Wednesday, February 9, 2011

We are One: Celebrating the Embera Indians of Panama and the uncontacted tribes of the Amazon

Embera Indian Village - Panama

Making its way around the intertubes this week is this spectacular four minute film (below) by Survival International and the BBC showing aerial views of uncontacted Indians in Brazil, near the Peruvian border, in "never-seen-before detail".  Apparently, the Brazilian government has been monitoring this particular tribe on its protected lands from the air for years but has recently discovered the tribe is under extreme threat from contact with Peruvian miners and loggers who are increasingly encroaching on one of the last few remnants of uncontacted Amazon tribes.  

Embera Indians - Panama

In addition to the one-sided turf wars that ensue once loggers and miners reach a tribal area, most uncontacted Amazonian tribes have no immunity to modern human diseases and contact, even with the most peaceful intentions, is often deadly.  Many such tribes were exterminated by the well-meaning contact from Christian missions over the last few decades.



I am all too familiar with these illegal miners and loggers.  The area of the Peruvian Amazon where I worked two years ago on the macaw study is not so far from the location of the uncontacted tribe in the film.

Macaws gather at an avian clay lick near the Tambopata River in the Peruvian Amazon

This area is flush with loggers and miners working illegaly in plain sight and seemingly without fear of any retribution from the Peruvian government.  Their impact on the rainforest ecosystem almost always has devastating consequences.  The film, above, claims it's the same "look-the-other-way" attitude by the Peruvian government that has put this uncontacted tribe, and others like them, at peril.  Take a look at the film - it's short, the cinematography is spectacular, and there is an easy opportunity to sign a petition asking the Peruvian government to protect the tribe by removing the miners and loggers.

Illegal gold mining operation on the Tambopata River in Peru

The closest I've gotten to an indigenous group of the rainforest was while working in Panama in 2007.  I had the opportunity to visit a small village of Embera Indians - a semi-nomadic tribe that traditionally comes from the rainforests of Darien province in southern Panama near the Columbian border (having themselves migrated north out of Columbia hundreds of years ago in an effort to escape Spanish occupation and the subsequent destruction and diseases that wiped out many similar tribes in the area).


Originally, this tribe was probably not so different then the Moxateteu people seen in the film.


This particular clan of Embera had relocated to the Chagres River basin in the 1970's after increased forest competition and one too many violent clashes with Columbian drug runners forced them to flee their traditional rainforest home and seek better living conditions in the extant forests surrounding the Panama Canal watershed.


Currently, the semi-nomadic Embera are under pressure from the Panamanian government to form permanent villages which many insist is an effort to open up their traditional lands to economic development. Sad and likely true.


Resilient to change, the Embera are, so far, steadfast in maintaining their traditional way of life which, when allowed, includes slash and burn farming and hunting and gathering just like the Moxateten.  The Embera are also skilled artisans and are particularly famous for their medicinal knowledge of healing with forest plants.


The Drua clan that I visited opened up their village to tourism in the mid-90's after their newly relocated home was later designated a national park and hunting and slash-and-burn farming became illegal.  They now survive off of small farming and the monies they make from tourism and selling their handicrafts.


The reasons for protecting ancient tribes like the Embera and the Moxateten  are endless and unarguable.  I am grateful that organizations like Survival International have been working decades to protect indigenous people around the world.


One of my favorite quotes comes from Black Elk, a Native American spiritual leader and medicine man at the turn of last century, who said that peace comes to those who recognize their oneness with the universe.  I've carried that understanding with me through my travels around the world and I stand in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters trying to hold on to a different, but uniquely rich and diverse, reality.


Recently, the idea of "celebrating our oneness" came to have a very different meaning to me.  I took a DNA test several years ago when the idea of banking DNA and tracing far-reaching ancestral heritages was first made easier with DIY test kits.   In 2006 the test came back with no surprises - I come from good Viking stock on my mother's side (which over 5,000 years later translates to "you are terribly English").


However, since 2006 the comparable data now available online through the genealogy bank that tested my DNA has advanced.  Checking in five years later - the report shows, among several things, that I have a zero genetic marker difference from several tested members of an indigenous tribe in Columbia - which means those tribal members and I have something like a 99% chance of having a common ancestor within the last 300 years.




It also means that the Embera, having migrated north from Columbia are unlikely cousins.  Heady stuff to think about.  As the family tree grows larger - the world becomes infinitely smaller.


These portraits of the Embera from my 2007 trip to Panama don't even begin to reflect the magnificent beauty and diversity that was so apparent during my visit to their village that day.


Sadly, for people like the Embera, it's a constant fight for survival against the ever-increasing tide of humanitarian and environmental issues created by our obsessive pursuit for material gain.


Gold, oil, timber - in our lust for natural resources we step over the dime to pick up the nickel. What will it take to finally understand that what we stand to lose by oppressing indigenous people is far more valuable than all of it.

All Photos ©trryan 2007
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