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The Isolated People are the Amazon’s Essential Climate Warriors

They help protect the rainforest and its biodiversity

Poneh, a member of the Akuriyo community, carving a traditional stone axe. (Photo Courtesy of ACT)

The Amazon’s isolated people, sometimes captured in photographs as an airplane swoops overhead, inspire profound fascination.

“People are entranced by these Indigenous groups. It’s hard to believe that in this day, they are roaming the forest without an iPhone,” said Mark Plotkin, a world-renowned ethnobiologist, author, expert on rainforest ecosystems, and former fellow at The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center who also has a podcast on hallucinogenic plants with healing potential.

But merely romanticizing their existence risks overlooking their critical role as custodians of biodiversity and guardians against the encroaching tide of climate change in the Amazon rainforest.

Plotkin and his wife and fellow conservationist Liliana Madrigal co-founded the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) in 1996.

The nonprofit, whose efforts are partly supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, partners closely with Indigenous communities in South America to help them decide how to protect their traditional cultures and ancestral rainforests, as well as their sisters and brothers in nearby “uncontacted” communities.

“We know the uncontacted communities have the right to be left alone if they chose,” Plotkin said.

Supporting the chosen isolation of those Indigenous who deliberately shun contact with outsiders is important for a myriad of reasons ranging from basic human rights to preservation of cultural and linguistic diversity.

Shielding them also has the added benefit of protecting the globe itself, Plotkin noted.

“I have repeatedly observed that the Amazon’s Indigenous people know, use, and protect rainforests far better than Western scientists or park guards imported from urban centers,” Plotkin wrote in a recent article, “The Ethnobotany of the Uncontacted Tribes of the Amazon: How We Know What We Do Not Know.”

Poneh, a former member of the uncontacted Akuriyo community, carving a traditional Akihito stone axe. (Photo Courtesy of ACT)
Poneh, a member of the Akuriyo community, carving a traditional stone axe. (Photo Courtesy of ACT)
  • An aerial photograph of the maloca, or home, of isolated peoples in the Colombian Amazon (Photo Courtesy of ACT)
    An aerial photograph of the maloca, or home, of isolated peoples in the Colombian Amazon. (Photo Courtesy of ACT)

Bellagio Played a Turbo-Charging Role

Plotkin credits his 2014 Bellagio fellowship with “turbo-charging my ability to develop ACT’s support program for the isolated people.” He focused on recording the biography of a recently contacted Amazonian group. This indirectly helped spur a partnership with the Colombian government that led to approved legislation to better protect the Indigenous and rainforests.

“At Bellagio, I saw a group of talented, dedicated activists whose noses were always pressed to the windshield, and who finally had time to kick back, take a broader view, and achieve goals that probably would never be attained without the ‘Bellagio break,’” Plotkin said.

Mark Plotkin in Brazil with Chief Atamai of the Waura Peoples. (Photo Courtesy of Mark Plotkin)

That break can be critically important, agreed Sarah Geisenheimer, Vice President, Convenings and Networks, The Rockefeller Foundation. “The world’s leading creators and innovators benefit from the time and space to think in new ways and make connections that help them achieve transformational change,” she said. “The Bellagio Center is one way The Rockefeller Foundation invests in leaders.”

Soon after the fellowship concluded, Plotkin gave a TED Talk titled What the People of the Amazon Know That You Don’t. It has drawn well over 1 million viewers, and he said he worked on it partly while at Bellagio.

“The greatest and most endangered species in the Amazon rainforest is not the jaguar; it’s not the harpy eagle. It’s the isolated and uncontacted tribes,” he said during that talk.

How to Help Protect a People Without Ever Seeing Them

There are about 185 Amazon-based communities of Pueblos indígenas en Aislamiento, (PIA), or Indigenous People in Isolation, according to the International Working Group of Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact (GTI-PAICI). ACT works alongside this group and others to strengthen local Indigenous governments in their efforts to protect PIA communities.

But how do you protect a people without ever seeing or speaking to them?

  • Men of Manacaro help patrol the river to protect the isolated tribes from intrusions in exchange for fishing and hunting rights in established areas. (
    Manacaro community members patrol the river in Colombia to protect the isolated peoples in exchange for fishing and hunting rights in established areas. (Photo Courtesy of ACT)

“Neighboring Indigenous communities can sometimes act as an effective go-between,” Plotkin said, noting that ACT eschews making contact. “Building guard posts at entry points like river mouths, for example, can help keep intruders out.”

“In our experience, nearby Indigenous groups have a strong sense of the importance of keeping the outside world – fundamentalist missionaries, narcotraffickers, timber poachers, illegal miners – away from these isolated peoples. And they well understand that protecting these people and their rainforests keeps the rivers clean and the climate stable.”

Plotkin is quick to point out this is a collective effort. Daniel Aristizabal, ACT’s coordinator of this effort in Colombia, works hand-in-hand with his team, Indigenous organizations, national parks, and local and national governments.

“We have found that the most useful role we can play is to advise, train, and empower these colleagues to better deal with the outside world on their terms, never trying to tell them what to do,” Plotkin said.

“The Amazon is a complicated place. There is no cookie-cutter approach.”

  • A cabin in the Colombian Amazon maintained by the National Park team and members of the Indigenous community of Manacaro to deter unauthorized people from entering the nature reserve. (Photo Courtesy of ACT)
    A cabin in the Colombian Amazon maintained by the National Park team and the Indigenous community of Manacaro to deter intruders from entering the nature reserve. (Photo Courtesy of ACT)

Meeting Poneh

The isolated communities are well aware of the outside world, but reject contact because of historic violence against Indigenous and fatal diseases against which they have no immunity, Plotkin said.

He recalled a 1982 meeting with Poneh, a member of the Akuriyo community who has since become a good friend. Poneh described how missionaries reached his once-uncontacted people in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. “Within two years, 40 percent of the tribe was dead due to introduced diseases and culture shock,” Plotkin said.

Mark Plotkin with Poneh, a member of the Akuriyo community. (Photo Courtesy of Mark Plotkin)

“When I was a teenager rocking out to the Rolling Stones in my hometown of New Orleans, Poneh was a forest nomad roaming the jungles of the northeast Amazon, looking for game, looking for medicinal plants,” Plotkin said during his TED Talk. “It’s people like these who know things we don’t, and they have lots of lessons to teach us.”

“As far as we know, these isolated groups have no written language,” Plotkin said. “They do have vast and detailed knowledge of the ecology, soil types, and medicinal values of plants and fungal species. If their culture or ecosystems are destroyed, they pay the ultimate price. But from an ethical, ecological, and even utilitarian perspective, we pay a price as well.”

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