Jhonattan Andres Perea squints through the blinding Amazonian sunlight into a wall of jungle. He steers the tiny motor powering his wood longboat through a tributary of Colombia’s mighty Caquetá River and putters up to a muddy bank. Hopping onto a barely discernible path, the twentysomething member of the Carijona tribe beckons five others, including me, to follow. Then he disappears into the green, amid a cacophony of unseen birds, monkeys and insects. The vegetation is so dense and the dark, musty path so twisting that for a few moments, it seems to those of us behind Perea that the jungle has swallowed our young guide whole. Until we emerge from the trees a few minutes later to find him standing before a shimmering salt lake. Perea is gazing intently into the distance. “This is as far as we are allowed to go,” he says. “There’s a swampland beyond this. According to legend, that swampland divides us physically and spiritually.” Then he points solemnly across the lake. “That way,” he says. Somewhere out there. “That is where they are.”
“They” are the mysterious tribespeople who reside as close as six miles from the invisible boundary that marks the beginning of their territory here in the Curare–Los Ingleses Indigenous Reserve in southeastern Colombia. Unlike the Carijona and the other tribes that live on the periphery of this territory, which extends into the neighboring Río Puré National Natural Park and other areas, this enigmatic group has had virtually no exposure to modern civilization. Indeed, it has actively sought to avoid any contact with the outside world. Its members survive much as they have for millennia, naked in the jungle, hunting with poison-tipped arrows and blow darts, using stone axes to fell trees and bamboo knives to cut their food.
Some of Perea’s tribe call these men and women “our brothers living in a natural state.” Other locals call them the “Tiger People.” (There are no tigers in South America, but the word tigre is sometimes used to refer to local jaguars.) It is a nickname passed down through the generations from a time before the missionaries, the rubber barons and all the trappings of the modern Western world reached this remote area. The legends tell of a clan of fierce warriors who painted stripes on their bodies, pierced their noses and ate their enemies before fleeing down a Caquetá tributary called the Bernardo River into the wilderness around the 19th century to escape the white man. The Carijona and the 14 other tribes that inhabit the lands that border the territory of the uncontacted group regard their isolated neighbors with a mixture of awe and fear; they envy the purity of the tribe’s culture and believe its shamans to be so close to nature that they can control the elements.
Nobody knows how many of these secluded people now reside in this jungle sanctuary—estimates range from 50 to 500. But encroachment by outsiders would threaten their way of life—in fact, their very existence. Perea and his peers are working to prevent intrusion. I have come to Curare to see how they are helping their uncontacted neighbors maintain their solitude in an increasingly connected world.
Anthropologists, activists and government officials have long debated how best to protect such uncontacted tribes in the Amazon and elsewhere. Because they have been living in isolation, they have little or no immunity to diseases common among denizens of the industrial world. Encounters with outsiders—all of whom carry potentially deadly pathogens—could thus wipe out these communities. Many experts contend that keeping visitors away is the only way to safeguard them from disease. Perhaps more important, many of these tribes are aware of a larger world and have chosen to remain isolated. “No contact,” in this view, is thus a matter of human rights. Others counter that contact is inevitable and that preparing the tribes for that eventuality is the most prudent course of action. The march of modernity stops for no one. And without regular contact, it is impossible to protect the tribes from armed, evil actors who covet virgin timber, gold and other natural resources often hidden in their lands.
In 2012 Perea’s tribe and the other communities of Curare, along with groups in other nearby areas, launched an aggressive effort to patrol the borders and protect the lands of their uncontacted counterparts from incursions of loggers, hunters, gold miners, missionaries, smugglers, drug dealers and communist insurgents. Recently their mission has taken on added urgency. For decades Colombia’s civil war stalled development in the Amazon, and the presence of insurgent camps, right-wing paramilitaries and drug labs hidden within its jungles rendered them too dangerous to many of the forces most likely to try and exploit them. In November 2016, however, the government and the insurgents signed a peace accord. Stability could bring economic boom times—and, many fear, the kinds of development pressures that have jeopardized efforts to protect isolated tribes in neighboring countries. The peace accords have also spawned an array of more immediate perils in the form of new splinter groups and hard-line rebel holdovers that are looking to set up novel routes through the vast unexplored interior and fund their efforts with clandestine drug facilities and illegal mining.
