Friday, May 30, 2008

Uncontacted Tribes in Brazil and Peru

CNN's story about uncontacted people groups in the Amazon sparked a few thoughts.

At first, I was surprised that there really could be people who have never had any contact with the outside, modern world. The world is so globalized and developed, it's hard to imagine pockets of undisturbed wilderness and people groups. No contact? Not even with other native peoples who have had contact with the outside world? Could there be a six degrees of separation link to the rest of the world? The questions alone display my mind trying to comprehend such a thing.

Further on in the article:

Illegal logging in Peru is threatening several uncontacted groups, pushing them
over the border with Brazil and toward potential conflicts with about 500
uncontacted Indians living on the Brazilian side, Survival International

Its director, Stephen Cory, said the new photographs highlight the need
to protect uncontacted people from intrusion by the outside world.

"These pictures are further evidence that uncontacted tribes really do exist," Cory
said in a statement. "The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their
territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they
will soon be made extinct."

While I appreciate the fact that the modern world has a poor history of dealing well with native people groups, the tone of these comments disturb me. The language reminds me more of environmentalists trying to create reserves for animals, or threatened species. It seems dehumanizing in a sense. We, the caring, civilized moderns, must manage the fate of these others, in the same way we manage the fate of polar bears and bald eagles.

It also evokes the myth of the noble savage, innocent people uncorrupted by civilization: These are the innocent Adams and Eves; we are the sly serpents attempting to ruin them with knowledge of the modern world. They're much better off separated from our evil influence.

The idea that civilization spoils everything it touches is ingrained within the modern mind. To be sure, there is some truth to it, but civilization also has its fair share of benefits, such as medical care, longer life spans, and labor-saving devices. Modern women don't die in childbirth as often. Moderns don't lose their children to disease and death before the age of five as often as their predecessors did. I could go on, but the idea should be evident.

I wonder how fair it is to purposely prevent contacting these groups. Setting aside lands for their use, reservations for them to inhabit as a society. I can get on board with that idea. However, trying to keep them from being "corrupted" by the rest of the world is over-reaching our bounds. They are people, after all; people who should not be controlled or have their destinies tampered with by outsiders, even if the outsiders are well-intentioned. Preventing contact is just as meddlesome as swooping down in airplanes with cheeseburgers, Coke, and a camera crew.


MInTheGap said...

Great post, Terri. Another blogger asked the question, "Should we be sending in missionaries?" This seems like just the group Jim Elliot and his band went in to reach with the Gospel.

I think you're dead on with your analysis that the media seem to want to see these people as less than human-- much like the Aborigines were originally considered evolutionary ancestors, instead of being fully human as well.

I'm not saying that they should be thrown into modern civilization (or whatever modern civ. is for their country), but treating them like animals is wrong.

Anonymous said...

My first thought when reading this article also was, why are these people being talked about like animals? They are refered to as "uncontacted". Not as people. Just because they haven't seen life outside of the Amazon, doesn't mean they have the mental compacity equal to a gorilla - like this article and protection groups are making it sound like.

I find it truly facinating that this tribe and others, are virtually unaware of the events of today like wars and terrorism, even sky scrapers, television, cars... that this world has become accustomed to.

Chad said...

What's the problem with talking about them like they are "animals". We are animals, but just because we have the wit to discuss what the positives and negatives of contacting some of the last natural homo-sapien sects in the world doesn't make us evil.

It can feel wrong no matter what we do, so in this case our selfishness may win out. My selfish perspective suggests we leave them alone so we may occasionally gain insight into what our world would be like without the majesty of our developed world.

terri said...

Chad...I would say that it is easy to make such decisions when we're the ones with air-conditioned houses, vaccinated children(for the most part), and relative nutitional stability.

I would hate to see the tribes obliterated or devestated. It would be nice to think that maybe we could finally pull off merging cultures in a more peaceful, fair way than most countries have in the past.

"You will be assimilated," only works as a slogan for the Borg.

Still, malaria, dengue, yellow fever, jaguars, poisonous snakes and spiders.....let's not paint too bucolic of a picture of Amzon living.

It's not Shangri-la.

MInTheGap said...

I guess it comes down to the question "Which is better?" Both arguments are being made here, but I don't see that it's right to withhold technology or the benefits of modern living to a group of people simply because we want to treat them like lab rats.

That logic will justify exposing them to controlled viruses to see how their immune systems handle it, or any other kind of experimentation our scientists dream up.

Once we start classifying them as less then human, or considering them as part of a lab, or a controlled environment, it's a quick move from there to lab rats.

If they want to be left alone, leave them alone. If they want to share technology, share technology. Treat them like any other country-- any other people. Don't treat them like you're better than they are.

Chad said...

I just hate to assume that they will assimilate at all. With the way large parts of the world already reject western civilization I just can't assume that our way of life will be easy to grasp.

If human cultures around the world have taught me anything it's that customs, no matter how useless they may be, can be hard to break.

They have survived thousands of years without us, and we want to use excuses like vaccines and technology to go in and start messing with there way of life?

When it comes down to, that just doesn't feel right to me. But then again I may be short sited.