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Uncontacted Tribes: The Last Free People on Earth

Deep in one of the remotest parts of the Brazilian Amazon, in a clearing at the headwaters of the Envira River, an Indian man looks up at an aeroplane.

He is surrounded by kapok trees and banana plants, and by the necessities of his life: a thatched hut, its roof made from palm fronds; a plant-fiber basket brimming with ripe pawpaw; a pile of peeled manioc, lying bright-white against the rain forest earth.

The man’s body is painted red from crushed seeds of the annatto shrub, and in his hand is a long wooden arrow — held, in seeming readiness, close to its bow. At his side, children, naked but for cotton waist-bands, gaze up in amazement.

 

One of the world's last uncontacted tribes. © Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/www.uncontactedtribes.org

One of the world’s last uncontacted tribes who are under increased threat from loggers over the border in Peru, according to tribal people’s charity Survival International.

It is a photograph of one of the last uncontacted tribes in the world, taken in June 2010 by FUNAI, Brazil’s Indian Department, together with what is thought to be the first-ever film footage. Survival International published the images in order to help protect the lives of the tribe by proving their existence.  They were also broadcast in the “Jungles” episode of the BBC’s new landmark series, “Human Planet”.

The viewing numbers to date are extraordinary. The moment they were published, thousands of people per minute were looking at the images on Survival’s website; since then, over 2 million have seen them. The footage and photographs have appeared in more than 1,000 media outlets; over 4.4 million people watched the BBC’s program.

Importantly, the Peruvian Government announced within 2 days of publication that they would work with Brazilian authorities to stop loggers entering isolated Indians’ territory along the two countries’ joint border, testament to the belief of José Carlos Mereilles, FUNAI’s uncontacted expert, when he said, “One image of them has more impact than a thousand reports.”

Toby Nicholas of Survival International, who is responsible for Survival’s website and has been monitoring the traffic and statistics, said, “The pictures spread across the world within minutes, and produced a wave of support for uncontacted tribal peoples greater than anything we’ve ever seen before. Huge numbers of people were able to take small steps like signing a petition — and they did.”

That they have captured the imagination of millions can be seen from international posts of awe and outrage left on Facebook, You Tube, Vimeo and other sites.  Messages about respect and diversity, about their right to stay free from oppression and the avarice that pushes loggers, miners and other extractive corporations further into their territories; about their ecological awareness and their absolute right to live in the way that they choose.  “If these tribes and rain forests aren’t saved, the rest of mankind will follow,” read one post. Another just simply said, “Il n’y a pas de mots” ["There are no words"].

 

© Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/www.uncontactedtribes.org


Today, there are over 100 uncontacted tribal peoples worldwide. This means that from the Amazon to the Andaman Sea and the remote highland rain forests of West Papua, more than 100 tribes still live — and live successfully — in isolation from the mainstream society of their country.

Very little is known about them. We know that the uncontacted Indians seen in this part of the Amazon move across the rain forest at different times of the year, living in the heart of the forest when water levels are high, and camping on the beaches that form in river bends during the dry seasons. We also know that the Sentinelese have lived on North Sentinel, a small Indian Ocean island surrounded by coral reefs, for up to 55,000 years, and are thought to have been part of the first successful human migrations out of Africa.

There are many myths that circulate, of course: that they are “lost” tribes (nothing but sensationalism); that they are “backward” for their alternative ways of life or nakedness, or “stone-age” for their lack of material possessions (it’s the ideas that are outdated, not them); that they have tried and failed to keep up with the “modern” world (a conceit that presupposes that the western society is the pinnacle of human aspiration and that all other cultures are striving to reach it).

We also know that they have little understanding of cars, hospitals, banks or the Internet and that they are, in the words of José Carlos Mereilles, “the last free people on earth” — free from the influence of governments, the subliminal powers of advertising and the media and the thoughts of others.

All else about their lives — their languages, their names, their gods, how they raise their children and what they hope for — is speculation.

One thing, however, is certain: the future of this uncontacted community depends on the protection of their lands.  And in turn, the protection of their lands depends, as Jose Carlos Meirelles said, “on our conscience”.

