Death in the Amazon: Vanishing cultures

The message could hardly be clearer: leave us alone. In photographs taken from a low-flying plane, men from an uncontacted group deep in the Amazon forests, body-painted in red and black, draw their bows and arrows to shoot at the intruders in anger and fear. Another tribe living in voluntary isolation is being hunted out of existence.

There was massive public interest when these images were released by the Brazilian government last week, revealing an enormous curiosity about tribal people. And many indigenous people want non-indigenous people to listen to their ecological warnings and their philosophies. But, in sharp contrast, those living in voluntary isolation, the so-called uncontacted tribes, wish no such thing. They want nothing to do with the dominant culture, and they communicate this clearly to “contacted” tribes nearby, begging their help to be left alone.

The risks are well known: uncontacted people have died in their millions from diseases brought by outsiders, whole tribes wiped out. In the Amazon, indigenous campaigners vigorously oppose people going into the territories of the voluntarily isolated. But now, as well as the loggers and miners, there will be dozens of missionaries, television companies and adventurers determined to ignore their message.

Go and talk to Tarzan, I was told, when I was in the Peruvian Amazon, at the invitation of indigenous activists there. (They had asked me to go with them as a witness when they were throwing illegal gold-miners off their lands.) Tarzan, I was told, has a tale to tell about forced contact. A Harakmbut man in his nineties, he is old enough to remember the day in 1952 when his world ended. He is gentle and thoughtful, but still angry. Missionaries came in a plane which, said Tarzan, “we thought was a huge and frightening eagle. We fled to the hills”. The missionaries set up a mission station and a school. “No one wanted to go to school, and anyway after the missionaries came, our children died.” After the missionaries’ arrival, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people died of the illnesses they had brought. The missionaries said they wanted people to know their God, but Tarzan didn’t see it that way: “Now we know money.”

Further, thanks to the missionaries, he says:

“Now we know we lack money, which we hadn’t known we lacked before.” Astonishingly, this is still happening. Earlier this year a British film crew went to the Peruvian Amazon to find tribal people for a reality TV programme. The crew were accused of visiting an isolated community, bringing a disease that left four people dead.

In the Peruvian Amazon, I met an evangelical missionary who was hunting out uncontacted tribes, claiming he would ease the way for oil workers. The links between missionaries and the other extractive industries are well documented. He spoke of making a “responsible contact”, but was risking bringing death. Which of the 10 commandments encourages that? The forced invasion of uncontacted peoples is the arrowhead of this racism, and it extends far beyond the irresponsibility of individuals, into whole institutions.

The publishing industry promotes the adventurer, the churches fund missionary, the corporations send the loggers and miners, the TV company commissions the film crew. In a just world, all should be liable for attempted murder. — The Guardian