In small pockets around the world live isolated indigenous communities, groups that, even though they have had run-ins with their neighbours or Westerners, prefer to avoid or resist any further contact. Although we sometime call them ‘uncontacted,’ a more accurate description is probably ‘voluntarily isolated’ or ‘withdrawn’ or ‘evasive.’ Many of these groups have tragic histories of encounters with outsiders — too much ‘contact’ — where they fought to preserve their isolation and, usually, came up much worse off than their more numerous intruders.
Survival International reports that about one hundred groups around the world prefer to be left alone. They refuse to become enmeshed with their neighbours, to give up their ways of life and languages, or to find some way to earn the local currency or trade goods. All have made it abundantly clear their wishes: stay away.
The BBC is the gift that seems to keep on giving to Neuroanthropology this week. The striking footage below of an ‘uncontacted’ tribe, from the BBC Human Planet series (‘Jungles’ episode), was shot from one kilometre away using a stabilized zoom lens from a small plane. Like the previous clip I featured on undersea fishing, this footage of remote Indian communities near the Brazilian-Peruvian is haunting, especially with the running commentary provided by Brazilian José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, an expert in the groups living in this area.
The footage shows people who refuse to come in from the forests. On the BBC footage, Meirelles says, ‘It’s important for humanity these peoples exist… they’re the last free people on this planet.’
I first wrote online about ‘uncontacted’ Indians in 2008, when an earlier set of photos of a group in the same general area triggered an explosion of interest. I ended up writing a piece for Seed Magazine: Turning a Blind Eye. In these two pieces, I felt I was mostly just arguing against pervasive absurd interpretations of these groups. At the time, wild articles and comments discussed how the Indians must have thought the plane was ‘a god,’ debates raged whether they had ever ‘seen a white person,’ and stupefying assertions were made that, in spite of the evidence, there couldn’t possibly be a group anywhere that was previously undiscovered, so the ‘uncontacted’ Indians must be a hoax.
The isolated Indians on the border of Brazil and Peru are important for so many reasons, in part because they challenge us. Are those of us in the West and elsewhere with access to the Internet and credit cards and all the creature comforts of a technologically-advanced consumer lifestyle, willing to consider the possibility, the slim chance that, in fact, there is an alternative to our way of life.
Although the thought may be mind-bending to us, some people in small groups around the planet opt out completely of a material, social and economic reality that many of us think is inevitable. Offered the option of joining us, they emphatically demonstrate they want no part of our world; they just prefer to be left alone. What we do to them, those who withdraw or opt out, says more about us than it does about them. What I wrote in ‘Turning a Blind Eye’ was:
The crucial issue raised by these photos of a remote group isolated from our society is not whether, in an age of worldwide connectivity, surveillance satellites, and explosive population growth, we might still have undiscovered neighbors on a shrinking globe — we don’t. In fact, one of Meirelles’s friends first noticed the clearing where the tribe was found while browsing Google Earth. In truth, our reactions to and perceptions of these people reveal far more about us than about them. We easily believe that a band of hostile Indians confronting an airplane from a clearing do so out of ignorance and fear. But the likely truth is harder to face: The tribe might have threatened the observers precisely because they had encountered some of the worst aspects of our culture before, and suffered grievously. These images of a people courageously standing against us are not symbols of their ignorance, but of ours.
‘Uncontacted’ in 2008
When I wrote my first post on Culture Matters: ‘Uncontacted Indians?!’ — contact an anthropologist! I was especially uncomfortable that we kept calling them ‘uncontacted,’ which might easily be understood as ‘never-been-contacted’ or – cringe – ‘UNDISCOVERED TRIBE!’ that jackpot Indiana Jones revelation of a tribe nestled in a secret, cloud-shrouded island that they share with dinosaurs and a giant ape, to whom they offer human sacrifices! As the Survival Intenational website explains:
Is this an ‘undiscovered’ or ‘lost’ tribe?
No. This is empty sensationalism. It’s extremely unlikely there are any tribes whose existence is totally unknown to anyone else. The uncontacted tribe in these photos has been monitored by the Brazilian government for 20 years, and lives in a reserve set up to protect uncontacted tribes.
Part of the problem, however, is simply the word, ‘uncontacted.’ Anyone who had been aware of the 2008 story, or had read in the original sources in Portuguese, knew that Survival International, not FUNAI (Brazil’s National Foundation of the Indian), had started calling the group ‘uncontacted.’ FUNAI refers to them as isoladas, ‘isolated,’ a much less sensationalist term.
SI has its own definition of the term, ‘uncontacted,’ that is a bit broader, shall we say, than what the word might mean to a popular audience, and anthropologists, such as Rex at Savage Minds, have criticized SI’s liberal use of the term. In 2008, I explained some of the reasons that I was personally ambivalent about the use of the word, ‘uncontacted,’ as well as pointed out how clear the Portuguese sources such as FUNAI were that the groups were not ‘previously unknown’ or ‘newly discovered’:
While I certainly agree that small pockets of cultural diversity should not be aggressively assimilated, I feel a little queasy that we have to sell the drive for cultural autonomy and respect for foraging peoples with the whole ‘never seen a white man’ drivel. The term ‘uncontacted’ is part of the problem; ‘isolated’ would be better, as these groups have seldom ‘never seen a white man.’ They usually have developed a habit of reacting hostilely when they do, perhaps suggesting that it’s not so much lack of contact, but certain kinds of contact that they have experienced.
The FUNAI website, for example, is very clear that four isolated groups living in the region in which the aerial photographs were taken in late April and early May  have been observed for twenty years, and the FUNAI site focuses on the news that the groups appear to be reasonably healthy (which is news). They put the photographs up with the statement that they are for ‘cultural dissemination’; unfortunately, in the case of the Daily Mail, this includes over-excited tabloid captions (predictable, but lamentable).
The Portuguese-language website describes how the ‘Front for the Protection of the Ethno-Environment’ of FUNAI is responsible for protecting isolated Native Americans and their lands. According to the Coordinator-General of Isolated Indians, Elias Biggio, the ‘Front’ does not make contact with the groups, ‘which require intensive actions on their behalf to counteract incursions [by miners, loggers, and others], allowing in this way the isolated indigenous peoples total autonomy.’ In other words, far from being ‘never contacted,’ the Brazilian government works damn hard to keep these groups, usually remnant fragments of once-larger groups, safe from outsiders who constantly threaten their territory and health.
