Danger: the world is on its way
For Paraguay’s "uncontacted" tribe of Ayoreo Indians, a proposed expedition by the Natural History Museum risks their being exposed to outsiders – and, worse, to "white people's diseases".
In an inter-connected world of global travel, trade and communication, it seems almost impossible that there are still pockets of people who have absolutely no contact with the outside world.
And yet yesterday an extraordinary storm erupted between the Natural History Museum, which is planning on sending a 60-strong expedition of scientists to Paraguay, and indigenous leaders who claim that contact with previously isolated tribes in the area will lead to “genocide”.
There are thought to be around 150 Ayoreo Indians in Paraguay – the only place in South America outside the Amazon populated by “uncontacted” Indians – living in six or seven isolated groups in the vast forest known as the Gran Chaco. They live nomadically, hunting, gathering fruit and honey, and fishing during the wet season. Although no one has had any direct contact with them, they have occasionally been viewed from a distance. Their tracks have also been spotted in the forest, with hollowed-out trees taken as evidence of their honey-gathering.
Ayoreo Indians who have integrated into wider Paraguayan life – until 1950 there were around 5,000 living in the Chaco forest, before they were pushed out by ranchers and American missionaries – have warned of the dire consequences of accidental contact between the scientists and the tribes.
“If this expedition goes ahead, we will not be able to understand why you prefer to lose human lives just because the English scientists want to study plants and animals,” said a statement from Iniciativa Amotocodie, an indigenous peoples’ protection group. “The people die in the forest frequently from catching white people’s diseases. It’s very serious. It’s like genocide.”
“White people’s diseases” include simple colds and flu, to which isolated tribes have no immunity, as well as measles, smallpox, yellow fever, whooping cough and malaria. Some 50 to 90pc of isolated tribal members commonly die after their first contact with outsiders – even when medical help is available.
Anthropologists have also weighed into this bizarre neo-colonial debate - with its hint of Victorian do-gooders clashing with indigenous sensibilities - by claiming that the British and Paraguayan scientists will be at considerable risk if the expedition goes ahead. “Contact with isolated groups is invariably violent,” says Jonathan Mazower, Director of Advocacy of Survivor International, an NGO that campaigns for the rights of tribes. Isolated tribes often throw spears at groups they believe have come to cause them harm.
“The Ayoreo are much feared by other tribes,” says John Gimlette, a barrister and travel writer who has spent time in the area and wrote At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, an account of his travels in Paraguay. “I remember a farmer telling me that they’re very warlike, very emotional and their first response is always to kill.”
And if that is not enough to put off the hardiest of adventurers, the Chaco forest, is known as “green hell”. Exotic wildlife includes jaguars, pumas, giant anteaters and otters, prehistoric lungfish and the great fighting river fish. In summer it is a dustbowl; in winter the rains come and turn it to glue. Although the forest covers almost two-thirds of the country, only four per cent of the population lives here. “It’s fanciful to say that the tribes who have survived there have done so because of their spears,” says Gimlette. “They’ve survived because no one else wants to live there.”
It is, of course, this enticing diversity which is so appealing to the Natural History Museum. The last serious study of the Chaco was carried out 100 years ago, by Swiss scientists. Forty Paraguayan scientists, joined by 20 from London, will spend a month there, documenting flora, fauna, insects, birds, amphibians and mammals. They hope to establish a baseline against which to measure future change – whether man-made or due to climate change. Eighteen months in the planning, this is one of the largest expeditions undertaken by the museum in more than 50 years and is believed to be costing more than £300,000 (€350,000).
“We take our responsibilities very seriously,” says Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, who is disappointed not to be joining the “exciting” expedition. “And we absolutely respect the wish of the tribes to remain out of contact.” The expedition has engaged the services of a Shaman, or tribal elder, who will go ahead of them in the forest and ensure there is no contact. All rubbish will be burnt or bagged and taken with them.
“Iniciativa Amotocodie have legitimate concerns,” says Lane. “But sometimes if you express them in such vociferous, emotive language, they get lost in the shouting.”
As well as lambasting “white people’s diseases” and singling out the scientists as “English” (not even all 20 of the 60 total are British), the statement went on to say that the Ayoreo had no desire “to join white civilisation”. They called on the expedition to be abandoned.
“The language has unfortunate echoes of the colonial era,” agrees Benedict Allen, the pioneer of modern television explorers and author of books including Mad White Giant, his journey through the Amazon during which he famously had to eat his dog to survive. “But the reason it’s flared up is that lots of indigenous groups feel 'got at’. There is a wider sense of exploitation.”
According to Mazower of Survival International, they are aware of more uncontacted tribes now more than 20 years ago, partly thanks to increased activity by oil companies, loggers and farmers. Worldwide, there are around 100 remaining isolated groups: up to 67 in Brazil, 30 in Papua New Guinea; 15 to 18 in Peru, and others in Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and the Andaman islands off India.
One of the most isolated tribes in the world are the Sentinelese, who vigorously defend their own small island. In 2004, in the wake of the tsunami, a tribal member was photographed firing arrows at a helicopter. The Indian government has now given up all attempts to contact them.
The Awá, in Brazil, are one of only two nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes left in the country. Some 60 of the 300 are believed to be “uncontacted”. However, their lands are being targeted by loggers bulldozing roads into their forests, and by settlers, who hunt the game they rely on. Loggers regularly block roads to prevent the authorities entering the area to investigate.
In Colombia, meanwhile, the Nukak avoided almost all contact with outsiders until 1988 when a group of 40 turned up unexpectedly at a new colonists’ town, claiming it as their ancestral territory. Over the next few years, more than 50pc of the tribe died from disease, partly as a result of regular contact with coca growers. They are now at “imminent risk of extinction”.
Back in Paraguay, some 90pc of the territory occupied by the Ayoreo is owned by private ranchers and investors, drawn by the promise of gold, oil and “quebracho” timber. “It is being cleared very quickly, often illegally,” says Mazower. “The future looks pretty bleak.” The Ayoreo have recently taken to attacking ranches and bulldozers – although not yet botanists.
“Contact with the outside world can be extremely destructive,” says Gimlette. “And it should be done extremely carefully. But I do think it’s inevitable. You can’t turn the clocks back and turn the area into a green museum. It would be like turning hamburgers into back pigs. Given that, if the Ayoreo’s first contact does end up being with scientists, as opposed to ranchers, it might not be such a bad thing.”
As Allen puts it: “In my experience, it is almost impossible for a tribe to be unaware of the outside world, however isolated they are. You can live in a rainforest, but you can still see airplanes ovehead."