TIME anthropology

Is It Ethical to Leave Uncontacted Tribes Alone?

Easy to get lost—hard to be found: the dense canopy of the Amazon rainforest
Brazil Photos; LightRocket via Getty Images Easy to get lost—hard to be found: the dense canopy of the Amazon rainforest

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Contact means dangers for both sides‚ but lack of contact does too

It’s not entirely fair to say that a single hug killed 4,500 people, but it’s not entirely wrong either. The hug happened in August of 1910, when an effort by a Brazilian military engineer to lure members of the isolated Nambikwara tribe out of the Amazon bush at last produced results. The engineer had spent the previous 14 months stocking a so-called attraction front—a small outpost that included a fruit and vegetable garden and tools that the Nambikwara were welcome to take.

Finally, the chief of the tribe and six companions showed themselves. The man from the outside world embraced the man from the forest world, and somewhere in that moment, pathogens were surely passed. Three generations later, the tribe that had initially numbered about 5,000 was down to just 550 people—many of them killed by influenza, whooping cough and even the simple cold, diseases they had never encountered and against which they had no immunity.

The death of the Nambikwara has long been a cautionary tale about how best to address the matter of indigenous and isolated tribes, but it’s a tale from which anthropologists, national governments and the medical community have not always taken the same lessons. That’s a problem.

Even as forestland is shaved away by loggers and developers, and as cities and settlements encroach on the wild, an estimated 8,000 indigenous people in multiple small bands make their homes in the Peruvian Amazon. Similarly isolated groups live in the Brazilian Amazon, the mountains of New Guinea and on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.

All of those tribes have long raised the same questions: Is it ethical to mess with civilizations that have gotten on fine without help for thousands of years? Is it ethical not to intervene when 21st century medicine could treat diseases and injuries that are an unavoidable part of living in the wild? Is there more cultural condescension in offering modernity to primitive peoples or in withholding it because, well, they’re so primitive?

Part of what’s given the matter greater urgency, as laid out in a striking pair of stories in the journal Science by contributing correspondents Andrew Lawler and Heather Pringle, is the recent, curious behavior of the tribes-people themselves. Increasingly, they’ve been emerging from the Amazon and either raiding settled villages or—for reasons that aren’t clear—simply vandalizing them. Last October, when villagers living along the banks of Peru’s Curanja River left their homes to vote in regional elections, they returned to find food, pots, pans, utensils, hammocks and more stolen. The villagers were tolerant—even understanding.

“Some of them are only a couple generations removed from the forest themselves,” says Lawler, who journeyed extensively down the Curanja for his research. “They consider the tribes their first cousins and call their behavior ‘harvesting,’ not stealing.”

But other behavior is harder for them to abide. In 2013, armed members of the Mashco Piro tribe raided another village, this time mostly to smash windows, kill dogs and chickens and destroy clothes. Other tribespeople have been reported attempting to lure village people into the forest with them. “Perhaps they’re trying to increase their numbers,” says Lawler. “They need a certain number of people to be viable.”

Fear is driving some of them out as well—though in these cases they present themselves openly and seek help. Drug runners throughout Peru and Brazil think nothing of killing tribal people who get in their way, and the smaller the forest footprint gets, the more the two groups bump into each other. But leaving the forest can be as deadly as staying there.

Indigenous contact with Europeans began in 1492 and has, over the centuries, taken a massive toll, with up to 100 million deaths resulting from imported diseases. That lesson had to be learned again in the 1980s and 1990s, when official government policy was to lure the tribes out, to, as Lawler puts it, “get them to settle down and become good, contemporary people.” But infections and deaths again resulted.

The broadly accepted solution—a sensible one—is to make some modern goods available at attraction fronts, but only very limited ones. Pots, pans and tools can be both harmless and helpful. Flashlights, on the other hand, which can be awfully convenient in the wild, also contain toxins in their batteries and are broadly disruptive for cultures that have long since developed ways to deal with day-night cycles.

Goods that go from body to body should be entirely off-limits. Lawler spoke to Peruvian villager Marcel Pinedo Cecilio, 69, who was born in the forest but later emerged. Cecilio recalls his first contact with an outsider—thought to have been an ethnographer and photographer—who left the villagers with a gift of a fishbone necklace. Shortly thereafter, much of the tribe came down with a sore throat and fever and 200 of them died. In the 1980s, up to 400 Peruvian villagers died from passing contact with crews of Shell oil company workers.