In other words, the news as far as FUNAI was concerned was that their approach — leaving these groups alone and protecting them from afar — seemed to be working. The groups’ were increasing in number and even confident enough to threaten the plane rather than run and hide (suggesting, also, that they may not have been recently bombed, as they had been decades before, from small planes.) The photos were released to try to pressure the states involved, especially the Peruvian government, to actively defend the isolated tribes.
Unfortunately, though, SI soldiers on with the term ‘uncontacted,’ which in 2008, blew up on them. For those of you who weren’t following the story back then, the press turned on José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles when Meirelles revealed that he had long been watching the ‘uncontacted’ Indians that showed up in photos at the end of May.
Although Survival International tried to clarify their use of the term (continuing to call them ‘uncontacted’, as it does to this day), the press was not amused to learn that the groups around the Envira River were first recognized in 1910 (Secret of the ‘lost’ tribe that wasn’t, The Guardian).
Perhaps feeling that they had been made fools of, some journalists started declaring that the 2008 photos were a ‘hoax.’ A Peruvian newspaper allegedly ran a photo with the accusation that an NGO had paid the natives to get naked (Portuguese source, Terra Magazine 30-6-2008). Survival International had to push back, ‘No Hoax,’ declared Survival International, but arguably they had put forward a claim that was too easy to misunderstand.
All over the blogosphere in 2008, people couldn’t decide whether to condemn the ‘fraud’ or defend the ‘innocent savages.’ Live Science, for example, first heralded the photos and then warned against intervention, but later edited the original post to reflect concerns about the information, before finally deciding it was alright — no harm, no foul. The Guardian, similarly, went from excitement, to advocacy, to wariness (sorry, broken link), to… well, oblivion. That is, until the next set of photos or fantastic declaration of the ‘last lost tribe’ came along this year.
When Survival International was called on their use of the term ‘uncontacted’, even threatened with a lawsuit by a reporter at The Observer (UK), they stood their ground:
In fact, neither the Brazilian government nor Survival has ever claimed that the tribe was ‘undiscovered’ or ‘unknown’. They said only that the tribe was ‘uncontacted’, which was correct. They have ‘admitted’ and ‘conceded’ nothing, because there is nothing to admit or concede.
I don’t know the ins and outs of defamation lawsuits, which might explain why SI was being so damn obdurate when the term, ‘uncontacted,’ was obviously causing them problems (this link provides a ream of material, including a list of more than sixty newspapers who picked up the idea the photos were a ‘hoax,’ even exaggerating these claims until some started to say the photos were ‘staged.’). I guess it’s better than calling them ‘savages,’ but it sure causes trouble (beware: link is to a piece on Rush Limbaugh’s commentary on photos).
In 2008, Meirelles never attempted to perpetrate a hoax, or to claim that these were previously ‘undiscovered’ tribes; he had made contact with some members of the group decades earlier. Anyone who did their homework would quickly find that, although his methods are unorthodox, Meirelles and his colleagues do amazing work. In interviews, he comes across as a brave, crotchety woodsman with a streak of idealism that could feed a village.
Say whatever you like about anthropologists or indigenous right activists, but Meirelles is the real deal. He took an arrow in the face and still advocates for these groups, in spite of amazing odds (interview in Portuguese). Like him, Sydney Possuelo and the other sertenistas — a kind of rainforest ecologist/Indian tracker — probably deserve a collective Nobel Prize for fighting against dire threats to these groups (I’m not the only one who thinks so: story in Terra in Portuguese). And a big budget movie about the amazing things that they do to protect the isolated groups.
A couple of years ago, Rex put up a nice discussion of how ‘first contact’ can actually be a bit of a prolonged and murky process, based on his own work in PNG: What counts as ‘first contact’? An example from Papua New Guinea. As Rex points out, even the first gold prospectors to reach the Porgera regions of PNG found imported staple foods and systems of pounded roads, and they had only passing ‘contact’ with native peoples as the expedition tended to shoot at locals or to steal their food.
The same thing happened in the Americas when the Spanish and Portuguese arrived. Tools and diseases and stories of the newcomers spread ahead of them through local trading networks like a bow shock, and some groups even in colonized areas withdrew after their first experiences contact. At what point would we say ‘contact’ occurred, and do groups stay ‘contacted’ if they later avoid all interaction? (Here’s a story of Amazonian ‘first contact,’ caveats in place, from 1999).
The bottom line: there are no ‘uncontacted peoples,’ says Rex, if we carefully consider the term and go with it’s conventional meaning. Rex analyzed the Survival International website carefully, and although he strongly supported their mission in 2008, he wrote:
I think SI’s attempts to bring these problems to the attention of the public is admirable, but couching these problems in the language ‘uncontacted’ and ‘first contact’ does not do justice to their situation: decades of direct contact, centuries of influence, and millennia of attenuated interconnection with their fellow human beings.
Rex copped a fair bit of flack from supporters of SI for concluding this, but one is left with the impression that some of the critics are pretty careless with words, as at least one erroneously accuses Rex of a host of offenses in a kind of ‘with us or against us’ comment.
The point is, we’re not disagreeing with SI’s effort to defend isolated indigenous groups at all, only with the use of the concept ‘uncontacted’ as the banner under wich to fight for them (note, uncontacted; not, ‘currently refusing contact’ or ‘no longer in contact.’ UncontactED as in, past tense, never been contacted…).
If you go to battle on behalf of these people claiming they are uncontacted, you set yourself up for the same sort of backlash the 2008 effort provoked. Playing the ‘one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes’ card in their press releases invites the eventual accusations of ‘fraud’ and ‘hoax’ which makes SI’s work harder in the long run, in my opinion (although I can imagine their name recognition has soared with each story).
Educate the public or pander to their worst instincts? I feel like the world’s periodic flashes of interest in these isolated tribes is one of those rare teachable moments in discussions of indigenous rights, so it’s a shame to squander it by dumbing the issue down to the point of caricature with the ambiguous and easily misunderstood idea of ‘uncontacted tribes.’
