Uncontacted peoples: The last “lost” tribes of the Amazon?
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Uncontacted peoples: The last “lost” tribes of the Amazon?

Despite policies designed to protect the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest, soon the existence of uncontacted communities may be a thing of the past.

The European-led colonization of South America began hundreds of years ago with Christopher Columbus’ third voyage to the “New World”.

Some may find it amazing that there are still tiny pockets of this region that remain untouched by direct contact with European and Europeanized cultures. But the increased incursion of state and private interests, both legal and illegal, are reaching deeper into the Amazon. This may mean that the colonization of the Americas will — at least in some sense — soon be complete.

“First contact”

A recent documentary on the UK’s Channel Four, named “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon” shows meetings between anthropologists and Amazonian peoples who had previously had little or no contact with outsiders, possibly for generations.

“First Contact” Documentary filmmaker Angus Macqeen, in the Guardian:

Experts suggest there are perhaps 70 such groupings left, numbering anything from 2,000 to 3,000 people in total, nearly all of whom live in the headwaters of the Amazon.

I found the documentary to be both fascinating and sad — not because I believe that these people must remain isolated and preserve their culture at all costs. That is none of my business. The tragedy of the tribes is that they have no choice.

Previous infiltrations into the Amazon have resulted in slavery and genocides, both intentional and unintentional, the latter due to the spread of “Old World” diseases against which these people have no natural defenses. Stories of such horrors of brutality and death have been passed on from generation to generation among the isolated, making them naturally wary of contact with outsiders.

Nonetheless, more recent violence at the hands of illegal loggers and drug traffickers in the Brazilian and — even more so — Peruvian Amazon is apparently forcing uncontacted peoples out of their isolation. The film depicts individuals who — until recently — lived in isolation, complaining about life in the forest, but their complaints, which focused on fear, danger and discomfort, struck me as something that happened after they left their village and were forced to live like nomads. “First Contact” fails to make this clear. Wouldn’t anyone in this situation strive to improve their lot?


Survival International responds

Activist group Survival International praised the documentary for shining a light on continued injustices against indigenous Amazonians.

The group also criticized the filmmakers for their general characterization of uncontacted tribes as backwards, desperate for the trappings of Western civilization and living in an “almost constant state of terror”. This is in contrast to other documented cases of formerly isolated people’s positive descriptions of their previous lives.

Into the arms of the enemy

Ironically it is now the government of the colonials, the Brazilian state, who may be the isolated tribes’ best hope against slavery and/or extermination at the hands of illegal loggers and other criminal interests.

Brazil’s constitution guarantees the protection of indigenous territory and, together with NGOs, its National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) may be the only body that can prevent the kind of land grabbing and murder that much of the country was built on.

At the same time, the Federal Government of Brazil, along with semi-public energy firm Petrobras is busy making its own incursions into indigenous territories.

Corrupt local governments have done even worse, as evinced by the case of José Riva, rancher and former State Deputy of Mato Grosso, who attempted to strip indigenous tribes of their land rights, even going so far as to publicly deny the existence of uncontacted peoples on lands targeted for development.

In this situation, it seems that isolated indigenous peoples, forced to flee their homelands, may have nowhere to run but towards the lesser of two evils.

See also:

When “Amazon feminist” Camille Paglia speaks, Brazil listens