By Jo Griffin
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Brazilian government has strongly criticized a call by two U.S. anthropologists to force contact with South America's most isolated tribes to ensure their survival.
In an open letter signed by 18 experts, Brazil's Department of Indigenous Affairs (FUNAI) on Thursday rejected Robert Walker and Kim Hills' suggestion that remaining hidden was "not viable in the long term" for the estimated 50 to 100 remaining tribes in Brazil who have had no contact with the outside world.
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The professors, from the University of Missouri and Arizona State University, argued in an article published last year in Science magazine that "controlled contact is the only possible strategy for protecting these people".
But FUNAI specialists said contact carries greater dangers including the loss of land and resources to violent outsiders, exposure to diseases such as measles and flu to which they have no immunity and the loss of autonomy and self determination.
"There is never absolute control in contact situations," according to the letter circulated to the media.
"It is worth remembering that the practices Brazil adopted during the intense economic expansion of the 1970s and 1980s resulted in widespread disintegration and population loss for indigenous peoples who, until then, had been uncontacted."
The letter from FUNAI, which has worked to study and protect uncontacted tribes since 1987, comes amid an international debate on how best to protect the rights of uncontacted peoples in the Amazon Basin.
FUNAI's work includes identifying and finding evidence of tribes' existence as well as analysis of satellite imagery and information to map out and protect lands inhabited by uncontacted communities.
"LEAVE THEM ALONE POLICY"
In an editorial in Science magazine in June last year, Hill and Walker wrote they disagreed with the "leave them alone policy", saying "controlled contact is better than no contact".
Acknowledging "poorly planned contact" with Amazonian tribes had led to deaths of vulnerable people in the past, they said governments should initiate contact after "conceiving a well-organized plan" otherwise "disastrous contacts" could happen.
The FUNAI experts said such a strategy did not respect uncontacted tribes' wish to be left alone and was a "violation of these people's rights to determine their own lives".
London-based human rights group Survival International said the article in Science magazine was "dangerous and misleading".
Sarah Shenker, Brazil campaigner for Survival, said the statement from FUNAI was significant because in the past the agency's own policy had been to contact uncontacted tribes before changing tack after this led to deaths in the 1980s.
"Their message is very credible. They are the ones on the ground seeing what goes on in places where there is contact," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
FUNAI said the growth in populations of uncontacted indigenous tribes in several areas of the Amazon over recent decades showed its policy of mapping and monitoring territories while respecting autonomy was the right way to protect them.
Survival International is pushing the Brazilian government to enforce constitutionally protected land rights before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer.
In April, the Brazilian Minister of Justice, Eugenio Aragao, created a permanent, protected territory for the uncontacted Kawahiva tribe in the Amazon after years of land raids by illegal loggers threatened them with extinction.
The Kawahiva tribe is thought to have halved to less than three dozen people over the past 30 years, Survival said.
(Reporting by Jo Griffin)