The ‘uncontacted’ gambit worked for getting headlines. The world learned about the group on the banks of the Envira River in 2008, whereas indigenous struggles for rights, recognition, and land elsewhere occur all the time with virtually no attention. However, if all public goodwill is destroyed, or if the issue is evacuated and replaced with celluloid fantasies of Indiana Jones and the Lost Tribes, then I’m not sure what has been gained.
Uncontacted in 2011
Flash forward two and a half years, and once again, Meirelles, FUNAI, and Survival International are releasing powerful images to put pressure on governments who threaten to leave the isolated Indians in the hands of the loggers, miners and ranchers. Today, much like in 2008, activists worry that the Peruvian government is losing its resolve to defend the forests where the groups live. Fox News explains:
Peru has yet to make a statement about the newly released pictures, which were taken by Brazil’s Indian Affairs Department, the group said. Survival International is using them as part of its campaign to protect the tribe’s survival — they are in serious jeopardy, the organization argues, due to an influx of illegal loggers invading the Peru side of the border.
Brazilian authorities believe the influx of loggers is pushing isolated Indians from Peru into Brazil, and the two groups are likely to come into conflict. Marcos Apurina, coordinator of Brazil’s Amazon Indian organization COIAB said in a statement that releasing the images was necessary to prove the logging was going on — and to protect the native groups.
“It is necessary to reaffirm that these peoples exist, so we support the use of images that prove these facts. These peoples have had their most fundamental rights, particularly their right to life, ignored … it is therefore crucial that we protect them,” he said.
“The illegal loggers will destroy this tribe,” agreed Survival International’s director Stephen Corry. “It’s vital that the Peruvian government stop them before time runs out. The people in these photos are self-evidently healthy and thriving. What they need from us is their territory protected, so that they can make their own choices about their future.” (Fox News, Astonishing Photos of One of Earth’s Last Uncontacted Tribes)
According to anthropologist Beatriz Huertas, of the International Committee for the Protection of Isolated Peoples, fourteen isolated Indian groups, some fragments of other tribes, live in the Peruvian Amazon, most along the border with Brazil. Because they move about in search of food (and to escape threats), the groups range over areas that are not always protected, including some where the Peruvian government has granted concessions for resource extraction (such as logging) or petroleum exploration.
Both the Indians and their advocates are sometimes threatened; in April of 2008, a prominent ecological activist and state official in Madre de Dio, Peru, was shot eight times by an illegal trafficker in lumber. Activists have been pushing the Peruvian government to increase policing of logging in the area and to declare more of the forest protected.
For whatever reason, even though they still insist on using the word ‘uncontacted,’ SI and others involved in the public relations effort seem to have kept control of the possible misreadings. This time around, the news seems to be less wild-eyed and bizarre: for example, The Independent has a balanced story, In 2011, there are 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide as does The Guardian, Outside looking in: the Amazon’s isolated tribe, which specifically considers the implications of aerial photographs of stunned people in an age of pilotless drones and Wikileaks helicopter nose camera footage.
Moreover, the public relations strategy seems to be working, as John Vidal of The Guardian argues in Amazon’s uncontacted tribe: how media coverage can trigger action:
Yesterday morning, less than 36 hours after the pictures were posted on websites, the Peruvian foreign ministry leapt into action, announcing it would immediately work with Brazil to stop the loggers entering the tribe’s territory along the joint border.
“We will establish contact with Brazil’s FUNAI institute [National Indian Foundation] … to preserve these peoples and avoid the incursion of illegal loggers and the depredation of the Amazon,” said the government….
The government must now act to stop the loggers, but it must also recognise the many other isolated groups in its territories. Two are in particular danger following the opening last month of the Interoceanic highway which links Peru with Brazil’s existing Amazonian road network. This has created a coast-to-coast trucking route for Brazilian-based agribusiness exporting soy and other primary products to China via Peru’s Pacific ports and will inevitably attract settlers, loggers, gold miners and new communities.
The chances of the groups escaping contact are slim and the government is the Indians’ only hope. It may need many more photographs and people to bombard the president.
The news from Peru that the government will increase protections is great. With a new road from the Brazilian side through to Peru and petrochemical companies champing at the bit to test drill in these forests, government neglect is anything but benign. If the world and the governments involved look the other way, the Indians will quickly be gone, not because of some abstraction like ‘progress is inevitable,’ but because people will shoot them, poison them, destroy the forests that feed them, or even try to convert them (into Westerners, into Christians), and in the process infect them. And preserving them will require international cooperation.
With fantasies of ‘uncontacted’ floating around, the real story — that the policy of benign protection from a distance seems to be working even though loggers and petroleum exploration and disease constantly threaten isolated groups — can’t get any cut through. The story shouldn’t have been that these people existed; the story should have been what we can do to allow them to continue to exist, and that the policy can work. As I wrote in Seed:
In Brazil it’s been only 20 years since the constitution first renounced aggressive assimilation for Indians. Since then, the government has established enormous reservations; now the policy is to watch from a distance and protect the groups. Brazilian authorities have dismantled illegal sawmills, arrested loggers, repelled settlers, prohibited prospecting, and intercepted armed thugs travelling to the forest. But new threats continually emerge: Drug traffickers cut landing strips through the trees, Christian missionaries inadvertently bring disease, and even assimilated Indians attack the reclusive nomads they call mashko, “naked.”
The proof that, with a little support and protection, indigenous groups can in fact thrive is what makes me so angry when critics or commentators seem to think that cultural extinction is natural and inevitable (for example, see Language extinction ain’t no big thing?). In Peru we see the ugly reality of Indigenous genocide, the blood-soaked acts behind the collapse of Indigenous groups, the disappearance of their languages, and the eradication of isolated groups. Indigenous tribes typically don’t just fall away on their own, suddenly deciding to trade in their lives for membership on the fringes of our societies. They are attacked, starved, terrorized, and treated like subhuman pests if we do not actively keep the chainsaws, guns, bulldozers, drills and fire away from them.
Increasing the protection for isolated groups in Peru would also take pressure off the Brazilian forests. Meirelles has elsewhere pointed out that the groups often don’t get along, and logging or violence in one part of the forest can force the groups up against each other, and against settlements of sedentary Indians and settlers who live in the remote region. Violence is almost inevitable.
