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Scientists must let world's most isolated tribes make own decisions

Ashéninka man Enoc Ruiz Santos and Shipibo man Pedro Monteluisa Romaina at a control post protecting a reserve for indigenous peoples living in “isolation” in the Peruvian Amazon. Photograph: David Hill

- Initiating “controlled contact” with indigenous peoples in the Amazon would violate their rights and threaten their lives.

By David Hill

July 9, 2015.- Usually the indigenous peoples living in the remotest Amazon only draw international media attention if certain kinds of photos or film footage emerge, as in mid-2014, or they raid a village or, tragically, kill someone, as happened on 1 May. Many media reports misinform as much as inform: factual errors, no context and all kinds of sensationalism. “Lost tribe!” “First contact!”

This time it’s a series of articles in the US journal Science - and in particular the editorial by two US anthropologists - that has sparked interest. The gist of the editorial is that governments, above all Brazil’s and Peru’s, should u-turn on their “leave them alone strategies” and initiate “controlled contact” with “isolated indigenous societies across lowland South America” - sometimes erroneously called “uncontacted” - who have “limited to no contact with the outside world.” They must do this, argue Kim Hill, from Arizona State University, and Robert Walker, from the University of Missouri, “only after conceiving a well-organized plan” requiring a “qualified team of cultural translators and health care professionals that is committed to staying on site for more than a year.”

What is Hill & Walker’s reasoning? Mainly because of what they call the “isolated populations’” “intermittent hostile and sporadic interaction with the outside world”, because of their vulnerability to diseases and epidemics “compounded by demographic variability and inbreeding”, because their territories are being invaded by “miners, loggers, and hunters”, because governments can’t protect them, and because it is “unlikely” “they would choose isolation if they had full information.” Their conclusion is that “isolated populations are not viable in the long term” and that “controlled contact with isolated peoples is a better option than a no-contact policy” or uncontrolled, accidental contact.

Let me make clear the momentousness of what Hill & Walker are proposing and just how high the stakes are here: indigenous peoples in the Amazon who suddenly come into sustained contact with “outsiders” are at immense risk. It is common, following the transmission of diseases, for many of them to die. This can happen in the first few weeks and months, or it can continue for years. Just a few examples from Peru - which this article will focus on - in recent decades are the “Matsigenka-Nanti” (between 30%-50% have died since contact in the 1970s), the Nahua (almost 50% in the 1980s) and the “Chitonahua” (approximately 25% since the 1990s).

One of the most striking aspects of Hill & Walker’s editorial is its almost total failure to acknowledge any of the major advances, in Peru at least, over the last 25 years to protect “indigenous peoples in isolation”, as Peruvian law formally calls its most remote-living indigenous peoples. These advances include establishing five reserves totalling 2.8 million hectares, annulling oil and gas concessions overlapping four of the reserves, establishing numerous control posts to protect the reserves, and the decision by several oil and gas companies, including a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), to forgo operating in their territories. That’s to say nothing of the indigenous peoples in isolation protected by national parks and other “protected natural areas” from oil and gas operations, highway and railway plans, and a series of laws acknowledging their rights and various educational initiatives, among other things.

True, Peru’s government’s contribution to these advances has been pathetic and they have largely been the result of efforts by indigenous federations, NGOs and international allies. Laws specifically protecting indigenous peoples in isolation’s rights are deeply flawed, the government is only responsible for a few of the control posts, and the oldest of the five reserves plays host to the country’s biggest energy development, the Camisea gas project. Meanwhile, another five reserves totalling a further 3.9 million hectares were proposed years ago but have never been established, and oil and gas companies have been operating in at least three of them. In addition, loggers, gold-miners and narco-traffickers invade some indigenous peoples in isolation’s territories, and political will is almost non-existent. The Ministry responsible, Culture, has very little budget and has been swept aside when it comes to the crunch and concerns about indigenous peoples in isolation impede oil and gas companies - its reports ignored and/or overridden and top personnel “resigning.” The president, Ollanta Humala, clearly doesn’t understand the issue, while his predecessor, Alan Garcia, claimed in a now notorious newspaper article that “the idea of the unconnected Amazon native” has been invented by environmentalists opposed to oil operations.

