Occupying the remotest depths of the Amazon rainforest, some of the most vulnerable communities on the planet may soon be facing extinction after surviving virtually unchanged for thousands of years. Some of these groups live in such extreme isolation that their existence was only discovered in 2008, when aerial photographs revealed the presence of a completely uncontacted tribe in the Brazilian Amazon.
However, as the tentacles of globalization reach ever further into this mysterious territory, the contamination that it brings poses the greatest threat these people have ever faced, sparking debate about how the rest of the world can help to ensure their survival.
Until now, the official policy of South American governments has always been one of "no contact", meaning interactions with forest-dwelling indigenous groups are never attempted unless initiated by the tribes themselves. Alarmingly, however, this is currently happening with greater frequency than ever before, as increasing numbers of native communities appeal to outsiders for help against disease epidemics caused by the infringement of these same outsiders on their land.
Subsequently, while some of the more remote tribes still have virtually no knowledge of modern lifestyles and technologies, others have begun requesting items such as machetes, clothing, and food, after discovering them during interactions with outsiders.
This has led to calls for a change of policy, with some academics claiming that the outside world is now too close to tribal territories for no-contact to be sustainable. Accordingly, certain factions have begun encouraging governments to proactively initiate contact with these communities, in order to ensure the process is as controlled and safe as possible. Others, however, disagree and claim that attempting to contact these tribes can only end in disaster.
Some tribes live in extreme isolation, although more needs to be done to keep outsiders off their territory. Gleilson Miranda/Governo do Acre via Wikimedia Commons
What’s currently happening?
In Peru, five protected reserves covering roughly 3 million hectares (7,400,00 acres) have been created in an attempt to prevent outsiders from entering tribal territories. In spite of this, however, the inhabitants of these reserves are coming into increased contact with illegal loggers and miners, drug traffickers and even tourists, often with catastrophic consequences.
Violent clashes, for instance, are always a danger when two alien cultures meet this way – as became tragically apparent last May when a 22-year-old Peruvian man was killed after being impaled by an arrow fired by a member of the Mashco Piro tribe. On top of this is the ever-present threat of disease, which has the potential to decimate forest-dwelling communities. “Uncontacted tribes are the most vulnerable societies on the planet because they don’t have immunity to the diseases that are brought in,” said Rebecca Spooner, Peru campaigner for the charity Survival International, in a phone conversation with IFLScience. “Up to half a tribe can be wiped out within six months by something like a common cold.”
The Aché tribe, for example, were almost eliminated when agricultural expansion into eastern Paraguay brought them into conflict with colonizers during the 20th century, resulting in multiple deadly outbreaks of respiratory diseases as well as brutal violence.
As Westerners penetrate deeper into the Amazon, incidents such as this look set to become more common. For instance, increased riverboat traffic in regions occupied by the Mashco Piro has resulted in daily contact between tribespeople and outsiders. According to Spooner, “tourists have been leaving things like bottles of beer and cans of Coca-Cola on the river banks for the Mashco Piro.” Such “out of control interactions,” she fears, may well lead to the tribe’s destruction.
Members of the Mascho Piro tribe are now regularly seen on the river bank.
Is contact now inevitable?
While the majority of campaigners are calling for more to be done to keep Westerners out of indigenous territories, some believe this may no longer be possible. University of Missouri associate professor of anthropology Rob Walker, for instance, told IFLScience that “we want to keep out the outside world as much as possible, but the reality is that we’re not. It’s literally right on their doorstep.”
Rather than fight what he believes to be a losing battle by trying to maintain the separation between isolated communities and the rest of the world, he says it is now time for governments to actively contact these groups. By following certain protocols for safe contact, he hopes that the negative impacts of this process can be minimized, and believes this probably represents the best chance of long-term survival for these communities.
Aerial footage revealed one of the world's last uncontacted tribes in the Brazilian state of Acre.
What does safe contact entail?
Walker is under no illusions as to the difficulties of implementing this policy. “Basically, you need a medical team to stay on site for a really long period of time – maybe 10 years or even longer, because the first decade is always the worst for epidemics,” he said. “It’s feasible, but it is, I admit, rather difficult to get people to stay in the middle of nowhere for that long.”
Even if this can be achieved, he accepts that the process is unlikely to be a completely smooth one. “There will be outbreaks, but the question is whether or not they will kill people. That’s why we need the medical teams.” Regardless, he insists that enforced controlled contact is still “infinitely preferable to what’s currently happening, where contact is being made all over the place and the government is the last to show up.”
However, despite Walker’s belief that safe contact can be achieved, others are not so sure. Lorena Prieto, who heads up the Peruvian Ministry of Culture’s directive for contacting isolated communities, told IFLScience that “contact requires a huge amount of investment from the state, and past experiences have not been good.” Efforts to control the Mashco Piro situation, for instance, have involved “incredible numbers of personnel and resources,” with only limited success at keeping unauthorized visitors away.
In light of this experience, Prieto is highly skeptical about the prospect of implementing widespread safe contact. “Ensuring the safety of just 22 Mashco Piro [people] has been extremely difficult,” she said. “Imagine if we began opening up these territories and contacting these groups en masse. We’d have no chance of defending them from outsiders.”
What does the future hold?
Five protected reserves have been created so far in the Peruvian Amazon. Dr. Morley Read/Shutterstock
Contrary to the likes of Walker, Prieto insists that “there is still some distance between these groups and the outside world, so I don't believe we have reached the limit whereby we have to contact them to protect them.” She explains that “many of these villages are so isolated that you have to travel four, five, or six days through the jungle to reach them,” and estimates that, at the current rate of expansion, it will probably be another 50 years before this buffer zone disappears.
To ensure this doesn't happen, the Peruvian government “has launched several projects with the aim of providing greater protection,” said Prieto. For instance, she explains how international investment is funding research into the establishment of more reserves, covering an additional 4 million hectares, with the likes of Norway and Germany having pledged their support for the project. She also says that the number of control posts around these reserves has increased from three to 27 since 2014, and that, perhaps most crucially of all, a new law is about to be passed making it a criminal offense to enter these territories without authorization.
Like Prieto, Spooner remains a firm believer in the no-contact policy and says that South American governments simply need to “show that they have the political will” to police the borders of tribal reserves, rather than give up and allow them to become overrun with outsiders. What's clear, however, is that whichever of these two strategies the authorities opt for, the amount of effort required to ensure the survival of the Amazon's remaining uncontacted tribes is becoming greater all the time.