Do the Amazon's isolated tribes have a future?

Indians who are considered "uncontacted" by anthropologists reacting to a plane flying over their community in the Amazon basin near the Xinane River in Brazil's Acre state, close to the border with Peru.
Indians who are considered "uncontacted" by anthropologists reacting to a plane flying over their community in the Amazon basin near the Xinane River in Brazil's Acre state, close to the border with Peru.PHOTOS: REUTERS
The Xinane River runs through Ashaninka Indian territory in Brazil. There are many indigenous groups living in the rainforest near the border with Peru.
The Xinane River runs through Ashaninka Indian territory in Brazil. There are many indigenous groups living in the rainforest near the border with Peru. PHOTOS: REUTERS
A 2011 photo of members of the Mashco Piro tribe in the Manu National Park in the Amazon basin of south-eastern Peru.
A 2011 photo of members of the Mashco Piro tribe in the Manu National Park in the Amazon basin of south-eastern Peru.PHOTOS: REUTERS

Yes, if inevitable development of their native lands is done more intelligently and humanely

His name is Shuri, but everyone calls him Epa, which means father in the indigenous Pano language family. His wizened face and bare, gnomish feet are familiar to the villagers who live along the Curanja River, which flows through some of the densest rainforest of Peru's vast Amazon region.

Epa's tribe lives deep in the jungle, unclothed, hunting with bows and arrows, picking medicinal plants to ward off illness, and avoiding outsiders. But such isolated peoples can no longer depend on the forest as a refuge. In the past year, throughout the Amazon, they have begun to emerge in settled areas in unpredictable, disturbing and occasionally violent ways, often because of hunger or desperation.

I met Epa at his camp just upstream from the last village, where the unbroken jungle begins. He boasts of his hunting prowess. But he also wears a soccer shirt and nylon shorts and spends time among and near the settled people on the river - indigenous people, only a generation or two removed from forest life, who have welcomed him into their villages.

Last October, the villagers went in wooden canoes to vote in local elections. When they returned, one hut had burned to the ground and many of the machetes, clothes, pots and pans, mosquito nets, hammocks and drying fruit and nuts in villages along the river were gone. Epa, who had stayed behind, admitted that he had set fire to the hut, saying it was an accident, but denied any other involvement. Villagers blame his tribe for the raid.

Villagers have seen people they call "the nakeds" stealing fruit from orchards. Even the clothes on scarecrows go missing. Some suspect the mild-mannered Epa of being a spy, feeding intelligence to his tribe.

In other parts of the rainforest, violence by and against once-isolated people is suddenly on the rise. In May, just outside the Manu National Park south of the Curanja, a man from the isolated Mashco Piro tribe shot an arrow that killed a young indigenous villager. Last year, several members of Peru's isolated Xinane group waded across a river to seek help at a Brazilian settlement. A few of their relatives, they said, had died when they were attacked, possibly by drug traffickers.

There are other groups living beyond the reach of the global economy, in places like the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean and the mountains of New Guinea. But the planet's largest and most diverse isolated cultures are in the Amazon, primarily in western Brazil and eastern Peru. They lack immunity from many Western diseases, modern weapons to defend themselves from armed intruders like drug smugglers and illegal loggers, and a voice in national politics.

They have good reason to stay hidden. European and African diseases killed tens of millions of Native Americans after Columbus landed. A century ago, thousands were forced to work for the rubber barons. Even seemingly benevolent outsiders proved angels of death. In the 1950s, a visiting German ethnographer left behind a pathogen that killed some 200 people.

Anthropologists and non-governmental organisations warn that drug trafficking, logging, mining and petroleum extraction, along with a changing climate, vanishing species and a shrinking forest, put these tribes at risk. Even TV crews searching for "uncontacted" natives pose a threat; according to a 2008 report by a Peruvian anthropologist, one crew that strayed beyond its permitted area has been implicated in the deaths of some 20 native people from flu.

