It is difficult to know what happened to the Akuntsu, a tribe in the Amazon, since their language is not documented. Around 1990, it appears, land-hungry cattle ranchers attacked the tribe with guns and then bulldozed their homes into the ground to hide evidence of the genocide.
By the time Brazil's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI, for Fundação Nacional do Índio), discovered the remnants of the tribe five years later, only seven people were left, all bearing bullet wounds except for a child. Today there are just five people, likely the last of their kind.
As loggers and cattle farmers make ever-greater inroads into the Amazon rainforest, the chances of a fatal first contact with an undiscovered tribe grow daily. But now the tribes have an unlikely high-tech ally: Video.
A United Kingdom-based charity called Survival International is committed to raising awareness of the plight of tribes in the Amazon and elsewhere, and video footage is one of the most powerful media at its disposal, says Toby Nicholas, the organization's film and new media producer.
"The idea that tribal people are not backward and their rights should be respected has come a long way in the last 40 years," he says. "But there are still situations where nasty things happen, where they are being attacked by gunmen or driven off their land. Video can immediately spread this into the public consciousness and shame people to stop what they are doing."
Survival International gets footage of indigenous tribes from a number of sources, ranging from shaky images grabbed on a mobile phone to high-quality films recorded by professional photographers and investigators.
What all of it has in common is the ability to move people in a way that is difficult to equal with a written account or even a photo. "We once had a video of a Brazilian tribe taken when gunmen attacked them," Nicholas recounts. "It is very shocking footage and really captured the fear of the moment. When you are reading a press release you do not get that. With video there is a much deeper level of engagement."
Nicholas adds that the ability to embed video in Web pages and sites such as YouTube means that it can easily reach a wide range of audiences over a long period of time. Furthermore, online video now boasts features that make it ideal for getting viewers to take immediate action.
One of Survival International's recent campaigns involved footage of an indigenous tribe that was donated by the BBC. A petition to protect the community was embedded in the video, and viewers didn't need to leave the video to read the petition. To date, says Nicholas, the video has been viewed more than 2 million times and 100,000 people have signed the petition.
Survival International believes there may be as many as 150 million tribal people worldwide, spread across 60 countries. Video can give them a voice, at last.
Jason Deign is a freelance writer located in Barcelona, Spain.
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