US anthropologists Robert Walker and Kim Hill recently published an article in Science to argue that governments are violating their responsibility to "protect" isolated tribes if they eschew contact with them. Their argument threatens to undercut advances in indigenous rights that have painstakingly evolved over a generation.
Walker and Hill show how first contacts with isolated Amazon tribes
result in massive population decline, but they nevertheless go on to
claim it's "a violation of governmental responsibility" for governments
to "refuse authorized, well-planned contacts." The magazine, which often
employs the tropes of the "brutal savage" in its portrayal of tribal
peoples, declined to print the critical comments that the
anthropologists' article elicited.
Brazil used to have the policy that Walker and Hill suggest: Its
government instigated contacts with indigenous people in order to "open
up" the Amazon and exploit its resources between the 1960s and 1980s. It
wanted to "pacify" the tribes so they would stop resisting the theft of
their lands. Antonio Cotrim, one of the fieldworkers, ended up saying
he could no longer stomach being a gravedigger for the indigenous people
he had befriended. Apoena Meirelles, one of the most experienced
experts on indigenous peoples, said the tribes soon began "the first
steps down the long road to misery, hunger and ... prostitution."
Meirelles added, "I would rather die fighting ... in defense of their
lands and their right to live, than see them reduced to beggars
By the late 1980s, the department charged with Brazilian indigenous affairs, FUNAI,
had shifted its policy away from "pacification" and started trying to
stop the invasion of indigenous territories in the first place.
Walker and Hill, however, want to turn the clock back. They claim
that a "well-organized plan" and access to medical staff are all it
takes for contacts to be success stories. But it's not true: The
Brazilian authorities had plans aplenty when indigenous people were
dying in droves and there are numerous cases where medical personnel
couldn't, and still can't, prevent deaths.
a former FUNAI head, who organized dozens of contact expeditions over
more than 40 years, said that upon first making contact with the Arara
indigenous people, "I believed it'd be possible to make contact with no
pain or deaths; I organized one of the best equipped fronts that FUNAI
ever had. I prepared everything ... I set up a system with doctors and
nurses. I stocked with medicines to combat the epidemics which always
follow. I had vehicles, a helicopter, radios and experienced personnel.
'I won't let a single Indian die,' I thought. And the contact came, the
diseases arrived, the Indians died."
Walker and Hill take a stab at justifying their position with the
perverse claim that it's unlikely that isolated tribes are "viable."
According to them, outside disease "compounded by demographic
variability and inbreeding" makes these tribes' disappearance "very
probable in the near future." Hill goes further in a separate paper in
which he writes, "Almost certainly many isolated groups went extinct in
the 20th century without ever making contact." This is odd: In reality,
there are plenty of uncontacted tribes
- many more than double the number the authors claim - and those whose
land hasn't already been invaded invariably appear robust and healthy.
There's no evidence that many have died out without outside involvement.
Tribes are at grave risk, but that's from disease and violence
resulting from the invasion of their territory. When left alone, they
seem as "viable" as anyone.
The anthropologists further claim, "soon after peaceful contact ...
surviving indigenous populations rebound quickly from population
crashes." The key word here is "surviving." Tribes who do not survive
contact obviously do not rebound at all. There are several known
instances of remnant tribes reduced by contact to a dozen or fewer
people, and there are doubtless countless other unrecorded cases of
tribes being killed altogether by disease and violence. There are also
many examples that directly contradict the anthropologists, in which the
population has remained far below pre-contact estimates for
generations, in spite of the availability of Western medicine.
Aboriginals in Australia, for example, still number only about half
The anthropologists' concept of "population crash," which they appear
to mitigate with the subsequent concept of "rebound," is of course a
euphemism for the avoidable suffering and dying of millions of
indigenous people since Columbus.
When the surviving population grows, for example, in North America, their problems with miserable health, early death, alcohol and substance abuse, suicide and so on hardly seem persuasive as an endorsement of our own particular version of human society.
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