(The Brazilian government is not completely without its own problems in relation to Indigenous groups, however, though I’m praising their reservation policy. Currently, the newly inaugurated Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, is facing calls by environmental and Indigenous activists to rescind her government’s approval of the construction of the Belo Monte dam, a project that critics say will displace 12,000 indigenous people, flood 100,000 acres of rainforest, and block the Xingu River.)
Are you advocating we lock the Indians up?!
If isolated Indians want to join majority societies, the process is simple: they just walk downstream. Everywhere, they are surrounded by possible exit from their way of life.
Every internet commentator who claims that people like Meirelles or Survival International want to treat isolated groups like ‘zoo animals’ and lock them away in reservations for their own gratification knows nothing of the reality, that these ‘uncontacted’ groups have had to fight tooth and nail, keep constantly on the run, to preserve (or re-establish) their isolation. ‘Contact’ is pervasive, nearly unavoidable, and dangerous. Only in reservations, with strong government protections, are they given any rest, and then only because the dogs of development are held back.
No one is saying that indigenous people should be forced to remain the way they are; this accusation, made by some critics of Indigenous rights advocates, is absurd. The vast majority of people of indigenous descent participate actively in majority societies and economies, and most have assimilated into dominant societies over time. Even advocates of protecting isolated groups like Meirelles know that these groups, sometimes when they become just too demoralized by disease or conflict, will ‘come in,’ presenting themselves in neighbouring communities.
When isolated groups do ‘come in,’ indigenous advocates never — never — try to put them on reservations to preserve their way of life in spite of the isolated people’s own wishes. Indigenous advocates are saddened deeply when groups come in, but only because it’s a signal of how bad things have gotten for these groups.
In addition, advocates of Indigenous rights know what these previously isolated groups tend to be in for: they usually face pitiable casualties from endemic diseases among majority societies and entry into these societies the lowest possible level, with few marketable skills, facing prejudice and grinding poverty, even de facto slavery in the worst cases.
The new reservations being declared in the Amazon are lines drawn around the last wild spaces on the map, which governments like Brazil and Peru then fight with varying degrees of conviction and success to defend against those who would encroach from outside. ‘Reservations’ today are ways of trying to lock up what is left of indigenous groups’ territory. The metaphorical ‘walls’ around these new reservations do not hold indigenous people in; they bar outsiders from entry.
Isolated groups once ranged even more widely, but settlers have taken all the promising land: the coastlines, the flat plains that seemed auspicious for farming, the navigable river banks, the mountains with rich veins of gold or tin. The isolated groups were fortunate to avoid extermination or assimilation in the first wave of colonization, but they also actively retreated into forests too impenetrable, swamps too malarial, islands too unpromising to attract colonizers. Now, however, the forests that remain look more and more attractive to outsiders, and ‘uncontacted’ groups are once again in the path of powerful economic forces.
The hunger for lumber
2011 has been declared the Year of Forest by the United Nations: ‘Celebrating forests for people,’ is the UN’s slogan for the year. The focus has primarily been on the role of forests in carbon management, with deforestation accounting for more carbon emissions annually than all forms of transportation – cars, trucks, planes, trains, ships – combined (see Greenpeace).
But to understand the situation of the planet’s forests, we also have to understand what is driving deforestation; one thing is the hunger for valuable wood. The primary threat to isolated Indians is their proximity to ‘red gold’ — mahogany.
The scale of illegal logging is staggering; 20-40% of all industrial lumber production globally may be illegal (Europe bans illegal timber to protect forests). In Peru, the National Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA) estimated in 2005 that illegal logging cost the country $44.5 million (Illegal-logging.info). In the Amazon basin, illegal wood is the rule rather than the exception, with an estimated 80% of all the clearing in Brazil considered unsanctioned and illegal. Although great strides have been made to slow the trade in illegal lumber, the hunger for the forest still endangers isolated Indian communities.
In 2003, Greenpeace released a report, ‘State of Conflict,’ about the spread of illegal logging in the Amazonian state of Pará, Brazil, describing a cycle of unsustainable forest exploitation that is much more widespread. The loggers first target the most valuable trees, but Greenpeace details how the grim logic unfolds. As the report explained, the cycle of logging eventually generates low productivity pasturage, lands estimated to feed only one head of beef cattle for every 1.4 hectares (3.5 acres):
The short-lived economic booms of predatory logging are created by the extraction of high value timber species – including mahogany and cedar – which finances the pioneer roads that cut through previously unavailable frontier areas. Thousands of kilometers of illegal logging roads have been opened across Pará [Brazil] by those in search of high value timber species, which have helped facilitate a process of colonization. The ‘boom’ economy begins to decline after several years, when the supply of high value timber has been depleted and a second round of logging begins.
Once the second or third wave of loggers starts to exploit the medium-value timber species – including jatobá, tauari and ipê – farmers or cattle-ranchers come in search of land to transform into grazing areas, profiting from the existing roads created by loggers. Where buyers are available, farmers or cattle ranchers sell remaining logs resulting from the final clear-cutting of land to timber companies to finance the transformation of forest into grazing land. For the timber companies it is easier and less expensive to buy logs from areas of illegal deforestation than to obtain them through authorized Forest Management Plans (FMPs).
Approximately 20 years after the start of the ‘boom’, the complete exhaustion of marketable wood occurs, and the local economy enters a crisis. Loggers abandon the region, leaving behind only low-productivity land for ranching. (Greenpeace 2003: 14)
Peru is currently the largest exporter of big leaf mahogany to the United States as the hardwood is highly sought after by furniture manufacturers and others who prize the distinctive hardwood. Supplies in Honduras and Mexico were depleted in the twentieth century, and both Bolivia and Brazil have in recent years cracked down on the export of the trees, leaving Peru as the primary source of the valuable wood.
Mahogany is protected under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (also known as the Washington Convention), but trade in the wood continues. Peruvian loggers notoriously find ways around the regulations designed to prevent unauthorized clearance of trees from reserves and protected lands. As the more accessible trees are cut, the loggers are driven deeper and deeper into remote territory in the Amazon until they threaten the isolated tribes (Isolated Amazon Tribes Threatened by Logging, Groups Say, New York Times ‘Green’ weblog).
