Uncontacted peoples: A legal failure

Author: Ross Booth
LLB student, University of KwaZulu-Natal

In the age of antiquity, brilliant minds spoke of lost cities and forbidden regions that lay beyond the edges of the known world. Plato famously wrote of Atlantis – a hyper-advanced civilisation that fell from favour with the Gods and was submerged beneath the sea as a consequence. As the world developed, however, and explorers chartered the unchartered, humans realised that these myths were exactly that – myths. But global expansion revealed other mysteries, and while the ideas of golden cities and sunken empires have faded into fable, lost and isolated tribal groups have certainly existed – and still do to this day.

It is roughly estimated that some 100 tribes still operate in varied isolation worldwide, with the bulk situated in different parts of South America. Having largely resisted outside contact (or contact with neighbouring tribes), these indigenous groups have earned the name “uncontacted peoples” – a term that has sparked interest among tourists and missionaries alike. Acting from curiosity or personal intent, many outsiders have sought to intrude upon isolated communities – with differing outcomes. In some instances, tribal groups have welcomed strangers and allowed them to view and even participate in cultural activities. The Jawara tribe on the Andaman Islands of India, has been known to allow tourists and researchers onto their reservation without trouble – even occasionally sending their children to settlements beyond the reserve to be educated. Other tribes, however, are known to respond to outsiders with aggression and violence. The inhabitants of North Sentinel Island are notable for ferociously resisting outside contact, with two fishermen and an American missionary, John Allen Chau, dying as a consequence of trespassing onto the island.

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