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Indigenous Networks and Evangelical Frontiers: Problems with Ethics and Problems with Governance in Cases of ‘First Contacts’ in Contemporary Amazonia

Read the news lately? In the past few years, accounts of  ‘first contacts’ in Brazil and Peru have widely circulated in the international press, often illustrated by photographs depicting noble yet fierce savages emerging from the deep recesses of the Amazon rainforest. As is often the case, extractive industries had been encroaching on the territory of some populations living in voluntary isolation, gradually driving large-scale migration processes into Brazil.

A vulnerable minority crosses an international border, undocumented and in need of protection. And a media frenzy follows. Sounds familiar?

Accounts and reports of ‘first contacts’ are not new, tragic stories such as the ones recently reported in the international press are a regular occurrence in South America. Specific national governmental bodies such as the General Coordination of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians (CGIIRC-FUNAI) in Brazil work precisely on monitoring, demarcating and protecting territories where populations in voluntary isolation live.

What do these accounts tell us about our fascination for exotic others supposedly living in a state of nature, outside time and modernity? What are the cultural implications of the policies in place in the region, and those drafted by non-native scientific experts? Who needs protection and from what?

For the past 13 years, I have worked with indigenous populations who live in a particularly remote part of northern Amazonia, and are neighbours to ‘isolated peoples’, with whom they have regular interaction. I have recently given a paper (co-written with Marc Brightman-UCL) at Manchester University’s Anthropology Department entitled:

‘Indigenous Networks and Evangelical Frontiers: Problems with Governance and Problems with Ethics in Cases of ‘Voluntary Isolation’ in Contemporary Amazonia’

Marc Brightman and I wrote this piece together, which will be published later this year. I have pasted below the abstract:

‘The periodic emergences of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in Amazonia have given rise to sensational media reports and heated academic debate. In this paper we describe briefly the historical and contemporary relations between indigenous peoples in and out of isolation in the Guiana Shield region of Northeastern South America, and discuss the role of indigenous missionaries. After considering these facts in relation to some of the general debates about isolated peoples and policy, we assess the ethical dimensions of the question of emergence from isolation.’

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