Routine care of illnesses and treatment of injuries could be a boon, though for safety’s sake they would best be delivered by select groups of well-vaccinated field workers staffing small care stations. The workers could also offer vaccines against the most common illnesses that strike the tribes—typically respiratory diseases—to protect them against chance encounters in the future. Tribes are also unusually susceptible to eye infections.

But the sensible solutions are not easy to implement. This year, funding for FUNAI, the Brazilian federal agency that is responsible for indigenous peoples, was only 2.77 reais ($1.15 million), which was just 15% of what the agency requested, according to Pringle. Last year, FUNAI reported that it need 30 frontier outposts to do its work, but it was able to support just 15.

Official obtuseness is another part of the problem. In 2007, then-Peruvian President Alan García denied that uncontacted tribes-people exist at all, claiming that they are a fabrication of environmentalists bent on halting oil and gas exploration, reports Lawler. The head of the state-owned oil company echoed García, declaring it “absurd to say there are uncontacted people.” His argument: no one has seen them—which is pretty much what “uncontacted” is supposed to mean.

Nobody pretends there are easy ethical, medical or cultural answers to the problems, but nobody pretends things can go on the way they have either. When a population has crashed from many millions to several thousand, it’s clear which way the trend lines are pointing. The disappearance of uncontacted tribes may mean that policymakers can at last stop worrying about them—but it will also mean that the rest of humanity will have to begin mourning them.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Nepal

Where Will the Next Big Earthquake Hit?

Search and rescue team work among the debris of houses after a powerful earthquake hits Katmandu, Nepal on April 26, 2015.
Sunil Pradhan—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Search and rescue team work among the debris of houses after a powerful earthquake hits Katmandu, Nepal on April 26, 2015.

Where seismic activity meets poverty, you have disaster waiting to happen

For years, seismic experts predicted that a big earthquake would hit the Himalayan region between India and Nepal.

The Himalayas are being pushed upwards at the rate of about one centimeter a year as the Indian subcontinent smashes against the Eurasian plate— a process that has been ongoing for millions for years. As the plates thrust against each other huge amounts of pressure builds up until it releases as an earthquake.

The region experiences a magnitude-8 earthquake approximately every 75 years, with the last in 1934. It killed about 10,000 people.

Though it’s impossible to predict exactly when or where big earthquakes will happen, areas where seismic activity meet underdevelopment and poverty are prone to the most devastation.

“In several places, the higher seismic risk overlaps with places with poor construction,” Hari Kumar, South Asia regional coordinator for GeoHazards International in Delhi, told TIME. GeoHazards is a non-government organization that helps to reduce earthquake-risk in developing countries.

The consequences of substandard building and a lack of earthquake preparedness were seen in devastating force in Saturday’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake near Kathmandu. Scores of structures collapsed and more than 3,600 lives were lost.

Kumar warns that other cities and towns in Nepal, as well as several in India, Pakistan and Bhutan, are at high risk of a similar disaster due to the activity of the tectonic faults underneath them and their lack of preparation.

“It is not as though Nepal didn’t know about the problem, but that it was so huge they didn’t know where to start,” Kumar says, adding that the country lacked the resources and technical expertise to make existing buildings resistant to earthquakes (a process known as seismic retrofitting). “The government was working against time.”

According to Brian Tucker, the president of GeoHazards, the U.S., New Zealand, Japan, Turkey (particularly Istanbul) and Chile are all high-risk countries where tectonic plates are under strain but they have taken steps to prepare buildings and educate the people in order to mitigate the consequences of a big quake.

“Places you would really shudder to think what would happen are Tehran, Iran; Karachi, Pakistan; Padang, Indonesia and Lima, Peru,” he tells TIME. “If you ask me to place a bet on where the next big earthquake would be, the strongest evidence is offshore Sumatra.”

In 2004, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake struck 100 miles off the northwest tip of Sumatra, Indonesia generating a huge tsunami that killed some 230,000 people and cause widespread devastation.

“Padang is much smaller than Kathmandu so it wouldn’t create the same economic or political chaos that one in Tehran, Karachi or Istanbul would cause,” he said, but he stressed that an earthquake there could trigger a tsunami with similar devastating consequences.

Rapid migration from rural areas to cities worldwide has meant buildings in many cities with poor economies have sprung up quickly to accommodate the new influx of people.

“They don’t have resources to rebuild all the schools, hospitals, houses and apartments according to good building practice,” says Tucker.

Assessing the vulnerability of buildings such as schools and hospitals in these places will go a long way in preventing huge human and financial costs when a big quake strikes, he says. But “We need to create mechanisms to reward and incentivize the private sector to adhere to building codes.”