Back in 2008, I tried to explain the enormous financial incentives that drive loggers into forest reserves to illegally cut the century-old mahogany behemoths, and the resulting threat the industry poses to the tribes:
After cutting them into boards, loggers pile them on trucks or lash them into rafts to float downstream into Peru. By the time the illegal wood becomes luxury goods, the trees are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. The overall trade garners around $100 million each year. [Across the border in Brazil, illegal timber exports from the state of Pará alone were estimated to be worth over $300 million by Greenpeace in 2003.]
The dangers posed by loggers are not merely from their machetes, dynamite, and bullets. Loggers must cut roads into thick forests to get to the precious mahogany, attracting settlers. Studies of satellite photos show that roads usually produce 60-mile-wide swaths of forest razed for pastures and farms, many of which wash away after a few years of tropical rains. While the loggers may kill Indians, settlers wound the forest itself, making it harder for any survivors to eat.
In an interview with Terra Magazine, Meirelles said that, ‘Every mahogany casket in the United States ought to come with a plaque saying: Here lies an isolated Indian, killed for this American to be buried in luxury.’ Whether the wood is fashioned into fine furniture, posh panelling on automobile interiors, finely-crafted humidors, beautiful musical instruments, or exquisite cabinetry, the willingness of the developed world to look the other way and pay a premium price for one of the rarest, most endangered hardwoods, even when the provenance of the wood cannot be confidently established, propels loggers into conflict with Indians.
Denying ‘uncontacted Indians’ exist
My real problem with the term ‘uncontacted’ is not just inaccuracy or semantic specificity, but that the term plays into the hands of powerful actors who wish to deny that these groups exist at all. The public can become confused when they learn that the tribes are not really ‘uncontacted,’ in the strict sense, and think then that the groups don’t even exist or don’t need protection.
Unfortunately for the isolated groups of Indians in Peru, not only do they live in rainforests with prized trees, some also sit atop oil reserves, which is what’s making necessary the current wave of activism as well as denial of their existence. In 2009, Rory Carroll of The Guardian wrote a brilliant report about the dispute over the existence of ‘uncontacted’ tribes, explaining why the debate was still ongoing: the Peruvian government and the petroleum companies involved sought to discredit assertions that isolated Indians existed:
The existence of uncontacted tribes in Brazil and Ecuador is accepted, but Peru’s government has ridiculed the notion of such communities in its part of the Amazon. President Alan Garcia says the “figure of the jungle native” is a ruse to prevent oil exploration. Daniel Saba, former head of the state oil company, is even more scornful. “It’s absurd to say there are uncontacted peoples when no one has seen them. So, who are these uncontacted tribes people are talking about?”…
Even oil companies admit their presence would have serious implications for uncontacted tribes. The question is: are there any? If so, by law, the exploration should be halted or at least heavily circumscribed. …
Perenco [an Anglo-French oil and gas company], echoing Peru’s government, dismisses these claims as rumour and misinformation by groups opposed to economic development. “This is similar to the Loch Ness monster. Much talk but never any evidence,” says Rodrigo Marquez, Perenco’s Latin American regional manager. “We have done very detailed studies to ascertain if there are uncontacted tribes because that would be a very serious matter. The evidence is nonexistent.” (Rumble in the Jungle, Carroll, 2009)
As Carroll outlines, the ‘detailed studies’ are produced by environmental impact consultancies, firms that are hired by the petroleum companies to do ‘independent and impartial’ assessments of the likely impact on communities and natural environments of proposed projects.
Although supposedly independent, poorly-paid researchers and academics in developing countries, including anthropologists, depend on being hired for consultancies to supplement their meagre earnings as university lecturers. And when they find results that their clients do not like, these findings can sometimes be scrubbed from final reports against the researchers’ will. Complicit ministries or government offices can look the other way, or sometimes they are simply over-whelmed by the magnitude of the lands they are asked to oversee with minimal budgets.
The heart of the Peruvian conflict, according to Carroll, is Block 67 in the country’s north-east, a swath of jungle licensed to Perenco, an Anglo-French company. Perenco plans to plow $2 billion into infrastructure and development to get at a jackpot reserve of petroleum. The find, estimated to be 300 million barrels, is the largest in Peru’s history. During a personal visit to the site, Peru’s President Alan Garcia declared the discovery a ‘miracle’ (from Anglo-French Oil Company Perenco Plans Amazon Invasion). According to Perenco’s website,
Perenco holds a 100% interest in the license contract for Block 67 in the Maranon Basin. To date, three discoveries have been made in Block 67: the Paiche, Dorado and Pirana fields. In addition, several exploration prospects have been identified and are in their evaluation phase.
Once development is completed, it is estimated that these fields will have the potential to produce over 60,000 barrels of oil per day. The development plan includes the drilling of approximately 175 directional wells from 18 platforms, the construction of processing facilities and the installation of buried pipelines. Production will enter the existing main Oleoducto Nor Peruano pipeline at Andoas which is 200 km from Block 67. The existing Oleoducto Nor Peruano pipeline runs to the Bayovar terminal, located 1000km from Block 67 on the Pacific coast.
Perenco is also actively participating in an exploration programme in the region, as well as acquiring seismic on nearby Block 121. The objective of this exploration programme is to add to the proven reserve base of the discovered fields. The reserves potential of the area is estimated at 300 millions barrels.
Perenco’s investment will allegedly be Peru’s largest ever, so massive that in April, 2009, the Peruvian government declared development of Block 67 a ‘project of national necessity and interest.’ The Peruvian government was set to pony up a massive investment on the pipeline to help prime the pump of development. And the barges wait to deliver up the petroleum to thirsty furnaces and fuel tanks around the world.
But if Block 67 contains unassimilated Indians, by law, the Peruvian government must protect it. So the Peruvian government commissioned a study to settle the question of whether there were uncontacted Indians in Block (or Lot) 67. As Carroll reports:
A team of investigators – anthropologists, biologists, linguists, historians, archaeologists, forestry engineers – combed Lot 67. They looked for footprints, dwellings and spears. They looked for animal traps, paths, patches of cultivation. They asked the Arabella tribe, which has been in intermittent contact with the outside world since the 1940s, about recent sightings or evidence. They analysed Arabella speech patterns and oral histories for clues. Result: nothing. No compelling evidence, no compelling indications. The 137-page final report concludes that if there were uncontacted tribes, they were long gone, either dead or in Ecuador. The findings opened Lot 67 to an oil deal which the government declared to be in the national interest. (Rumble in the Jungle, Rory Carroll, 2009)
Similarly, Perenco’s website insists that there are no uncontacted Indians in Block 67. On a page titled, ‘Non-contacted Tribe Claim,’ they lay out their case:
Since at least 1995 when the Block 67 was awarded, there has been extensive human activity in the area of Block 67. Despite this, there has been no evidence of non-contacted tribes within Block 67.
