The U.S. writer H.L. Mencken famously remarked, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.” The question of how to protect the Amazon’s isolated tribes — which encompasses such difficult issues as human rights, rain forest conservation, preservation of cultural integrity, sustainable development, national sovereignty and addressing threats posed by drug trafficking — certainly falls under this principle.
Much of today’s debate centers on whether we should simply leave these tribal groups alone or purposely initiate contact to prevent more destructive encounters in the future. However, the historical record of such deliberate contact — often where the stated objective was “protection” — has seldom yielded a positive outcome. Policymakers should learn from past tragedies and focus on protecting the forests where these people live, rather than initiating potentially devastating contact.
For over 30 years I have worked with the Akuriyo, once known as the “Lost Tribe of Suriname.” Soon after being intentionally contacted by U.S. missionaries, the Akuriyo were relocated, felled by diseases brought in from the outside, and reduced to poverty. Before long, nearly 30 percent of the Akuriyo were dead. The Akuriyo story, sadly, is not unique. History shows that it is not uncommon for over 50 percent of any given isolated group to die after initiation of sustained contact.
Perhaps the gravest threat to tribal lands may be the encroaching presence of outsiders. When the Akuriyo were contacted in 1968, no environmentally destructive forces existed within hundreds of miles. Now, Brazilian prospectors can be found illegally mining gold nearby on Suriname’s Lawa River.
There exists no shortage in the Amazon of indigenous territories that have been appropriated for “development.” Many are now endless miles of deforested lands transformed into low-yield cattle ranches or enormous monoculture operations which, like the soy farms in Mato Grosso, require titanic inputs of fertilizer and pesticides. These enterprises have created relatively few jobs for the region’s original inhabitants. The notion that “opening up” indigenous lands will solve South American economic disparities is an illusion.
To protect isolated people from these continuing threats, the outside world must first reach consensus that isolated peoples have a right to their own land and a right to be left alone if they so choose. This was the policy established by Sydney Possuelo — former director of the department of isolated tribes at FUNAI, Brazil’s national indigenous affairs agency, and one of the most experienced and effective protectors of isolated tribes. His policy also provided for the legal and physical protection to keep outsiders out. Brazil, for instance, has posts controlling access to its Vale do Javari indigenous reserve.
In 2011, the government of Colombia took a powerful and positive step by enacting Decree 4633, which bars extractive industries from isolated peoples’ forests. Like Brazil, the government has also installed guard posts at access points to indigenous lands. But more must be done.
Governments in the Amazon region should establish the following priorities: protect the rain forests of isolated groups, enact and enforce relevant legislation, and equip medical first-responders to be ready should contact with outsiders occur.
The rain forests inhabited by the Amazon’s last isolated tribes constitute some of the planet’s most remote and inaccessible terrain. At best, “planned contact” to protect those living there would risk implementing only partially proven methodologies, at the expense of separately anticipating and addressing all likely cultural, nutritional, epidemiological and environmental challenges.
Getting it wrong means people will die — while others will suffer rapid cultural degradation, loss of self-sufficiency, dependence on outside aid, and rapid increases in rates of alcoholism, disease and suicide. Far more effective would be to improve the protection of these forests and thereby that of the indigenous inhabitants who have chosen to live there in isolation.
Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D., is president and cofounder of the Amazon Conservation Team, which works with indigenous tribes to manage and protect ancestral rain forests. An experienced ethnobotanist, he is the author of several books, including Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. Follow him on Twitter at @DocMarkPlotkin.