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10 Modern Examples of How Finding Previously Uncontacted Peoples Has Ruined Their Lives

Student Work
by Jeromy Slaby May 11, 2015

History tells us a lot of interesting things — like how Columbus was the first man to set foot on North America. What history very often doesn’t tell us is the other side of the story, from the people who aren’t given the voice to tell their experience, to describe their demise.

1. Akuntsu, western Brazil

The story of the Akuntsu is, unfortunately, one of hostility and neglect. Their existence was only a rumor until 1995 when workers from FUNAI, the Brazilian native-protection agency, uncovered evidence of a massacre in the jungles of Rondonia, Brazil.

In the 1980s the construction of highway BR-364 through Rondonia invited loggers, farmers, and cattle ranchers to the region. They quickly turned the lush jungle into soy fields and cattle pastures. Since it was illegal to occupy indigenous territory, ranchers claimed the Akuntsu did not exist, so economic development could continue. Then, around 1990, ranchers massacred thousands of Akuntsu leaving only five surviving women and two men.

Investigating claims that the Akuntsu existed, FUNAI found in 1995 an entire maloca (a communal house) bulldozed and covered with earth. Later that same year, FUNAI made first contact with the Akuntsu and have maintained a presence in the area ever since.

Only five Akuntsu remain today. Babakyho was killed in 2000 when a tree fell over in a storm demolishing her maloca. In 2009, Ururú, sister of the surviving shaman Konibú, died of old age. The five remaining members are either close relatives or too old to bear children, and since custom does not allow outsiders to marry in, the Akuntsu culture will die with the remaining five.

2. Awá, eastern Brazil

The Awá, a hunter-gatherer tribe, live peacefully uncontacted in the Brazilian Amazon where they hunt with six-meter bows and sleep in ikahas, hammocks made of strong palm fibers.

If only this were true.

In reality, more than 30% of their legally protected territory has been demolished by illegal logging companies and cattle ranchers. Where did these logging companies and cattle ranchers come from?

In the 1980s the World Bank, yes the World Bank, approved the Great Carajás Project, an iron ore mining complex in the Carajás Mountains. The railroad that connects the mine to the port of Sao Luis runs near Awá territory. The construction of the railroad opened the region to development, hence the logging companies and cattle ranchers. Naturally, authorities in the area decided to contact the Awá, which caused an outbreak of malaria and the flu, leaving only two dozen Awá alive.

Three decades later, in 2012, Vale, a mining company, obtained an installation license to double the Carajás railway, passing right by Awá territory. This prompted a group of Awá to travel to Brasilia to discuss matters with the Brazilian government. After several official meetings were canceled, in January 2014 the Brazilian government started to remove illegal invaders from Awá land.

But the combination of remaining loggers and the doubling of the Carajás railway puts extreme stress on the Awá and the natural landscape they call home. As one Awá put it, “If you destroy the forest, you destroy us, too.”

3. Ayoreo-Totobiegosode, Paraguay

Tuberculosis, forced conversion and resettlement, environmental destruction, and no government support. Sounds like some kind of horror story from history doesn’t it? Unfortunately, that’s the case of the nomadic Ayoreo-Totobiegosode tribe who live in the Paraguayan Chaco Forest.

They were first contacted, or should we say ambushed, in the 1940s and 1950s when Mennonite farmers invaded to establish colonies. The Ayoreo were semi-successful in protecting part of their land, but a tuberculosis-like illness started to pop up in the tribe and is still present to this day. Those tested for tuberculosis continue to test negative while still showing all the symptoms, leaving doctors baffled.

Enter New Tribes Mission, a US-based Christian fundamentalist missionary organization. In 1979 and 1986, the organization went on ‘manhunts’ that captured several dozen Ayoreo and killed a handful of others. They were sent to replace traditional customs and beliefs with the organization’s fundamentalist views.

