Ho New / Reuters
For three days in May, officials from Brazil’s National Foundation of the Indian, a protection agency for the country’s indigenous people, aerially surveyed the remote Amazon rainforest near Peru, scouring breaks in the dense canopy, searching the clearings for signs of isolated tribes. Led by veteran Indian expert José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles and guided by his GPS waypoints, the team spied huts and other signs of life, but no people. Then, in the final hours of the final day, their small Cessna flew over a clearing where people stood looking skyward. The team’s photographer, Gleison Miranda, quickly snapped several images before the plane returned.
The photos of grass-roofed shelters and hostile, body-painted Indians brandishing bows and arrows spread like brushfire around the globe. Survival International, an indigenous rights advocacy group, described the group as “uncontacted,” summoning celluloid fantasies of lost savages who had never seen civilization. Reporters began to describe them as “Earth’s last uncontacted tribe” who reacted violently to the “bird god” in the sky. But then the story collapsed. Meirelles stated in an interview that he had been following the group for two decades. The tribe was neither lost nor undiscovered — the outside world had known of them since 1910. It should have been clear from the beginning; the initial Portuguese reports never claimed the group was “uncontacted.” Introduced by sloppy reporting, this error fanned suspicions that the photos were just a hoax.
The crucial issue raised by these photos of a remote group isolated from our society is not whether, in an age of worldwide connectivity, surveillance satellites, and explosive population growth, we might still have undiscovered neighbors on a shrinking globe — we don’t. In fact, one of Meirelles’s friends first noticed the clearing where the tribe was found while browsing Google Earth. In truth, our reactions to and perceptions of these people reveal far more about us than about them. We easily believe that a band of hostile Indians confronting an airplane from a clearing do so out of ignorance and fear. But the likely truth is harder to face: The tribe might have threatened the observers precisely because they had encountered some of the worst aspects of our culture before, and suffered grievously. These images of a people courageously standing against us are not symbols of their ignorance, but of ours.
The Indians in the photo are probably descendants of the Tano and Aruak, people whose first substantial contact with the Western world occurred during the Amazonian rubber boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Back then, whole tribes suffered slavery or annihilation at the hands of the rubber barons. A few groups escaped into the forest. The 1912 crash in latex prices devastated the Amazonian economy and brought the rubber boom to a close. But it also bought valuable time for the fugitives, who evaded interaction for almost a century.
Authorities estimate that about 100 groups remain isolated from the outside world in countries such as Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, India, and Colombia. The majority are clustered in Peru and Brazil. None are “lost,” but some have never met face-to-face with authorities, never been studied, and have fled from, or fought against, all attempts to engage them. If groups are “uncontacted,” it is because they wish to stay that way.
Anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro calculates that from 1900 to 1970, 100 Indian nations disappeared from Brazil. Researchers once sought out contact with isolated groups, but now they urge restraint. Time and time again, efforts at contact and integration, whether intended as beneficent or malevolent, have brought tragedy. The transition is brutal. Unfamiliar diseases often kill more than 90 percent of populations without resistance. Demoralizing poverty and the shock of rapid social change can finish off the rest. No offer of Western medicine or technology can compensate for apocalyptic destruction. Wisely, most governments now try to insulate the few remaining groups from these dangers, letting the tribes themselves decide when to interact with outsiders.
In Brazil it’s been only 20 years since the constitution first renounced aggressive assimilation for Indians. Since then, the government has established enormous reservations; now the policy is to watch from a distance and protect the groups. Brazilian authorities have dismantled illegal sawmills, arrested loggers, repelled settlers, prohibited prospecting, and intercepted armed thugs travelling to the forest.
But new threats continually emerge: Drug traffickers cut landing strips through the trees, Christian missionaries inadvertently bring disease, and even assimilated Indians attack the reclusive nomads they call mashko, “naked.” The greatest immediate threat, however, is an old one, which chases the trees themselves. Illegal loggers sneak into the deep forest to fell century-old mahogany behemoths. After cutting them into boards, loggers pile them on trucks or lash them into rafts to float downstream into Peru. By the time the illegal wood becomes luxury goods, the trees are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. The overall trade garners around $100 million each year.
The dangers posed by loggers are not merely from their machetes, dynamite, and bullets. Loggers must cut roads into thick forests to get to the precious mahogany, attracting settlers. Studies of satellite photos show that roads usually produce 60-mile-wide swaths of forest razed for pastures and farms, many of which wash away after a few years of tropical rains. While the loggers may kill Indians, settlers wound the forest itself, making it harder for any survivors to eat.
Meirelles says he released the photos only because petroleum executives and state authorities in Peru claimed that the forests where they wished to drill for oil were empty. A spokesperson for Peru’s state oil company, Petroperu, said that nomadic Indians were a figment of activists’ imaginations, “like the Loch Ness Monster,” and last year even Peru’s President, Alan García, questioned their existence.
The publicity may backfire; global curiosity about the tribes could prove insatiable. Since the release, Meirelles has endured a torrent of media requests and business solicitations; travel agents call him to propose “Savage Tourism.” A film team already slipped into an Indian reservation on the Peruvian side this past year, violating their travel permits while scouting locations for a reality television program, “World’s Lost Tribes.” Shortly afterward, a respiratory infection they may have brought with them killed four Indians.
What we really offer to groups like those in the picture is not a utopia. Rather, we offer them the same poverty, anxiety, and health problems suffered by other poor populations in their region. Life expectancies among indigenous groups lag far below mainstream populations, even in countries with adequate health care. A billion people on the planet, already part of our global economy, have no potable water, cannot read, and live on $1 a day or less. Given the choice, they might also choose withdrawal from a system that has failed them.
For now the photos of belligerent Indians, robust and confident enough to stand their ground, suggest that the policy of noncontact is working. But as we begin to see that their aggression is a product of their familiarity with our society’s most abusive and rapacious tendencies, are we learning to restrain our desires and respect their choice to live apart? Can we leave them alone, or are we so thirsty for petroleum, so enamored of mahogany, so resentful of their decision to live differently, that we will destroy the fragments of their world rather than place some limit on our own? Their extinction — and the persistence of our Western way of life — is not inevitable. They’ve asked us nicely — now they’re willing to fight about it.
Originally published September 25, 2008