Marcus Veron, the late leader of the Guarani-Kaiowá people, said of the forests and plains of Brazil that were his home, “This here is my life, my soul. If you take this land away from me, you take my life.”

Veron was not alone in this profound attachment to his homeland; a strong practical and emotional connection felt by most tribal peoples.

 

The "We Are One" book cover -- An Ahka girl of the the hills of Northern Thailand. © ELAINE BRIERE/SURVIVAL

 

The idea for my book We are One — A Celebration of Tribal Peoples was born out of spending a week spent with the Hadzabe tribe in northwest Tanzania.  The Hadzabe are a hunter-gatherer people who live in Yaeda Chini, an area of bushland on the floor of the Great Rift Valley. The Hadza men hunt with bows and arrows made from giraffe tendons, the women gather roots and tubers from the arid ground.

This land around the shallow soda waters of Lake Eyasi has been theirs for thousands of years. “Our grandparents lived here; I am part of the land,” a hunter told me one morning, as we sat on a rocky outcrop scanning the acacia trees below for wart-hog. “Without the land, we have no life. This place is my home.”

This place is my home. It was this one comment that stayed with me. It made me consider my own yen for the strong sense of home I’d known as a child, and on a far wider level, I found it humbling to imagine how strong the sense of belonging to place a people must feel after 10, 20, or even 55,000 years rooted to one part of the Earth.

To the Hadzabe, the Yanomami, the Inuit, and the uncontacted tribes, the African savannah, the Amazon, and the Arctic, are home. “It is hard to describe how connected my people are to nature,” said Davi Kopenawa, spokesman of the Yanomami people. “You can’t uproot us and put is in another land; we don’t exist away from the forest,” thoughts echoed by a Cherokee statement: “We cannot separate our place on the Earth from our lives on the Earth, nor from our vision and our meaning as a people.”

The Amazon rainforest is Urihi to the Yanomami, a forest-land covered with the mirrors of dancing spirits; the snow peaks of Colombia are “temples” to the Arhuaco; the larch-covered hillsides of Mongolia are the ancestral migration routes through which the Tsaatan people move with their reindeer; the immense sandstone plateaus of the Guyana Highlands are the ancestral lands of the Akawaio people. “This land keeps us together within its mountains,” said one Akawaio man. “We come to understand that we are not just a few people … but one people belonging to a homeland.”

They belong: to a place, and to each other. Dependent on their community for survival in remote and often harsh environments, many tribal peoples have lived — and often still live — in complex societies, where the solidarity of the group is of utmost importance. “The great difference between the indigenous and the western world is that we live in communities,” said Evaristo Nugkuag Ikanan of the Aguaruna people. “The individual is important as a measure of the whole. Together, we are strong.”

 

Yanomami shaman, Catrimani river basin, Brazil. © Claudia Andujar/Survival

 

Now that loneliness (and its associated emotion, depression) in industrialized societies is so prevalent (recent figures show that there are over 200 million single-person households worldwide), this consideration of the individual only as part of a dynamic whole is perhaps particularly compelling. “In our relentless search for ‘development’ and material progress it is possible we have alienated ourselves from our deepest human needs, which surely lie in our connections to each other and the Earth,” says Stephen Corry, director of Survival International. ‘‘Tribal peoples still perhaps understand those connections better than most.”

As much as the story of uncontacted peoples is about home and belonging, it is also about choice and tolerance. Specifically, their choice: for if uncontacted tribes choose to remain isolated, they will have good reasons to do so (most uncontacted peoples in the Amazon are probably descendants of people who fled massacres caused by the rubber boom). Equally, if they choose different ways of life from the dominant society, it is because these ways have always worked well.

Their lifestyles are not inferior for their lack of “modern” technology, material goods or formal education. Nor do the people who practice them need civilizing or “developing.”

To paraphrase the words of Wade Davis, ethno-botanist and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic, while we have been flying to the moon and inventing the microchip, it’s not as if other cultures have been idle: they have expressed their latent human ingenuity in different ways. “But we are educated in the things we know,” said Daquoo Xukuri, a Bushman from Botswana. “We can pass our knowledge to the rest of the world.”

