When a photographer flying over the Amazon rain forest shot footage of naked adults and children in a jungle clearing, their bodies painted red and black, the images grabbed attention around the world, reviving fascination with mysterious, exotic people who shun contact with outsiders.
No one is sure how many indigenous people still live traditional, nomadic lives in South America, but the remaining tribes face increasing hazards. Hemmed in by loggers, miners, ranchers, missionaries, drug traffickers and oil drillers, these groups are squeezed into smaller areas or forced to flee in search of even more remote places.
Governments often deny their very existence, and without protection, they face possible annihilation.
“This issue only becomes visible when there is a problem,” says Antenor Vaz, coordinator for recently contacted Indians at the National Indigenous Foundation, the Brazilian government’s Indian affairs office.
The problem is usually that nomadic groups live in places with valuable natural resources, usually timber or oil, and developers see them as an obstacle to resource extraction. As a result, any policy aimed at protecting those groups often runs into conflict with powerful interests, even within the government, says Benno Glauser, who works with the Amotocodie Initiative, which advocates for the rights of the nomadic Ayoreo people who live in a rapidly shrinking remnant of forest in Paraguay’s Chaco region.
The best way to ensure their survival is to protect the territory they inhabit, but the desire to generate revenues from oil or gas, or to build roads to open up an area for logging or ranching, often trumps the nomadic groups’ right to self-determination, experts say.
Such people are sometimes called “uncontacted,” but many are actually descended from groups that had contact with settlers in the past, and were decimated by slavery or disease, especially during the rubber boom in the last century.
Some experts describe their situation as “voluntary isolation,” but others say that isn’t completely accurate – if they were forced to flee unwanted contact, it was not voluntary. Some defenders of the groups simply refer to them as “free people.”
There are different degrees of isolation, according to Peruvian anthropologist Beatriz Huertas, who has studied and written extensively about nomadic groups in Peru.
“There are some who don’t want anything to do with anyone,” while other groups have sporadic contact with neighboring Indians who are in contact with the outside world sometimes trading for metal objects like machetes.
Protective policies need to take those differences into account and allow groups to make contact on their own terms, if and when they choose to do so, Huertas said.
While awareness of the nomadic groups – which are known to live in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay – is increasing in South America, the countries lack adequate policies and enforcement for protecting them, and only Brazil has a government office specifically responsible for their welfare.
A few years ago, there seemed to be a push for greater protection, according to Eduardo Pichilingue, who works on the defense of isolated indigenous groups in Ecuador, especially in Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees made policy recommendations and Ecuador and Bolivia included the issue in their new constitutions.
“Over time, however, that impetus has faded, and in some cases there has been a reversal,” Pichilingue said.
Vaz, Glauser, Huertas and Pichilingue are members of the International Advisory Committee for the Protection of Indigenous Peoples in Isolation, an independent group that monitors the situation of nomadic peoples in South America and makes recommendations for their protection.
After meeting in mid-August, the committee issued a statement acknowledging efforts that countries have made, but calling for stronger policies and better enforcement to protect the territories and lives of isolated groups.
They called for special attention to the remote area along the border between Peru and Brazil, where there the largest number of isolated groups live, and where loggers and drug traffickers operate despite the difficult access.
In July, armed men believed to be drug traffickers attacked a guard post set up by FUNAI to monitor the territory of an isolated indigenous group in the state of Acre, in western Brazil.
“Isolated peoples don’t recognize national boundaries,” Pichilingue said. “Many are found in border areas” and move back and forth between the countries.
The Peruvian-Ecuadorian border, where oil exploration is planned, is another hot spot for the committee. The group urged protection for isolated groups along the Tigre and Napo rivers in northern Peru.
That area is across the border from Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve, where environmentalists and indigenous organizations are trying to prevent oil drilling in an area inhabited by two isolated groups, the Tagaeri and Taromenani.
In Peru, experts say Cacataibo people in an area south of Cerro Azul National Park in the north-central Peruvian Amazon and Nanti people in the southern Cusco region are threatened by new or expanding oil and gas operations. Petroleum lots overlap at least three other areas proposed as reserves for isolated people in northern Peru.
Both government officials and industry executives have insisted that there are no nomadic groups outside Cordillera Azul National Park, but anthropologists cite accounts of people finding arrows and other indications that the zone is inhabited.
Sometimes even scientists deny that the groups exist. In 2010, a group of scientists planned to explore an area near Paraguay’s border with Bolivia, which is home to two isolated groups, said Glauser, whose organization lobbied to block the venture.
One argument used to avoid protecting the rights and territories of indigenous people is to deny their existence, Glauser said. That puts a heavier burden on defenders of those rights, because “they have to try to establish the existence of something that is almost invisible.”
Even so, Vaz said, it is possible to gather evidence of the groups’ existence. “Invisibility is a matter of interests,” he said.
Brazil probably has more hard data about isolated groups than other countries do, but even its information is scant. FUNAI has confirmed the existence of 23 isolated groups in five states and seven recently contacted groups in five states, and is studying another reported 47 groups in eight states. Except for the recently contacted groups, however, little is known about their ethnic roots or languages.
While some data can be gathered from overflights and satellite images, the only way to gather detailed information is to go to the area where nomadic people are reported to live and look for their “ecological footprint,” Vaz said.
If nomadic Indians live in an area where settlers are encroaching, people will probably report having seen them. Researchers also look for signs of human presence, analyze whether they are new or old, and put the information together to figure out how and when people occupy the area.
They must be careful not to come in contact with the nomads, not only out of respect for their rights, but also because isolated groups tend to lack immunity to common illnesses such as flu or colds.
“There are methodologies and techniques for observing human presence in the rain forest,” Vaz said. “You can’t go walking in the forest without a plan.”
Even so, some people still deliberately set out to contact isolated indigenous people, Huertas said. Some evangelical missionary groups even offer courses in how to contact nomadic peoples, suggesting the use of stories. Instead of working through foreign missionaries, as they did in the past, the groups now make contact through recently contacted Indians from the same area, or others who speak a similar language, she said.
Delimiting nomads’ territory to protect them from outsiders and raising public awareness about the hazards they face are crucial for protecting their right to maintain their lifestyle, the committee members said.
Because isolated groups depend entirely on the natural resources in their territory, the group’s health is closely tied to the health of the ecosystem, Vaz said. Policy makers must consider that encroaching development, deforestation and fouling of rivers with agricultural runoff can harm the nomads’ health and threaten their survival.
Ultimately, Pichilingue said, “Isolation is a choice of self-determination for these peoples, and it has to be respected.”
To keep up with issues involving the uncontacted tribes visit uncontactedtribes.org.