Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Isolated Tribes Under Threat

Uncontacted tribes face increasing pressures from industry, and are often unable to maintain their way of life.
 by Riley Houser

In 2010 studies showed that there were 370 million tribal people living in over 70 countries around the world. Today, only a few years later, those numbers have decreased dramatically, and there are only 150 million tribal people living in about 60 countries. These peoples generally live in community tribes, working together to survive and to ensure the well-being of each member within the tribe. Many tribes have no contact with the outside world, and some governments have resolved to leave them uncontacted unless there is dire need within the tribe or factors that might threaten their survival. But news broke just a few days ago that an Amazonian tribe had made contact with Brazilian authorities, possibly due to the impact of industry on their habitat. These tribes are finding it increasingly difficult to continue with their traditional way of life, and many, such as the Kaiapos tribe in Brazil who have partially assimilated into modern society, still find their land under threat.

Since the 1900s European colonists have destroyed more than 90 tribes in Brazil alone due to deforestation and the introduction of diseases. The tribal people have developed ways of life that are largely self-sufficient and extraordinarily diverse. Many of the world’s staple crops and drugs used in Western medicine originate with them, and have saved millions of lives. There is even proof of one of the most isolated tribes in the world surviving through the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 by moving inland when they noticed the ocean retreat.

Despite these factors, they are portrayed as “primitive” and “backwards”. Industrialized societies subject them to genocidal violence, slavery and racism so that they can steal their lands, resources and labor in the name of “progress” and “civilization”. When tribal peoples lose their lands and have to relocate, their societies disintegrate and individuals often succumb to social ills such as alcoholism and face fatal diseases.

Brazil is known to be home to the most uncontacted tribes in the entire world with there being an estimated 77 tribes or isolated groups in the Amazon rainforest. They have avoided contact with outsiders due to the negative influence of previous encounters; they have had much of their homes and the forest destroyed. Along with bringing diseases that the tribes have never been exposed to and therefore lack immunity against, European immigrants have tried to force “development” and “progress” which actually in turn has hurt them more than help them. Such “progress” has brought along HIV/AIDS, starvation, obesity, and even in some cases suicide. The largest concern for the tribal people is their personal well-being and having their personal land rights respected; many times they only wish to be left alone. In most cases, trust has been broken with tribes due to the negative consequences of previous contact with the outside world.

Survival International is as organization that is trying to help protect the rights of tribal people. They believe that the tribal people who have lived off of the land for their entire lives know how to maintain their way of life, and that their rights should be upheld and protected. They provide the indigenous tribes a chance to speak to the world and have their message seen and heard. They fund medical and empowerment projects and support legal representation. They do their best to educate others, provide research, conduct campaigns, and even have protests. This organization depends on donations in order to continue with their important work, and depend on the advocacy and support of the public to help them fight one of the most horrific humanitarian crises of our time.

With little legal recourse, it is hard for the tribal people and communities located around the world to stand up for themselves and stop the deforestation and the destruction of their homes. Across the world, tribal peoples’ lands are being stolen and their communities devastated, such as the brutal eviction of the Mau people from their tribal home. The International Labour Organization Convention (ILO) 169 is the only international law designed to protect tribal peoples’ rights, and most governments refuse to ratify it. It is the only international law that aims to secure tribal peoples’ land rights. ILO 169 recognizes and protects tribal peoples’ land ownership rights, and sets a series of minimum UN standards regarding consultation and consent. ILO 169 has been in effect since 1989, but only twenty-two countries have ratified it thus far. If the current rate of ratification continues, it will be another 170 years before every country has ratified the Convention. Every country that does so, strengthens its impact, and gives tribal peoples a greater chance to survive and thrive.

Survival International maintains that there is hope, and there are actions and steps to be taken in this effort to help to protect the rights of tribal people. There are a few different ways that the public can be involved: donations, writing letters, taking part in different campaigns and signing relevant petitions. These actions can ensure that the basic human rights of these peoples can be respected and upheld, that they can be fairly consulted on any actions which might impact them, and that they are free to continue with their way of life for generations to come.

For more information or to donate, visit Survival International at