Un-contacted tribes, Should we leave them isolated?

Leave them in isolation or try to facilitate contact with them? This is the great dilemma about the latest indigenous communities living in the Amazon away from the rest of the world. How many and what number of individuals gathered together precisely is not known, but according to recent studies, here are about 50 isolated indigenous societies across lowland South America (other isolated communities are also found in New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia).

Houarani an indigenous community in Ecuador. photo by Jacopo Pasotti
Houarani an indigenous community in Ecuador. photo by Jacopo Pasotti

A dilemma that we do not know how to deal with, in the absence of the “voice” of the interested parties, an issue that is discussed in academies, in politics and in the parties engaged in the defense of the rights of indigenous communities.

Science magazine dedicated an editorial to this issue, bringing some cases from Peru to Brazil. Researchers Robert Walker, an assistant at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Missouri (USA), and Kim Hill, professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at the University of Arizona (USA), argue that trying to avoid contact with these communities is an ineffective and even dangerous strategy.

What are the risks?

The history is clear: the encounter with these people had almost always catastrophic results (for them). The sporadic contact with the miners, woodcutter, hunters, and even workers of oil companies is in fact often lead to a sparring instead of a “meeting”. And when that didn’t happen, to claim victims were as viruses brought in by individuals from modern urban environments. The effect of exposure to the virus is devastating.

In a report from Peru, Andrew Lawler reminds that since the Europeans set foot in the New World in 1492, at least 50 (but maybe 100) million Aborigines were wiped out, even more than by weapons, by diseases imported from the Old World and completely unknown across the Atlantic. Since then the story has been a succession of exploitation, violence, deportations, and epidemics.

What remains today are groups of people vulnerable and exposed. The pressure from the outside seems to be now unstoppable. The Amazon forest is a resource in the continuing erosion (from rubber, wood, to hydrocarbons) and anthropologists, as well as activists and local governments, in short, are wondering how to minimize the impact in what they call the “final act”: ‘last act of what now appears inevitable, that the approach of modernity in these cultures.

An approach that, however, is already happening. Lawler describes the increasingly frequent contacts between Europeans and mestizos and indigenous people of the forest. The journalist of Science says that more and more frequently are the same Indians out of the forest and visit the villages. Visits that sometimes take on the character of raids and they are generating friction between indigenous and external.

The policy of the Government of Peru has been for long time denying the problem. The forest was far away from the public, the clash between modernity and indigenous peoples could be consumed in silence. Now it is harder to pretend nothing has happened and if it happens that workers are intent on building a new road in the forest, to meet the indigenous groups that may be operating in illegality, as woodcutter, drug traffickers or rare species. But even tourists and film crews penetrate deeper into the forest, looking for a contact. Very often these raids leave as “souvenirs” is a bouquet of viruses capable of exterminating quickly an entire community.

Unlike the case of Brazil, where they have the FUNAI (National Foundation of the Indian) government agency in charge of policies for the protection of indigenous peoples). But here government policy, starting from the eighties however, was to establish closed areas to modern societies. In fact, this policy does not work any more: the mesh huddle, the modern pressing and following paths either legal or illegal.

Heather Pringle, a journalist for Science, reports of recent clashes between Peruvian traffickers and groups Xinane in Brazil.

It is not surprising, therefore, if there are also communities who refuse, even violently, any contact with the outside world. This is the case for example of the indigenous communities living in imposed isolation inside the Yasuni Park, in Ecuador.

This group lives in an island surrounded by a sea of oil concessions. Illegal logger in search of precious wood have already penetrated into their territory, and some do not have come out. But it is a matter of time, the ideal line of protection is getting weaker, with the hunting rifle is better than with the blowpipe (but then the bullets are bought and not being manufactured with the wood).

Hope to avoid contact, however, it seems unsustainable. What to do then? How to prevent these communities vanish before our eyes, consumed by skirmishes and raids by voluntary or involuntary from the outside, or from epidemics?

According to science editorial. WControlled contact with isolated peoples is a better option than a no-contact policy. This means that governments should initiate contact only after conceiving a well-organized plan. In the past, there have been many poorly planned contacts with isolated Amazonian tribes by both missionaries and government agencies. The absence of health care professionals and health monitoring led to many deaths of these vulnerable peoples.

A well-designed contact can be quite safe, compared to the disastrous outcomes from accidental contacts. But safe contact requires a qualified team of cultural translators and health care professionals that is committed to staying on site for more than a year.

Given that isolated populations are not viable in the long term, well-organized contacts are today both humane and ethical. We know that soon after peaceful contact with the outside world, surviving indigenous populations rebound quickly from population crashes, ,with growth rates over 3% per year. Once a sustained peaceful contact occurs, it becomes much easier to protect native rights than it otherwise would be for isolated populations. Leaving groups isolated, yet still exposed to dangerous and uncontrolled interactions with the outside world, is a violation of governmental responsibility. By refusing authorized, well-planned contacts, governments are simply guaranteeing that accidental and disastrous contacts will take place instead.

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