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Isolated Indigenous Peoples

Who are the isolated indigenous peoples?

There are around 100 different indigenous peoples, which presently live in voluntary isolation or have only sporadic contact with surrounding communities. They inhabit the most inaccessible parts of the Amazon rainforest and the Chaco forest in Paraguay.

The majority of these indigenous peoples live in the Amazon region of Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. Most of them live in the border area between Brazil and Peru and in the adjoining territory between Brazil and Bolivia. There are also isolated indigenous peoples in Ecuador and Colombia and one single people, the Ayoreo, living in Paraguay. In Venezuela there are groups with sporadic contact to the surrounding society.


Each one of the peoples has its own unique language, customs and culture. They are nomads and live by hunting, fishing and gathering. Some of the groups also plant crops around their temporary settlements. Turtle, anteaters, fish and honey are valuable contributions to the menu.

Stay away

Along with illegal logging, the activities of gold-, gas- and oil companies are pushing the isolated peoples away from their territories, thus forcing them to flee further into the forest.

The isolated peoples do not want contact with national society. When the companies invade their territories they flee or try to protect their land with bow and arrow. The indigenous peoples living in isolation have given clear signs to those accessing their areas that they want to live in their territories without interference.

In recent years, it has become a lot easier to access the isolated peoples’ territories because of deforestation and the construction of hydroelectric plants and roads through their territories. This makes the isolated peoples very vulnerable.

Exploitation of natural resources

The isolated peoples’ survival is seriously threatened by the increasing numbers of extractive industries encroaching on their territories.

Some of the world's most promising oil and gas deposits lie deep in tropical rainforests, which is where these isolated peoples live. Extraction of natural resources is followed by clearings of forests, excavations, explosions and constructions of helicopter landing sites, pipelines and oil fields.

Inevitably, the Amazon is damaged and polluted by the extraction of natural resources. The extraction of oil is responsible for the deforestation, degradation, and destruction of land. Mercury from the extraction of gold is washed into the tributaries of the Amazon River thereby contaminating one of the world’s largest freshwater supplies.

So, the oil and gold companies are not only making big money. They are also clearing the forest and destroying the wildlife in the Amazon.

When the industries have taken what they want of the oil, gas, wood and gold the indigenous peoples are left with the contamination and the environmental damages of their land and of the wildlife they are dependent on for subsistence.

Building of roads

Infrastructure expansion is also a threat to these peoples’ existence. A highway from Brazil to Peru is now being built right through the isolated peoples' territories. Expansion of roads through the Amazon is making their territories more accessible to financial interests and illegal settlements. The isolated peoples are forced to flee further into the forest to survive.

Green energy for the Western world

Ironically, the Amazon rainforest is sacrificed to produce green energy to the Western World. Great parts of the Amazon rainforest are being cleared and converted into massive fields for production of palm oil and soybeans to fuel cars and power stations especially in Europe and in North America.

Moreover the building of hydroelectric dams leads to loss of rainforest. Great parts of forest are being inundated. Wildlife is killed and the dams destroy the aquatic habitats and affects fish populations. Thereby displacing the isolated indigenous peoples off their lands and damaging their environment.

Dangerous epidemics

Contact with people from the surrounding environment is fatal for the isolated indigenous peoples. Their immune system is not developed to fight common diseases such as colds, flues, measles and diarrhea. It is evident that those diseases have killed indigenous peoples in great numbers upon first contact. They usually evolve into epidemics which within months or years reduces the population number of an indigenous people to only a fraction.

Therefore, it is crucial for the protection of the isolated indigenous peoples that health issues are taken into serious account before any contact is attempted.

Traumatic Experiences

Many of the isolated indigenous peoples or their ancestors have fled traumatic experiences. Their encounters with the colonizers, settlers and missionaries have been devastating in the past.

If the indigenous peoples were not massacred by the invaders, they were nearly eradicated by epidemics of diseases from the encounters with people from outside. Destructive experiences cause them to protect themselves and their culture.

Unwanted contact

Every day unwanted contact is established with the indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation. Missionaries still want to create contact to convert them. Eco-tourists travel far into the rainforest to experience some of the Earth’s last pristine peoples. What is an adventure for the tourists, causes death among the Indian families.

IWGIA work to protect isolated indigenous peoples

IWGIA works to protect the isolated indigenous peoples’ human rights both on national and international levels in corporation with local indigenous organizations.

On a national level, IWGIA supports and cooperates with local indigenous NGOs and publishes reports and books about isolated peoples based on fieldwork by local anthropologists. Only by documenting their existense it is posible to pressure governments to take preventive measures when planning development. The goal is for governments to title land on behalf of the isolated peoples and protect it from intrusion an resource extraction.

IWGIA has recently published seven human rights reports about isolated peoples; one for each of the countries where they live. The reports document the existence of the isolated peoples, assess the risks facing them, and give concrete recommendations to governments regarding their protection and the promotion of their human rights.

International conferences

On an international level, IWGIA arranges conferences about isolated indigenous peoples. The first was held in Bolivia in 2006. The participants were the governments of the seven countries where the isolated peoples live, different UN organisations and agenceis, local indigenous organizations and experts. The result was a statement on how to protect isolated peoples in Latin America.

Subsequently, IWGIA has arranged a conference in 2007 in Ecuador about health, and a conference in Bolivia in 2010 discussing guidelines for protection of the isolated peoples.

Since 2010, IWGIA has supported the case for indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington. The first hearing was held on March 25th 2011.