Andrew Lawler: Only one last chance to protect isolated tribes

A view of the Manu National Park in Peru, home to isolated groups of Native people. Photo from As578 / Wikipedia

Writer Andrew Lawler believes isolated tribes in Peru and Brazil don't have to suffer the fate of other Native peoples who succumbed to genocide, wars and disease:
European and African diseases killed tens of millions of Native Americans after Columbus landed. A century ago, thousands were coerced into working for the rubber barons. Even seemingly benevolent outsiders proved angels of death. In the 1950s, a visiting German ethnographer left behind a pathogen that killed some 200 people.

Anthropologists and nongovernmental organizations warn that drug trafficking, logging, mining and petroleum extraction, along with a changing climate, vanishing species and a shrinking forest, put these tribes at risk. Even TV crews searching for “uncontacted” natives pose a threat; according to a 2008 report by a Peruvian anthropologist, one crew that strayed beyond its permitted area has been implicated in the deaths of some 20 native people from flu.

The indigenous people who remain appear to be fighting among themselves for dwindling resources, like turtle eggs and piglike peccaries. Lifting his shirt, Epa showed me a scar on his torso — inflicted during an attack by tribal enemies, he said. He and his two wives and a mother-in-law live part time in their camp, close to a guard post staffed by indigenous people. He said he had avoided having children because he was always on the run.

Brazil and Peru have taken radically different approaches toward isolated peoples. For Brazil, which has pursued the sort of engagement pioneered by late 19th-century missionaries, the Amazon has long been a frontier to be tamed. Officials built small frontier posts in the jungle, planted gardens and let tribes gather the harvest. Enticed into contact, the isolated people would trade ornaments and forest products for metal tools and objects, and be drawn gradually into the labor force.

Get the Story:
Andrew Lawler: Do the Amazon’s Last Isolated Tribes Have a Future? (The New York Times 8/9)

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