Self-isolation is why uncontacted tribes survive today

Uncontacted people seen from the air during a Brazilian government expedition in 2010. © G. Miranda/FUNAI/Survival

By Fiona Watson, Director of Research and Advocacy at Survival International

“Cough, catarrh and chest pain killed everybody. Everybody died… They weren’t buried. They were too weak to bury the dead. They were very ill so they didn’t bury them. The vultures ate them from the ground because they weren’t buried.”

Imagine the mental strength to keep going when, all around you, your loved ones are dropping dead for no apparent reason as strange epidemics ravage your community in a matter of days. The devastating effects of new diseases are all too grimly familiar to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, up to 90% of whom were killed by diseases introduced by colonizers in the last 500 years.

The quote above comes from Ake, a member of the Panará, a Brazilian tribe who desperately avoided contact until the early 1970s, when construction workers bulldozed a highway through their forest home. Between 1973 and 1975, over a third of their population died from diseases and more than four-fifths of the tribe died in just eight years.

The catastrophic impact of new diseases is one of the reasons why there are over 100 indigenous peoples on Earth today who deliberately avoid interaction with outsiders. They are known as uncontacted tribes and the majority live in the Amazon. These peoples’ previous encounters with outsiders likely led to many deaths, from violence as well as disease, at the hands of those who invaded their land to steal their resources. Many uncontacted people fled, or are the descendants of survivors of the Amazon Rubber Boom around the turn of the century; some will have suffered genocidal attacks or epidemics decades ago, others even more recently.

There is nothing romantic about avoiding contact. It must be tough — imagine being the “Last of his Tribe,” the sole survivor who witnessed the massacre of his people and is now living entirely on his own. This solitary man lives in a patch of rainforest in the Amazon surrounded by hostile farmers. We don’t know who he is, the name of his tribe or what language he speaks. His people were probably massacred by cattle ranchers who invaded the region at breakneck speed in the 1970 and 80s, using gunmen to hunt down and murder uncontacted Indians in order to lay claim to their land. Today he fiercely refuses any contact and continues to hunt and grow produce in his gardens. When he dies all trace of his people, their language, their knowledge will have disappeared for ever.

For some tribes, this quest to survive has meant adapting their whole way of life: they’ve been forced to abandon living in villages and cultivating gardens, to becoming nomadic hunter gatherers, to leave the lightest possible footprint on the earth and to be able to move on quickly to avoid detection and contact.

They never know when the next attack will come, when the next wave of epidemics will sweep through their homes. Some lived in virtual silence to avoid detection, communicating by imitating the calls of the forest birds and animals, always on the look out for the sound of strangers on the forest paths, The Avá Canoeiro people hid in caves by day and hunted at night, always ready to flee on hearing the warning scream of the macaws; they even stopped bearing children.

Fears are growing for the survival of uncontacted tribes in Brazil as coronavirus looks set to sweep through the country. The indigenous health service is precarious and underfunded at the best of times and President Bolsonaro is in denial about the pandemic. His government wants to make it easier for government agents to contact uncontacted tribes, in direct contravention of Brazil’s landmark policy of not making contact.

Many indigenous organizations fear this will be used by evangelical missionaries to try to make contact with such tribes, the majority of whom live in Brazil’s Amazon. The New Tribes Mission (now known as Ethnos360 in the US), one of the world’s most extreme missionary organizations, has just bought a new helicopter which its president announced will be used to “open the door to reach ten additional people groups living in extreme isolation.” Indigenous leaders from the Javari Valley organisation UNIVAJA have denounced the NTM’s plans as “a genocidal onslaught.”

Following a lawsuit brought by UNIVAJA, a Brazilian judge has thankfully now blocked evangelical missionaries from making contact with uncontacted tribes in the Javari Valley. However, such organizations have been willing to break the law before in their relentless quest for indigenous souls.

Population loss due to diseases introduced during and after contact has been catastrophic — the statistics are shocking. Over 50% of the Matis tribe died following first contact in the 1970s. Nearly all their shamans with medicinal knowledge perished as flu decimated them. Bina Matis, who survived the epidemics, told Survival:

“At first, we were very frightened of the whites because they always want to kill us. So I ran into the forest. Later we went down to the FUNAI [government’s Indigenous Affairs Dept] camp and that was our first contact. They gave us axes and machetes and we also took two dogs…I tried to talk with the whites, but they didn’t understand. But we caught illnesses in their camp and then everyone rushed into the forest… We got pneumonia. A lot of people died. Disease hit everyone and now we don’t have shamans anymore.”

If governments fail to protect indigenous territories and enforce lockdown, coronavirus could complete the genocides of the uncontacted tribes of Amazonia, which began 500 years ago when the first Europeans invaded.

A few weeks ago, Yanomami shaman and spokesman Davi Kopenawa appealed to the UN to support uncontacted Yanomami who might soon be exterminated by invading goldminers:

“The [Moxihatatea uncontacted] Indians are now surrounded…. I don’t know their houses, any more than you do. I only saw them from the sky, from the plane. I have never visited them on foot. We have never spoken with each other. That is why I am very concerned. Perhaps they will soon be exterminated…. The miners will undoubtedly destroy them all by killing them with their shotguns and their illnesses, their malaria, their pneumonia.”

Davi’s worst fears may now be realized: the first death from coronavirus among the Yanomami people has now been confirmed.

The way uncontacted people live is entirely self-sufficient and sustainable and any claim that they should be contacted for their own benefit is utterly wrong. They possess encyclopaedic knowledge of their land and the plants and animals they live alongside, and their finely tuned technologies and unique skills, honed over generations, mean they can obtain their food, clothes, medicine, tools, building materials and anything else they need entirely independently; all they need is their land. Where the territory of uncontacted people is properly protected, they continue to thrive.

For over 50 years, Survival International has been fighting worldwide for the land of uncontacted tribes to be securely protected. We campaign for their decision to self-isolate, for their own survival, to be respected by all.

Join us now; for tribes, for nature, for all humanity.


Originally published April 29, 2020