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When Prior Consultation is Impossible: Peoples Living in Voluntary Isolation
by Marissa Vahlsing
Last week, here in Peru, all eyes were on the release of the Regulation for implementing the new Ley de Consulta (Law on Prior Consultation for Indigenous Peoples). Precisely because the new prior consultation law and its implementing regulation could present a potential vehicle for halting environmentally destructive and controversial megaprojects in areas that indigenous peoples call home, the law has generated much conversation and debate about when and how prior consultation should take place and who should be consulted. Yet, none of these debates has asked, nor answered, the question of what should happen when the very people who might be affected by a potential project have a right not to be contacted, thereby making prior consultation impossible.
Today, in the Peruvian Amazon, there are believed to be 14 different “pueblos” living in voluntary isolation or in a state of initial contact. As an expression of their autonomy and their history, these groups affirmatively choose to live in voluntary isolation, rejecting sustained contact with members of the national society in order to ensure their cultural continuity and survival. Indeed, the risk of massive health epidemics from contact alone presents a grave and formidable danger. There should be no question that these groups’ decision to remain in voluntary isolation should be respected. This is the case whether one is discussing the potential entry of an oil company into their territory or the seemingly benign endeavors of biologists, anthropologists or explorers who seek to contact or “modernize” these groups in the name of development or progress.
This is precisely the point that our colleague at Amazon Watch, Mitch Anderson, emphasizes in his analysis of a recently published review by John Terborgh in the New York Review of Books of Scott Wallace’s The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes. Mitch’s piece inspires a discussion and critical reflection on some complex philosophical issues that arise when discussing the fate of these groups, including the question of who is in a position to decide it, and why.
Just two months ago, in Feb of 2012, the United Nations for the first time took up the issue of what legal norms exist or should be developed to protect peoples living in voluntary isolation. This is a time of great opportunity and challenge, and ERI will be adding its voice to the debate as intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, scholars, and lawyers begin to weigh in on how to best achieve a legal framework that respects the choice of indigenous peoples to remain in voluntary isolation.
In doing so, we must keep in mind Mitch’s point that the questions we choose to pose are as critical as the answers we seek:
"These are some of the last tribes living in isolation on the planet. They have their own history, their own dreams, their own religion, their own language, and they have life — and a right to it — just like anyone else. And what will become of them? What will be 'our' role, if any, in determining that fate? . . . For now it is the only way for these tribes to continue living in their own territory and in their own way. And if one day these tribes decide, for whatever reason, to establish contact with the outside world, it will at least be their decision, done on their own terms."