We Must Protect the World’s Uncontacted Peoples

Levi Herron, Metro Editor

Last November, a Christian missionary named John Chau was killed while attempting to make contact with an isolated tribe in the Bay of Bengal. This tribe, the Sentinelese, live on a small island in the Andaman and Nicobar chain. Nearly every attempt to interact with the Sentinelese by those outside the tribe has been met by a hail of arrows. By landing on the island, Chau ignored the obvious wishes of the Sentinelese to have no contact with the outside world.

According to Survival International, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting these isolated tribes, there are roughly 100 indigenous groups that have no peaceful contact with anyone in mainstream society. These tribes still live the way they did thousands of years ago. Their right to live as they choose—out of contact with industrialized civilization—must be protected.

While scientists generally do not make contact with isolated tribes unless those tribes are under immediate threat of death, many ordinary people are not as conscientious. Lots of tribes, primarily in the Amazon, are having their traditional homelands destroyed by illegal loggers, miners, and cattle ranchers. These criminals often have no qualms about using violence to move isolated tribes off of land that they plan to exploit for natural resources. Often, the first interaction that uncontacted tribes have with mainstream society comes from armed men moving into and stealing their territory.

We have caused enough harm to indigenous peoples over the course of the last 600 years.”

In addition to destroying the pristine areas that remote tribes have lived on for centuries and often murdering people in the process, these outsiders bring the threat of disease. As they have never had any interaction with dominant society, uncontacted peoples have no immunity to pathogens from the developed world. This means that outbreaks of disease such as influenza and measles wreak havoc on tribes, often killing upwards of 90% of a group’s members.

Given the death and destruction caused by first contact, uncontacted tribes have made it very clear that they want nothing to do with others. They nearly always hide or show hostility in response to contact from the outside world. They fight the invasion of their land valiantly, but their traditional weapons are no match for the guns and disease carried by their money-chasing attackers. No matter how hard they fight, isolated tribes will not be able to defend their land on their own. Those tribes whose land has not yet been encroached upon are at risk as well. With the Amazon being deforested at a rate of 150 acres every minute, the uncontacted tribes that have not yet had their land assaulted will in due time. Uncontacted tribes outside of the Amazon are also under threat, with Papua New Guinea being deforested at a feverish pace. It is for this reason that we must support remote tribes in their fight to keep sovereignty over their land. They have the right to feel secure in their homes and to be free from the massive dangers of interaction with mainstream society.

The bulldozer of the encroaching industrialized civilization is often too powerful to stop, and in addition to exploiting natural resources from the world’s last truly natural places, it also takes for granted the cultures and knowledge that these indigenous people have built up over generations and ignores the consequences of their disappearance. To counteract that proverbial bulldozer, we must pause and recognize what is lost when we push our industry and infrastructure into the lands of Earth’s last uncontacted peoples. In addition to causing them great physical harm in the forms of disease and violence, we lose a part of our cultural history that can never be recovered. First and foremost, the issue of protecting uncontacted peoples is a human rights issue. Isolated tribes are some of the most vulnerable groups on the planet. We have a moral responsibility to protect their rights.

The world’s uncontacted peoples have a right to live their lives as they wish, with no outside incursions. Likewise, groups that have willingly joined society must be protected from discrimination and exploitation, and action must be taken to protect their cultures and languages. We have caused enough harm to indigenous peoples over the course of the last 600 years, and it is our responsibility now to do everything in our power to protect those that remain.


This piece also appears in our January 2019 print edition.