Sarah Shenker is a Senior Campaigner at Survival International, a human-rights organization dedicated to the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, for which Simon McBurney serves as an ambassador. She has spent almost a decade working with indigenous people, helping them defend their lives, protect their land, and determine their own futures. She coordinates Survival’s Uncontacted Tribes campaign and runs their groundbreaking Tribal Voice project, which gives tribal people a platform to speak to the world. She has visited indigenous communities in Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, Mexico, and India. Here, she shares a few of her stories.
Years ago, during a visit to the Awá, an indigenous community living in the eastern Brazilian Amazon rainforest, a family invited me to go on a short, early-morning walk to their hunting area. “It’s not far,” they told me. “It’s just over there!” The short walk turned out to be a six-hour trek at tribal pace: fast. Just before midday, drenched from the heavy rain, we arrived at a beautiful part of the forest that the family knew like the back of their hand. Once we had collected some fruit and found a good spot for some fishing, Pire’i, the father of the family and the community’s leader, told me about his uncontacted relatives.
They live deep in the forest, he said, and avoid contact with outsiders. They’re nomadic hunter-gatherers, always on the move, hunting, fishing, and collecting fruits and honey.
“Let them live!” Pire’i said. “We must let them live.”
In our interconnected world, some find it hard to believe, but yes, they exist: more than a hundred uncontacted tribes, spread around the world, from the Amazon rainforest to the arid plains of Paraguay’s Chaco region to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean and the remote forests of West Papua.
They are our contemporaries and a vitally important part of humankind’s diversity. They know their environments intimately. Every valley, stream, and trail in their territory is inscribed on their mental maps. Over thousands of years, they have developed ways of life that are entirely self-sufficient and extraordinarily diverse.
Uncontacted tribes have forged their own unique solutions to sustainable living. Many of the drugs used in Western medicine, like morphine, originate with tribal people. Indigenous people in contact with mainstream society have shared some of their knowledge with the world, and it has saved millions of lives.
Tribal peoples are also crucial guardians of the natural world. Their territories are by far the strongest barriers to deforestation. Look at satellite imagery of the Amazon—time and again, you’ll find that uncontacted tribes’ lands are islands of green amid seas of clear-cut forest.
They depend on the earth, and the earth depends on them. They take only what they need from their forests. They move their crops from one area to another to allow the soil to replenish, and they carefully control their hunting zones so that animal numbers remain healthy.
But in many of these places, there’s a dark history: a history of genocide. Whole tribes were wiped out by the European colonization of the Americas and Australia. During the Amazon gold rush, the rubber boom, and the decades of forced-contact expeditions up until the late 1980s, more tribes were wiped out, and others lost up to 90 percent of their population within a year or two.
And it continues today: yet more tribes are being annihilated by genocidal violence at the hands of invaders, and by diseases like flu and measles to which they have no resistance. In many places, uncontacted tribes’ land is being destroyed faster than ever before.
It’s being stolen from them by governments, companies, and individuals desperate to make quick profit from the resources the tribes have so carefully looked after, often for millennia. It’s being invaded by loggers, miners, road and dam construction teams, oil prospectors, missionaries, and drug traffickers.
Of course, this is illegal as well as immoral: uncontacted tribes’ right to live on their land undisturbed is enshrined in international law. They face catastrophe if their land is not protected. They are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet.
When Loren McIntyre stumbled upon the Matsés (referred to by outsiders as the Mayoruna) in 1969, they had already suffered years of violent encounters and encroachments on their land. At the height of the Amazon rubber boom, raids between the Matsés and rubber tappers became a frequent and bloody occurrence.
Although contacted Matsés eventually had a significant section of their territory legally recognized in 2001, their uncontacted neighbors have yet to achieve the same recognition. Their territory lies within the Uncontacted Amazon Frontier, a stretch of land overlapping Brazil and Peru with the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes on the planet. Recognized or not, the land of the Matsés is still overlaid with oil concessions, and the fight against those who seek to pillage their forest continues.
So where do we go from here? Well, we need to act, fast. The pressure on uncontacted tribes’ territories is intensifying. I’ve heard ranchers call uncontacted Indians “dirty” and “lazy.” I’ve seen politicians deny their very existence. And I’ve worked with indigenous leaders who receive death threats simply for speaking out for their uncontacted relatives’ right to live.
Some say uncontacted tribes are doomed. That their disappearance is inevitable. That they’re backward and primitive relics of a remote past, and that contact must be forced upon them, to bring them into the so-called modern world.
That simply won’t work. Entering uncontacted tribes’ land and forcing contact is fatal.
Fortunately, many governments’ policies now mandate the protection of uncontacted tribes’ land for their exclusive use. We must make sure they stick to their word.
Uncontacted tribes are well aware of the “outside” world. If they want to make contact, they can, and they will. In the meantime, we must guarantee their right to live as they choose. It’s a right enshrined in national constitutions. It’s a right enshrined in international law. And surely it’s a right enshrined in human morality.
For nearly fifty years, Survival International has led the global campaign for uncontacted tribes’ rights. We won’t give up until their lands are protected. We fight against all odds, and alongside contacted Indians we’ve secured countless successes, from the creation of the Yanomami park—the largest forested indigenous territory in the world—to the eviction of loggers from the Awás’ land. Just last year, the Canadian oil giant Pacific E&P decided to withdraw from uncontacted Matsés’ land after intense international pressure generated by our campaign, and strict opposition from the Matsés.
But the only way to continue to ensure the survival of uncontacted tribes is to catalyze a groundswell of public opinion in their favor. People around the world can be the change that the uncontacted tribes desperately need.
This is why Survival International chose to open an office in the Bay Area. Many threats tribal peoples face have links to the United States: our corporations, our demand for soy and oil, our missionaries and conservation organizations, and even our academics (those who promote contacting isolated peoples). It is for this very reason that we can, and must, be a part of the solution.
When Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa visited San Francisco in 2014, he reminded us of our shared humanity, and of how much we can learn from tribal peoples. He loved Muir Woods, saying he could breathe there. He loved the Golden Gate Bridge, because he could feel the wind on his face. He loved speaking to students in the Presidio, and noted that young people are the great hope of our future.
In an interview with NPR’s Barbara King, he said:
I say to you who are concerned and worried about nature, let us fight together. The people I have seen in the cities in the U.S., there is very little nature and very little forest [where they live]. I am a Yanomami who defends nature; nature is a person who brings health and happiness. It brings rain and wind, and it is a very good thing. We are defending the lungs of the world, and they are very important to you, too. You, the non-Indians who want to help, you have to defend the forest with us, so that we do not suffer. Because this is important for all of us.
Let’s listen to Davi. Let’s push companies to reject projects that will harm uncontacted tribes. Let’s encourage the United Nations and other international bodies to take a more forceful stand. Let’s pressure governments to protect uncontacted tribes’ lands.
It works. Together, we really can make a difference. We can give the most vulnerable peoples on the planet a chance to survive and thrive.
As Pire’i Awá so passionately demanded, we can and we must let them live.
THE ENCOUNTER follows National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre as he finds himself lost in a remote area of Brazil in 1969, which leads to a startling encounter that is to change his life. Each seat comes equipped with a pair of headphones. Put them on and experience ground-breaking sound design - plugging into the power of the imagination, and engaging you in new and breathtaking ways as McBurney leads you on an epic journey. Through May 7 only.