A blog by Amazon adventurer Paul Raffaele

For three weeks, Sunday Night reporter Tim Noonan and I journeyed deep into the Amazon to reach the Suruwaha, one of the last tribes on earth still living in the Stone Age, much as their ancestors have for thousands of years. This last day was the toughest through dense jungle with hundreds of massive fallen rainforests logs strewn in our path.

Now, at late afternoon, in a clearing ahead we spied an enormous communal hut and heard excited cries. Suddenly, we were confronted by a dozen young Indians, almost naked and swathed in blood-red paint. Some carried bows and arrows and they pointed them at us. Once we entered their territory we knew we were at their mercy, they could kill us if they wanted because it was Indian law, not Brazilian law, that was in force here. A girl in her mid-teens growled that she wanted to kill me and threatened me with a bow and arrow. For a few moments, I was concerned that she would carry out her threat but then another girl tentatively held out her hand to me in friendship.

Over the past four decades as an adventure author, I have journeyed to many remote tribes in South America, Africa and Asia, but none were as isolated as the Suruwaha. The Brazilian government, to allow the isolated tribes in the Amazon to live in their traditional way without interference, has closed off millions of hectares, turning them into forbidden zones, refusing permission for outsiders to enter. Tim and I were a rare exception, guided to the Suruwaha by an expert from the Department of Isolated Indians. It took me seven months to gain that permission.

Our journey began at the small riverside town of Labrea in north-western Brazil in the Amazon. We chartered a snub-nosed steamer and surged along a labyrinth of rivers for three days and nights, passing just a handful of settlements. Far from habitation, the steamer anchored in deep water and we steered a speedboat we were carrying on board for an hour along a shallow river. We reached a small remote government base where we stayed for two weeks under strict supervision, a necessary quarantine to ensure that we were not carrying germs into the Suruwaha.

In the past, hundreds of thousands of Indians have died when coming into contact with outsiders who entered their territory because they have no immunity to diseases such as influenza. It was very uncomfortable, in a small wooden shed with a tin roof in 40 degree C with no fans. We ate piranha and other fish caught by our porters in the river and drank river and stream water. But we were happy to undergo the quarantine because we wanted to protect the Suruwaha.

From the base we travelled for two days by speedboat deeper into the Amazon, now a tangle of small rivers and streams overhung by rainforest hardwoods and then trekked for a further day through the jungle to be with the Suruwaha. No words of description can equal the vision of the tribe as seen on Sunday Night.

Being with the tribe was the peak of my career. But the experience was not only enthralling but deeply disturbing. The Suruwaha practice a bizarre suicide cult, unlike anything I’d ever seen before, where many of the tribe kill themselves with a deadly poison made from tree bark before they reach old age. They told Tim and I that in the afterlife they’ll meet their relatives who have passed away. They would be forever young, being able to hunt and fish and live as youthful people for time eternal.

Even more disturbing was evidence that the Suruwaha may still practice the killing in the most gruesome way of disabled babies and babies born to single mothers because they believe them to be evil spirits. They bury the babies in graves while they are still alive or abandon them in the jungle to be eaten alive by wild beasts including jaguars. About twenty isolated tribes in the Amazon still practice this barbaric human sacrifice.

The most recent verifiable Suruwaha episode took place six years ago when a baby named Iganani was born with cerebral palsy. The tribe, including the brother of her mother, put pressure on the mother, Muwaji, to kill Iganani by abandoning her in the jungle. “Kill her, kill her,” Muwaji said the tribe urged. In obedience she took the tiny baby into the jungle and left her there, but returned when she heard Iganani’s pitiful cries. Muwaji found rats already gnawing at the baby’s knees.

Muwaji bravely decided to defy the tribe and bring Iganani back to the communal hut. Soon after, a government health worker arranged for Muwaji and Iganani to go to Sao Paulo for treatment. Iganani was given a wheelchair and also physiotherapy twice a week. She and her mother now live in a sanctuary for such tribal children run by the NGO Atini near the capital, Brasilia.

The Suruwaha , and the Brazilian government, have urged Muwaji and Iganani to return to the tribe but Muwaji refuses, believing the tribe might still force her to kill Iganani. She told us that she had witnessed 28 babies killed by her tribe and believes they could still be carrying out such human sacrifice, although the tribe denies it.

I was astonished to learn that the Brazilian federal government implicitly condones this ritual killing of babies by several Amazon isolated tribes. It has ruled that within Indian territory, Brazilian law does not apply, only Indian law and if that involves burying babies alive or abandoning them to be eaten by wild beasts in the jungle then so be it.

So, the Brazilian government clearly has the blood of countless innocent babies on its hands. Many Brazilian federal parliamentarians want to go into the territory of the isolated Indians, including the Suruwaha, to investigate these horrifying murders but the Brazilian government refuses them permission. No one believes ending the killing will be easy, but the Brazilian government should at least condemn the practice in principle and attempt to devise ways to bring the tribes into the 21st century.

Many older tribal members want to remain living as their ancestors did and they should be aided to do so, though helped to abandon the killing of babies. But many tribal youngsters want to come out to the cities and study. We met one young boy who wants to go and study to be a doctor in Sao Paulo so that he can return to help his people. But under the present Brazilian government policy that is not possible. It prefers to keep the isolated tribes in what can only be described as a living anthropological museum. So, the limit of ambition of young Suruwahan boys, whatever their intellectual potential, is to be expert hunters with bow and arrows and blowpipes, while the limit of ambition of young Suruwahan girls is to plant crops such as pineapples and to raise babies that are healthy.

In condoning the killing, the Brazilian government is flouting international covenants it has signed guaranteeing the protection of all children. So, the UN and other bodies including the Australian federal government should pressure the Brazilian government to live up to its legal obligations and condemn the slaughter of innocent babies by the isolated tribes in the Amazon, and devise ways to stop them.