A first extensive seismic survey was conducted in 1997. This involved a team of several hundreds of local employees walking the length and breadth of Block 67 over several months. It also involved extensive aerial coverage of the Block 67 area….
Whilst the closest community to Block 67 is located 30 km away (see B67 map of the region and B67 project influence area), communities living from between 30km and 60km from the Block 67 are known to use the the area in order to hunt, gather food and collect wood. Furthermore, the army also regularly patrols this region which is near the borders with Ecuador and Colombia.
Despite all this activity, no evidence of non-contacted tribes was reported in the Block 67 area.
When Carroll interviewed some of the researchers involved in preparing Perenco’s environmental impact assessment (EIA), however, a number of the social and anthropological researchers privately suggested that, in fact, evidence of ‘uncontacted’ tribes did exist. Some said that they saw material evidence, others that they were certain that isolated groups were living in the areas that Perenco’s environmental impact assessment stated were devoid of any such groups.
Perenco’s regional manager, Marquez, defends the EIA research. “These are just opinions. These scientists need to produce evidence. We have gone to tremendous effort to put these reports together in the most professional way. It’s easy to build conspiracy theories.” (Rumble in the Jungle, Rory Carroll, 2009)
After the Perenco-commissioned study in 2008, the Peruvian Jungle Inter-Ethnic Development Association (AIDESEP) (English website) filed suit, which they lost and appealed to Peru’s supreme court, and petitioned the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to halt the project. Perenco has repeatedly won lawsuits, usually based on the argument that ‘uncontacted’ Indians do not exist (links to all the decisions can be found on the Perenco website).
The Perenco website also cites a skeptical article on ‘uncontacted tribes’ by Ricardo Uztarroz (French webpage, ‘The fable of the unknown tribe’) and technical criticisms by Dr. Carlos Mora critical of the case put forward by AIDESEP. In fact, if my French doesn’t fail me, Uztarroz never disputes the existence of the tribes, only that they were ‘uncontacted’ in the sense of previously unknown, exactly the backlash against Survival International’s use of the term that anthropologists and media alike have criticized. Likewise, the evaluation by Dr. Mora focuses on the methodological and academic inadequacies of the documentation provided by AIDESEP, less on the question of ‘uncontacted’ tribes existing or not in Block 67.
The problem for isolated groups that want no contact with outsiders is that they are required to defend their isolation in court. Of course, they usually don’t show up, as one would expect. So other groups – politically-active indigenous neighbors, NGOs, Church groups – have to go to court on their behalf. And since the actual plaintiff doesn’t show up in the courtroom, the defendant can argue that the plaintiff does not exist.
Although Perenco insists that there is no evidence of ‘uncontacted’ indigenous people in Block 67, ‘at the request of the authorities in charge of approving the Environmental Impact Studies, we are applying, through the incorporation of an Anthropological Contingency Plan, precautionary measures similar to the ones used in different cases where, to the contrary of our case, evidence of the existence of non-contacted tribes might have been accepted.’ So they have a contingency plan for dealing with Indians that they insist do not exist.
That contingency plan has been criticized by Survival International as basically being a promise to scare off anyone who might wander near Perenco’s operations (‘Scare the uncontacted tribes or tell them to go home,’ advises Perenco):
The plan outlines potential scenarios and describes how its workers would react if contact is made:
• ‘Our workers will speak in loud voices, in a peaceful way, in order to establish friendly communication (with the uncontacted tribes).’
• ‘They would use gestures, or draw on the ground, or use other methods to make themselves understood.’
• ‘It is important to persuade them to return to their settlements.’
• ‘If attacked, the native guides will use flare-guns or smoke canisters, firing into the air in order to scare and repel them.’
Some local communities in remote areas of Peru have actively resisted petroleum exploration, especially blockading roads and pipelines in 2009. Rory Carroll offers an excellent account of both the violence and the social distance between the capital and the interior that made that violence so unexpected (see also this article from The Economist about the 2009 conflicts):
Lima is, and feels, a long way from the Amazon. A sprawling coastal capital of eight million people ringed by slums, its downtown has Starbucks, shiny skyscrapers, smart government offices and some of South America’s best restaurants. Historically it has looked outwards to the Pacific Ocean and seldom thought about the 300,000 dark- skinned “nativo” forest-dwellers, little more than 1% of the population. It has had even less reason to ponder uncontacted tribes. There was little dissent last year when President Garcia decreed laws carving up the Amazon for oil, gas, mining and biofuel projects.
The “nativos”, however, rose up. Scattered, impoverished and marginalised, they organised protests against what they said were land-grabbing polluters who poisoned their soil and rivers. They blocked pipelines, roads and waterways. The president denounced them as “ignorant” saboteurs and last month ordered security forces to lift the blockades. In the town of Bagua, mayhem erupted. Officially, 24 police and 11 protesters died. Indigenous groups say there were dozens if not hundreds of civilian casualties and that bodies were burned and dumped in rivers – claims the government denies. (Rumble in the Jungle, Carroll, 2009)
In this sort of climate of denial, disregard, and outright violence, Meirelles and Survival International are using the photos of ‘uncontacted’ Indians to gain political leverage, first in 2008 and then again with video this year. They sought, first, to prove that isolated Indians existed and, second, to pressure the Peruvian government to protect them more actively.
But we should HELP them!
Virtually every time that a story about isolated groups comes up, online discussion includes people arguing that indigenous people would be better off with our help. Centuries ago, Europeans might have felt that these people really needed religious conversion, but now the argument tends to be that indigenous people need Western medical care and the benefits our societies can bring. Often, the commenter will imply that ‘uncontacted’ adult Indians, by remaining isolated, are denying their tribe’s children sophisticated health technology, and therefore condemning too many of them to infant mortality, preventable diseases, or other avoidable tragedy.
