The Lost Tribes of the Amazon

Often described as “uncontacted,” isolated groups living deep in the South American forest resist the ways of the modern world—at least for now

The writer ventured into the deep jungles of Colombia. (Dominic Bracco II / Prime)
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Other Amazon nations, too, have taken measures to protect their indigenous peoples. Peru’s Manú National Park contains some of the greatest biodiversity of any nature reserve in the world; permanent human habitation is restricted to several tribes. Colombia has turned almost 82 million acres of Amazon jungle, nearly half its Amazon region, into 14.8 million acres of national parks, where all development is prohibited, and resguardos, 66.7 million acres of private reserves owned by indigenous peoples. In 2011 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed legislation that guaranteed “the rights of uncontacted indigenous remain in that condition and live freely according to their cultures on their ancestral lands.”

The reality, however, has fallen short of the promises. Conservation groups have criticized Peru for winking at “ecotourism” companies that take visitors to gape at isolated Indians. Last year, timber companies working illegally inside Manú National Park drove a group of isolated Mashco-Piro Indians from their forest sanctuary.

Colombia, beset by cocaine traffickers and the hemisphere’s longest Marxist-Leninist insurgency, hasn’t always succeeded in policing its rainforests effectively either. Several groups of Indians have been forcibly assimilated and dispersed in recent years.

Today, however, Colombia continues to move into the vanguard of protecting indigenous peoples and their land. In December, the government announced a bold new plan to double the size of remote Chiribiquete Park, currently 3.2 million acres in southern Colombia; the biodiversity sanctuary is home to two isolated tribes.

Franco believes that governments must increase efforts to preserve indigenous cultures. “The Indians represent a special culture, and resistance to the world,” argues the historian, who has spent three decades researching isolated tribes in Colombia. Martínez says that the Indians have a unique view of the cosmos, stressing “the unity of human beings with nature, the interconnectedness of all things.” It is a philosophy that makes them natural environmentalists, since damage to the forest or to members of one tribe, the Indians believe, can reverberate across society and history with lasting consequences. “They are protecting the jungle by chasing off gold miners and whoever else goes in there,” Franco says. He adds: “We must respect their decision not to be our friends—even to hate us.”


Especially since the alternatives to isolation are often so bleak. This became clear to me one June morning, when I traveled up the Amazon River from the Colombian border town of Leticia. I climbed into a motorboat at the ramshackle harbor of this lively port city, founded by Peru in 1867 and ceded to Colombia following a border war in 1922. Joining me were Franco, Daniel Matapi—an activist from Colombia’s Matapi and Yukuna tribes—and Mark Plotkin, director of the Amazon Conservation Team, the Virginia-based nonprofit that sponsored Franco’s overflight. We chugged down a muddy channel and emerged into the mile-wide river. The sun beat down ferociously as we passed thick jungle hugging both banks. Pink dolphins followed in our wake, leaping from the water in perfect arcs.

After two hours, we docked at a pier at the Maloca Barú, a traditional longhouse belonging to the 30,000-strong Ticuna tribe, whose acculturation into the modern world has been fraught with difficulties. A dozen tourists sat on benches, while three elderly Indian women in traditional costume put on a desultory dance. “You have to sell yourself, make an exhibition of yourself. It’s not good,” Matapi muttered. Ticuna vendors beckoned us to tables covered with necklaces and other trinkets. In the 1960s, Colombia began luring the Ticuna from the jungle with schools and health clinics thrown up along the Amazon. But the population proved too large to sustain its subsistence agriculture-based economy, and “it was inevitable that they turned to tourism,” Franco said.

Not all Ticunas have embraced this way of life. In the nearby riverside settlement of Nazareth, the Ticuna voted in 2011 to ban tourism. Leaders cited the garbage left behind, the indignity of having cameras shoved in their faces, the prying questions of outsiders into the most secret aspects of Indian culture and heritage, and the uneven distribution of profits. “What we earn here is very little,” one Ticuna leader in Nazareth told the Agence France-Presse. “Tourists come here, they buy a few things, a few artisanal goods, and they go. It is the travel agencies that make the good money.” Foreigners can visit Nazareth on an invitation-only basis; guards armed with sticks chase away everyone else.



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