Now the race is on to implement a nationwide policy hammered out among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Colombia’s indigenous leaders and its Ministry of Interior and signed by the nation’s outgoing president Juan Manuel Santos and his cabinet ministers last summer. The new protocols guarantee the rights of isolated peoples to self-determination and spell out the procedures for defending these rights for new groups identified across the country. Although the Tiger People are the only uncontacted tribe whose presence has so far been confirmed, evidence suggests that as many as 17 other tribes may be living in isolation elsewhere in the Colombian Amazon.
As international NGOs gather the proof they need to demonstrate the presence of new tribes deserving of federal protection, the efforts of Perea and others in Curare are serving as an important model that is showing doubters that such security is even possible.
The NGO Survival International estimates there are more than 100 uncontacted tribes around the world, groups it defines as “tribal peoples who have no peaceful contact with anyone in the mainstream or dominant society.” In Colombia, as in the rest of the Amazon, most live in isolation by choice. Many originally fled the colonists of the 18th to early 20th centuries, rubber barons who brutalized and enslaved indigenous workers and missionaries who attempted to “civilize” and convert natives by forbidding the practice of long-held traditions.
More recent “first contacts” have proved catastrophic in other ways. The most common contacts in recent decades have occurred across Colombia’s border in Brazil, home to the largest tracts of virgin rain forest. Throughout the 20th century, the Brazilian government sought to open up the region, sending a core of explorers into the wilderness to establish small airstrip outposts in the jungle and later cutting new roads, allowing civilization to creep ever deeper into the interior. To contact the tribes living there, first the nation’s Indian Protection Service and later the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) sent scouts known as sertanistas ahead of the explorers, with the mission of luring natives out and assimilating them into society.
Those initial encounters provided a catalog of the devastation that would later be visited on other native peoples across the rest of the Amazon. Lacking immunity to many modern diseases, many villages have lost 50 to 90 percent of their populations in the wake of contact. The survivors have often ended up in squalid jungle settlements or on the streets, alienated from traditions and community, living as alcoholics or prostitutes and losing any semblance of self-sufficiency.
In the early 1960s a pair of famed sertanistas, the brothers Cláudio and Orlando Villas-Bôas, succeeded in leading efforts to create a vast reserve, known as the Xingu National Park, the first in a mosaic of closed sanctuaries where indigenous peoples could, in theory, live unmolested. Xingu would become a model for other such indigenous reserves across the Amazon, including Curare. Even so, in the years that followed, first contacts often continued to prove calamitous, with disease devastating tribes even before relocation could be considered. Colombia saw its own share of tragic tales, perhaps most famously that of the Nukak-Maku, a hunter-gatherer tribe that was ravaged by disease after official contact was established in 1988 and is fighting extinction today.
In Brazil, by the 1980s, the ill effects of contact had come to seem so inevitable that some sertanistas, led by a dynamic Villas-Bôas protégé named Sydney Possuelo, had begun to equate contact with genocide and to advocate for a radical strategy. In 1988 Possuelo won support for a new “no contact” approach: mapping indigenous lands and keeping out loggers, miners and other interlopers—and thus, many believe, saving countless lives. Brazil’s no-contact policy has since remained the standard for how to approach indigenous rights in nations across the region, favored by indigenous groups and NGOs alike. It was used as a model by Peru and officially incorporated into its national policy in 2006.
Even so, ever since, the hands-off approach has been under virtually constant attack from would-be colonists and powerful mining, ranching and timber interests, who have long sought access to protected lands—sometimes with success. In 2006 Possuelo was fired from his post after criticizing the head of FUNAI for stating publicly that native peoples had too much land.
More recently, some anthropologists have begun to suggest that the no-contact policy is ill conceived in the face of ruthless groups that operate outside of the law in the jungle. In a controversial editorial published in 2015 in Science, Robert S. Walker of the University of Missouri and Kim R. Hill of Arizona State University argued that miners, loggers and hunters routinely penetrate into protected territories, exposing the tribespeople there to deadly pathogens and committing atrocities with virtual impunity. The safest, most humane approach to safeguarding isolated tribes, in their view, was “controlled contact.”
