Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Once in a Lifetime

A still from the new footage of an uncontacted Amazon tribe in Brazil.
© BBC/FUNAI/Survival VIA www.survivalinternational.org
When I wander through the ruins of ancient civilizations, I try to imagine what life was like in those times. Did people hold their babies in their arms and guard them with their lives, just like we do? Did they wonder why relationships had to be so complicated? Did they spend their childhood annoying their siblings? My musings may appear trivial, but I truly believe it doesn’t matter how different our cultures are, there are some basic human characteristics that are a part of our DNA, whether we like it or not.

As with other parts of the world, Latin America has its fair share of extinct cultures--the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas to name but a few. Learning about the ruins and how these once powerful civilizations fell has been an endless source of fascination for me. So much so, my last book, Vestige, explored a way the Incas could have perished. But what about the indigenous groups that live in Latin America right now?

Globalisation has been wonderful in a lot of ways. I love that I can chat via computer to a friend on the other side of the world. Using a phone, emailing, and faxing are all part of modern day society and have become ingrained in our lives. I do wonder, though, at what point this western globalization will go too far. Not everyone wants to be in contact via email, cell phone, and Facebook. And not everyone wants to dress like westerners or live our kind of lifestyle. 

In the 1500s, when the Europeans first arrived in South America, many indigenous populations vanished because of diseases such as smallpox, measles, and the flu. It’s not much different today. Some communities have lived in isolation for thousands of years and still use their centuries old techniques for hunting, eating, birthing, and medicine. They have no knowledge of the western world and no immunity to our diseases. It doesn’t take a scientist to work out what would happen if these people came into contact with outsiders. 

As an armchair anthropologist, I love to learn about both ancient and modern communities. I like to find out about a community’s way of life, religious ceremonies, and their relationships with each other and the world they live in. We can learn a lot from other cultures. But, as with most things, there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.
The inquisitive side of me wants to know more about the tribes that live in isolation today. However, this information comes at a cost. I could never justify anyone suffering at the hands of someone else in a quest for knowledge, or even worse, for natural resources.

Photo via www.survivalinternational.org
In 1836, Charles Goodyear invented rubber, and by the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Amazon was targeted as the perfect place to harvest sap from the rubber tree. When mahogany became the wood du jour, loggers forced their way into the forests. Unfortunately, these are the places where many indigenous tribes live, and as a result, they have come face to face with a modern world. The people either fled deeper into the jungle, or became displaced and westernized. 

Thankfully, groups such as the Peruvian Native Federation of the Madre de Rios River and Tributaries (FENAMAD), and the Racimos de Ungurahui Project, have managed to secure territorial reserves in south-eastern Peru. The reserve protects three groups of indigenous people who now live in voluntary isolation and this ensures their rights are finally respected. 

Of course, these types of decisions can cause great controversy, as seen only a few weeks ago. Fisticuffs erupted in Peru after officials from the outgoing administration let slip there were plans to modify—and perhaps revoke—the protected status for reserves set aside for indigenous groups and the surrounding rainforests. With over 15 nomadic or semi-nomadic groups inhabiting eastern Peru, this would have a detrimental effect on the inhabitants if companies moved in to take the natural resources. Groups such as http://www.survivalinternational.org will ensure the new Peruvian government, which only came into power a few days ago, is aware of the impact on the indigenous people should the restrictions be lifted. 

Photo via www.survivalinternational.org
Growing up in Australia, I am well and truly aware of the impact one society can have on another, especially if the contact is forced. The city where I grew up, Geelong, has a long association with the Wathaurong tribe, and I am afraid to say the way the English settlers treated the Aborigines was atrocious. It doesn’t sit well to know there are groups of people in the world today who could be subjected to unwanted contact and their way of life changed forever. The last thing I want to do is travel to the Amazon in ten years time, look at the ruins of a village, and hear stories about the indigenous people that became extinct in my lifetime.

Click here for a short video that has some amazing footage of a tribe in the Amazon. There are also some very interesting points made by the man in charge of monitoring uncontacted tribes in Brazil.


  1. Hi,

    I am a Brazilian anthropologist. It´s nice to see your concern about this problems. One of the worse things that we are facing now is that most part of our 2 parlaments are making propositions intending to difficult even more the demarcation of indigenous lands.
    Most of those Congressmanare farmers, have investments in timber,metals (such as gold and diamonds) or have ther campaign finance by this type of company.
    The invasion of their lands continues evan after the demarcation by farmers, lumberjack, gold miners. Many indigenous are forced to leave their lands or in many cases to live in a small porcentage of ther demarcated lands resticted.
    The argument that globalization is acculturating the indigenous people is used by many individual that are against the demarcation.
    My experience shows that they don´t loose ther culture but occurs a mix of culture. In our constitution they have the right to have their land demarcated if they remained in the land until the moment of en actment of the constitution 1988.
    The problem is that the demarcation of their land will interfere in the business of many rich and traditional families that don´t want to change the landlordism.
    In many cases that families are inside local government area state and fedral government.
    Some foreign Non-governmental organizations are using the direct strike as a strategy to defend the indigenous right.
    The direct strike used by some foreign NGO is loosing public opinion. Many people here think´s that foreign NGO are pressing the demarcation of the indigenous lands similar to a type of conquest from the rich countries intending to extract the richness from the Amazon.
    I know that is a fake used by traditional families that have power and land since 300 years ago to keep their power now.
    Most of the public opinion here don´t believes in NGO´s. If they and the foreigns who want to help don´t change their strategy very soon the public opinion and the Parliament will pass laws difficulting demarcations.

  2. Victor, thank you so much for your comments. You have brought up a lot of very interesting points and it's so nice to hear from someone who is experiencing this first hand. Are there any websites or links you can provide that would help us keep up to date and learn more about what's happening in Brazil?

  3. I think here we have few number about this topic in english. The most famous is survival international as you know. In Portuguese http://www.isa.org.br/ "Socio-Environmental Institute" is the best one. I am doing right now a academic thesis about the parliament and the demarcation of indigenous lands. After the conclusion of this i will transate it. if you want I can give a semple of this. But it will take time something like 6 months.

  4. Victor, you thesis sounds absolutely fascinating. I would love to know more about it. A sample would be great. If you click on to my profile and you'll find my email address. Please keep us informed about your research. Thank you so much!