Background briefing

A Dangerous Controversy

Uncontacted tribes thrive when their lands are protected. They frequently indicate – by pointing arrows up at passing planes, leaving crossed spears in the forest, and more – that they do not want contact.

But some academics are calling for outsiders to enter uncontacted tribes’ forests and force contact upon them.

This dangerous controversy has sparked global outrage.

The academics’ argument

US academics Professors Robert S. Walker and Kim R. Hill published a dangerous and misleading editorial in Science magazine in 2015. They claimed that uncontacted people should be contacted for their own benefit, ignoring centuries of experience of the devastation forced contact inflicts. Disease and violence have wiped out whole tribes soon after first contact, and reduced others to just a few survivors.

The academics state that “a well-designed contact can be quite safe,” but the examples of contact they choose to illustrate their point were in fact catastrophic, and left many of the tribespeople dead.

Hill and Walker allege that a 'well-designed' contact can be safe. But soon after first contact, Jakarewyj Awá (left), fell critically ill in spite of the staffed medical post nearby.
Hill and Walker allege that a 'well-designed' contact can be safe. But soon after first contact, Jakarewyj Awá (left), fell critically ill in spite of the staffed medical post nearby.
© Survival International 2015

Forced contact missions were official policy in Brazil for decades but led to the decimation of countless tribes. It was this devastation that led Brazil’s indigenous affairs department FUNAI to adopt, in the late 1980s, its policy of protecting uncontacted tribes’ land rather than forcing contact upon them.

Professors Hill and Walker also argue that the existence of isolated peoples is "not viable in the long term.” But, in fact, there are more than one hundred uncontacted tribes around the world, and where their lands are protected, they are thriving.

Hill and Walker, and any other proponents of forced contact, play straight into the hands of those who want to steal tribal land in the name of “progress” and “civilization,” and open Amazonia up for resource extraction and “investment.”

Indigenous people and experts respond

Indigenous peoples and experts around the world, including Brazil’s indigenous affairs department, FUNAI, have attacked the academics’ ideas as being “arrogant," “dangerous," and “genocidal.”

Olímpio Guajajara, of the contacted Guajajara people, said “We are aware that some anthropologists have been calling for ‘controlled contact’ with the uncontacted Indians… We will not allow this to happen because it will be another genocide of a people… of an indigenous group which doesn’t want contact.”

Survival opposes attempts by outsiders to contact uncontacted tribes. It’s always fatal and initiating contact must be their choice alone. Those who enter uncontacted tribes’ territories deny them that choice.

The way forward

The key to stopping the annihilation of tribal peoples is protecting their land rights – which are enshrined in national and international law. All uncontacted tribal peoples face catastrophe unless their lands are protected.

Survival is doing everything we can to secure their land for them, and to give them the chance to determine their own futures.

Sign the global declaration for uncontacted tribes