South America is home to a few of the last uncontacted tribes in the world. However, their status of being ‘uncontacted’ may change as experts fear that these tribes will come into contact with the outside world and may face the risks of becoming infected with pathogens that they have no immunity to. It was estimated that when the Europeans arrived in the Americas, around 100 million people died as a result of being exposed to foreign pathogens.
Brazil is home to the largest number of uncontacted tribes in the world. It is confirmed there are at least 27 such groups in Brazil and there could be another 40. Peru hosts 14 or 15 isolated tribes. Other South American countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela each have a small number of uncontacted groups. The tribes are believed to be the descendants of survivors of massacres, epidemics and slaving raids from when the Europeans came to the Americas.
The western Amazon, following Brazil’s western boundary, has offered a place of refuge for most of the uncontacted tribes in South America.
The word ‘uncontacted’ may conjure images of being completely isolated from the world, but as Fiona Watson, research director for the non-profit organisation Survival International explain “they know far more about the outside world than most people think. They are experts at living in the forest and are well aware of the presence of outsiders.”
Brazil’s Indian Affairs Department announced that an uncontacted tribe met a settled indigenous community on the border between Peru and Brazil in 2014. It is believed that the tribe is fleeing from illegal logging in Peru. There are many accounts of tribes fleeing from illegal logging and cattle ranching, with tales of massacres and tragedy.
Survival International campaigns for the rights of tribal and indigenous communities worldwide. The organisation believes that Peru and Brazil are not doing enough to safeguard these “uncontacted” tribes. However, in 2013, the Mashco Piro people made contact with a community asking for bananas, rope and machetes from the local Yine people. They were discouraged to cross the river by Fenamad rangers, an indigenous federation. There have been reports by tourists and other communities of meeting the Mascho-Piro. Tourists have made videos of themselves handing out clothes and food to the Mascho-Piro. However, not all the encounters have been peaceful. In May, the Mascho-Piro killed a 22-year-old man in his village with an arrow, for reasons that are unclear.
“We can no longer pretend they aren’t trying to make some sort of contact,” Luis Felipe Torres, a Peruvian official working on state tribal affairs, told Reuters. “They have a right to that, too.”
The Peruvian government has decided to begin dialogue with some of the Mashco-Piro Indians. The move is being heralded as a necessary tactic to avoid conflict. The Mascho-Piro have been seen with rifles, although it is uncertain how they obtained them. There may be several reasons such as illegal logging encroaching on their land, depletion of fish stocks or water pollution. It has been speculated that the tribe may have come into contact with goods from other societies, missionaries or tourists and developed a taste for it. It could be that it is a combination of all these reasons. However, their contact with the outside world could have devastating effects for their tribe as they come into contact with a variety of diseases such as measles and influenza.
Brazil’s solution is to document any tribe’s presence on the land and protect it from incursions by outsiders. In this way, the rights of the tribes to their territorial and cultural integrity is respected. In these areas, no environmental degradation is allowed, furthering the protection of those who live in the Amazon.
There is little doubt that there is mounting pressure in the Amazon for land. In July, 2014, members of the uncontacted Acre tribe in Brazil had a peaceful meeting with a village near the border of Peru. Aided by a translator who spoke a similar language to the tribesmen, it became clear that the tribe had had violent clashes with outsiders, where the elders were massacred and houses set on fire. It is believed that the people who did this to the tribe were illegal loggers of drug traffickers. Inevitably, after this contact, several of the tribesmen were ill with colds and flu and had to receive treatment and vaccinations.
It has been suggested by academics and experts that there should be a policy of “controlled contact” with these communities. In this way, the spread of disease can be controlled and contact be safely made.
“Everywhere you look, there are these pressures from mining, logging, narcotrafficking and other external threats,” Robert Walker, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri says. “My worry is that if we have this ‘leave-them-alone’ strategy, at the end of the day the external threats will win. People will just go extinct.”
Watch a video about the Awá tribe in Brazil and the campaign that has lead to the Brazilian government removing invaders from the Awá indigenous territory.