The only way to protect uncontacted tribal peoples is to ensure their lands are properly secured. If their territories are not invaded and stolen, they have a good chance of survival; when their lands are taken, they are unlikely to survive at all.
There are many examples where territories have been protected, and Survival International has spent decades pressuring Amazon governments to demarcate specific areas for this purpose. The first real success came in 1992 with the recognition of Yanomami territory in the Brazilian Amazon, following a 20-year campaign. More than two decades later, uncontacted Yanomami communities still live there. In 2014, a Survival campaign resulted in the expulsion of illegal loggers from territory in Brazil belonging to the Awá, considered the world’s most threatened tribe. If the invaders can be kept out, the uncontacted Awá have every chance of survival.
Securing indigenous ownership of their territories, including for uncontacted tribes, is not unrealistic. On the contrary, it’s a duty of every country where such peoples live. These peoples depend utterly on their land, so taking it from them strips them of their human rights and, ultimately, is genocidal.
Tribal peoples aren’t destroyed by a “culture clash” or any “inevitable march of history.” These are merely myths told to justify industrialized society’s relentless conquest of new territory. Land theft is what destroys tribes. With their territories intact, they are usually able to thrive, adapting to whatever changes they seek through the contacts they choose to make with their neighbors.
The history of indigenous peoples in the Americas is one of invasion and land theft, justified by “brutal savage” stereotypes and underpinned by a denigration based on colonialist, racist ideology. Overt racism is now outlawed, but the same views have been reframed as the supposed backwardness or “chronic violence” of indigenous ways of living. Such expressions show how language can undermine tribal rights. For example, some in civil society now refer to isolated tribes as “groups” rather than “peoples”— the latter of which confers, in international law, important collective rights. Using the former points to denying uncontacted tribes these collective rights. These attitudes and approaches must change if we are to stop wiping these communities out.
Stephen Corry is director of Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, and author of the book, Tribal Peoples for Tomorrow’s World