It is also about tolerance of their choices, for perhaps the true meaning of what it is to be “civilized” lies not in accruing power and wealth but in respecting the differences of others and accepting the value of human diversity. “The world needs human diversity as much as it needs bio-diversity,” says Stephen Corry.

 

Circumcision house in Yakel village where the boys have to stay after the ceremony, Tanna island Vanuatu. © Eric Lafforgue/Survival

 

As the world becomes increasingly homogenized, it is possible that the collective reaction to the uncontacted tribe amounts to relief that there peoples exist who still live in harmony with their environments, who measure time by the cycles of the moon, who can gauge the type of Arctic ice by looking at patterns in the clouds, or who use the song of an African bird to guide them to bees’ nests in baobab trees. “It is amazing that they still in exist in the 21st Century,” said Jose Carlos Meireilles.

For when the props, crutches and conveniences of “modern” life have been stripped away, tribal peoples — both uncontacted and contacted — show us that humanity is still part of nature, and that we ignore this at our peril. “The world needs to listen to the cry of the Earth, which is asking for help,” said Davi Kopenawa.  They understand that once the forests, trees and mountains have been depleted, mutilated or polluted too severely, no technological quick fixes will restore them.

 

Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami leader and shaman surrounded by children, Demini, Brazil 1990. © Fiona Watson/Survival

 

Tribal peoples are, of course, not ecological saints, but their largely sustainable and communal ways of living do act as a counterpoint to the damaging excesses and solo living of many “modern” societies, showing us that humanity is about “we”, not “I”, belonging not ownership, human values not economics, balance with nature, not destruction. “I do know that the measure of a civilization is not how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man,” said Sun Bear, a Chippewa Indian.

The uncontacted community at the headwaters of the Envira River remind us that just as 500 years ago, when Chrisopher Columbus arrived in the “New World”, there were isolated peoples who thrived in the Brazilian Amazon, so there are today.  And that until they choose otherwise, they must be allowed to live in peace, not condemned to suffer from the mindless repetition of history — destroyed by those interested not in their unique cultures and values, but in the minerals beneath their soil, the trees around them and the gold that washes through their rivers.

As we gaze in to the mirror they hold up to us, they remind us, as José Carlos Mereilles said, “that it is possible to live in a very different way.” A woman on Facebook responded to this, saying “And we have a universal moral obligation to them.” As their destruction would be to the detriment of humanity, this obligation is surely to ourselves as well.

 

In the 1980s, a road funded by the World bank cut through Nambikwara land in Brazil bring ranching, colonisation, mining, logging and disease. The impact on the tribe was devastating. © Marcos Santilli/Survival

 

Joanna Eede is a writer, author and editorial consultant to Survival International with a particular interest in the relationship between man and nature and tribal peoples. She has created and edited three environmental books, including Portrait of England (Think Publishing, 2006) and We are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples (Quadrille, 2009).  Joanna writes for newspapers and magazines on subjects such as the repatriation of wild Przewalski horses to Mongolia, the whales of the Alboran sea, the chimpanzees of the Mahale rainforest, uncontacted tribes of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza hunter gatherer people of Tanzania. Future ideas include a book about Tibet’s nomads.

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of Joanna Eede and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.

Related stories and blog posts:

PHOTO IN THE NEWS: “Uncontacted” Tribe Seen in Amazon

Five “Uncontacted Tribes” Most Threatened With Extinction

Restoring human cultures to the web of life

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  5. sandra nelson
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    December 8, 2013, 5:20 pm

    Did u find in your studies any gay people? Are there people in these tribes that suffer from extreme depression and or commit suicide? And last but not least their religious beliefs , many gods or just one? thank u a reply would be greatly appreciated!

  6. Jade
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    December 3, 2013, 11:21 am

    There is so many abuses being committed in the name of whatever one wants to call it. Profits, industrialization, colonization, commercialism, capitalism. I feel so saddened that Tribal people are still being hunted down and more than likely will be turned into looking like clones of ourselves.

    It is imperative that we not only protect the true Survivalists that live close to nature but that we do so remembering that White Man is the true Lost Tribe. They forgot that they too lived in caves and had a social structure that lived peacefully among their natural habitat.

