National Geographic‘s Scott Wallace describes the various concerns in South America, specifically Peru and Brazil, relating to indigenous peoples’ initiation of contact with the outside world. How can this be done in as non-exploitative a way as possible?
Isolated indigenous groups in the western Amazon are under mounting pressure. The noose is gradually tightening around the last stretches of rainforest that remain free from the whine of chainsaws, the crack of rifles, the rumble of machinery. But in this instance, Peruvian officials doubt the Mashco-Piro are fleeing drug traffickers, loggers, or oil exploration crews. They believe the Indians are simply seeking more of the goods they have come to know through raids on settlements and encounters with strangers.
Trade goods have long exercised a powerful attraction for isolated tribes. For most of the 20th century, Brazilian wilderness scouts showered so-called “wild Indians” with such gifts to seduce them into accepting contact. That practice came to an end when Brazil adopted its “no contact” policy to respect the right of the isolated tribes to remain in seclusion if they so desired. After that, government agents would only seek out tribes that were in imminent peril from disease or genocidal violence. Indian rights officials assumed that the tribes would choose isolation over contact.
Recent events are challenging that assumption. Last year, a group of about 30 Indians emerged from the jungles around the native Ashaninka settlement of Simpatia on Brazil’s Xinane River, just across the border from Peru. According to Carlos Travassos, director of the Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians, they melted back into the forest but emerged again days later, sick and exhausted, just as an emergency response team arrived. Speaking through interpreters, the Indians described a harrowing ordeal in the jungle across the border in Peru, where their people had suffered bloodshed at the hands of intruders, presumably illegal loggers or drug traffickers.
“We can’t say for sure that any single thing led them to make contact,” Travassos wrote in an email from Brasilia, “but it’s clear that the violence and attendant exhaustion they suffered cleared the way for contact.” The entire group received inoculations against the flu before returning to the forest. Thanks to the efforts of the team, Travassos continued, “the impacts of contact were kept to a minimum.”
Brazilian officials who helped formulate the “no contact” policy years ago are rethinking their strategy. “There’s something called self-determination,” Indian protection agent Meirelles told National Geographic by phone from his home in the Amazonian port city of Rio Branco. Having devoted decades to working along the Xinane River where last year’s contact occurred, Meirelles was recently invited to Peru to advise Torres and his superiors at the Ministry of Culture on the Mashco-Piro contact.