Episode 4: Knowledge for Protection: safeguarding isolated indigenous tribes
Deep in the Amazon, there are groups that have made the decision to isolate themselves from the outside world. These isolated or uncontacted groups live under constant threat of incursion from mining, development, and illegal activity. On the final episode of this series, we'll explore the reason why these groups fled into the rainforest, how to protect isolated groups without contacting them, and the late Colombian historian who proved the existence of isolated groups in Colombia.
Deep in the Colombian rainforest, there are uncontacted or isolated people. Indigenous groups that don’t want contact with the outside world. Including other indigenous groups. Some people consider isolation impossible in our world and seek to contact isolated groups to study them or bring them medicine or religion. But for others like Daniel Aristizábal of the Amazon Conservation Team, isolation is a self-conscious act of resistance that should be protected:
Daniel Aristizábal: It’s very important to avoid contact because the effects of contact can be seen throughout generations. The indigenous people who help us protect isolated people work with remind us that all the time. they still feel like they’re facing the backlash of colonization and conquest.
On this final episode of Maps, Magic, and Medicine, we’ll hear about the challenges of protecting isolated people without contacting them and the Colombian historian whose research proved the existence of isolated groups in Colombia.
Today, on Maps, Magic, and Medicine: Knowledge for Protection
Most indigenous groups living in the Amazon share stories of other groups who escaped Portuguese and Spanish rubber traders to flee into the rainforest. Historical records of explorers and missionaries also document accounts of indigenous groups who seemed to disappear.
These groups are now known “uncontacted” or “isolated groups.” And it doesn’t mean that a tribe has never had contact with the outside world, but rather that they’ve made the autonomous decision to live without contact—often because of the violence and traumas of colonization.
Daniel Aristizábal: A lot of the tribes we worked with were decimated by the rubber trade... they had to flee... they know the consequences of contact. They recognize that the decision to isolate is not an easy decision. It's not an easy way to live. In a way it's ahistorical because all societies in the world have exchange products, genes, knowledge... it's a difficult decision. These tribes recognize they must respect it.
I spoke with Daniel Aristizábal from his office in Colombia. He’s been researching isolated groups for years first with the Colombian National Park Service and now with the Amazon Conservation Team.
Daniel Aristizábal: I’m coordinator of the Isolated Peoples program for ACT Colombia
Now, he’s working to establish policies with the Colombian government to ensure protection for isolated groups. Protection from outright contact and legal protection that actually guarantees the right for uncontacted groups to remain in isolation. Because in recent years, the dangers are only increasing:
Threats are usually divided in three:
1. Development. The threats related to development we're talking about dams, roads, railroads, ports, oil exploration, formal, legal mining.
2. Then there's the illegal threats, so illegal mining, illegal logging, in the case of Colombia, illegal armed groups.
3. Then there's a third group of threats that we kind of call "other actors" by this I mean: tourists, explorers, adventurers, scientists, anthropologists who don't believe these groups should remain uncontacted. Missionaries.
Daniel has seen the effects on contact first hand
Daniel Aristizábal: It's easy to assume that they're happy, but that happens a lot in these places that you think because they're smiling they're happy. But usually when you talk to these people the effects of contact have been very traumatic.
when people are contacted there's an initial boom of information and joy, but then in the long term these people will be relegated and marginalized in our society. They will be prone to prostitution, slavery, exploitation, alcoholism, violence.
Usually within the first 5 years, it's been proven that around 50% of the population perishes, dies within the first year of contact. But there have been cases where 80-90% of the population dies. And usually when the diseases hit it's the people die first are the elders, the children and the youth. And if you think about it. These are the vehicles of knowledge. If the elders die then all the knowledge dies. If the youth and the children die, then there's no one to learn.
So, how do you protect isolated groups without direct contact? Well, one way is to protect the forest itself:
Daniel Aristizábal: You want their territories to be healthy. So for the isolated people to be healthy as well. So the first thing is to protect the resources. You could be hurting the isolated tribes without contacting them, if you're taking away their resources, poising their rivers, hunting their food, taking out their trees.... because these people are the groups of humans that are mostly dependent on the forest 100% of their survival depends on the forest. So if the forest is not healthy, they are not healthy.
But one of the biggest challenges is knowing what areas of the forest to protect. Where in isolated groups live. The late Colombian historian, Roberto Franco not only proved the existence of isolated groups in Colombia, but also meticulously mapped areas where isolated groups could live. And it was far from simple:
Daniel Aristizábal: He [Roberto Franco] was a historian who had traveled since the late 70s in the amazon. It was kind of a side project the whole time to start gathering stories and interviews of people who had heard about these people, but he never did a systemic analysis at the time. In 2009, he got support from ACT to actually do the investigation and carry out the whole methodology and actually create a methodology to identify isolated tribes. And because he was a historian the first place he looked at was history.
So, he went into old libraries, old archives, went into church libraries and started looking at stories, at testimonies, at journals of travels, maps of travelers or explorers that had been in the area. Then, he started to find, especially in the maps, groups that no longer existed. So the question was: what happened to these groups? And then he started identifying patterns of migration in these maps. So for example, the capuchin monks saw them in 1680 in this river and then in 1717 or something this other monks or slave traders saw them in this other river. So, he started tracing a map of the migration and started reading historical references and see well some groups became extinct, some groups died of disease, some got divided by the slave traders, but other groups just seemed to disappear.