    I hope we wake up to an awareness that living a life simplicity and close to our true nature is probably what we may long for. We are all becoming sicker and the ecology is suffering because of our obsession with exploiting everything and worshipping the Almighty dollar.

    I don’t normally offer my opinion on blogs but I have been following some African Tribes that our suffering from the same fate. As we industrialize and want to modernize human living I hope we don’t destroy ourselves or maybe nihilism is our end.

    I have hope that the next generation or current generation recognizes that if you strip yourselves of everything you are naked and their is nothing left to protect your skin from the environment. Same thing happens in nature, strip all resources and eventually there will be nothing left.

    It doesn’t however stop there, war is a killing machine of pollution that has destroyed many habitats. Is there hope for us? I don’t know. Great article and I hope that these people are saved but I doubt that those with all the Power will Stop to hear the cry of the Earth.

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    September 12, 2012, 9:12 am

    We as civilized are destroying everything using name of development, Modernization.

    Let them live the true life.
    Leave them alone tooo.

  61. Olusola David
    Nigeria
    August 23, 2012, 5:12 pm

    The uncontacted were created by God, and His purpose is that all souls should come to Him. I pray that God will be merciful unto them and save their souls because they are significant in the sight of God.

  62. John
    Olkalou, Kenya, Africa
    August 5, 2012, 4:08 am

    I am amazed by such exposure. I now understand how the garden of Eden was in creation. These communities should be protected from extinction for coming generations will never know how freedom was before the fall of man.

  63. Karanja
    Oljororok Kenya Africa
    August 4, 2012, 3:03 pm

    The uncontacted people should be preserved by remaining uncontacted. The more you cantact them the more trouble you add to their lives. They have learnt survival experience in the jungle. They have excellent traditional herbal medicine. Simple social lifestyle name it.

  64. Deborah Duco
    Philippines
    May 23, 2012, 12:53 am

    its amazing that there’s still people who live and maintain their tribes nowadays…
    i hope that they can preserved this in the near future…for the children of the future know and see how peaceful the lives of our ancestors is…

  65. Francisco
    Albuquerque,nm
    May 8, 2012, 6:59 pm

    I hope that they leave these people as they are. We as a world society. seem to corrupt, exploit and pollute everthing. I hope we can learn that this modern world we have created. Has made us forget the true technology nature has given. Leave these people to the true life, not the prison of the civilized world.

  66. Abhigyam Choudhury
    Delhi, India
    March 4, 2012, 9:22 am

    Absolutely fascinating. They should be left to continue their serene lives in their own way, my best wishes to these remarkable people.

  67. Soh
    Canada
    February 26, 2012, 3:04 am

    It’s nice to see that there are still people who, for the most part, live a carefree, traditional lifestyle unaffected by modern civilization…

  68. Zeina
    Egypt
    February 6, 2012, 5:34 pm

    Its amazing to see like this life, natural,spontaneous,without any masks.
    I think these people have no psychological problems like us .thanks natgio .

  69. Bruno
    Rio de Janeiro, RJ - Brasil
    October 15, 2011, 1:14 am

    To Patrick from Seatle.
    The concept of “contact” for a Funai employe is a policy that the brazilian government has had toward those people. Which doesn’t mean that they never had contact with people from “our” society. As you pointed out in the pic the kid is with a knife (facão) in one hand and there is a white pan at the floor. This could be items given to them by people from Funai or from the contact with other villages.
    I think that in this case the first option is more likely to be.
    The contact policy would consist in attract, register them, place then under tutelage of the brazilian government, give them land, and provide special education and healthy facilities.
    But a group inside Funai had developed this “program” to just follow some tribes, like this, they do interact with them, but they try to keep the interference at minimum level.

  70. [...] Related post: Uncontacted Tribes: The Last Free People on Earth [...]

  71. james
    June 25, 2011, 5:10 am

    Sounds interesting. So I think they are probably thier own government and in most cases they established the land way before any modern governments.

    I should hope they are allow to keep their land. I mean hope they are not displaced so people log trees.

