Why the world needs to leave ‘uncontacted tribes’ alone
From the rural villages in northern Thailand to the bustling hub that is New York, the freezing corners of Greenland to the beautiful riverside towns of Congo, we are all in some way connected, regardless of how far we are from one another. Yet, there are thousands of people living so far removed from our society, that don't have the slightest care in the world for who we are or what goes on on our side of the world. These groups make up the few isolated communities that remain detached from mainstream society.
What are isolated communities?
Isolated communities, commonly known as uncontacted tribes or peoples, are more than just people living in quiet, relatively unbothered parts of the world. These tribes are undocumented, stateless and have often never seen another human outside of their tribe.
The United Nations and human rights organisation, Survival International, have estimated that there are between 100 - 200 uncontacted tribes. This amounts to roughly 10,000 people. Estimations are as far as anyone can get and even then these estimations are not fully accurate. The large majority of these communities live in South America, but other communities can also be found in Asia.
What have we learned from encounters with these communities?
One might want to meet and get to know these people. After all, tribes that are completely secluded from mainstream society would be fascinating. However, in all the encounters made with these communities, one clear fact has been confirmed again and again. These tribes are more than aware of our existence and they know of the modernisation and technological advancements made in our society (to an extent). It is definitely not due to ignorance that they have not made contact with us. They simply don’t care to.
Only a handful of people have ever seen an uncontacted person. Unfortunately, they were often met with hostility. In 2017, John Allen Chau embarked on a mission to convert the Sentinelese people to Christianity. The Sentinelese are an isolated community living on the Northern Sentinel Islands in the Indian Ocean. Chau was met with hostility by the islanders several times, but was not deterred. His final trip to the island proved fatal after the islanders killed him and buried him on the beach. Chau kept a diary of his encounters with the Sentinelese. Some of his entries read:
“Why did a little kid have to shoot me today?...His high-pitched voice still lingers in my head.”
“I think it's worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed...Don't retrieve my body."
"I’m scared…Watching the sunset and it's beautiful. Crying a bit… wondering if it will be the last sunset I see."
None of the islanders were ever charged with murder and Chau’s body was sadly never retrieved despite several attempts made by the Indian authorities. The Sentinelese, much like other uncontacted tribes, are protected by governments for several reasons.
Why are these communities protected?
Firstly, these communities have never been citizens of any nation. They exist outside our civilisation and because of that, we cannot hold them accountable to any of our laws. They do not have to be a part of our society, if they choose not to. These communities have existed for thousands of years. The Sentinelese are thought to have lived for around 55,000 years without any contact, making them one of the most isolated communities in the world. They adhere to their own rules and standards. When people like Chau travel to see these people, they are not only breaking the law, but they are violating their rights as humans.
Secondly, these communities have had little or no contact with us and our world and therefore have developed no immunity to many of the diseases we may carry. If any contact is made between us and them, there is an extremely high risk of infection and potentially, mass death across their community. Whole tribes have been wiped out due to one single interaction between one member of the community and one outsider. In Colombia, the Nukak tribe came into contact with settlers through an agreement to trade. As a result, they faced an outbreak of respiratory infections. Almost half of the tribe was wiped out. Incidents like this have forced governments to be stricter on contact made with indigenous communities as the consequences can be terrible, as we have seen.
Finally, the land in which these communities live is constantly under threat from poachers and deforestation. This is especially true in the Amazon forest, where many tribes live. These areas are their home, and whilst they remain there, they cannot and should not be invaded.
It is likely that past encounters with the outside world has shaped why these communities refuse to engage with us. This is not to say that some tribes do not make contact, or show a willingness to engage with other communities. Luckily, many countries do what they can to protect these communities. It is illegal to approach or make contact with isolated communities, no matter the reason. Any surveillance is now performed by equipment designed to remain far away from the people and their land.
The amazing thing about uncontacted tribes is their obvious apathy towards our societies. We may believe - with all of our technology and development - that our way of living is enviable, but in fact, it isn’t such a luxury after all. That much is clear when you consider there are isolated communities that are content with their own lifestyle and happy to steer well clear of us. It is their right to self-determination, therefore we should leave these communities well alone, to thrive, grow and live in peace.
Abrehet is our Arts & Culture Editor and has a BA in Theatre & Arabic from the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in theatre directing and screenwriting, and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @abi_semra.