LIMA—Development projects in the Amazon Basin—including dams, roads, and oil and gas operations—are encroaching on forests that are the last refuges of thousands of indigenous people who continue to shun contact with the outside world, according to a study that estimates the tribes’ locations.
Antenor Vaz, formerly of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) in Brasília, the Brazilian government’s indigenous affairs agency, combed a wide range of records to map confirmed or reported locations of isolated groups in seven South American countries—Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. Then he laid that map over maps of oil and gas leases, mining claims, deforestation, and hydroelectric dams planned or under construction. Although most sightings of isolated people are inside parks or territories set aside to protect them, the maps show how these areas are increasingly hemmed in by large projects. Vaz, former assistant director of FUNAI’s office for people in isolation or initial contact, presented the maps at a conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America held here last month.
Vaz says his maps should serve as a warning. “This [rush of] development is the greatest risk factor for isolated indigenous peoples and those in recent contact,” he says. Isolated people, who live seminomadic, traditional lives in the forest, lack immunity to common diseases and are at risk when they make contact with outsiders.
Vaz notes that his maps do not include roads, which are a major threat because they tend to catalyze logging, deforestation, settlement, and further forest fragmentation. In southeastern Peru, for instance, unauthorized…