Hill says the essay was the culmination of decades of work in the field and repeated encounters with tribes that spoke of starvation, brutality and an unsettled life on the run. He spoke out, he says, because these stories long ago burst his early idealism, and he is convinced that the epidemiological challenges can be managed with better planning. “All of the isolated tribes in the world are pretty much under the control of pathetically inept and corrupt Third World governments that are doing a piss-poor job of protecting them,” he explains. “So that protection is really an illusion. By keeping the tribes away from transparent information collecting, we have no idea what’s really happening to them. And I think all kinds of horrific things are happening and stay hidden, specifically because we can’t talk to them and ask them what’s going on.”
Despite Hill’s stated intentions, the Science editorial sparked widespread outrage from indigenous-rights groups, NGOs and others, prompting angry letters—even death threats. (Walker declined to comment for this article, saying he no longer speaks publicly about the issue.)
“Even if you could [make] safe, controlled contact, which I don’t think you can, what then happens?” demands Fiona Watson, director of advocacy and research for Survival International, the organization that has been perhaps the most vocal critic of Hill’s and Walker’s argument. “When you look at cases where tribes have been contacted recently, it’s not making their life any better. In fact, you could argue it’s making it worse. Now they are surrounded; their lands are being invaded; they’re much more exposed to disease.”
Many of Hill’s colleagues, meanwhile, remain torn. Stephen Beckerman, a cultural anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University, notes that “everyone can agree that the most important thing is to keep them alive.” But he says no existing approach is ideal. “Every cell in my body emotionally screams, ‘Leave them the hell alone!’” says Beckerman, whose fieldwork focuses on the Barí tribe of Venezuela and Colombia and the Waorani of Ecuador. “And every day of experience I have had in the tropical forest working there, reading about it, talking to other people who have worked there, says, ‘That’s not going to happen.’”
For a first-time visitor, the trip to Curare can seem like a journey to the end of the earth. To get there, I caught a plane to Bogotá, where I met Daniel Aristizabal, a skinny thirtysomething Colombian with a dark ponytail, a worn, white T-shirt and faded cargo pants. Aristizabal works for the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), an American NGO. Together we flew to Leticia in Colombia’s extreme south, then boarded a beat-up World War II–era cargo plane bound for the remote frontier town of La Pedrera, a dusty outpost deep in the Amazon built around an airstrip. Cruising at 15,000 feet and surrounded by pallets of eggs, powdered milk and sacks of flour, I gazed through a small window. Below, hundreds of miles of thick primary jungle unfolded, broken only by the many long, powerful tributaries of the Amazon River curling through the green in an endless succession of brown S curves. I did not see a single settlement the entire 200-mile trip. In La Pedrera we stepped onto a rickety, wood longboat and headed upriver. Five hours later—four full days after setting out from New York City—I finally arrived at my destination.
The people here live in jungle settlements along the river with no running water or electricity aside from a few rarely used generators. They obtain most of their food through hunting, fishing and the cultivation of traditional crops. There are no roads, just jungle paths and dugout canoes. La Pedrera is the nearest town, with a hotel and restaurant. The tribespeople like to say they are poor in money and material possessions but rich in land and natural resources.
Yet as remote as Curare is, life here in the borderland is nonetheless shot through with elements of modernity. Many of the children attend a boarding school across the river from La Pedrera that was run by Catholic priests until last year, when the government took it over. Tribespeople regularly travel to La Pedrera for modern health care and to more distant cities such as Leticia and even Bogotá when they have a serious illness or a broken bone. Many wear modern clothing and use machetes, flashlights and steel pots purchased in towns such as La Pedrera and have been exposed to television. It is a testament to the determination of the uncontacted tribespeople and their self-appointed guardians that these influences have not reached the interior.
The indigenous people in Curare and Río Puré have known for generations of the presence of their mysterious brethren in the interior, believed by scholars to be members of two related tribes called the Yuri and Passé. But it was the arrival of a Colombian environmentalist named Roberto Franco and ACT in the early 2000s that would thrust them into the center of Colombia’s dialogue over how to defend its most isolated peoples.
