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Guardians of the forests…or refugees? Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation in the Amazon

We are in the XXIst Century and there are still peoples that have refused to contact our civilization. Indigenous peoples in isolation are, in general, indigenous peoples or groups of indigenous peoples who do not maintain or have never had regular contacts with other peoples, although in most of the cases they have sporadic contact with members of other cultures. The United Nations (UN) says that approximately 200 indigenous peoples live in voluntary isolation or initial contact in the Americas. Around 60 of them lives in isolation in the Amazon.

There is no universally-accepted definition of what and when an indigenous peoples is isolated, nor if its isolation is “voluntary”. For some authors there is a difference between peoples voluntarily isolated or those forced to isolation, called also “hidden peoples”.

Given that they live in isolation, it is difficult to know with certainty how many people belong to these groups, how they live and what are their movements. In the Amazon they survive in Bolivia (3 groups), Brazil (27), Colombia (1), Ecuador (2), Peru (29) and Venezuela (3, shared with Brazil),

Evidence of their presence shows that they live in areas very difficult to access and rich in natural resources such as precious woods, hydrocarbons and minerals, in addition to ecosystems, water sources, and flora and fauna that are essential for their survival. That make to them vulnerable to those interested in these resources.

Peoples in isolation also face the risk of being infected with illnesses and diseases from outsiders. They do not have the immunological defenses that the general population has developed over the years to several diseases. Any contact can also alter their conduct patterns, culture, and lifestyle and any insertion of the “modern” population in their lives can be traumatic.

Although there are differences between isolated peoples, they have some common characteristics: usually they are hunters/gatherers with a semi-nomadic pattern of movement in the forest; they live in clans; usually they are genetically related to other groups and peoples; they are warriors and use war as part of their social equilibrium; often steal women from other clans and even other peoples to maintain a balance in their population genetics; and they are vanished to extinction.

Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation face several threats against their territories. The lack of recognition of some of their territories and their rights has allowed the entrance of illegal logging, oil activities, construction of infrastructure and even drug-trafficking. Their territories are being downsized and they have been condemned to live in forest islands surrounded by a hostile environment. The reduction of resources like hunting, has forced some peoples to contact outsiders, sometimes against their will, to escape from hunger, malnutrition and diseases.

The rights of these peoples are guaranteed in numerous national and international bodies. Several countries have in their Constitutions specific articles to the protection of them. Almost all Amazon countries are signatories of the International Labor Organization Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, and the Convention of Biological Diversity that have mentions to indigenous peoples in general and isolated peoples in particular. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples to “live in freedom… as distinct peoples”.

For an organization like WWF, the most important strategy related to indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation is to respect and promote their human rights. It is needed to emphasize the following aspects: Respect to their right to keep themselves isolated, unless they (freely) decide to have contact; Respect and guarantee their territories and resources; Respect and guarantee their health given its vulnerability to pathogens; and to support national governments in all the measures (legal, precautionary, contingency plans, etc.) they decide to implement to guarantee the survival of these peoples. It is in our hands to not allow these people to become refugees in their own territories.

Tarsicio Granizo
Protected Areas and Indigenous Territories Strategy coordinator
WWF Living Amazon Initiative