While the sentiment is certainly understandable, and the desire to help laudable, overwhelming historical evidence suggests that these particular good intentions pave the road to genocide, whether that’s intentional or inadvertent. Over and over again, assimilation into majority societies has been a short-term disaster followed by long-term, slow motion chronic catastrophe. Just today, for example, the Prime Minister of Australia argued that closing the yawning seventeen-year life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians was a thirty-year project; I hope she’s not being overly optimistic.
The point is not that indigenous people are better off or happier or just ‘better’ than rich Westerners. I wouldn’t want to attempt to make any of these cases, and I think anyone who does is, like those using the word ‘uncontacted,’ overstating the case in unproductive ways.
Rather, most anthropologists and indigenous activists argue that indigenous populations suffer terribly through assimilation into dominating societies, moving from self-sufficiency to abject poverty and dependence. They compare the current condition of isolated groups, not with the well-to-do in our globalized economy, but to people that isolated groups are likely to become: poor, unemployed, depressed, disease-wracked, and holding slim hopes for a better future. As Survival International’s report, Progress Can Kill, details:
There is, understandably, a lack of data on the health of uncontacted tribal groups, but clear patterns can be seen all over the world: independent, mobile peoples who live mostly by hunting and gathering are usually healthier than their settled neighbours who live in crowded, urban environments, eat a ‘Western’ diet and exercise less. No indigenous group is free of disease, but isolated tribal peoples are largely well adapted to the parasites and germs to which they have historically been exposed. ‘Past foragers had a healthy way of life, a good diet and physical exercise, virtually no salt, alcohol or tobacco, no pollution, fewer cancers and a life span and child mortality rate not so different to what was observed in Europe a few centuries ago.’ (Froment 2001:259)
Child survival rates and life expectancies vary greatly, but are often lower for tribal groups than for rich, Western populations. However, they are typically higher for tribal communities than for their non-tribal, poor neighbours. It is important to make realistic comparisons; when they are settled, tribal peoples do not suddenly have health statistics comparable to Western averages. ‘Although life expectancies of hunter-gatherers are low by modern European or American standards, they compare favourably with expectancies for displaced hunter-gatherers, many subsistence agriculturalists, and impoverished urbanized peoples of the tropics today.’ (Dunn 1977:102) (From Survival International, Progress Can Kill, 2007: 2)
Contact with outside communities historically can produce mortality rates of 90% in indigenous groups. New diseases devastate vulnerable populations, and the social upheaval that results from disease mortality, exacerbated typically by displacement, can lead to the collapse of local economies, social structures, and self-sufficiency. A chain of destruction follows from there: violence, substance abuse, widespread demoralization, increased stress, poverty, unemployment, dependence on a poor diet of processed food, and the introduction of unprecedented chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.
Survival International’s report reaches three conclusions that explain devotion to the non-intervention policy advocated by NGOs and adopted by the Brazilian government decades ago with success that is evident now in the video from the BBC:
Firstly, rights over land and the ability to maintain traditions and ‘cultural-continuity’ on that land are crucial for good health. Secondly, removal from the land, or other forms of imposed ‘progress’, have devastating impacts, both initially and in the long-term. Thirdly, whilst external systems of healthcare are necessary to help tribal peoples to fight introduced diseases, they can cause more damage than good; appropriate health projects need to be carefully devised with, by, and for the people concerned. (2007: 42)
The ‘isolated-people-will-be-better-off-if-we-embrace-them’ argument assumes an overly optimistic view of how indigenous people are treated everywhere by settler societies. Isolated groups would likely join the ‘fourth world,’ the even poorer and more marginalized indigenous populations in already poor countries, where they would never enjoy the ‘advantages’ that we think contact with us might bring.
From a life on the move, in their own communities, living from the land, isolated tribes can usually look forward to moving into squatters’ camps or slums if they join majority societies. Their children, for the first time, will be exposed to the biological stresses of sedentary urban life, including water borne illness, dangerous endemic diseases like influenza and chicken pox, and likely malnutrition. Moreover, they might look forward as adults to living on the margins of society — begging, prostitution, welfare, or poorly paid menial labour.
The point is, if you want to help isolated people, leave them alone. You can’t know the history of contact with indigenous people and continue to entertain the delusion that more of Us is good for Them. No amount of after-the-fact immunization or other Western technologies will compensate for the initial devastation. The condition of indigenous populations in most settler societies should sober us up before we start saying how much we’re going to ‘help’ ‘uncontacted’ Indians.
Maybe if the situation of Native Americans, Maori, Aboriginal Australians and other indigenous peoples improves markedly over the next couple of decades, we can start talking about ‘helping’ out the indigenous people who’ve thus far been very clear that they don’t want our help. But there’s plenty of evidence in our societies that we’re not on the cusp of a great leap forward.
For example, in 2009, a Peruvian journalist won Survival International’s ignominious ‘Most racist article of the year’ for a piece in Correo suggesting that Peruvian indigenous populations who clashed with police should be napalmed (you can read an English translation of the original article the Survival International website).
Part of SI’s ‘Stamp It Out’ campaign to confront racist media, the winner received a certificate inscribed with a quote from Lakota Sioux author, Luther Standing Bear: ‘All the years of calling the Indian a savage has never made him one.’
‘Small price for preserving humanity’s rich mosaic’
One passage in Rumble in the Jungle by Rory Carroll really struck me, and I want to conclude with a reflection on it because I think it captures the way we tend to discuss Indigenous rights:
That would impede Peru’s hopes of becoming a net oil exporter – a windfall that could go a long way in an impoverished nation of 28m. Social anthropologists say that would be a small price for preserving humanity’s rich mosaic.
If any anthropologist actually said what Carroll paraphrased in his article — that oil exploration and alleviating poverty is ‘a small price for preserving humanity’s rich mosaic’ —then I disagree. It’s not a small price. Oil is worth a lot of money. To us.
My problem with petroleum exploration and logging at the expense of isolated indigenous groups is not that I feel we can balance up the costs and benefits to us of the continued existence of these groups and then decide, based on a rational analysis of the impact on our well-being of their lives, whether or not we won’t them to continue to exist. The decision about whether or not to eradicate these groups should not be about how much benefit their survival or erasure is worth to us.
My problem with the oil exploration and likely eradication of Native American groups living in the area is that it’s genocide, albeit with a nifty giant pay-off and a possibility of self-deception about what we’re really doing. The point of human rights-based principles is that we don’t balance the price of certain sorts of monstrous acts, trying to calculate whether or not it’s worth it to us to visit some horrible injustice on another people.
