Amazon Tribes: Isolated by Choice?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2003
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No one knows precisely how many people live in isolation from the industrial-technological world. Many of these people, perhaps thousands, are believed to thrive in the remote stretches of the Amazon River Basin of South America. Anthropologists and indigenous rights groups say evidence for the existence of these remote tribes is heard in stories of contact with other indigenous groups, deduced from abandoned dwellings, and seen by developers planning to extract resources from the forests.

The rights groups advocate setting aside lands where the isolated peoples are believed to live, to protect them from the intrusion of developers in the Amazon.

"Estimating their numbers is problematical because the only means to find out for sure is to go out and find them and that poses all sorts of problems," said Janet Lloyd, an anthropologist in Northumberland, England.

Lloyd works with Amazon Watch, a California-based organization formed to protect indigenous peoples' rights in the face of development pressure from oil and gas companies, loggers, and miners.

Brazil is believed to have the largest populations of indigenous people living in isolation from the outside world. The government-established National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) estimates there are more than 50 such groups and has established several reserves to protect their isolation.

Evidence for other populations is known from Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, said David Rothschild, co-director of Amazon Alliance in Washington, D.C., another group that works to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in isolation.

Some of these groups are truly uncontacted, having no direct knowledge of the outside world. Other groups are actively choosing to live in isolation. "They know the outside world exists and they want nothing to do with it," said Rothschild.

In an interview for National Geographic Today, Gil Inoach, president of the Interethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP) said that these people have everything they need to survive without help from the outside world.

"They have the ability to fish, hunt, and detect danger. They have the knowledge to develop their own healthcare systems through the discovery of medicinal plants in order to adapt to any illnesses in their surroundings. They have their own birthing techniques," he said.

Anthropologist Janet Lloyd said that most of these people are not lost in otherwise uninhabited lands, but rather are surrounded by other indigenous groups and under constant pressure from loggers and other developers. "They remain in isolation because they actively choose to do so," she said.

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.


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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