December 2, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This interview accompanies our Uncontacted Tribes article. Stephen Corry of Survival International took issue (in a comment thread here) with the claim made by Dr Michael Stewart in that article that “uncontacted tribes” were a fantasy. I invited him to outline Survival International’s position.

DH: How and why was Survival International set up and what are its activities and aims?

SC: Survival was set up in 1969 to defend the rights of threatened tribal peoples. It does this by taking specific action on particular cases (eg. pressing for land rights, for a particular tribe, to be respected) and by trying to change public attitudes worldwide and stop these peoples being viewed as backward remnants, doomed to disappear. In fact, they are peoples suffering from the illegal violation of their rights and the theft of their land and resources. In other words, it’s a crime, not an inevitable historical process.

The notion of uncontacted tribes appears to be somewhat controversial. I have seen ‘uncontacted’ defined as ‘without significant contact’ and the Survival International website talks of uncontacted tribes having suffered at the hands of settlers in the past. What does Survival International consider an uncontacted tribe to be?

‘Uncontacted’ means little, if any, known peaceful contact with other people. No one else (as far as is known) has ever been in their settlements or houses. Of course, they may have (also uncontacted) neighbours with whom they have peaceful relations! In some places, it seems likely that past generations of the people might have had encounters with settler society from which they fled, seeking increased isolation. They might have acquired a few outside goods from trading or raiding etc. They might well have seen passing boats, airoplanes etc.

What constitutes ‘the outside world’ in these situations?

In Amazonia, non-Indians.

What are the political repercussions of making or not making such distinctions?

Immense. For example, if a country says no indigenous land can be recognised unless the people first register their occupation, it obviously excludes all uncontacted peoples, who cannot represent their own interests. Countries where there are uncontacted peoples must make provision for this in its legal and land-holding structures.

When we talk collectively of an ethnic group such as the Waorani, some of whom have been contacted, why should we say that the Waorani remain uncontacted people?

We shouldn’t. The Waorani are not an uncontacted people. There are (possibly, and as far as is known) two sub-groups of Waorani who are uncontacted. Of course, this question begs a longer (and ultimately rather futile) discussion of what we mean by ‘ethnic group’, ‘subgroup’, ‘tribe’, ‘people’ etc. This can provide lengthy academic exercise, but not much of practical use. It’s worth noting that one of the cornerstones of international law, the UN Civil and Political Rights Covenant, revolves around the concept of ‘a people’ but does not attempt to define what it actually means.

What are your personal experiences of making contact with indigenous peoples? You mentioned a tragic event in one of your comments. Is hostility to outsiders a common reaction in such encounters?

I have never attempted to make contact with any uncontacted people. Hostility (often lethal) is the common reaction to contact attempts unless they are managed slowly, with extreme care, for a process (often of) years. (Eg. leaving ‘presents’ by paths, returning months later to see if they’e been taken, leaving more, and so on.)

Given that many of these peoples apparently wish to remain uncontacted, what is the ethical postion of Survival International with regards to making contact? What circumstances might make the initiation of contact necessary?

Reporting on the existence of such peoples is now necessary in order to refute claims they don’t exist (usually made to make their land available for oil exploration, logging etc) and to pressure governments to respect their land. This should not be done by initiating contact, but simply by reporting on sightings etc. The Brazilian Indian Foundation, which has a specialist unit devoted to uncontacted peoples used to pursue contacts in order to help protect the people concerned from incursions by loggers, ranchers etc. Survival never supported this. Experts with the most experience of such expeditions almost always decided that they too were harmful and changed their work to maintain distance. This is now official policy in Brazil.

You mentioned a trend among certain anthropologists to accuse those who defend tribal peoples as ‘romantics’. Can you elaborate on this?

Well, that’s a long answer! I’ve tried to unpick it in a recent book – Tribal Peoples for Tomorrow’s World. The accusation is made by people who’ve never worked with less ‘acculturated’ tribal peoples. They don’t believe they exist? They don’t want them to exist? The motivation for the ‘romantic’ accusation doubtless differs according to the accuser. It’s generally reserved for those opposing the destruction of tribal peoples. I don’t think it was applied, for example, to those opposing slavery or colonialism, though the movement in support of tribal peoples is really just a descendent of those struggles.

More > Read the original Uncontacted Tribes feature here and the comment thread that prompted this interview here, which includes a response from Dr Michael Stewart of University College London.