Franco, the author of numerous books on the history of the Amazon, was for years one of the leading Colombian proponents of the idea that the best way to protect the rain forests was to uphold the land rights of the nation’s indigenous tribes, whose cultures were based on living in harmony with their surroundings. He had also worked as an anthropological consultant to government agencies, had seen the ravages of first contact firsthand and had come to believe that “self-isolation” was a human-rights issue. Intent on finding a way to shield the nation’s most vulnerable groups, Franco began collecting scraps of information about isolated peoples during his expeditions through the Amazon in the 1980s. He scoured the historical literature for clues, pored over maps and conducted interviews—even meeting with former rebel commanders and drug traffickers who had come across uncontacted tribespeople in their travels through the bush.
To win official government protection, however, Franco needed concrete proof of the existence of these tribes. In 2007 ACT agreed to support his efforts to get it. By then Franco had already decided that Curare and Río Puré were the most promising places to start. In the late 1960s a rubber tapper and fur trader named Julian Gil came across a well-worn path deep in the jungle, far from any settlement, and followed it to a vast longhouse, or maloca, where he discovered scores of tribesmen in the middle of a celebration. They wore nothing but tiny pouches covering their privates and sticks as thick as pencils through piercings in their ears and noses. They had painted their bodies in stripes. But the tribe wanted nothing to do with the visitors, and the meeting turned violent, resulting in the disappearance of Gil and the deaths of a number of tribesmen. The Colombian military took several tribe members prisoner, prompting a worldwide outcry. The military subsequently freed the prisoners and vowed to leave the tribe in peace.
These people are believed to have been members of the Yuri and Passé tribes, groups that began fleeing white slavers hundreds of years ago, settled in the area and were thought to have gone extinct. But in 2010 Franco and a small crew flew over the most likely habitation zones in Curare and Río Puré in a single-engine Cessna. On the first day they spotted a longhouse surrounded by fruit trees—and snapped photographs of an indigenous tribeswoman, her face and body painted, who could clearly be seen gazing up at the plane. The footage, along with the identification of four other malocas, was enough to get the government and the nation’s indigenous groups to agree to begin the process of hammering out protections for the nation’s isolated peoples.
In 2014 Franco was flying home from another community farther north when his aircraft went down, killing all 10 people onboard—including Daniel Matapí, another ACT staff member. It was a devastating blow for ACT and for Aristizabal, then a young Ministry of Interior official, whose graduate thesis focused on preserving the privacy of isolated tribes. Aristizabal had been closely collaborating with Franco to develop new laws to that end. After Franco’s untimely death, Aristizabal agreed to join ACT and continue his legacy.
A central tenet of that legacy has been partnering with the indigenous groups in Curare to support their protection efforts. While I was in Curare, the communities were holding their annual meeting to review those efforts and plan for the year ahead. Aristizabal and I made our way to an enormous maloca with a 30-foot-high thatched-palm roof to join them.
Once inside, Aristizabal and I were greeted like old friends. In the center of the structure, eight male community elders dressed in soccer shirts and T-shirts were clustered together on their ritual wood benches. As they chatted and laughed, they passed around tall, cylindrical Tupperware containers of mambe, a mixture of coca leaves and ash, copious amounts of which they shoveled into the space between their lips and gums with metal spoons. Around them, children chased one another, tripping and laughing, as their parents watched from long planks arrayed between the pillars holding up the structure. Others reclined in hammocks slung to the far walls.
Over the next three nights, various tribal figures would step across the hard-packed earth to the front of the maloca to deliver reports on a wide range of activities, conducted over the previous year, aimed at securing the reserve and its inhabitants. The proceedings were unhurried and deliberate, offering ample opportunity to reflect on the challenges facing both the uncontacted peoples and their guardians.
Some participants spoke about preserving the cultural traditions of the tribes that do have contact with the world beyond. One young tribesman described his efforts to make story books for the smallest children detailing the traditional legends that would help explain the importance of the protection of sacred places and the reserve management plan. “As you know, the stories of the elders are very, very long. For example, the origins of animals and the origin of crops,” he noted. “So we listened to all the stories, and part of the challenge was to summarize them.” The report was followed by a chorus of low, deep-throated mm-hmms from the elders and the rest of the maloca, a traditional way of showing their appreciation or support for a point.
