On July 17, 2018, the Colombian government approved a landmark national public policy for the protection of isolated indigenous groups. The policy was developed in a collaboration led by the Colombian Ministry of the Interior with the participation of governmental entities and local and regional indigenous organizations, supported by technical and legal assistance from the nonprofit Amazon Conservation Team (ACT).
The new policy states that the decision of these groups to remain in isolation must be respected and that their territories be protected. It develops a national protection system, unique in that it incorporates both indigenous stakeholders and government institutions in establishing the mechanisms that will ensure that the territories of isolated indigenous groups remain free from incursions.
This groundbreaking national public policy was the first in the Amazon region directly led by the grassroots efforts of neighboring indigenous communities and indigenous organizations undergoing a process of free prior informed consent according to international regulations, thus resulting in an unprecedented integration of traditional spiritual worldviews in modern environmental protection strategies. This example is a testament to the power of establishing effective dialogue between governments and indigenous communities as a strategy to ensure the protection of unique cultures and invaluable ecosystems of the Amazon rainforest.
The protection of indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation is one of the most urgent human rights and environmental issues of the early 21st century. These communities have chosen to avoid contact and are the last populations on earth that have resisted colonization and can survive independently using forest resources alone. Respecting their right to self-determination helps preserve a vital part of humankind’s cultural diversity and heritage. Furthermore, these groups reside in the most remote corners of the Amazon, making the protection of their territories essential for the preservation of intact forests that maintain enormous levels of biodiversity and mitigate climate change.
Unfortunately, threats to this isolated way of life are closing in on all sides, with illegal loggers, drug smugglers, itinerant gold miners, large infrastructure development projects, and oil companies encircling the last isolated indigenous communities. For these isolated groups, contact with the outside world represents a threat to their survival and the integrity of their culture and rainforests. Even minimal contact with the outside world can have deadly consequences, as their limited immunity to outside illnesses means that a common cold can decimate entire communities in a matter of days. The former United Nations Special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples referred to these groups as “the most vulnerable on earth” and “in grave danger of disappearance.”
The Colombian Amazon encompasses great biological, ecological, and cultural diversity, including isolated indigenous communities. In 2010, joint research by the Colombian National Parks Service and ACT confirmed the presence of two isolated indigenous groups in the Colombian Amazon. Further research has shown the potential for the existence of as many as 16 more groups in Colombia. Ongoing studies carried out by ACT and the Ministry of the Interior seek to confirm the presence of additional isolated groups subject to protection through the proposed policy.
With the support and participation of ACT, an alliance consisting of neighboring indigenous communities, indigenous associations, civil society organizations, the Ministry of the Interior and the National Parks Service has formed to protect these groups through the implementation of monitoring and control strategies to prevent unwanted access in their territories. Meanwhile, environmental education and cultural recuperation programs have fostered improved understanding of the need to protect these vulnerable communities while also establishing contingency plans in the event of future contact.
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