Imagine all the things we might learn from a previously uncontacted tribe of people living deep in the jungle. They could have important knowledge about native species and ecology, for example, or offer unique insights into human culture. That’s why, in the past, when isolated groups were “discovered” by outsiders, all kinds of people rushed in, from anthropologists to geneticists to medical professionals.
But rarely has this contact turned out well for the indigenous people themselves. In the Amazon rainforest alone, more than 11,000 members of indigenous societies died from 117 epidemics between 1875 and 2008, as University of Missouri anthropologist Rob Walker told Vice News in 2015. About 75 percent of those deaths were reportedly due to just three diseases: measles, malaria or the flu. There are still an estimated 100 uncontacted or isolated tribes around the world, Walker added, and they too likely have little or no immunity to outside pathogens.
Physical illness isn’t the only threat. In the past, many indigenous people have been forcibly converted to various religions, pressured to wear certain clothing and otherwise robbed of their cultures. That’s why Brazil, where the majority of today’s remaining isolated tribes live, has a special government agency called Funai designed to protect isolated indigenous people.
The organization must prove the people exist, however, to secure protections for them and the land where they live. There is pressure from developers, palm oil plantations and miners to enter pristine areas and exploit them. So Funai has come up with a number of ways to gather evidence without directly contacting the people involved.
Using a drone
One way is by finding and publishing physical evidence of the people without meeting them. This evidence can take the form of hand tools, boats, shelter, art or other objects the people have left behind. On a recent trip, which included more than 100 miles of travel via river, motorcycle and truck (and 75 more on foot through dense forest), evidence of a new tribe was found.
This time, a drone was also used to gather evidence, even going as far as showing the people in question (see video above). Is this an invasion of privacy? Some people think so, but Funai argues there is intense pressure to develop some of the last remaining tracts of forest where uncontacted people live, and this is the evidence they need to protect them.
On the most recent visit, the Funai team was accompanied by police, which turned out to be a smart move:
“One landowner in the region, who sought to illegally occupy part of the Mawetek Indigenous Land, was warned by Funai staff, as well as two other livestock owners were formally notified with time to withdraw their goods and correct their fences accordingly with the boundaries of the Mawetek Indigenous Land,” according to a Funai press release on the subject.
Once proof of a new group of people is confirmed, Funai should have enough evidence to keep outsiders out, and to punish those in violation of lands set aside for indigenous people.
“Vigilance and surveillance should be intensified in the region to curb the actions of violators and ensure the full possession of the territory by the indigenous people,” says Vitor Góis, a Funai fieldworker, in the organization’s release.
It’s an imperfect system — you have to wonder about what the uncontacted people must think of the drones hovering above them — but it’s ultimately aimed at doing a small amount of damage to avoid destroying a traditional way of life.