Let’s not kid ourselves. These groups are likely, eventually, to join majority societies. They will not remain isolated forever, and when they eventually join us, they’re going to suffer.
But the time and place of that joining should be their choice, not ours. Especially as the consequences are likely to be dire, we should let people decide when they are strong enough, or desperate enough, to run the gauntlet of assimilation.
We’re kidding ourselves, too, if we try to say that Perenco’s oil exploration and the drilling of 300 m barrels of oil is going to lift the poor of Peru. B.S. Unless there’s some social upheaval in Peru, the country’s economy is likely to remain as unequal as before, albeit with more dangerous roughnecking jobs for the poor and a lot more money for Perenco’s investors and company directors. If we’re going to try to justify genocide, we should at least not insult the dead by throwing away their lives on pipe dreams that a corporate-controlled resource extraction program is going to bring about an egalitarian social revolution. We can’t drill our way to justice and send it out in the pipeline.
Meirelles is right; these are the last free people on this planet. Can we take ‘no, please go away,’ for an answer or must we drill under their forest to stave off, for a few more years, the recognition that we must eventually learn to live within our means? And when the oil in Block 67 is gone, we will not be able to bring back the people who once lived there.
In my piece in Seed Magazine, I ended by asking the question of restraint:
For now the photos of belligerent Indians, robust and confident enough to stand their ground, suggest that the policy of noncontact is working. But as we begin to see that their aggression is a product of their familiarity with our society’s most abusive and rapacious tendencies, are we learning to restrain our desires and respect their choice to live apart? Can we leave them alone, or are we so thirsty for petroleum, so enamored of mahogany, so resentful of their decision to live differently, that we will destroy the fragments of their world rather than place some limit on our own? Their extinction — and the persistence of our Western way of life — is not inevitable. They’ve asked us nicely — now they’re willing to fight about it.
In a way, the last isolated tribes ask us if we’ve learned anything from the sacrifice of all the other isolated tribes before them. Is our planet big enough for more than one world, or must we have it all?
Survival International’s website is well worth checking out. Their use of the word ‘uncontacted’ may annoy me, but the group does great work on behalf of some groups that really need our help (even if that help sometimes means staying the hell away from them).
- Survival International’s Uncontacted Tribes campaign (video of uncontacted group at the Brazil-Peru border).
- Although many pages are worth reading, The Uncontacted Tribes of Peru and Why do they hide? are especially relevant.
‘There You Go,’ a scathing little book that is available online from Survival International, text and pictures by Oren Ginzburg (2005), that explains how self-sufficient subsistence farmers ‘need’ development. (h/t: Jocelyn Saurini at Tiny Green Bubble)
Peru’s Uncontacted Tribes Threatened by Oil Companies and Illegal Loggers, Anglo-French Oil Company Perenco Plans Amazon Invasion, and Massive Amazon Oil Discovery Threatens Peru’s Uncontacted Indians from the weblog of Kim MacQuarrie, writer, documentary filmmaker, and anthropologist, who has been following the conflict for years.
Rumble in the Jungle, Rory Carroll, The Guardian (4 July 2009). One of the most penetrating pieces on the complexity of the situation for isolated Indians in Peru.
Uncontacted Amazon Tribe Filmed, Governments Take Notice (VIDEO), the Huffington Post.
Photos of isolated Amazonian tribe raise awareness of deforestation in Brazil, Peru, by Andrew Downie, Christian Science Monitor
Uncontacted Tribe Photographed in Brazilian Jungle by Brandon Keim at Wired Science (nice presentations of the recent photos)
Five “Uncontacted Tribes” Most Threatened With Extinction, National Geographic 2009.
Peru: evidence mounts of “uncontacted peoples” in Amazon oil zones, from the World War Four Report.
Amazon’s uncontacted tribe: how media coverage can trigger action, John Vidal, The Guardian (4 February 2011).
For those who want a bit spicier account of the ‘uncontacted,’ I suggest John Gimlette’s Lost tribes: ‘We haven’t eaten anyone for years…’ John’s clearly been there and done that, but he does point out that these groups aren’t really ‘lost.’
There’s a nice piece on Ground Report, Brazil’s Uncontacted Tribe Unleashes Enviro Controversy, which includes some of the correspondence among key journalists in Brazil familiar with Acre (and it’s translated into English as well as in the original!).
Also if you understand Portuguese, there’s a great blog by journalist Altino Rechado from Acre. It’s a bit hard to find things at times, but worth reading are Índios isolados, Violência contra Índios isolados, Google registra fuga dos isolados and Perseguidos na floresta. Global Voices has English excerpts from some of his stories.
Unfortunately, a lot of the posts are re-postings of things about his reporting written by other people, so you have to wade through a fair bit of dross to get the good stuff. Rechado also got a bit bent out of shape in 2008, as did a number of the Brazilians, because international stories couldn’t get certain basic facts right, such as where the story first broke and what Meirelles’s job is (he’s not a photographer).
Again, if you understand Portuguese, there’s an interview with José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles on YouTube. It runs about 10 mins or so.
Terra Magazine is also one of the best sources of information on the region (Machado writes for them, too). See, for example, Uma semana depois, índios deixam de ser invisíveis, Sertanista teme retaliação de madeireiros peruanos, Comitê denuncia violência contra índios isolados, Comitê fará relatório sobre índios isolados, and Índios isolados: mídia mundial erra em cobertura. They first carried the photos that circulated madly about the globe on 23 May, 2008.
Video from the BBC, Human Planet series. ‘Jungles’ episode.
Photo of ‘uncontacted Indians’ and map of ‘uncontacted’ groups from Survival International.
Map of oil concessions in Peru from Peru’s Uncontacted Tribes Threatened by Oil Companies and Illegal Loggers, Last Days of The Inca weblog by Kim MacQuarrie.
Greenpeace. 2003. State of Conflict: An Investigation into the Landgrabbers, Loggers and Lawless Frontiers in Pará State, Amazon. Amsterdam: Greenpeace International. Available for download here.
Survival International. 2007. Progress Can Kill: How Imposed Development Destroys the Health of Tribal Peoples. London: Survival International. (Full version and shorter version available here.)