The Awá are a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in the forested areas of northeastern Brazil. They are skilled hunters, and while some have taken to using confiscated shotguns from illicit poachers, others still hunt with 6 foot (2 meter) long bows. They have an intimate relationship with and a deep understanding of the forest. Animals are only eaten at certain times of the year to ensure the survival of the forest, and some are avoided completely – like the bat, which is said to cause headaches. They are also great at keeping pets, the favorite being monkeys who are sometimes brought into the family and breast-fed as babies. These will never be eaten but instead seen as hanima, or part of the family.
They are self-sufficient people, and everything they need from baskets to bow and arrows comes from the forest. Without the forest, they cannot be. This is why illicit loggers and ranchers pose the biggest threat to the Awá, because they are cutting down and burning the land with which they coexist.
Brazil has the largest iron ore mine on the planet, which fueled its economic growth but has endangered the forest and the people within it. The mine lies 370 miles (600 km) west of the Awá territory, but the trains that lead to it crosses the land they live on. When the 550 mile (900 km) long railway was built in the 1980’s, officials decided to contact and settle the Awá whose land it cut through. Four years after that only 25 of the original 91 people in one of the communities had survived outbreaks of malaria and the flu. Today these trains bring in people in need of land, work, and animals to hunt. This puts excess strain on the resources of the forest, threatening the Awá’s way of life and increasing the risk of armed conflict and spread of disease.
“We were always on the run, we would find a place to sleep, then the loggers would arrive again to cut down our trees and we would go on the run again” says Pira’I. Pira’I is one of the many Awá people who were forced to give up their traditional lifestyle and move into established villages. However, there are still a few dozen of them who still live uncontacted deep in the forest.
There has been a huge movement in recent years to protect the Awá, who are known as the “Earth’s most endangered tribe.” According to Survivor International, over 34% of one legally protected Awá reserve has been cut down. All illicit loggers, ranchers, and non-Indians were given notices giving them 40 days to leave the territory or be removed. It has been two years after Survival International and actor Colin Firth launched an international campaign to save the Awá people and help them keep their land. Earlier this year, the Public Prosecutor and Judge working on the case gave the Awá an official document confirming that all non-Indians have now been removed from their territory.