Read next: Here Are Six Ways you Can Give to Nepal Earthquake Relief

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 13

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Why do we need human pilots again?

By John Markoff in the New York Times

2. We thought education would unlock the potential of Arab women. We were half right.

By Maysa Jalbout at the Brookings Institution

3. Peru found a 1,000 year-old solution to its water crisis.

By Fred Pearce in New Scientist

4. Why Saudi Arabia might need to break the country in two to “win” its war in Yemen.

By Peter Salisbury in Vice

5. Startup accelerators are great…we think.

By Randall Kempner and Peter Roberts in the Wall Street Journal

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME viral

Watch Two Guys Appear to Get Tricked Into Catcalling Their Own Moms

Now, that is an awkward dinner conversation

A filmmaker in Peru seems to have come up with an ingenious solution to men sexually harassing women in the street — trick serial offenders into catcalling their own mothers.

Two moms are shown agreeing to be secretly filmed as they donned flattering disguises and strolled past their unwitting sons. After the men shout out sleazy comments, the women pull off their wigs and confront their red-faced boys with a very loud and very public rebuke.

One enraged mother is seen hitting her son over the head with her handbag.

The clip, created by American clothing brand Everlast, was filmed in Peru’s national capital Lima, where the company says 7 out of 10 women report being harassed in the street.

TIME Markets

This is Why Trees Come Down When the Gold Price Goes Up

141339701
Getty Images

A new study establishes a connection between demand for gold and deforestation

The steep rise in the price of gold is a factor in the heightened rate of deforestation in South America, a new study has found.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Puerto Rico, says small-scale miners now find it profitable to try and extract the metal from low-grade seams underneath the region’s rain forests.

With the price of gold rising five times between 2001 and 2013, satellite data shows an area of 1,680 sq km cleared across forests in Brazil, Peru and the Guianas. Much of this was in protected areas, the Guardian reports.

During the second half of the period, deforestation doubled in speed as financial crises around the world caused the price of gold to shoot up.

Agriculture and logging are responsible for clearing more forest, but, researchers say, miners are more harmful to the soil and to water sources because of their use of mercury, cyanide and arsenic.

TIME

The Most Powerful Protest Photos of 2014

There wasn't a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson to the student camps of Hong Kong

In 2011, TIME named the Protester as the Person of the Year, in recognition of the twin people-power earthquakes of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. TIME named the Ebola Fighters as the 2014 Person of the Year, but you could have forgiven if we went back to the Protester. There wasn’t a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to the squares of Mexico City, to the impromptu student camps of Hong Kong. Many of the protests were remarkably peaceful, like Occupy Hong Kong, which was galvanized by public anger over the overreaction of the city’s police. Others turned bloody, like the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, which eventually brought down the government of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in turn triggering a war that led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in May and the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians.

Not every protest was as effective as those that began the year in the cold of Kiev. Hong Kongers still don’t have full democratic rights, gay rights are on the retreat in much of east Africa and every day seems to bring news of another questionable police killing in the U.S. But the wave of social action that ended 2014 is unlikely to crest in 2015. The ubiquity of camera phones means no shortage of iconic photographs and videos from any protest, whether in Lima or Los Angeles, and social media gives everyone the means to broadcast. What follows are some of the most powerful images from the global streets in 2014.

TIME Peru

Peru to Charge Greenpeace Activists for Stunt at Ancient Nazca Drawings

Greenpeace activists stand next to massive letters delivering the message "Time for Change: The Future is Renewable," next to the hummingbird geoglyph in Nazca in Peru,, Dec. 8, 2014.
Rodrigo Abd—AP Greenpeace activists stand next to massive letters delivering the message "Time for Change: The Future is Renewable," next to the hummingbird geoglyph in Nazca in Peru,, Dec. 8, 2014.

Greenpeace activists allegedly left footprints near ancient Peruvian desert drawings

Peru is planning to criminally charge Greenpeace activists who are said to have damaged the world-renowned Nazca lines by leaving footprints in the desert nearby during a publicity stunt.

Peru’s culture ministry said that activists entered a “strictly prohibited” area beside the enormous figure of a hummingbird at the United Nations world heritage site in the country’s coastal desert, the Guardian reports. The Nazca figures, scratched on the surface of the ground between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago, depict creatures, plants and imaginary figures.

The Peruvian government says that it is trying to prevent the activists responsible from leaving the country while prosecutors file charges of attacking archaeological monuments.