The indigenous people who remain appear to be fighting among themselves for dwindling resources, like turtle eggs and peccaries. Lifting his shirt, Epa showed me a scar on his torso - inflicted during an attack by tribal enemies, he said. He and his two wives and a mother- in-law live part time in their camp, close to a guard post staffed by indigenous people. He said he had avoided having children because he was always on the run.

Brazil and Peru have taken radically different approaches towards isolated peoples. For Brazil, which has pursued the sort of engagement pioneered by late 19th-century missionaries, the Amazon is a frontier to be tamed. Officials built frontier posts in the jungle, planted gardens and let tribes gather the harvest. Enticed into contact, the isolated people would trade ornaments and forest products for metal tools and objects, and be drawn gradually into the labour force.

But abrupt contact with outsiders spread devastating disease and created debilitating dependence. The Nambikwara, for example, were about 5,000 strong around 1900. By the late 1960s, only 550 remained. Anthropologists and Brazilian frontiersmen called sertanistas likened the policy to genocide. One of them, Sydney Possuelo, who went on to head the isolated tribes unit of Funai, the Brazilian agency on indigenous affairs, persuaded the government in the late 1980s to impose a policy of no contact to protect the isolated peoples.

Recently, however, Brazil has slashed funding for Funai. Angry Brazilian anthropologists, indigenous groups and sertanistas cite the Amazonian land rush as the reason. Once land is protected, it cannot be sold to private or public developers. Under President Dilma Rousseff's leadership, approval of applications to set aside land for indigenous peoples - both isolated and not - has virtually ceased.

Peru, by contrast, has only recently admitted that its isolated peoples even exist. It traditionally looks to the Pacific rather than its rain forest hinterland. Nine out of 10 Peruvians live in the Andes or along the coastal plain, but most of the country's land is within the Amazon basin. In 2007, then President Alan García dismissed "the figure of the uncontacted native jungle dweller" as a fiction created by zealous environmentalists.

Since then, as evidence of their existence has become impossible to dispute, the government has moved to set up five reserves, covering an area larger than Massachusetts, as safety zones for the tribes, with more planned. But even if a reserve is created and adequately policed, petroleum companies can explore for and extract oil if it is considered in the national interest. "The region has seen massive death of isolated peoples due to contact with oil prospectors," said Peruvian anthropologist Beatriz Huertas.

Both nations see the Amazon as a treasure house of oil, timber and gold. Two projects crossing Brazil and Peru - the US$2.8 billion (S$3.9 billion), 1,600-mile (2,600km) Interoceanic Highway and the Chinese- sponsored US$10 billion, 3,300-mile Twin Ocean Railroad - will no doubt stimulate both economies, but at a steep cost. The railroad, which China's Premier Li Keqiang lobbied for during a May visit to South America, would plough through tropical savanna and thick forest, cutting across Peru's remote Madre de Dios region, home to hundreds of indigenous communities.

Development can't be halted, but it can be done more intelligently and humanely. We know what works. Frontier posts on rivers can protect reserves from intruders. Immunised healthcare workers can provide emergency care and snuff out potential epidemics among isolated peoples who emerge for help. Illegal loggers and miners can be prosecuted. Road and railroad construction and oil prospecting can respect the borders of reserves and parks. None requires a huge financial investment. They do require an inclusive political approach and an awareness of history.

Peru's government recently said it would help a small group of Mashco Piro that has appeared more than 100 times in the past year on the banks of the Madre de Dios River, the same group responsible for the May death of a villager. Tribe members accepting food and clothing from tourists and missionaries are at serious risk of disease and death, and villagers fear more violence. Advocates of isolated peoples are watching closely to see if Peru can ensure the long-term health of the Mashco Piro while protecting their land from outsiders.

Half a millennium after Columbus arrived, we have an opportunity - really one last chance - to avoid repeating the catastrophes endured by so many native peoples in the Americas. This is no longer the 19th century. We have more than enough information. We understand pathogens and can immunise those who might contact isolated peoples. We can acknowledge that some people don't want to join the global economy. And we can protect them until they are ready to enter the modern mainstream, while extracting the resources that we need. We don't have to commit another genocide.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'Do the Amazon's isolated tribes have a future?'. Print Edition | Subscribe