Other speakers raised the issue of sustainability of the reserve’s flora and fauna. When a tribal elder reported on the results of an investigation into the illegal killing of a pregnant tapir in an area where the tribe had restricted hunting, an angry debate broke out over how large a fine or how much volunteer work to impose on the guilty parties as a penalty.
Eventually the topic turned to the battle to keep interlopers out of the reserve. Even without development, the threats to the location and the isolated tribespeople that live there are many. In 2015, before the peace accords, Colombian authorities intercepted two American evangelical missionaries south of Río Puré who were attempting to contact and convert the isolated tribes to Christianity, seemingly indifferent to the danger that contact might pose to their targets—and to themselves.
From the east, illegal gold-mining barges, crossing in from Brazil, are a constant concern. Drug traffickers and bandits, meanwhile, have made intermittent appearances in some areas of Curare itself—and some fear their presence might actually increase as the insurgent demobilization progresses. In 2016 members of a dissident faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), unhappy with the peace accords, entered the reserve. Toting their weapons and slogans, they convinced the teenage son of a Curare community elder to run away with them.
To monitor these threats and help respond to them, ACT staffers supplement the tribal on-the-ground patrols with modern technology. From offices in Bogotá and Virginia, ACT staffers comb through reams of satellite imagery, searching for signs of illegal barges and deforestation while looking for isolated tribal dwellings. (The images are provided free of charge by U.S. commercial satellite provider DigitalGlobe, and the quality and resolution improve by the year: it is now at 30 centimeters, clear enough to examine a banana leaf from space.)
ACT staffers also confer regularly with partners in the National Natural Parks of Colombia, take reports from neighbors who border the indigenous lands and, when necessary, call on allies in the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of National Defense to act as their muscle. It was the Ministry of Interior that issued a formal warning to the American missionaries, who were deterred the following year. Previously, the Colombian military conducted flyovers at the border to scare away would-be prospectors in Brazil. And in 2017 the military bombed a pair of illegal mining barges to the north, after ACT notified them of the presence upriver.
But the heart of protection plans remains the efforts of the indigenous communities themselves to police their lands, provide eyes on the ground and, when possible, shield their vulnerable neighbors from outsiders. In 2012 the communities incorporated the untouchable zone into a detailed reserve management plan and established two ACT-funded “control posts”—three others are run by the National Natural Parks of Colombia and are placed at strategically located bends in the river on the border of the protected territories. The locals and the park rangers are not armed during these patrols. Instead they rely on human connection, politely explaining the protected zone, refusing bribes and then retreating if they sense any danger. Often this simple approach is enough. For now, there are plenty of other places to mine and fish. But the danger of violence is always a concern.
The recent missionary incursion is an indication of a key liability. With limited funding, the guards are stretched thin, leaving parts of the borderland vulnerable to penetration by stealthy interlopers. At the meeting tribesmen complained that the loss of support from another NGO had forced them to reduce the number of guards at the post.
Perhaps the most vulnerable control post is in on the southern end of the isolated peoples’ territories, just across the border from Brazil, where illegal gold-mining barges proliferate. The post, known as Puerto Franco, is so remote, the situation so dangerous, that guards are required to make radio contact several times a day and are taught to use code words to convey if they are in trouble. In case of an attack from gold miners, ACT has built an emergency shelter with supplies and a spare radio in a secret location nearby.
For the tribespeople themselves, an essential element is the involvement of their shamans, their spiritual guides and the keepers of traditional tribal knowledge. Sitting on a bench in the longhouse one afternoon during my visit, local shaman Moises Nilmore Yakuna, age 55, removed a small pouch from around his neck. He shook out a fine, black powder into his palm and explained how he uses the powerful snuff, made from tobacco and other ingredients from the jungle, to “open up” his mind and reach the tribespeople using his thoughts. By performing traditional rituals, including dances, he and the other tribal shamans have built a protective wall with the spirits to keep miners, loggers and drug traffickers out of the forbidden territories. “Through our spiritual work with our thoughts, we give them space, so they can live in peace,” he told me.