And there was a migration pattern that was moving more closely to where we believe [they] are today. So, that was the first thing to do that whole historical research and then he started doing interviews in the field. So, interviewing people who had probably seen them, heard of them, or who had heard stories of them. So, he started putting this in a map or a database.
Then you start to see it on a map, all these points, and they're all started to point at the same place that the historical reference was pointing to. We tend to think that the forest is all the same like a big green carpet, but there are different ecosystems within the forest. Some of them are more viable for living or are better for surviving than others... So you start identifying the places-- for example the highlands-- the places that are rich in resources where these people could potentially live. Then you overlap that with the interviews and with the historical references and then you start getting hotspots Once you have that, we designed an overflight path.
And Roberto was lucky that on his first flight, he found some of the malocas or the long houses where some of these people live. That was a confirmation in 2010 that there were isolated peoples in Pure National Park
After completing this research methodology and identifying isolated groups in Pure National Park, Franco continued to expand the scope of the project
Daniel Aristizábal: He used to always say, now we have a bigger responsibility cause we've proved that there are isolated peoples there
Franco wanted to test his findings in a different part of the Colombian Amazon. So, he moved it up from the Pure National Park in the Southeast to Colombia’s largest national park: Chiribiquete.
Daniel Aristizábal: In 2013, Roberto carried out the research methodology in Chiribiquete National Park. And he had started doing some work with indigenous communities. On one of these trips he was starting to train a colleague of ours, who was an indigenous leader. Daniel Matapi—he was always a bridge between the two worlds, he worked closely with NGOs but also the indigenous groups. Roberto was training him so that he would also lead the isolated peoples program
But sadly September 13th, they both got on a plane and there was a plane crash and they both died.
There was an investigate that took place. It was a long time after the accident took place. But it was a clear depiction of what it means to be in the rainforest. Lack of institutional presence, commtiement by goverment entities, nobody taking responsibility for the actions. Losing somebody in an accident like that. It was very hard for Roberto’s family.
Today, the legacy of this work lives on not simply through Roberto’s memory, but also in the dedication to work closely with indigenous groups to protect the uncontacted groups in the Colombian Amazon.
Daniel Aristizábal: Roberto spearheaded the idea that the Colombian government should work with indigenous groups on a national protection strategy on the field
According to Daniel, this protection strategy requires everyone to be involved: government actors, indigenous peoples, conservationists, and anyone who uses the forest.. In addition to patrolling the borders, the land, the people, and the cultural practices must be respected through legal recognition. It’s a central theme in many of the topics we’ve discussed—that protection and cross-cultural understanding go hand-in-hand.
Daniel Aristizábal: it's a rights based research approach. So, we do research because we want to guarantee rights. Really the interest here is to create as much knowledge as we can both western knowledge and traditional knowledge so that we can have robust and efficient protection system in place. Roberto used to say "conocer para proteger" you have to know in order to protect and that’s really our goal
“Knowledge for protection” resonates with the mission to put people at the center of the conservation strategy—to ensure that the people who know the forest best are the ones protecting the forest for the next generation. Here’s a selection of some of the voices we’ve heard throughout the series. Knowledge is protection when one’s cultural knowledge is at risk of disappearing.
Raquel Gomez: That’s where you come from, that’s your origin. We need to save that.
When the allure of “modernity” and western ways of knowing draws young people away from their traditions
Wuta Wajimnu (Translated by Mark Plotkin): He said for me it’s all about two things: protecting the bush and holding it for my grandchildren.
Protecting one’s knowledge is an opportunity to teach the next generation and build strength within one’s community
Granman Leslie Valentijn: They will gladly do it for future generations and also the pieces of the community that live abroad. When they come back to the Matawai area, they can look at the map, they can read the history and then they instantly know where they’re from
But sometimes it’s important to remember how little we really know—
Taita Luciano Mutumbajoy: Those who talk know very little, but those who know are humble, quiet and they speak very little.
And respect those whose knowledge extends into things we can’t begin to imagine, let alone understand.
Mama Don Pedro (translated by Jose de los Santos Sauna): That’s why I can hear and understand the wind and the thunder. Even sitting here, he can have a connection to that which is negative even if it’s far away.
In this series, we have featured people who protect their knowledge and use their knowledge for protection.
In the end, we really can’t know or fully understand how other people live—the isolated groups that we heard about today remind us of this. But the fact that these groups, who have never asked for anything, who continue to fight for their land, culture, and livelihoods… the fact that they’re being protected demonstrates that we’re all linked. That our activity affects their health and the health of the forest—And also that the forest’s health affects us.
We each have our own traditions, cultures, and tools for navigating the world—But one thing that all connects us is health.
And many of the voices on this series have made it clear that communities need to protect their health in order to survive—to have the ability to Map their ancestral lands, the power to manage the intangible world, and the knowledge to practice traditional medicine to heal their communities and the forest.
If we open ourselves to heal and be healed by others, to listen to, learn from, and respect indigenous groups, and use tools like Maps, Magic, and Medicine, then we’ll have the knowledge we really need—the collective knowledge—to protect the health of the world.