hepatitis D.

Outside the hearingOutside the hearing

In 2007 there was a public hearing regarding the Javari health crisis in Atalaia do Norte. Leti was there on her recce of the area and this picture shows her interviewing tribespeople outside the building.

The video beneath was taken by Leti during the hearing. The man at the lecturn, a chief from the Maryoruna tribe, had recently lost his father, wife and son to illness. He is conveying his grief and anger to the head of FUNASA (the body responsible for the health of Amazonian Indian populations), who later unexpectedly left the conference.

The hearing was coordinated by Civaja (the organisation representing indigenous people of the Javari) and chaired by a judge from the Federal Government in Brasilia. People from tribes across the Javari region, including the Matis and the Marubo, came to petition the head of FUNASA to take action to help them deal with this illness and death in their communities.

The impact of the crisis

Some campaign groups have described the lack of health care provision as criminal neglect on the part of the Brazilian authorities. The effects of disease over the last few years have led to a huge population collapse with a massive social and psychological impact for tribes like the Matis and the Marubo and numerous instances of grievous personal loss, as seen in the video above.

History of Contact

Europeans first reached Brazil around 500 years ago and the indigenous population was estimated to be between five and seven million. Today it is estimated to be around 300,000. Most of the initial contact between whites and Indians was due to trade and the exploitation of the resources of the Amazon. In 1910, the SPI (Indian Protection Service) was created initially to make contact with indigenous groups and also to pave the way for the development of the Amazon. Its motto, 'Die if you must, but never kill', was coined by Candido Rondon, the first head of the SPI. The SPI was disbanded (well after Rondon's time) following an investigation by a federal prosecutor which catalogues mass crimes against the Indians. This lead to the creation of FUNAI in December 1967.

FUNAI set up Attraction Posts throughout the Amazon, to which tribes-people could come to access developed society, and 'sertanistas' (expert explorers of the Amazon) travelled through the forest to make contact with tribes. The motto, 'Die if you must, but never kill', remained true in that the sertanistas often died when making initial contact with tribes, and they never killed in violence. Contact, however, did result in deadly disease.

The mission of FUNAI has changed since its inception, partly through the bitter experience of the epidemics that have arisen through contact. Sydney Possuelo, a legendary sertanista who has had malaria 39 times, states, "the history of treatment of Indians is a terrible drama of torture, death and blood in the name of progress or religion" [Sunday Times Magazine, November 2004]. Possuelo became president of Funai briefly in 1991 and the organisation now works to protect Indian tribes and regulate their contact with outsiders. Possuelo has received numerous death threats for his continued championship of indigenous rights; he now asserts that, "the best thing we can do is stay out of their lives".

The Javari Reserve

The Javari River forms the border between Peru and Brazil. The forest around the Javari, a tributary that joins the Solimoes Amazon at the town of Benjamin Constant, is the westernmost area of the Brazilian Amazon. In the 1990s the area was designated as Vale do Javari Indigenous Park, an area of 32,000 square miles of rainforest and river (roughly the size of Austria) in which the indigenous Amazonian tribes of the area, some uncontacted, should be able to flourish. Controlling access to the area is, however, difficult to enforce and the area is rich in valuable commodities such as oil, natural gas, and timber. Bruce and the crew are visiting the reserve to spend time with the Marubo and Matis tribes and hope to fly over uncontacted tribes in the region.

Uncontacted tribes

The Brazilian explorer Euclides da Cunha describes uncontacted tribes as living on 'the last page of Genesis'. There are thought to be at least five and possibly seven uncontacted groups in the Vale do Javari. Contact with these groups would be expected to lead to the same disastrous diseases and deaths that have occurred with first contacts throughout the globe. An uncontacted tribe was spotted in October 2007 from the air near the Javari area, just over the border in Peru, and just recently, the Brazilian government photographed an uncontacted tribe in Brazil's Acre region of the Amazon.


  • 16 percent of the Amazon is gone forever
  • 50 percent could be gone by 2050

Amazonian timber enters both the Brazilian and the international market, where there is a particular demand for hardwood species such as mahogany. In the Javari region, the selective logging of non-endangered species could be a sustainable means of timber extraction but one effect of this technique is that loggers need to make inroads deeper and deeper into the forest, which may bring them into increased contact with tribes. The picture below, taken by Marco (the fixer) on Leti's recce, show sawmills and logging on the Amazon between Tabatinga and Benjamin Constant, on the border of Peru and Brazil. As the river is an international border, policing the water is difficult, and logging is hard to regulate.

SawmillsSawmill on the river bank

Links and further reading:

BBC Tribe - Matis

Die if You Must, (John Hemming), Macmillan 2003

IMAZON The Amazon Institute of People and the Environment

The Rainforest Detective, (Christina Lamb), Sunday Times Magazine, November 2004

Survival International: Matis visit

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