Press Release

IACHR Publishes Report: “Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact in the Americas”

July 29, 2014

Washington, D.C.- The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) today published the report “Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact in the Americas,” which addresses the situation of peoples who were not colonized and who do not have permanent relations with today’s predominant national societies. Many of these peoples have disappeared, and the few that survive are in a unique situation of vulnerability because they cannot advocate for their own rights. In addition, there is a high and continuously growing demand for the natural resources found in their territories, such as lumber, hydrocarbons, fossil fuels, minerals, and water resources. This demand generates incursions of non-indigenous persons into their territories that put their existence at risk. If we cannot ensure protection against these incursions, we face the risk of being witnesses to the complete disappearance of Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact in the Americas.

In the region it is known that there are indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation or initial contact in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. There are also indications of their presence in Guyana and Suriname, near these countries’ borders with Brazil. States in the region have recognized, in different terms and with different levels of protection, more than 9 million hectares in favor of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation or initial contact. Despite these legal protections, in practice the prohibitions on access to those areas are not always respected or enforced. This allows for direct and indirect contacts and leads to violations of these indigenous peoples’ rights to life and integrity, which in turn puts them at risk of disappearing completely. One of the reasons for protecting the rights of the indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation is cultural diversity: the loss of a culture is a loss to all humankind.

One of the fundamental premises of the report is respect for these indigenous peoples’ decision not to have contact and their choice to remain in isolation. The principle of no contact is the expression of the right of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation to self-determination. The different threats to the rights of peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact share a common cause: contact, whether direct or indirect, with persons who are foreign to their people. Direct physical assaults, incursions into their territories for the purpose of extracting natural resources, epidemics, food scarcity, and the loss of their culture all presuppose contact. If undesired contact is prevented, most of the threats are eliminated and respect for the rights of the peoples is guaranteed. Therefore, in the view of the Commission, it is fundamental that every effort be made to reinforce respect for the principle of no contact, and that contact should happen only at the initiative of the peoples in isolation.

The pressures that stem from the extraction of natural resources, aimed mostly at satisfying the demands of non-indigenous societies, represent one of the greatest threats to the full enjoyment of the human rights of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact. This is because most incursions into their territories take place in the context of extraction of natural resources. The extraction of lumber, minerals, hydrocarbons, and other natural resources pose a grave threat to the very survival of these indigenous peoples, who depend on the natural resources found on their lands and territories for their economic, spiritual, cultural, and physical well-being. In addition to direct incursions into their territories, activities carried out in nearby areas can also have a negative impact on the territorial integrity of these indigenous peoples. For example, activities that pollute rivers and other waterways may have a serious detrimental impact on their habitat, while exploration and seismic prospecting in nearby areas may drive away the fauna on which these peoples depend for their food and survival.

The report shows maps of oil blocks published by state agencies that indicate that some oil exploration and exploitation blocks overlap or are immediately adjacent to the protected areas for indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation. There are also incursions for mining activities by private actors operating without the State’s authorization, and in other cases there have been reports of cattle ranching and agroindustrial activities in their territories. Another source of direct pressure is the construction of highways, hydroelectric projects, and other infrastructure works. In addition, there are deliberate contacts, as in the case of religious missions (for example, the New Tribes Mission and the Summer Institute of Linguistics) that have sought to evangelize peoples in isolation, as well as different types of scientific projects. The report also points to the development of tourism, sometimes called “adventure” tourism or “ecotourism,” which leads to deliberate contact and promotes the presence of peoples in voluntary isolation or initial contact as a “tourist attraction.” Activities related to drug trafficking constitute another growing threat.

This wide range of activities resulting in direct or indirect contact increases the possibility of transmission of diseases for which these indigenous peoples have no immunological defenses, and is one of the most serious threats to their physical survival.

The Inter-American Commission is aware that many of the obstacles to the full enjoyment of the human rights of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact are the consequence of historical structural patterns, and it will not be easy for States to implement deep-rooted changes to revert them. The Commission considers that precisely due to the structural nature of the challenges, it is necessary to undertake immediate actions that contribute to protecting the rights of these peoples. Along these lines, the report includes recommendations for those States with a presence of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation or initial contact. These recommendations revolve around the recognition of the existence and the right to self-determination of these peoples, including their right to remain in voluntary isolation and/or initial contact; protection of their lands, territories, and natural resources, essential condition to preventing their disappearance; and the need for the State to ensure the respect for and guarantee of the principle of no contact by any person or group, among other recommendations.

The Commission expresses its willingness to work with the States, indigenous organizations, and other civil society actors in the implementation of the recommendations in this Report so that they may be effective.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this matter. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in a personal capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 79/14