  72. Neoman
    New World
    June 24, 2011, 4:45 pm

    For the New to increase, the Old must decrease.
    When these last few primitives are finally eliminated,
    the New World agenda will move forward.
    It amazes me how hypocrites sponser, support, and supply armies with any means necessary to destroy entire countries and peoples, but then pretend to shed a tear for a few natives living in the jungles.
    The hypocrisy sickens me.
    Admit that the needs of your chosen, self-satisfying, over-indulgent lifestyles demand the destruction of all non-complying, self-sufficient, free-thinking indiviuals;
    and then you can save your tears, … for yourselves.

  73. J.R
    Australia
    June 23, 2011, 8:01 am

    echos the sentiment that we have a moral duty as part of this human race to respect their rights, life style and beliefs. Action must be taken on what governments and private companies who “slip” payments under the counter to corrupt officials to stop wreaking all this damage on our planet. At the end of the day with the Amazon destroyed no microchip, no large bank balance, no works of art or sculptures will save us all from Mother Earth unleashing her fury at our actions and damage we did to her.

  74. Dawn McMullan-Cooper
    UK
    June 23, 2011, 3:31 am

    This is not a story………this is reality. I just hope with all my heart that this contact stops now, the helicopters and cameras don’t continue to invade these peoples lives as that in itself is invasive. Too many of the earth’s amazing forests and lungs for the world are being cleared. May these people be left alone and untouched for a very, very long time otherwise the common cold will kill them all or other diseases. Please leave them alone.

  75. [...] More… Posted in Uncategorized Tags: BBC, Uncontacted Tribe Human Planet Jungles « Rebranding the Great Lakes Seaway You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. [...]

  76. [...] many pre-industrial societies, but seem to be disappearing entirely in the modern world. Do “the last free people on earth” still have cargo cult members? Cargo cults are fundamentally not much different from other [...]

  77. Patrick
    Seattle
    April 28, 2011, 11:24 pm

    One of them has what looks like a long metal knife on a stick. There is also a what looks like a white metal pan on the ground.

    Where did they get these items, if they have had no contact with anyone outside their tribe?

  78. Maniwannan
    Malaysia
    April 22, 2011, 11:55 am

    Truly amazing….let them live peacefully in the natural atmosphere they belong to….have some humanity to let them live independently in their own begotten land….STOP destroying their life for the MONEY that you GREED for…GOD will judge and sentence you, if you PLAY with these INNOCENT HABITANTS life…

  79. Angel
    New Zealand
    April 11, 2011, 11:51 pm

    Does no one realise there is no such thing as a sustainable economy in our world? Too much damage has been, and is being, done. Excessive logging has become the norm. If there truly was great love and respect for this Earth, this rising level of invasion and harm would not be happening, neither to these tribes of remote origins or the animals or trees connected to their (and our) very existence.

  80. Laz Green
    Rochester, NY
    April 11, 2011, 12:10 pm

    I am almost envious of these uncontacted tribes…knowledge of the outside world and the institutions we created yet are enslaved by is a burden they do not have to bear.

  81. Anne
    Washington,USA
    April 6, 2011, 8:37 am

    These people live a natural life and should not be contacted as we have diseases that could wipe them out. That would be a shame. However, I would venture to say, that people wish they could study them for culture and health issues.

  82. Joben
    Sabah, Malaysia
    April 5, 2011, 7:45 pm

    These indigenous people should be protected and not to be abandoned

  83. juris
    Philippines
    April 5, 2011, 6:25 am

    extraordinary.. im hoping that they should be protected.

  84. haras
    UK
    April 4, 2011, 8:55 am

    Unfortunately, all too often indigenous peoples are represented as being primitive and inferior to us “civilised” Westerners. This perception leaves a bad aftertaste of colonial superiority. What would we “developed and modern” people do being left on our own in the rainforest? We would be lost. All our IT skills and academic knowledge would be of little help, if not of no help at all. Indigenous peoples are far from being simple or primitive. They are equipped with unique and valuable skills, helping them to survive in the roughest environments. All the more reason to protect and admire them! Hopefully, people will soon realise this and support their rights to ensure that they remain “the last free people on earth”.

  85. Vonne
    Amsterdam, Netherlands
    April 4, 2011, 8:24 am

    Amazing story. José Carlos Mereilles is right, these are the last free people on earth. It is important to leave them alone, so they can continue their way of living and stay free forever!

