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Photos: Uncontacted Amazon tribes documented for first time in Colombia

Overflights of remote Colombian rainforest yield first photographic evidence of two uncontacted tribes.

Aerial surveys of a remote area of rainforest along the Colombia-Brazil border have produced the first photographic evidence of uncontacted tribes, according to a conservation group that works to safeguard indigenous territories and culture.

The photos, released by the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) in conjunction with the Colombian National Park Service, show five long houses or malokas thought to belong to two indigenous groups, the Yuri or Carabayo and Passé, some of the last isolated tribes in the Colombian Amazon. The images provide confirmation that uncontacted communities still exist within the Rio Puré National Park, which protects a million hectares (2.47 million acres) of mostly pristine rainforest between the Caquetá and Putumayo River basins along the Brazilian border.

“Although the Park’s objective is to provide shelter for this indigenous group, anthropological data was needed to inform the formulation of official governmental legislation and policies to safeguard both the integrity of the region and the survival of this group,” said Liliana Madrigal, co-founder of ACT, speaking to on the sidelines of the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford late last month.

Photo by Cristóbal von Rothkirch, courtesy of Colombian National Parks Unit and Amazon Conservation Team.

The aerial reconnaissance was done in partnership with the Colombian National Park Service after analysis of vegetation data from satellite imagery. The research was led by ACT political scientist Roberto Franco, who says uncontacted members of a third tribe — the Jumana — also likely live in the park.

The findings are significant because isolated and uncontacted indigenous people in the Colombian are afforded the right to isolation, the right to their traditional territories, and reparations in case of violence under legal decree #4633 signed by Colombian President Santos in December 2011. That measure specifically protects such groups — which may be voluntarily isolated — from unwanted contact:

Photo by Cristóbal von Rothkirch, courtesy of Colombian National Parks Unit and Amazon Conservation Team.

The decree was passed following guidelines developed by a committee that involved the Colombian National Park Service, the Ministry of the Interior and Justice, the Ministry of Culture, the Instituto Colombia de Antropología e Historia, ACT, Conservation International, and the Fundacion Gaia Amazonas.

Now that isolated tribes have been identified in the park, the authorities working with ACT and others will attempt to define their territories in order to develop zoning and management plans that will protect them from encroachment and land invasions. The park lies in an area that is vulnerable to illegal logging, mining, and drug trafficking. Any contact from outsiders —whether traffickers, loggers, miners, farmers, or tourists — could put isolated rainforest people at great risk due from disease.

“The risk arising from incursions into their territories is contact that transmits diseases to which isolated people have no resistance,” Roberto Franco told via email. “The second risk is violence against isolated tribe members.”

First contact can decimate isolated communities. For example, after initial contact in 2003, more than half the Nukak Maku tribe — who live in the Colombian department of Guaviare — died from disease. A handful of Nukak Maku family groups may remain uncontacted.

Franco says the size of the uncontacted Yuri and Passé communities is unknown, but could be on the order of 300-500 people.

“If there are 4 groups in the area this would be roughly 1200 and 2000 people,” he wrote.

The history of the Yuri tribe is explored in Cariba malo, a book published this year by the Colombian National University, the Colombian National Park Service and ACT-Colombia. The book details “episodes of contact and resistance” over a 400-year period, including the retreat of communities into voluntary isolation following bloody conflict with rubber tappers and slavers.

While risks remain for these isolated groups, Colombia’s constitution — thanks to hard-fought political battles waged by indigenous leaders and their advocates like Martín von Hildebrand of Fundacion Gaia Amazonas — grants an unusually high degree of protection to native communities. Communities today can establish their local governance systems, which enables them to manage their own education and health programs.

ACT’s Franco says that more work needs to be done to ensure that the uncontacted groups’ rights are respected and their needs met should any communities decide to end their isolation.

“There needs to be a contingency plan with the Ministry of Health and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History in case they are contacted or themselves seek contact.”

Carolina Gil, program director for ACT-Colombia, echoes this view.

“It is necessary to simultaneously strengthen the rights of these peoples in their decision to remain isolated and draw the attention of the competent institutions to take necessary measures for their protection, which also benefits the conservation of strategic ecosystems.”

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