October 11, 2017

The Decade of Contact: Isolated indigneous people in the 21st century [excerpt]

José Carlos Meirelles, a retired field agent from Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, refers to the current moment for isolated indigenous people of the Amazon as “The Decade of Contact." After numerous tragic experiences in initiating contact with isolated indigenous peoples in the second half of the twentieth century, almost always resulting in their decimation, the official policy of FUNAI’s Department of Isolated Indians since 1989 has been to identify, protect and patrol the territories of isolated indigenous peoples without unnecessarily initiating the process of "contact." In extraordinary cases, as was the case of Korubo people on the Javari in 1996 and the Txapanawa of the Río Envira in 2014, FUNAI has initiated contact with isolated groups, taking special medical, logistical and cultural precautions in order to avoid imminent threats. Indigenous organizations and government agencies in neighboring countries have been inspired by FUNAI's example, incorporating the principle of "no-contact" into their policies for isolated peoples.

But the paving of the Inter-Oceanic Highway (formerly known as the ”Trans-Amazon Highway”) between Peru and Brazil, the continued expansion of the agricultural frontier, the growing demand for oil and gas exploration, and the activities of loggers, gold miners, drug traffickers and other outside agents are increasingly penetrating remote regions of the Amazon that once served as refuges for isolated peoples. Because of these external pressures, but perhaps also owing to their own internal dynamics, isolated indigenous peoples from the border region between Peru and Brazil — almost never seen in previous decades — have become increasingly visible and even aggressive in their interactions with neighboring populations.

One group of Mashco-Piro on the upper Madre de Dios maintains regular contact with a team from the Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Peoples of Peru's Culture Ministry. In this photo, several Mashco-Piro have climbed aboard the Culture Ministry's boat (November, 2015).

In 2011, a Mashco-Piro archer in the Madre de Dios region of Peru killed Nicolas "Shaco" Flores, a Matsigenka indigenous man from a neighboring community who had engaged in tenuous exchanges and dialogue with the group for many years. In 2014, the isolated Txapanawa or “Xinane” people from the Envira river in Brazil took it upon themselves to approach FUNAI agents and neighboring indigenous communities and initiate contact, apparently out of desperation after being attacked by loggers and drug traffickers. In 2015, the settled Matis people of the Javari region in Brazil began a process of violent and uncontrolled contact with isolated Korubo people, leading to deaths on both sides, contagion of diseases to the Korubo, and a crisis in the Department of Isolated Indians in FUNAI. [More recently, another isolated people of the Javari was attacked by illegal gold miners].

And so began the Decade of Contact

Roads, oil and gas concessions, logging and mining interests are edging in on the territory of isolated indigenous peoples (Image: Science Magazine).

A growing wave of international media outlets have published sensational texts and photos about isolated indigenous peoples "emerging from the forest." In this context American anthropologists Robert Walker and Kim Hill suggested that contact was inevitable, and that the remaining isolated peoples should be subject to "controlled contact" for their own protection. The article generated tremendous controversy in the media and in academic circles, polarizing debates around policies for protecting isolated indigenous peoples and reducing the complexity of the subject to a false dichotomy between "forced contact" and the principle of no-contact: the so-called “Leave them alone" policy

National governments play a key role in guaranteeing the territories, rights, health and cultural integrity of isolated indigenous peoples. But the current scenario of road-building, major infrastructure projects and expansion of the agricultural, logging and mining frontier takes outside agents ever closer to isolated peoples while contributing to an increased curiosity among isolated peoples themselves. This situation demands new policies, concepts and protocols to deal with situations of imminent contact. The Decade of Contact has arrived. A naive "no contact" policy — "Leave them alone!" — has become not only a contradiction, but an act of neglect.


 Excerpted and translated from “A década do contato," in: B. Ricardo & F. Ricardo (Eds.) Povos Indígenas no Brasil 2011/2016. São Paulo: Instituto Socioambiental, 556-559 (2017).

Read the full article (in Portuguese) at Academia.edu

A revised version of this work was presented at the seminar on "Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation: Anthropological perspectives" in Rio de Janeiro, Sept. 24-25, 2018