Another striking aspect of Hill & Walker’s editorial is its failure to distinguish between governments apparently unable to protect indigenous peoples in isolation’s territories from invasions and governments actively instigating and permitting such invasions. Trying to stop, say, bands of armed, violent narco-traffickers slipping through the vast redoubts of the Amazon towards Brazil and Bolivia is obviously more challenging for Peru’s government than prohibiting, say, oil and gas operations, which first require concessions being established, visits to Houston, London and Beijing etc, and contracts being drawn up and signed. The latter really shouldn’t be that difficult: You just don’t do it. You abide by the international law binding on Peru and don’t go to Houston.

The same can be said for logging. Yes, loggers in Peru chainsawing mahogany and cedar etc in areas where they have no permission are a severe, long-standing threat to indigenous peoples in isolation, but things have been made far worse by the government establishing formal concessions in their territories.

The same can be said, too, for Christian missionaries and priests wanting to evangelise the “unreached.” Along with oil and gas companies, missionaries and priests arguably pose the biggest threat to forcing contact with indigenous peoples in isolation in Peru and they played central or important roles in four of the five most recent sustained contacts with apparently “new”, distinct groups. Just don’t let them do it. Don’t let them build villages in or right on the edge of indigenous peoples in isolation’s territories, as has been happening, and then don’t fast-track the usually years-long land-titling process to make such villages “legal.”

Hill & Walker don’t mention missionaries, priests or oil and gas companies, or even narco-traffickers, as current threats to indigenous peoples in isolation. Do they have any idea what’s going on - in Peru at least? They refer only to “miners, loggers, and hunters” and state that “unless protection efforts against external threats and accidental encounters are drastically increased, the chances that these tribes will survive are slim.” Well, why not attempt to do just that and increase protection? Why not offer to support Peru’s indigenous federations, NGOs or their international allies? Why not lobby the oil and gas companies? Why not lobby the government to stop giving away their territories, build more control posts, make sure they function effectively, and ensure there are expert medical teams standing-by to respond to contact situations if they arise? Why not do this instead of throwing their arms up in the air and crying, “Sorry, the rest of the world can’t stop itself, we must make contact. . .”?

The key premise of Hill & Walker’s argument is that “controlled contact” can reduce mortality to “near zero if the contact team is prepared to provide sustained, around-the-clock medical treatment, as well as food.” “Can”? “If?” “Prepared?” “Near zero”? Even if - and it’s a very big if - all that is done, even if the world’s best medical attention was provided, could anyone still guarantee that many people wouldn’t die, either in the first few weeks and months or over the years to come? Can contact really be “controlled” as such, which presumably means “controlling” the newly-contacted indigenous peoples too? Why do Hill & Walker think that Peru’s government, of which they almost entirely despair, could handle something so challenging, so delicate? Don’t they realise how it is already desperately failing to provide adequate medical attention to those indigenous peoples who have established contact in recent years? And what are the chances of satisfactory “around-the-clock medical treatment” when just downriver from the multi-billion dollar Camisea project the government needs at least three years just to build a toilet, as the Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru reports this year?

The only evidence that Hill & Walker provide for “near zero” mortality being possible is what they call four “peaceful contacts” from the late 1970s to mid-1980s with the Aché in Paraguay and “Yora, Mascho-Piro and Matsiguenga communities” in Peru. At least one of these examples is misleading, another nonsense. Only several “Mashco-Piro” men and women established contact during this period, and almost 50% of the “Yora”, who now also call themselves the Nahua, died within six months after contact when one of the definitive moments involved two men, later taking the names Jorge and Walter, being shot, one in the knee and ear and the other in the arm.

