In the depths of the Amazon, a handful of indigenous groups (estimated at less than 100 tribes) live in extreme isolation, effectively cut off from the rest of the world. While many are monitored by government agencies in nations like Peru and Brazil, they have limited interactions with the outside world, existing in a state outside the international economy and far from the reach of social changes. Recently, though, one such group made the decision to voluntarily establish contact, and some anthropologists as well as human rights activists are concerned that it may have been a lethal choice.
The tribe, which lived along the border between Peru and Brazil, reached out to the Asháninka, a settled indigenous group that has played an active role in advocating for indigenous rights in the region. They also met with representatives of government agencies and scientists. In their initial meeting, tribespeople who had previously only been seen from overhead on flights over their settlements communicated directly with the people and agencies who are theoretically in a position to protect them.
The decision to reach out wasn’t voluntary. It was the result of pressures including illegal logging and drug plantations, which forced members of the tribe out of their own territory. As they edged further and further from home, they also wound up closer to communities settled by other indigenous people and more closely monitored by the government. These indigenous people are reaching out for help, reporting that despite the government’s efforts, illegal logging and drug trafficking are serious issues in the isolated stretches of the rainforest they used to call home.
Sadly, their move could have tragic consequences. Tribes who have had little to no contact with the outside world are extremely vulnerable to pathogens to which many of us are immune, simply because they’ve never been exposed to any form of these diseases. Even worse, many ordinary people are carriers of diseases that could cause severe illness or even kill people without any kind of immunity, which could doom this tribe even as it seeks help to face down the destruction of its traditional way of life. Influenza, whooping-cough, and other common diseases take on a whole new dimension among people without previous exposure or who have not been vaccinated, and health officials are already dispatching teams to deal with a predicted upsurge in disease.
Anthropologists warn that such situations will become more common if the governments of South America do not act to protect the regions inhabited by indigenous people. This includes taking more aggressive steps against illegal logging and drug cultivation, as well as actively working with indigenous people to address the issues they’re most concerned about.
If the government doesn’t take action, indigenous people and anthropologists warn, some remote tribes could die out entirely, facing a wave of genocide similar to that experienced when Europeans first colonized the region.
Photo credit: Diego Torres Silvestre.