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.

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