The right of indigenous peoples to remain in isolation

The right of indigenous peoples to remain in isolation

In the editorial published in the prestigious scientific journal, the North Americans Robert S. Walker and Kim R. Hill argue that countries should choose to contact these populations; However, in this analysis, Stephen Corry, director of the organization Survival International, refutes these claims and argues that doing so could lead to the disappearance of these populations due to severe damage to their health. In Peru there are five territorial reserves for peoples in voluntary isolation.

In an article published in the journal Science on June 5, American anthropologists Robert S. Hill point out how the first contacts with members of the Amazonian indigenous peoples in isolation caused a considerable decrease in their population, but despite this evidence, they argue that governments are committing "a violation of their responsibility" by "rejecting authorized and well-planned contacts."

Brazil used to apply the policy that Walker and Hill suggest: their government instigated contact with indigenous peoples in isolation between the 1960s and 1980s under the clamor to “open up” the Amazon and exploit its resources. He wanted to "pacify" them so that they would stop resisting the theft of their land.


The department in charge of Brazilian indigenous affairs, the National Indian Foundation (Funai), has always had sensitized workers. At the end of the 1980s, the policy of this organization turned from “pacification” to first trying to stop the invasion of indigenous territories.

Now Walker and Hill want to go back in time. They argue that a "well-organized plan" and access for medical personnel to these territories occupied by isolated indigenous populations is all that is needed for the contact to be a "success story." But it is not true: the Brazilian authorities also had many plans before when the indigenous people died en masse and there are numerous cases in which the medical personnel could not, and still cannot, prevent the deaths.

Sydney Possuelo, a former director of Funai, organized dozens of expeditions to make contact over more than 40 years and has infinitely more experience than any anthropologist. He recently recounted his experience with the Arara indigenous people of Brazil: “I believed that it would be possible to do it without pain or death and I organized one of the best equipped fronts that Funai has ever had. I prepared everything (…) I started a system with doctors and nurses. I stocked up on drugs to fight the epidemics that always ensue. It had vehicles, a helicopter, radios, and experienced personnel. I thought: "I will not let a single indigenous person die." And there was contact, the diseases arrived and the indigenous people died ”.

There are numerous cases in which medical personnel were unable, and still cannot, prevent deaths.

Walker and Hill attempt to justify their position by stating that it is "unlikely" that indigenous peoples in isolation are "viable." In his opinion, diseases coming from abroad "aggravated by demographic variability and inbreeding" will make their disappearance "very likely in the near future." Hill goes even further in another article: "Many isolated groups almost certainly went extinct in the 20th century without ever having made contact." This statement is strange, since in reality there are many isolated indigenous peoples, many more than double the number indicated by the authors (1). There is also no evidence that many have disappeared without external intervention.

Uncontacted indigenous peoples are in serious danger, but it is due to diseases and violence generated by the invasion of their territory. When left to live in peace they seem as "viable" as anyone.


American anthropologists also contend that "shortly after peaceful contact ... surviving indigenous populations rapidly recover from demographic decline." The key expression here is "that survive." There are several known examples of indigenous peoples whose population has been reduced to a dozen members after contact. There are also many examples that directly contradict the hypothesis of anthropologists. There are towns whose population after contact has remained well below estimates, despite having Western medicine. For example, the aborigines of Australia are still only about half of who they were before contact. When the surviving population grows, as for example in North America, its problems of ill health, early death, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, among others, do not seem to be a temptation to adopt our particular version of human society.

Despite this, Walker and Hill think it is "unlikely" that these peoples "would choose isolation if they had complete information (for example, if they knew that contact would not lead to massacres and slavery)." The main killer of newly contacted indigenous peoples is disease, followed by violence and then land theft, and the result is catastrophic social disintegration. This is clearly and tragically evident in many Native American reservations or among the Guarani of Brazil, where the suicide of the youngest person on record so far was that of a 9-year-old girl.

The fact that there are cases of indigenous people contacted who have subsequently retreated to greater isolation again belies the thesis of Walker and Hill (2). The real events lead to a single policy: stop the invasion of indigenous lands, not accelerate it with expeditions to make contact.

Uncontacted indigenous peoples are in serious danger, but it is due to diseases and violence generated by the invasion of their territory.

Any claim that there are no resources to protect indigenous territory must be vigorously rejected. The money is there. Every year tens of billions of dollars are stolen from indigenous territories, but the budget of the Brazilian agency for indigenous affairs is miniscule and most of it is wasted on bureaucracy.

Two hundred years ago progressives faced a choice: accept slavery as inevitable and try to treat slaves better, or fight to end it. The same thing happens with isolated peoples: we put them in contact with the industrialized world, whether they like it or not, trying to ensure that not many die in the process; or we help them protect the ancestral land that is supposed to belong to them, and we allow them to choose their own future.

THREATENED. Pressure on the territory of indigenous peoples in isolation is increasingly frequent.


Indigenous rights have made great strides since fifty years ago, when landowners could escape jail by declaring that they did not know that killing indigenous people was a bad thing. The most important legal principle today is that nothing should happen on indigenous lands without the free, prior and informed consent of their indigenous owners. The incursions into the land of indigenous peoples in isolation violate these rights. But it is clear that Walker and Hill are not concerned with these legal details. His article only makes a brief reference to the “rights of the natives”, but does not say what they are or mention the essential key to indigenous survival: territorial rights.

The survival of indigenous peoples depends on the protection of their land.

They may argue that the laws are barely enforced, but that is no reason to ignore them. It is time for industrialized society and companies to start complying with United Nations standards and corporate social responsibility policies and stop investing in projects that do not have the proper consent of those whose lands they destroy, especially when they belong. to the most vulnerable peoples on the planet.

The simplest and by far the cheapest way to save the rainforest is to ensure that as much of it as possible remains in indigenous hands. This has nothing to do with any "noble savage" coffee ideology, but simply with facts easily verifiable through satellite images.

The survival of indigenous peoples depends on the protection of their land. This is particularly vital for those who choose to avoid contact, but also applicable to those who seek it (and no serious analyst says they should be prohibited from doing so).

It has only been a few years since indigenous peoples in isolation were branded a hoax. Now its existence is undeniable. We know things that obviously they do not know, but they know things that we do not know. They represent the greatest diversity of humanity and demonstrate the universality of human ingenuity by empathically shaping the environment to improve life. They are peoples in their own right.

Public Eye

Video: Night of Ideas: Closing the Distance (July 2021).