Another key premise of Hill & Walker’s argument is that if “controlled” contacts aren’t initiated, “accidental contacts” will cause “disastrous outcomes.” But what do they mean by “accidental”, and does it pose that big a threat? No doubt about it, random encounters do take place and very occasionally lead to violence, deaths and possibly diseases and epidemics which might lead to further deaths, but it’s worth noting that only one of the last five sustained contacts with apparently “new”, distinct groups might be described as possibly resulting from something accidental, and therefore there has only been one possibly accidental encounter that has led to sustained contact in the last 30 years or more. In other words, it is planned contact - not accidental - that constitutes the biggest threat. This is absolutely crucial to understand when presented with arguments like Hill & Walker’s that the pressure on indigenous peoples in isolation’s territories is simply too great and therefore contact is inevitable, and because, by definition, it should be much easier to prevent contacts that are planned than those that aren’t.

How have the last five sustained contacts come about? In the early 2000s a man now widely known as “Epa” and three women were contacted quite deliberately by missionaries, and in the mid-1990s the “Chitonahua” were contacted by loggers, together with other missionaries, as part of a specific strategy to free up the upper River Yurua to make it easier to access mahogany stocks. Likewise, more and more “Matsigenka-Nanti” have been drawn into contact in recent years in order to expedite the Camisea gas project, while contact with the Nahua, although ultimately precipitated by their looting a logging camp, had been actively sought by the oil and gas company Shell which flew over their territories shouting at them with a megaphone. Indeed, Peruvian anthropologist Beatriz Huertas Castillo, the world’s leading expert on indigenous peoples in isolation in Peru, believes Shell, loggers and missionaries established an “alliance” to contact the Nahua which ultimately achieved its goal in 1984, although if you speak to some of the Nahua themselves they’ll say it was they who made contact - not the other way around.

The only one of the last five sustained contacts that might be described as possibly resulting from an accidental encounter was with the “Tsapanawa”, as apparently they call themselves, who made international news in mid-2014 after being photographed and filmed at an Ashéninka village, Simpatía, in Brazil. The “Tsapanawa”’s territories span both sides of the Peru-Brazil border. Some have now settled near a Brazilian government post, but it appears that before turning up at Simpatía they were attacked and some killed, probably by narco-traffickers, on the Peruvian side of the border.

The indigenous peoples living in the remotest Amazon, like anyone living anywhere in this world, must be allowed to make their own decisions about how they live. And that, for now at least, for approximately 20 distinct groups in Peru, is what the law calls “isolation”, for want of a better term. Just to be clear: all indigenous peoples in isolation in Peru have almost certainly had some contact in the past - generally believed to have been violent and extremely negative - and are well aware of the “outside world” and making their own decisions about how to interact with it, for whatever reasons.

That’s why sometimes they block paths with crossed spears or branches, or the river with sticks, or loot nearby villages and gardens when no one is around, or fire warning arrows, or shoot to injure or kill, as has happened several times in recent years, or avoid contact altogether. That’s why, on other occasions, there are encounters, sightings, conversations or goods exchanged in atmospheres that are non-violent but tense, or cordial, or even friendly, sometimes with other members of their own people, perhaps their relatives, or other indigenous people whose language they understand, or whom they recognise or whose names they know, or other indigenous or non-indigenous people whom they don’t understand at all. They have been making these kinds of decisions and interacting with other people like this for years, for decades. Understanding and respecting this doesn’t mean denying contact if it is clear they want it, nor keeping them in some kind of “human zoo”, and nor does it mean thinking they are “perfectly happy and healthy” or have “no communication with the rest of humanity,” as The Independent indirectly quoted Hill recently.

Hill & Walker parry the argument that indigenous peoples in isolation must be allowed to make their own decisions by claiming that it is likely that they would act differently if they had “full information, i.e., if they were aware that contact would not lead to massacre and enslavement.” Well, maybe, but neither Hill nor Walker have “full information” either - none of us do - and neither know for sure that indigenous peoples in isolation would definitely reach a different decision, or that contact wouldn’t lead to tragedy. And if neither of them know that for sure, how can they assume it? Whatever happened to the right to self-determination?

