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Massacre, Plunder and Bigotry: The War On the Awa Tribe

Meet the Earth’s most threatened indigenous group.

Photo Credit: Domenico Pugliese/Survival


Captured from 4,000 kms above the Earth in a satellite image, the rainforest in the eastern reaches of the Amazon has the appearance of deep-green brushed suede.

In another picture, the forest is overlaid with a curious patchwork of white rectangles and squares. This is the geometry that signifies decades of deforestation. Both images are found on Survival International’s website; their captions shockingly reveal that the images were taken only fifteen years apart.

Any aerial photographs taken in January 2014 might show a surprising army of military personnel storming this remote region. The ground squad was part of a government led operation to expel the illegal invaders of the Awá tribe’s lands.

The Awá are the Earth’s most threatened tribe. They have known decades of massacre and disease at the hands of greedy landowners and corrupt politicians. Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, has brought the tribe’s suffering to the world’s attention.

Their tale is a stark account of breathtakingly inhumane massacres, environmental destruction, organized crime, state-level expedience and archaic bigotry. And yet it is also a tale of solidarity and hope.


The western edge of Maranhão state is a region known as Pre-Amazonia, which lies some 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It is a beautiful place of savannah, babaçu palm groves and broad-boughed copaiba trees, where howler monkeys and red-necked tamarinds cry from the canopy, the sleek jaguar prowls through the undergrowth and rivers swim with caiman. It has been home to the Awá tribe, one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil, for generations.

The Awá probably originated from the lower Tocantins River of Pará state, where it is likely they were once horticulturalists. They may have been forced to abandon horticulture for a nomadic way of life when white colonists and Portuguese slavers arrived at the turn of the 19th century, bringing with them epidemics of European diseases such as smallpox and measles. A nomadic life offered the Awá the best chance of survival, so they fragmented into smaller groups of 20-30 people, which made it easier to stay on the run. Today, there are approximately 360 contacted Awá, and 100 remain uncontacted.

For years their way of life was one of symbiosis with the rainforest; the tribe survived - and still survives - largely by hunting for wild pigs, tapirs and monkeys with 6-foot bows, and by gathering nutritious forest produce such as babaçu fruits, açai berries and honey. Houses are built from lianas, leaves and tree saplings - in just a few hours. Experts believe they use approximately 90% of their forest’s plant species for food, medicine, construction materials and utensils: they are the knowledge-keepers of their environment.

The Awá keep orphaned animals such as monkeys as pets, share their hammocks with racoon-like coatis and split mangoes with green parakeets. Awá women breastfeed capuchin and howler monkeys, and have also been known to suckle baby peccaries. They are so intimately entwined with the rainforest that they view plants as having the same type of social structure as they do – neighbouring babaçu palms may be described as husband and wife. And they cannot conceive of a life beyond it. ‘We love the forest because we were born here. We couldn’t survive without the forest,’ To’o, an Awá man told Survival. ‘We don’t know how to live like white people.’

The Awá call their homeland Harakwá, meaning, ‘the place that we know’.


The Awá’s life was irrevocably disturbed by the karai (the Awá word for non-Indians) during the 1950s with the construction of the BR222 road, which led to the invasion of ranchers and loggers. They were first contacted by FUNAI (Brazil’s National Indian Foundation) during the early 1970s, after which, as is often the case on first contact, many died: up to 80% of one the first contacted groups died from diseases such as ‘flu and malaria, to which they had little or no immunity.

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