“Peru has nothing against the message of Greenpeace. We are all concerned about climate change,” said Luis Jaime Castillo, the deputy culture minister. “But the means doesn’t justify the ends.”

A Greenpeace spokesman said that activists were “absolutely careful to protect the Nazca lines.”

[The Guardian]

TIME Photojournalism Links

Photojournalism Daily: Dec. 10, 2014

A compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Kirsten Luce‘s work on vigilante justice in Guerrero, Mexico. The southern Mexican state has been in the news recently after the disappearance of 43 students, who were allegedly rounded up by police and killed by drug gangs. Guerrero is a poor region with the highest homicide rate in Mexico. In the worst areas, civilians have banded together to create self-defense groups called “autodefensas” to protect their communities from cartel related violence. One of the driving forces behind the autodefensas is the perceived lack of help from local, state and federal authorities. While not recent, Luce’s photographs from Ayutla de los Libres offer a compelling look at citizens taking the law into their own hands.

Kirsten Luce: Vigilante Justice in the Heart of Southern Mexico’s Drug War (The Washington Post In Sight)

Meridith Kohut: Vegetable Spawns Larceny and Luxury in Peru (The New York Times) These photographs show how a Peruvian vegetable, maca, and its growing demand is creating havoc in the farming communities.

Peter van Agtmael: The Art of Partying: Art Basel in Miami (MSNBC) The Magnum photographer looks at the party-happy art crowd in Miami.

TIME’s Best Photojournalism of 2014 (TIME LightBox) Collection of great photojournalism that has appeared in print and online during the past 12 months, by photographers such as James Nachtwey, Lynsey Addario, Yuri Kozyrev and others.

Anastasia Taylor-Lind: Fighters and Mourners of the Ukrainian Revolution (TED) Powerful TED talk by the British-Swedish photographer on her portraits from the Maidan square in Kiev.

TIME Photojournalism Links

Photojournalism Daily: Dec. 4, 2014

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Associated Press photographer Rodrigo Abd’s work on illegal gold mining in Peru. The pictures are from La Pampa, located in the country’s Madre de Dios region, where mining has turned vast areas of untouched rainforest into a scarred, bare, and poisoned wasteland. The government is now trying to tackle the issue, but as Abd’s stunning monochrome panoramic photographs show us, even if they manage to curb illegal gold mining and halt deforestation, wounds inflicted on the land may never heal.

Rodrigo Abd: Peru’s Rainforest Turns to Wasteland From Illegal Gold Mining (NBC News)

Tim Matsui: Lisa: The Legacy of Human Trafficking (MSNBC) Incredibly intimate look at a young West Coast woman’s battle to leave a life of sex work and addiction. | Related feature film: The Long Night.

Souvid Datta: Documenting Drug Addiction in Kabul (TIME LightBox) A look at Afghanistan’s heroin epidemic through addicts and law-enforcement.

AP Photos of the Year 2014 (The Associated Press Images)

Photographing the Moments Between War and Peace (The New York Times Lens) Another look at James Hill’s new book, Somewhere Between War and Peace.

In other news, the 2015 World Photo Photo Contest is now open for entries.

Photojournalism Links is a compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen, Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.

TIME the backstory

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 28, 2014

Photojournalism Daily is a compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Jošt Franko‘s work on farmers in Gaza. Franko has been photographing a group of them in the Palestinian enclave since 2013. He returned this fall to gauge the toll of this past summer’s conflict. What he found is damaged homes, bulldozed farmlands and ruined olive trees. Franko’s pictures offer a compelling look at a community desperate to rebuild its livelihood in the wake of war.


Jošt Franko: Farmers in Gaza (The Washington Post In Sight)

Tanya Habjouqa: Occupied Pleasures (Slate Behold) Habjouqa’s World Press Photo Award winning series shows a side of Palestinian life that doesn’t usually make it into the news.

Rodrigo Abd: Peru Attacks Illegal Mining (The Associated Press Images) These photographs document the government’s battle against illegal mining in the country’s southeastern jungles, where 50,000 hectares of rainforest have been wiped-out in the last couple of years.

Bieke Depoorter: I Am About to Call It a Day (The New Yorker Photo Booth) Work from Depoorter’s road trip around the United States in 2010, has been collected into a new book called, I Am About to Call It a Day.

The Islamic State and Photography (Aperture Foundation Blog) Sam Powers considers the strategies and visual imagery of IS from a photographic standpoint.


Photojournalism Links is a compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen, Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.


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