It doesn’t end there, though. Starting in the 1990s, Brazilian and Paraguayan cattle-ranching companies bought and illegally cleared sections of the Chaco Forest, forcing the Ayoreo out of their ancestral land. To make matters worse, in 2013 Paraguay’s Environmental Ministry granted an environmental license to Yaguarete Pora S.A. to bulldoze the Chaco Forest. In response to international blowback, the company set aside 16,784 hectares of the 78,000 hectares as a ‘private nature reserve.’ Basically, they gave the Ayoreo the equivalent of Staten Island while keeping the rest of New York City for themselves.

One good thing has managed to happen for the Ayoreo, thanks to the work of Survival International and other human rights organizations like it. In April 2015, the acting director of Paraguay’s Indigenous Affairs Department, Ruben Quesnel, was found guilty of selling indigenous land and sentenced to six-and-a-half years.

4. Mashco-Piro, Peru

In the mid-1980s the Mascho-Piro tribe defended their territory from an onslaught of illegal loggers in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. Since then, they’ve been in voluntary isolation with sightings becoming more frequent and violent.

Locals, government officials, and anthropologists alike all have varying theories as to why they’re appearing more often. The most plausible reason is due to the long-standing presence of illegal loggers. However, other suggestions include drug smugglers, oil and gas exploration teams, and even climate change causing abrupt drops in temperature.

Whatever the cause(s) may be, the Mascho-Piro’s have turned to raiding local towns. In December 2014, 200 armed Mascho-Piro men raided the town of Monte Salvado which sits just outside their territory. While there were no injuries, the tribesmen took machetes, ropes, blankets, and food, smashed windows, tore clothing, and killed all of the village animals. In response, the Peruvian government decided to evacuate the town to Puerto Maldonado.

This most recent raid by the Mascho-Piro is seen by FENAMAD, the regional indigenous representation, as an act of desperation. As tensions escalate, few steps are being taken by the government to protect these lands.

5. Suri, Ethiopia

Unlike the other communities mentioned already, the Suri are a cattle-centered culture who live near the Omo River in Ethiopia along with several other Surma tribes. Up until 2006, the AK-47 was the only major impact that the world had on this and other local tribes. While the impact of assault rifles is nothing to scoff at, compared to other tribes around the world, the Suri went relatively unaffected.

That is until construction of the Gibe III dam began in 2006. Approval for the dam’s construction violated numerous Ethiopian environmental laws. Not only that, but the government granted the Italian company Salini construction rights without any competition from similar companies. This was not the only event where corruption was apparent. After construction began, impact assessments were published but disregarded the dam’s impact on the Surma tribes and the environment.

In 2011, the Ethiopian government banned a handful of Suri customs like lip-plates, decorative scarfication, and Donga, ritual stick fights. It’s a time-honored tradition where two young men fight with a lengthy stick. While some come away injured and a few are killed, it is used as a demonstration of bravery, a way to impress women, and for men to show their desire to protect their cattle.

As it stands today the construction of the Gibe III dam was reportedly 90% complete in early 2015. As the continuous effects of climate change and ecological degradation quickly encroach on the region, it’s debated whether the dam will produce as much energy as hoped. This could spell disaster for the Suri, the other Surma tribes, and the region as a whole.

6. Baka, southeast Cameroon

There is a three-way struggle occurring in the rainforests of southeast Cameroon. It starts with the Baka, the indigenous people who call the region their home.

Welcome the World Wildlife Fund and other anti-poaching and conservation groups in Cameroon. The Baka have been forced out of the national parks that cover much of their ancestral territory by these groups. This denies them access to certain medicinal plants that hold particular cultural value. Since being removed from the forests, their health has continually decreased as they have been forced to adapt to foods that have a lower nutritional value than what they are used to.

The final piece to this trifecta are palm oil plantations created by firms like the Blackstone Group and Herakles Farms. Palm oil plantations are sprouting up in Cameroonian rainforests, much to the ire of both the conservation groups and the Baka. What’s even worse is that the plantation companies are using the Baka and other indigenous peoples as a selling point for their operations by stating that these plantations are ‘development assistance’ for the Baka.

The worst part isn’t even that the Baka are battered from both sides. It’s that they and the conservation organizations share a common enemy in the plantations, yet can’t work together to fight them.

