Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation
A number of Amazonian groups face extinction as their space to live away
from the modern world disappears.
Far from the eyes of the world, some sixty-four indigenous peoples living
in voluntary isolation in Amazonian Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia – the
Tagaeri, Huaorani, Taromenane, Corubo, Amamhuaca, Mascho, Kineri, Nanti,
Nahua and Kugapakori, among others – are condemned to gradual extinction.
These tribes remain mysterious, avoiding all contact with strangers and
preferring the isolated existence they have maintained for centuries. What
little is known about them has been gleaned from other indigenous groups and
from chance encounters with developers and rights groups. But what is clear
is that their numbers are rapidly dwindling: the Coruba now number only 40;
and the number of Mascho speakers is estimated to be between 20 and 100. The
Amamhuaca language, it is thought, is spoken only by 720 people: 500 in Peru
and 220 in Brazil.
Attempts to learn more about these groups can prove fatal. The last known
report of contact with the Tagaeri, the indigenous group with the strictest
self-imposed isolation, was in July 1987, when two missionaries whose
attempt to convince the tribe to allow oil extractors to enter their
territory led to their deaths. The Tagaeri subsequently abandoned their
homes and disappeared deeper into dense forests, demonstrating their
rejection of co-existence with the modern world.
Gas and oil companies, loggers, miners and entrepreneurs are viewed by
indigenous groups as “ghosts of death” for the toxic legacy they can leave
behind and which can poison rivers and forests considered as a source of
life for these communities. These indigenous groups have developed their own
health care and food gathering systems, but which are fragile and easily
threatened by damage to the ecosystems wherein they live. All too often
contact with outsiders results in the transfer of disease, resulting in
epidemics since the indigenous peoples have no immunities to what are common
and treatable diseases elsewhere.
Governments around the world have increasingly acknowledged the rights of
indigenous peoples. In part, this has been the result of a process of
empowerment by such groups, who have pressed their demands on governments.
In the case of groups living in isolation, preferring to avoid contact with
government representatives and other communities, responding to their needs
is far more difficult. The Brazilian Government was among the first to take
steps to adopt a policy of creating territorial reserves for people living
in voluntary isolation that are “no-go zones” to extractive industries and
migrants. Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are also looking at similar action. The
challenge facing the impoverished governments of the region is to balance
the further exploitation of the riches of the Amazonian belt in the name of
development, and the protection of these fragile indigenous groups, and the
cultural heritage they represent.
For further information: Mr. John Scott, Social Affairs Officer UN
Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Tel: (1 917)
326-5798; E-mail: email@example.com