Amazon Tribes: Isolated by Choice?

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Choosing Isolation

Disease and death have plagued indigenous communities in South America since they first came into contact with outsiders from Europe in the 1500s. The indigenous populations had no immune protection against smallpox, measles, and flu, which wiped out thousands of communities.

"With the initial contact that took place with the colony in the 1500s, many communities were plagued with illnesses and hundreds of communities, thousands of communities, have vanished," said Inoach.

Then, in 1836, Charles Goodyear, an inventor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, refined the process of vulcanization, which kept rubber from melting in warm weather and cracking in cold weather.

At first rubber was needed for bicycle tires and seals for engines and then for automobiles. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, entrepreneurs flocked to the Amazon to harvest sap from the rubber tree. They enslaved the indigenous people who lived in the forests, forcing them to work at rubber harvesting.

To secure their own survival, indigenous communities that escaped enslavement by the rubber tappers retreated deeper into the forests and today actively avoid contact with the outside world. "They are not convinced that coexisting with an evolving society they can guarantee their own existence," said Inoach.

Protection

Today, indigenous rights groups are at the forefront of a movement to set aside lands where the isolated peoples are believed to exist, protecting them from the intrusion of developers looking to reap riches from the natural resources of the Amazon.

The rights groups hope to prevent a repeat of the atrocities that befell so many of the indigenous peoples' ancestors. "The creation of these protected natural areas, plus the creation of territorial reserves, are ways of creating conditions to safeguard the right to life of these communities," said Inoach.

According to government statistics, some 380,000 square miles (990,000 square kilometers) of indigenous lands are recognized in Brazil and protected from exploitation by loggers, oil and gas developers, and other resource extraction industries.

The creation of protected lands in Brazil has put increasing pressure on the isolated peoples in Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, forcing those governments to address how to secure the rights of the people living in isolation.

Six years of effort by the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries (FENAMAD) and the Racimos de Ungurahui Project led to the establishment of the first territorial reserve in southeastern Peru in April, 2002.

The reserve protects two or three groups of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation from the intrusion of loggers seeking mahogany in the forests.

"One of the things FENAMAD and Racimos de Ungurahui did was to form an alliance with small scale loggers," said Rothschild. "To get support for the proposal for the uncontacted tribes, they created sustainable logging areas outside of the area for the tribes."

With the support of the local loggers, the indigenous rights organizations were able to get the reserve established. However, social tensions continue in Madre de Dios. Poor people from the Andes are arriving in the Amazon region searching for work as loggers, putting pressure on the government to open the reserve to resource extraction.

"If the government on one hand means well and passes the law, but on the other doesn't demand respect for it, it's the same as nothing," said Inoach. "So, the government must be strong so as to enforce the judicial extraction in Peru."

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