7. Onge, Little Andaman Island

Off the coast of India lie the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the Onge have lived for 60,000 years. While the Onge were first contacted in 1825 by British colonialist, it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that their tribe took a hit from the modern age.

In the 1950s and 1960s, India resettled refugees from what is now Bangladesh to Little Andaman Island. This quickly opened the island to an influx of development, logging, and settlers. Between 1964 and 1973 the Indian government cleared 51,400 hectares (approximately the size of Tucson, AZ) of the total 73,297 hectares.

How do the Onge fit in to all of this?

Before the arrival of the refugees, the Onge generally had free reign over the island. They hunted wild boar, dugong, and turtles, and had a unique language and customs.

Now, the Onge have been “resettled” into Dugong Creek which lies in the northeastern corner of the island. They’ve been introduced to a monetary economy by working on coconut plantations, cattle-rearing, and pig-breeding. As the forests get torn down, their natural food resources decrease, causing malnutrition and greater dependence on government handouts. This combined with poaching of rare creatures such as the dugong slowly destroy the nutritional and cultural aspects of the Onge people.

Introducing rice, oil, and biscuits to their diet has had the greatest impact. The introduced food is used to supplement a traditional game diet. This has caused an increase in diarrhea, dysentery, and malnutrition — diseases that were not present before contact. Slowly, the Onge are being exploited to extinction as the cash economy continues to grow on the island.

8. Jumma, Bangladesh

The Jumma are a group of indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. They’ve formed a political party and even a military wing within this party for good reason. Since the 1970s the Bangladesh armed forces have routinely massacred, raped, tortured, and stolen from the Jumma people.

An influx of settlers rushed into the Chittagong Hill Tracts after Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan in 1971. This caused severe displacement of the Jumma as more and more settlers invaded their land. To intensify the situation, the settlers were armed by the Bangladeshi government. From the 1980s until now, thousands of Jumma have been massacred and raped. In 1981 alone 3,000-4,000 people were killed.

While Jumma leaders and the Bangladeshi government signed the “CHT Peace Accord” in 1997, the government has done little to uphold its end of the bargain. The accord itself provided basic protections for things such as safe repatriation, regional autonomy, and the return of illegally occupied lands. Unfortunately, the Jumma are routinely evicted from the region.

Amnesty International even published a report in 2013 stating that “Members of the army were involved in frequent human rights violations, including massacres, which have been well documented and internationally publicized by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.”

Whether or not this is classified as genocide under the UN Convention on Genocide, you be the judge of that.

9. Khanty, northwestern Siberia, Russia

Remember the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010? Remember how it spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf Mexico? Now imagine 30 million barrels of oil spilled…on a yearly basis…on land. That’s exactly what is currently happening in Northwestern Siberia, the home of the reindeer-herding Khanty people.

Oil exploration first started in the region during the 1960s. By 1989 the oil industry was booming. However, when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the oil industry sky rocketed. After the dissolution of the state oil monopoly, regional oil companies took over production. Today, northwestern Siberia produces about 186.5 million metric tons of oil which is about 66% of Russia’s total oil production.

What has this done to the Khanty’s way of life?

Well, oil is not only polluting the boreal forests and killing the reindeer, but also forcing the Khanty to become dependent on oil-backed administration. The development of oil fields and pipelines cut across the fragile ecosystem that the Khanty dwell in.

There current 50 by 50 km area they live in is being pursued by the oil companies for further exploitation. The good? The Khanty are refusing to forfeit their land, especially since it holds the last grazing areas for their reindeer. The bad? Migrant oil workers are poaching reindeer and other game for fur and “sport”. So not only are they fighting to keep the oil companies off their remaining land, but also are fighting against aggressive migrant workers.

10. All the others

Since there are over 100 tribes that choose to remain uncontacted to varying extents from the outside world, it felt wrong to only choose 10. In reality there are tribes on almost every continent. From the Innu in Canada to the Korowai in Indonesia, tribes around the world face similar issues. Whether it is deforestation, illegal land grabs, or faulty government aid, the lives of indigenous people continue to grow worse.

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