Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Isolated People

Sometimes, the feeling of total solitude may suddenly hit me even though I am surrounded by people I know. It is an unexplainable feeling which is usually transient.

I try to imagine living a life which is isolated from modern civilization over a prolonged period. It must be hard.

I cringe at the thought that I have to stay away from mobile phone, Internet, television and MP3 player. That sounds bad enough. If books, newspapers and the like are also taken away, what would I do?

That sounds like a severe punishment to me until I read about the 'uncontacted people'.

Heard of them? These are not missing people whose photos are pasted all over town. Rather, they are people who live in isolated jungles in places such as Amazon, New Guinea and Peru, and they do not have significant contact with modern civilization.

No one knows for sure how many such people there are in the world. It is believed that there are over one hundred such tribes who choose to reject contact with the outside world.

Many of them are living on the run, fleeing invasions of their land by loggers, oil crews and cattle ranchers. They have often seen their friends and families die in the hands of outsiders in unreported massacres.

Being isolated, they are also very vulnerable to diseases as they lack immunity to common diseases. Intruders who try to make contact with them inevitably carry with them minor diseases, like common cold, which can be fatal enough to wipe out a big part of the community.

More than half of the uncontacted tribes live in remote reaches of the Amazon rainforest. The Brazilian government have had knowledge of these isolated tribes in the Amazon jungle for many decades but did not make the information public until May this year and aerial photos taken were published. There has been increased pressure from advocates for improved awareness of the danger that these isolated groups are facing.

Some of these groups are truly uncontacted, having no direct knowledge of the outside world. Other groups are actively choosing to live in isolation. They know the outside world exists but and they want nothing to do with it.

These people have the ability to hunt, fish and are fairly self sufficient. In fact, they are the descendants of the survivors of the rubber boom at the end of the 19th Century which, wiping out 90% of the Indian population through a wave of horrific brutality.

In one infamous incident in 1960s, the head of a rubber company had found the Indians to be in the way of his commercial activities and planned a massacre. He hired a plane to hurl explosive into the village and sent killers on foot to finish off the survivors.

He justified his horrific acts and said that "these Indians are parasites, they are shameful. It's time to finish them off, it's time to eliminate these pests. Let's liquidate these vagabonds." Later during the trial, he added that "it's good to kill Indians - they are lazy and treacherous."

It is totally disturbing to see such lack of appreciation for human life.

Many years on, the situation is not getting much better. Today, rights groups are pushing for a movement to set aside lands where the isolated peoples are believed to exist, protecting them from the intrusion of developers looking to reap riches from the natural resources of the Amazon.

At the moment, it seems that the Brazilian government is committed to extend some protection. Time will tell if they will remain strong to resist pressure to open up the reserved lands for commercial reasons.

Back to the world I am familiar with... there is so much to do here that I have no time to live a solitary life. Time to move on.

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