It is a job that is so important the locals have brought in outside help. They did so in 2016, a few months after Franco’s death, when a guard at one of the control posts mysteriously fell ill and died. That incident, along with a series of unexplained thunderstorms on otherwise sunny days, prompted the elders to send for a shaman from a community three days upriver in a neighboring national park.
The shaman, Alfonso Matapí, age 78, says that when he arrived, he quickly realized that the locals were out of sync with the natural elements of the jungle and had angered the far more powerful medicine men of the Tiger People. Franco’s plane, he opines, “came down not because of a malfunction but because the tribes didn’t want the flights. There were many flights. And they made his plane crash.” (The others onboard were innocent victims.) The guard perished because he entered forbidden lands near the sacred salt lake; the animals that rely on the lake fought back. “The thunder, wind and rain were [a message from the Tiger People] saying, ‘Leave us alone,’” Matapí explains. “So I try to send them thoughts saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to leave you alone. Don’t worry, we’re not going to bother you.’”
It is possible, of course, that the isolated tribes will initiate contact with their neighbors in the borderland. To help prepare the residents of Curare for such an event, ACT and community members have consulted with groups and individuals who have experience with uncontacted tribes. Among them is Luis Felipe Torres, an anthropologist, who led a Ministry of Culture team in Peru from 2012 to 2017 that oversaw a high-profile case of contact.
In recent years different bands consisting of several members of the Mashco Piro tribe began to emerge with increasing frequency from the jungles in the Madre de Dios region of southern Peru and attempt to trade with the locals. Their contacts have continued intermittently ever since. Though mostly peaceful, misunderstandings have resulted in the deaths of at least two villagers in 2011 and 2015—they were both shot with arrows—which prompted the government to send in Torres and his team to manage the situation.
Often, Torres notes, the emerging isolated peoples are eager to exchange goods and food and may misinterpret the efforts of the locals to shield them from potentially contaminated items as a hostile gesture. That is likely what led to the two deaths in Peru. Torres has helped Aristizabal arrange mutual visits between those living in Madre de Dios and the locals in Curare so that the Colombians can learn from their counterparts.
Colombia’s new policy on isolated tribes assigns responsibilities to a wide array of government agencies once the presence of a previously unknown isolated tribe is suspected. And it increases the land rights and protections conferred on isolated tribes as confirmation of their existence moves from suspected to confirmed. The document also requires contingency planning in case of first contact and creates a national committee for coordination that would include indigenous leaders and representatives from the national land agency treasury, ministries of environment, health and interior, and armed services, among others.
For his part, Aristizabal is under no illusions as to the size of the challenges that he faces. If anyone needed a reminder, certain events of late have provided plenty. Recently a dissident FARC faction was back in the area. One group found the wife of a prominent local leader and village elder whom I met during my visit and threatened to kill him and his family if he did not stop speaking out about indigenous land rights. Yet Aristizabal remains firm in his belief that shielding isolated tribes from contact is the best thing to do. “Of course, it is very difficult to protect someone from contact forever,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t respect their desire to avoid contact. Why should we make the decision for them?”
In recent months ACT has continued to try to gather the proof it needs to expand its efforts to other tribes. Not long ago it had a potential breakthrough in the region up the Caquetá where Franco perished. For five years ACT members had been combing through high-resolution photographs, searching for evidence of the isolated, indigenous community believed to live in Chiribiquete National Park. One day in January 2017 Brian Hettler, a staffer at ACT’s Virginia office, received some of the clearest photographs he had ever seen of the area, which was often obscured by clouds.
That day, the ubiquitous clouds had miraculously lifted, revealing tabletop mountains studded with emerald green triple-canopy jungle and rugged cliffs that are home to some of the greatest concentrations of pre-Columbian cave paintings in the world. It did not take long for Hettler to spot a patch of white in the impenetrable wall of green and, within it, what appeared to be the telltale faded-brown color of a man-made dried-thatch roof.
Hettler believes he has found evidence of another isolated settlement. ACT is already at work with the other indigenous tribes that live in the area to develop protection plans. Now that the Colombian government has embraced the ACT vision, if the presence of the tribe is further confirmed, perhaps it will be possible to help that tribe continue living in its present state. Perhaps there, too, for a time the relentless tide of modernity can be held at bay.