Celine Cousteau made her first journey into the waterways of the Amazon rainforest with her family at age 9.
Little did she know at the time that the 18-month expedition served as an introduction to a region that would one day become a central part of her life as an activist.
In adulthood, Cousteau became a filmmaker and explorer, following in the footsteps of her grandfather Jacques Cousteau, her father Jean-Michel Cousteau and her mother Anne-Marie Cousteau, an expeditionary photographer.
Some 25 years after her first visit, an excursion into the remote Vale do Javari region in the North-western portion of the Brazilian Amazon led to Tribes on the Edge, a film and campaign aimed at raising awareness about the critical needs of 5,000 Indigenous people from five contacted tribes and 2,000 uncontacted in about 13 distinct groups living voluntarily in isolation.
Cousteau directed and co-wrote the film, which explores land threats, health crises, and human rights issues faced by Indigenous peoples confronting the possibility of their own extinction due to encroachment on their land and inadequate health care.
“It grew from a film into an impact campaign – a direct response to their request for certain initiatives that would directly benefit them,” Cousteau told Landscape News. She raised $50,000 of the total amount to finance the project through an online crowdfunding platform.
“I’m funding this completely independently because I want to honor their right to tell their own story,” said Cousteau, who said it takes her roughly five days to get to the closest village inside the Javari from New York on a journey that includes a 15-hour river voyage by motorized canoe.
Tribes on the Edge, so far only screened selectively at film festivals and other events, shows what it is like to live in the region through stories told by witnesses and local people under threat.
It was most recently shown at the Black Hills Film Festival in South Dakota, where it received a Global Reach Award.
“It’s beautiful, it’s emotional, real and raw,” said Cousteau, who hopes it will be picked up for distribution by a television network or video streaming service.
Work began on the project in 2010 after Beto Marubo, a representative of Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) who lives in Javari, a territory the size of Portugal, asked Cousteau for help publicizing their plight. He first met her in 2007 when she was filming the documentary Return to the Amazon with her father.
“The film and the campaign raise awareness around two key issues,” said Marubo, speaking to Landscape News at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues last month with translator Nina Kantcheva Tushev, who works with non-profit organization TribalLink, a Tribes on the Edge partner organization.
“One is the health crisis in the communities and the other one is how government policies could worsen the climate change situation for the entire world,” he said.
Malaria and hepatitis are challenges in the area. Hepatitis rates are as high as 80 percent, according to the film, which cites a theory that the disease may have been introduced intentionally to the region to wipe out the local population.
The film shows that health services are minimal, provided by government health workers who stay only on short term assignments in the communities. It also shows that people often do not have the medications they need to treat diseases, and that there is no refrigeration for storing medicine.
The Tribes on the Edge campaign is highlighting local demand for a community house on the border of Vale do Javari offering accommodation for people leaving the territory to seek healthcare, conduct banking transactions or other activities.
“People need to have a place to stay that is their own because it’s a border town and it isn’t a good situation,” said Marubo, who appears in the film. “If they have their own proper place where they can sleep, where they have Internet, where they can receive medical services it’s much better.”
“They want to reduce contact with people to avoid getting diseases,” Cousteau said.
The campaign also includes a land surveillance initiative through which Marubo has learned how to fly small drones.
Vale do Javari faces threats from mine extraction activities, illegal drug networks, hunting, fishing and logging, Cousteau said.
Fears in the region have been exacerbated by Brazil’s extreme right-wing government.
“We’re using drones to be able to survey the land against illegal activities and also to understand where the isolated tribes are so that they can better protect their territory,” Cousteau said. “The next step is to get bigger drones that can go longer distances so they can survey their land collectively and monitor the tribe’s territory,” Cousteau said.
Soon after President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January, he introduced new policies which gave control over traditional Indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture.
“It’s as though indigenous lands are being opened for business,” Marubo said.
Brazil’s forests play a vital role in sustaining human life, preserving environmental health and offsetting the catastrophic effects of climate change for the entire planet, according to scientists. The Amazon produces an estimated 20 percent of the world’s oxygen.
However, Brazil lost 1.3 million hectares of primary tropical forest in 2018, the highest rate of any country in the world, according to a recent report from Global Forest Watch, an organization managed by World Resources Institute.
Amazon Watch released a report at the same time, which stated that at least 14 cases of illegal invasions have occurred in Indigenous territories in Brazil in 2019, an increase of 150 percent.
“The most important thing is to rally the support that we need from the international community and the environmental movement to really call attention to these issues to take a stand for isolated peoples because they are the most vulnerable – they can become extinct if we don’t do something about it, if we don’t mobilize a campaign around their protection,” Marubo said.
Cousteau also connects with students in classrooms around the world through Skype, speaking with them about resistance, land rights, the importance of the Amazon and the role of Indigenous people as guardians of the landscape.
“We’ve been able to reach more than 5,000 students in more than 40 countries,” she said. “I think we have tremendous potential to develop that further.”
Cousteau, who lives in New York state, said she has not yet worked directly with Native American populations in the United States.
“I feel that the history of this country is a glimpse of what can happen with the Brazilian Amazon indigenous peoples,” she said, referring to a comment made by Bolsonaro, who is reported to have said in a newspaper interview that it was a shame the Brazilian cavalry hadn’t been “as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”
“This is a universal struggle — it’s not just what’s happening in the Brazilian Amazon,” Cousteau said. “And the bigger picture story is about our human survival.”
Read Landscape News stories from the 18th session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues here.
Learn more at the Global Landscapes Forum conference in Bonn, Germany, 22-23 June 2019.