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The Uncontacted of the Amazon – Live and Let Live?

February 3, 2011

The BBC recently ran a story about an “uncontacted” tribe in the Amazon, close to the border with Peru. A helicopter made a low-level pass over their village and took pictures of them.

According to the report:

Members of the tribe are seen covered in red paint (known as urucum), which is made from seeds from the annatto shrub. Indigenous people use it to colour hammocks and baskets, as well as their skin.

The group is also seen using steel machetes – which must ultimately have been obtained from outside the forest. Fiona Watson, field and research director for Survival International, said the people are likely to have acquired these through trading links with other forest tribes.

“These networks have been in existence for centuries and I don’t think they will have had any contact with non-tribal people, because if they had, the chances of being killed or contracting a disease to which they have no immunity are very high,” said Ms Watson.

Ms Watson added that some authorities denied the existence of such tribal groups in the forest, in order to further their aims.

Isn’t there a bit of a moral dilemma here? On the one hand you have loggers tearing down the forest without a care about who gets in the way. Then you have environmentalists and anthropologists urging Brazil and the other Amazon nations to leave the tribes alone in their pristine Edens.

Brazil raises taxes, provides civic services to its citizens including healthcare, police and civil defence. The tribes living deep in the Amazon receive none of the benefits of the modern state, yet are subject to all of its adverse by-products. Their way of life is threatened by the encroachment of industrial combines, diseases to which they have no immunity, not to mention the threat to their habitats of climate change.

What if their average life expectancy was 20 years shorter than the Brazilian average?  Is it right that the state denies them the opportunity to live longer? If you were a mother or father with a sick child, and someone came to your village and told you that your child could be cured with medicines you knew nothing about, would you accept a visit from a doctor from outside the tribe?

The argument from the Christian missionaries who acted as the advance guard of the colonial powers in the 19th century would be that it is our duty to rescue the natives from their godlessness and squalor.

But what about now? Is it the ultimate human right to be able to live in isolation and peace in an otherwise connected world? Should we be making decisions on behalf of the isolated ones without their knowledge and consent? Should these tribes have the right to be able to imagine the alternatives and reject them? By ring-fencing them, are we treating them as somehow of greater worth, yet at the same time, less worth, than the rest of humanity?

Not that I would wish on them the joys of Facebook, MacDonalds or a Los Angeles traffic snarl-up. Yet it seems to me that we are treating them as gorillas in the mist – an endangered species to be protected, largely undisturbed but occasionally snooped on. But they are human beings, not gorillas. They, like the rest of us, left Eden a long time ago.

Do we have the right to deny them the choices that the rest of us have? To poison ourselves with Big Macs, to kill each other in the name of whichever god we believe in? To listen to Beethoven or Bob Marley, read Shakespeare or the Quran, visit Yellowstone or Victoria Falls, to visit the moon?

I sometimes wonder whether by keeping them apart we are merely delaying the inevitable, and whether their descendants will thank us for allowing their parents to dance with wolves, while denying them the hard choices facing the rest of humanity.

From → Politics, Social

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