The Fate of Uncontacted Tribes

Via Le Monde, a new society has been discovered in the Brazilian rainforest close to the Peruvian border, largely hunters and gatherers, obviously, by the looks of it, but not nomadic with some horticulture, according to Le Nouvel Observateur. They seem to have never been exposed to the larger world. According to Survival International, there is about a hundred such uncontacted tribes around the world today, mostly located between Brazil and Peru.


More photos were published by Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai), Brazil’s department for Indian Affairs (Guardian slideshow here). Not very eager to mingle with outsiders though, as stated in the Guardian,

“It is understood that when the plane first overflew the village, the people scattered into the forest. When it returned a few hours later they had painted themselves red and fired arrows into the sky.

“They must have suffered some sort of trauma in the past and must know that contact is not a good thing,” Fiona Watson, of Survival International, said.”

Geez, I wonder what the trauma in question could be. Oh yeah, outsiders have a tendency to displace and kill them. As David Hill of Survival International (cited in the Guardian) states,

“Very little is known about the tribes’ technology, society or extent of their nomadic lifestyle. Survival International believes some tribes had contact with westerners around 100 years ago, during the rubber boom and subsequently decided not to engage with the outside world.

“”We know from groups that were once uncontacted that they did debate amongst themselves whether to have more dealings with the new settlers. It is possible the hostile reaction seen in the photos is a product of the societal memory of past encounters.””

No kidding.

The current Brazilian policy is to leave them be, not try to contact them, but to demarcate the land they occupy so that it does not become part of logging or deforestation… legally.

Indeed, these groups are always in danger of having their land grabbed for illegal logging and, obviously, they are in no position to fight back or provide any resistance to such schemes. And logging companies even deny that such uncontacted groups actually exist, which is why they were photographed in the first place. As stated in the BBC,

“The Brazilian government says it took the images to prove the tribe exists and help protect its land. The pictures, taken from an aeroplane, show red-painted tribe members brandishing bows and arrows. More than half the world’s 100 uncontacted tribes live in Brazil or Peru, Survival International says. Stephen Corry, the director of the group – which supports tribal people around the world – said such tribes would “soon be made extinct” if their land was not protected. Survival International says that although this particular group is increasing in number, others in the area are at risk from illegal logging.”

But hey folks, this is the era of global capitalism, a massive engine that needs to systematically transform non-financial capital (political, social, environmental) into economic capital, massive logging and deforestation is part of that mechanism. And we already know President Lula is committed into making Brazil a major exporter of biofuels. There is a need for land for that purpose.

In Peru, along with massive logging, it is the oil boom that is the major threat to the uncontacted tribes. You can bet that if these guys are sitting on top of an oil reserve, they will not be uncontacted very long. According to David Hill again:

“Logging has been a problem for several years. Most of it is mahogany and cedar. Peru has one of the largest commercially viable mahogany sources in the world. The oldest trees are obviously in the same areas as the untouched tribes. There is no one else there so it is lawless and violence does occur when the loggers move in. The loggers are armed. There have been deaths on both sides.”

And when groups are forced to leave their areas, they go deeper into the forest, get in contact with other tribes who use that land, which has been a source of conflicts.

These uncontacted groups are not the only ones threatened by modernization. As reported by the Independent,

“The Amazonian city of Altamira played host to one of the more uneven contests in recent Brazilian history this week, as a colourful alliance of indigenous leaders gathered to take on the might of the state power corporation and stop the construction of an immense hydroelectric dam on a tributary of the Amazon.

At stake are plans to flood large areas of rainforest to make way for the huge Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingu river. The government is pushing the project as a sustainable energy solution, but critics complain the environmental and social costs are too high.

For people living beside the river, the dam will bring an end to their way of life. Thousands of homes will be submerged and changes in the local ecology will wipe out the livelihoods of many more, killing their main food sources and destroying their raw materials.

For the 10,000 tribal indians of the Xingu, whose lives have changed little since the arrival of Europeans five centuries ago, this will be a devastating blow.”

Their prospects for success are dim though, as President Lula is firmly behind the project. Or take this other case (also via the Independent):

“The 711-mile Trans-Oceanic Highway, which will eventually link the Amazon river ports of Brazil with the Pacific ones of Peru, is the biggest threat to the indigenous peoples – uncontacted or otherwise – in that part of South America, says John Hemming, celebrated expert on Brazilian peoples and author of many books, among them the acclaimed Tree of Rivers. “The bad news,” he says, “is that the Chinese have persuaded Brazil and Peru to cut a road through this region, and it’s blazing ahead. In theory, it should not affect these peoples, and it won’t go slap through their land. But when it’s built, the settlers will come pouring in.” And, as he points out, one main road grows spurs and side roads, allowing those who do directly threaten the tribes – illegal loggers and mineral prospectors – far better access to the uncharted areas than they have now.”

The sad reality is that in the current economic context, development considerations trumps concerns regarding self-determination for indigenous peoples and governments looking to fuel their economic growth through intense exploitation of natural resources will not let a bunch of natives get in the way. And neither will the corporations that stand to make a lot of money out of such exploitation. And Brazil and Peru are exactly in that position. They tend to gain a strong footing in the global economic order thanks to resources that are of high value to the world market. It is not an unreasonable position. It is unsustainable but activists from Western countries have very little credibility to speak on such matters considering how much we benefit from using the rest of the world as our food pantry, energy reserves and factories. Calls to preserving biodiversity (and I would put the uncontacted tribes in that category) to countries with high levels of poverty just sound hollow to a lot of people in these countries.

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8 Responses to The Fate of Uncontacted Tribes

  1. Frenchdoc

    In some ways it is hard to even comprehend that tribes like this still exist. Thank you for enlightening us on the deeper story on this tribe. I read about them last week.

  2. Frenchdoc says:

    I thought we needed a lil’ break from, you know, that OTHER topic. 🙂

    And it is a serious issue though.

  3. FrenchDoc

    Absolutely! A break is good… as a matter of fact I think some diversion for a while might be a nice change.

    I actually veered away from the news pages and am looking for a hotel room for next week when I go pick up my daughter. I will be so happy to spend a couple of days driving along the coast of CA and ignore the news.

    On topic again… In some ways this is not unlike what did to our own native people. Maddening isn’t it.

  4. Frenchdoc says:

    It is EXACTLY what was done to the Native Americans. Whether it is justified in the name of economic development or civilization, it does not change the fact that we treat indigenous peoples as an impediment to economic interest. Then as now, they don’t stand much of a chance.

  5. Frenchdoc

    Yeah — it is exactly what was done to the Native Americans.

    Are you familiar with John Trudell? Check out this video –

  6. myiq2xu says:

    Maybe they’re cannibals.

    We could send some missionaries in to find out.

  7. Frenchdoc says:

    YES… let’s send them some mormons, that’s the ticket!

    You are a mean old man, myiq2xu 😈

  8. Yes, it is sad to see that not only have many countries adopted our economic models, but also our imperialistic ones as well. One would have hoped that by now countries such as Brazil could give more respect to its original inhabitants, but the Amazon holds too many natural resources that need to be exploited – and the local indigenous peoples are just an obstacle to this exploitation. They probably won’t even get any monies from the development of their traditional lands….