There are seven countries in South America that still have indigenous people having had little to no contact with the outside world.

That statement floored me. I had believed that since the days of Livingstone there was no one anywhere that hadn’t been greatly impacted by the juggernaut of modern civilization. The further you dig into the story tho, the more interesting it becomes. There is actually a job in the world that involves making first contact with isolated tribes! The sertanista of Brazil are (or rather, were) trained in first-contact, the idea being to reduce the impact of modern civilization on them as well as the impact of loggers and miners who often enter these remote regions in force.

One of the more famous, who was fired last year after he criticized the head of the department, has been promoting a doctrine of non-interference with the tribes. It all sounds eerily familiar to Star Trek fans as the “Prime Directive”. He has noted, over more than 40 years that once these tribes come on the radar of the state, they fell prey to disease they had no acquired immunity to, relocation from dams, highways and cattle ranches. But this paled to what happens as their culture is absorbed by the state and their mythic universe is lost to them. He described poignantly how people who were proud, even aggressive would over the course of a year become slack, emaciated and begging for food.

Q&A With Iconoclast Who Makes First Contact With Amazonian Tribes: Scientific American

Prime Directive for the Last Americans

It’s an interesting approach, one that seems almost a no-brainer to anyone raised on the adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Draw a big circle on the map and don’t go there until you’re invited.

Of course that’s easier to do when there aren’t people lobbying for stuff inside the circle. For the longest time the Amazonian hinterlands provided protection enough, but there can’t be many blanks left on the map, contact is inevitable.

So is exposing a culture that is ignorant of our presence ‘right’? Morality issues aside how do you even prevent it when the state has little presence there?

About 359 years ago the idea of sovereignty within a nations borders was born. The Peace of Westphalia signed in 1648 introduced the concept of “territorial integrity”. So you aren’t allowed to invade, parcel up the spoils between your family and friends (or Catholic church, in the case of the 30 year war) and rename it as part of your own country.

Now it doesn’t take much of a history buff to realize how successful that particular doctrine has been over the last few hundred years. How do you ‘enforce’ it when state’s act like schoolyard bullies when given half a chance, usually rationalizing it as ‘national security’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘spreading the word’. For that matter, can you be a nation within a nation simply because they hadn’t found you yet? From our distant perch it seems like if you were there first you have ‘sovereignty’, but of course things work differently in the global schoolyard.

Without a higher authority to enforce such global rules, they inevitably fall to more local desires.