This article is adapted from the Fall 2015 print edition of Americas Quarterly. To subscribe, please click here
I have worked as a doctor and researcher with indigenous communities in central Brazil’s Xingu National Park since 1981, and I have witnessed how contact with vulnerable, isolated groups results in high rates of violence, disease and death. Currently, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) recognizes 28 indigenous groups living in autonomous isolation, three of whom have made contact in the past year: the Txapanawa in Acre, an Awá-Guajá group in Maranhão, and a Korubo group in Amazonas.
In the case of the Awá-Guajá and the Korubo, the search for medical assistance appears to have been the decisive factor in their move to make contact. Fewer than 50 Txapanawa remain, and initial conversations with translators seem to indicate that many have died from violence and diseases that are common elsewhere, such as influenza and diarrhea.
The case of the Txapanawa, and similar stories of contact being made with tribes in Brazil and Peru, reflects the impact of infrastructure projects such as roads, railroads, hydroelectric plants; gas, oil and mineral exploration; the expansion of agribusiness; and the persistence of illegal activities such as logging, gold mining and drug trafficking.
With further contact with isolated peoples likely in the coming years, immediate measures must be taken. Contact processes, including those providing medical assistance, should be controlled, protected and monitored in order to mitigate the disastrous effects of contact and to give indigenous peoples time to adapt to their new reality of interaction with the outside world. The protection of indigenous territories should be a priority, since that guarantees the inhabitants’ right to remain isolated.
Another important consideration is health. The health indicators of Brazil’s indigenous community are considerably worse than for the wider population, and already-contacted groups must receive quality medical care from the federal government. This is crucial, since contact is more likely to occur between isolated tribes and those that have already been contacted, which is what happened in Acre, Maranhão and Amazonas.
Finally, contingency plans are needed for addressing the outbreaks of disease likely to follow contact. Contagions resulting from contact should be considered public health emergencies. Mortality rates can be drastically reduced by prompt medical attention, including immunizations. Isolated groups are under pressure, and contact could occur at any moment. Brazil has to be prepared in order to prevent a repeat of the genocides of the recent past.
Read Mark J. Plotkin’s response
Dr. Douglas Rodrigues specializes in the health care of indigenous populations at the Federal University of São Paulo’s Paulista School of Medecine.