The Amazon rainforest covers about 2.1 million square miles across South America. In that vast expanse, there are tribes of people who have been tucked away and completely separated from the outside world. When people from modern society do contact these indigenous tribes, they risk violence and the spread of disease.
Brazilian officials reported recently that a tribe of people living in the Peruvian Amazon, who previously had no contact with the outside world, have just contacted a settled tribe near the Brazil-Peru border while attempting to flee illegal loggers. The group was first discovered in 2011 from aerial photographs taken by the Brazilian government.
José Carlos Meirelles worked for the Brazilian government agency FUNAI for 20 years in order to protect these indigenous people and their rights. He told Survival International that this situation felt a bit desperate, as it was the first time in 30 years that the uncontacted group were the ones to make first contact with outsiders. “Something serious must have happened. It is not normal for such a large group of uncontacted Indians to approach in this way. This is a completely new and worrying situation and we currently do not know what has caused it.”
When the uncontacted tribe initially came across Asháninka Indians, they held back and monitored them. Slowly, men began to sneak into the village in order to take necessities like pots and vegetables. The groups eventually made contact and have been quite peaceful, with the Asháninka providing the group with food and clothing.
Despite the lack of violence, the unnamed tribe may still be in serious danger. Though they are overall quite healthy, they have never encountered many common diseases such as the flu and common cold. This could be potentially lethal if a virus were to sweep around the tribe.
Christian missionaries did just that when they made contact with the Zo’e tribe in the Amazon in 1980s. A quarter of the Zo’e’s population died from the common diseases within a six year time span. FUNAI built a small clinic nearby in order to treat Zo’e people who fall ill while limiting their contact with others, and their population did stabilize.
Unfortunately, this situation doesn’t have an easy fix. The size of the rainforest makes it incredibly difficult to patrol, and government officials are often outnumbered and outgunned by drug smugglers and illegal loggers harvesting Teak and Mahogany for use in furniture. There are also inconsistencies with Brazilian and Peruvian policies for protecting these people from criminal activity without endangering them through contact. It may be difficult, but something does need to be done before all of these groups are driven to extinction.
Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, stated that “International borders don’t exist for uncontacted tribes, which is why Peru and Brazil must work together to prevent lives being lost. Throughout history, uncontacted peoples have been destroyed when their land is invaded, and so it’s vital that these Indians’ territory is properly protected. Both governments must act now if their uncontacted citizens are to survive.”