  86. sandeep
    india
    April 4, 2011, 8:05 am

    fulpower man
    respect!!
    i support u fully
    great job

  87. Mx
    UK
    April 4, 2011, 6:38 am

    “‘I do know that the measure of a civilization is not how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man,’ said Sun Bear, a Chippewa Indian.”

    I think ideas like this are crucial to emphasize in arguing for the protection of tribal peoples’ rights to their land and self-determination. It should not come from a pastoral or elegiac longing for a simpler time but from the knowledge that all peoples have the right to determine the way their lives are led, and that these peoples who live so close to nature have an old wisdom that has been lost to our new science. An insistence on respect for nature and community could never be considered outdated, and we should remember “…that humanity is still part of nature, and that we ignore this at our peril.” Thank you for posting!

  88. rajeev
    nilambur, India
    April 4, 2011, 6:14 am

    let them live there….

  89. Dina Fitriany
    Jakarta, Indonesia
    April 4, 2011, 4:29 am

    Wow.. Just speechless. It’s an amazing story. Hope this will help us all to be more aware that they have every rights as human to live the life they choose and we must respect it. Sometimes they are more ‘civilized’ and more ‘human’ than us….

  90. Bilal Ahmad
    Islamabad, Pakistan
    April 4, 2011, 2:31 am

    Beautiful Story!

  91. awan waheed
    pakistan
    April 4, 2011, 1:56 am

    its an amazing story but no one can stop the change my sympathies with these peoples

  92. denden
    Philippines
    April 3, 2011, 11:19 pm

    Thanks for the effort of saving these uncontacted tribes….may they not be disturbed even with the effects of ecotourism nowadays….they’re very frail..

  93. Jessica
    Albuquerque, NM USA
    April 3, 2011, 7:00 pm

    I envy their lives and the fact that they way they live is more civilized than any normal human contact in regular society. For we turn blind eyes to each other here. May the tribal peoples around the world help us see the way to open hearts and may these people survive and thrive in their homes!

  94. Ophee
    US
    April 3, 2011, 6:32 pm

    I still say science can hold equal and sustaining value aside from its pretext of colonialism and industrialism. We already have destroyed Newton’s universal machine, and Descarte’s “I” of objectivity. We humans are an element within the vast complexity of things, but must realize that we have the best ability to save our only world. If we could somehow live in another world, then we would have solved the overpopulation problem. But we just need to tap first into the many recesses of our minds, and connectivity of nature, so that we can change our current views of the West.

  95. rowan
    netherlands
    April 3, 2011, 4:40 pm

    beautyfull story! we can learn so much from tribes,most important thing they can learn us is how to respect the earth and live with what the earth gives us.

  96. SELIM OZUNAL
    TURKEY
    April 3, 2011, 4:15 pm

    I AM TOUCHED, AMAZING STORY THANK YOU.

    TOTALLY FREE, UNTOUCH PEOPLE…..AND THEY SHOULD STAY THAT WAY….

  97. Carole Perez
    April 3, 2011, 3:06 pm

    thank you so much for this article…

  98. John Carlo S. Loreque
    Riyadh, Kindom of Saudi Arabia
    April 3, 2011, 2:51 pm

    it’s overwhelming and amazing to learn and to know that; there are still humans; who are totally free from the influence of the modern world…practicing their own way of living; cultures, norms and traditions!

  99. John Carlo S. Loreque
    Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
    April 3, 2011, 2:44 pm

    The “uncontacted tribes”, must be preserved. they musy be procted from the outside interferenceof humans to let them live in their own way of living. I am just have to learn that there are still what we called, “uncontacted tribes”….the last frontier of humans!

  100. mireille abou moussa
    Lebanon
    April 3, 2011, 2:34 pm

    i ‘m very intrested by your culture &the way u need to preserve your people &nature as well.Indeed the world needs to listen to the cry of the EARTH’

  101. akbar
    chennai,india
    April 3, 2011, 1:12 pm

    truly amazing initiative
    hope this reaches the people concerned.
    all the best.

  102. Sherry McKee
    San Francisco, Ca.
    April 3, 2011, 1:09 pm

    Thank you for this story. Amazing.