Easily the most well-known, most photographed and most filmed of all indigenous peoples in isolation in Peru are commonly known as the “Mashco-Piro”, a term used to describe apparently various bands whose territories extend across a vast swathe of south-east Peru and across the border into Brazil. Like other, or possibly most, indigenous peoples in isolation in Peru, some of the “Mashco-Piro” are almost certainly the descendants of indigenous people who survived massacres and debt slavery when a surge in international rubber prices over 100 years ago meant their territories were invaded, a period known as the “Rubber Boom.” Since then, they have survived a logging boom too, repeated attempts by missionaries, priests and other indigenous people to contact them, lobbying by a priest and various politicians to build a highway, and exploration, or intended exploration, by some of the world’s most powerful oil and gas companies: a Standard Oil subsidiary in the 1960s, Mobil in the 1990s and a CNPC subsidiary in the 2000s. Not a bad record, eh? How serious is the claim that pressure on the “Mashco-Piro’s” territories is irresistible and their current way of life “not viable”?

True, since 2011 a small “Mashco-Piro” group has based itself near the left bank of the upper River Madre de Dios, a major waterway, in the buffer zone of the Manu National Park. While some have had exchanges with people passing by, mainly to obtain goods like machetes, others have attacked other indigenous people living in the region and on 1 May Leonardo Perez, a young Matsigenka man, was killed. The “Mashco-Piro’s” presence there isn’t new, but their behaviour towards the Matsigenka certainly is. What explains it isn’t known. Indigenous federation FENAMAD is accusing the local Apostolic Vicariate (AV) of wanting to take advantage of the situation and “forcibly integrate” them, while the AV holds FENAMAD responsible for Perez’s death. Does the Culture Ministry have an expert medical team on stand-by?

No doubt the AV, like other priests and missionaries, would be thrilled by Hill & Walker’s proposal to contact indigenous peoples in isolation: more potential converts to Christianity and no more not knowing where to find them in the forest. The same goes for oil, gas and logging companies, miners, hunters, narco-traffickers and anyone - the government included - wanting to build highways, railways and dams etc in the Amazon. The logic is this: contact and settle them along one river or another, exploit their lack of familiarity with things going on around them, and free up their territories to do whatever.

When Hill & Walker wrote their Science editorial were they thinking they might take advantage of opportunities to study newly-contacted indigenous peoples if/when contact is made? That is an understandable question given that they are both anthropologists and their past research interests. In late 2014 Walker published research, using satellite imagery, on indigenous peoples in isolation in the south-east Peru/western Brazil border region, while in the 1980s Hill conducted fieldwork with the Nahua, interviewed three recently-contacted “Mashco-Piro” women, and surveyed and mapped “Mashco-Piro” camps and tracked them through the forest, according to Hill himself in an email to me. One of his guides, a Matsigenka man called Nicolas “Shaco” Flores, sought to contact the “Mashco-Piro” for almost the next 30 years until he was shot and killed by one of them in November 2011.

Walker’s response was “The short answer to your question is no.” Hill’s was a “No” too, but qualified by a “However. . .” and ultimately rather ambiguous:

No I am not hoping or intending to study any of the currently known isolated groups in South America that might be contacted in the near future. I have multiple research projects in other regions of South America, in Africa and in Southeast Asia, that will keep me occupied indefinitely. I have a very successful research program and have no particular need or desire to study any of the groups who are in danger of imminent accidental contact. Nor do I believe that any of my students or close associates would likely study those groups. It is unclear that any of them are optimal or appropriate for testing hypothesis that any researcher that I know is investigating. However, one cannot be certain, it would depend on circumstances, whether such research were appropriate, and whether it could be productive in helping to understand the kinds of questions about humans that we believe are interesting and important to research. In any case research is always distant secondary concern (and complimentary) compared to taking action to protect these populations, which was the purpose of our Science essay.


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Me parece que este artículo está escrito en un inglés que no es el de los mejores. Tiene un gran número de errores. Creo que, con la publicación de estos textos idiomáticamente deficientes, le hacen un flaco favor a los lectores anglófonos, aparte de que el prestigio de Servindi como servicio de información sobre pueblos indígenas se perjudica.

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