Camisea River 2006Cabeceras Aid Project

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Cabeceras Aid Project's Philosophy, Goals, and Strategies:
Recently contacted and voluntarily isolated indigenous groups

The activities of Cabeceras Aid Project are inspired by a set of ideals that form a working philosophy. To translate this philosopy into reality in the context of our complicated present-day world, Cabeceras' board and fieldworkers together set goals for our organization's activities, which we seek to achieve through strategies sensitive to the details of the particular setting in which we are active.

Our philosophy: Self-determination is an important freedom for all peoples, whether the group is large or small. And cultural and linguistic diversity within the human species are inherently valuable, and should be protected and nurtured.

These two philosophical tenets guide the activities of Cabeceras Aid Project, and though they are brief, their implications are profound.

To act in accordance with these principles in the context of early contact situations involving Amazonian indigenous groups, and to foster respect for these principles in others who are involved in the same situation, is a complicated matter. The tensions between these two ideals; and the difficulties posed by the political, social, and economic contexts in which such contact takes place, have demanded of us careful consideration in formulating both the goals we seek to achieve and the strategies we pursue; the most important of these are described next.

Our first goal is to assure the physical survival of the indigenous groups with whom we work.

Small indigenous groups are at risk of physical extinction. Moreover, the areas in which uncontacted or minimally-contacted groups live are small, remote pockets, surrounded by vast areas in which heavy colonization and commercial activity, such as timber extraction, oil and gas production, and cattle farming, are steadily increasing. This means that occasions of direct contact between these small indigenous groups and other groups of people are inevitable. Whenever such contact occurs, the lack of resistance that small indigenous groups have to new diseases brought by contact with outsiders imperils the physical survival of the indigenous group.

For example, in the region of southeastern Peru where Cabeceras has worked since 1997, an indigenous group known as the Yabashta first made contact with the outside world in the early 1980s. Shortly after regular contact was established, respiratory diseases which are common in mainstream Peruvian society, but which were deadly to the Yabashta, spread rapidly through their group. Within a few short years, over half the group had died as a result of these diseases.

We advocate direct medical intervention in the case of health emergencies.

Therefore, Cabeceras employs a strategy of providing basic but essential medical care to the indigenous groups we work with. The simplest and most common of illnesses can quickly devastate a small population, and introduced diseases demand introduced remedies. Rehydration in cases of severe diarrhea, and the use of antibiotics in cases of pneumonia serve as two examples of simple yet life-saving interventions.

We implement health education strategies.

Indigenous groups in remote locations typically do not receive sufficient medical care from the outside world -- specifically, from the healthcare personell of the nations in which they live -- largely due to the challenges of transportation that are posed by the locations in which they live. Yet diseases arrive with visiting outsiders (often, woodcutters) and quickly spread throughout the village, often killing the youngest and the oldest. Therefore, we feel it is essential to introduce survival strategies to the indigenous people to combat introduced illnesses.

For example, as part of our 1997-1998 Montetoni Project, our fieldworkers worked to help the Nantis living Montetoni understand why they suffer these new illnesses and to learn new ways of responding to them. They also dug a latrine for the village, and explained its purpose and function to the Nantis, since intestinal illnesses are the most common killer in Montetoni. The Nantis now have an understanding that diarrhea is a cause as well as a symptom of disease -- and in fact, after our fieldworkers dug that first latrine, they dug seven more of their own! Similarly, central to our 1999 Montetoni Project was beginning to train two young Nanti men in the use of anti-malarial medicines, in order to prepare the community for outbreaks of this recently-introduced and devastating disease.

Our second goal is to work for the cultural survival of the indigenous groups with which we work.

In addition to diseases, outsiders often bring a cultural threat to isolated indigenous groups in an early contact situation. Whether the outsiders are from the capital city or from the nearest acculturated native village, they may hold prejudices about how others should behave or conduct their lives. Overt pressures to "become civilized"; to adopt the national language, and to participate in new commerce activities easily influence small, previously isolated groups, and all too quickly, a group can lose its unique language and traditions, as well as their traditional means of self-sufficiency. Natural change is always happening within cultures and languages; what we wish to combat is the sudden, devastating change that is often forced on smaller groups by larger, more powerful groups.

In order to address this phenomenon, Cabeceras employs a set of related strategies.

Cabeceras Aid Project's fieldwork team works to documents the language, culture, and history of indigenous groups.

We feel it is essential to record as much information as possible while working in the field, for two purposes. Firstly, we thereby create a record for the indigenous group to have and to use in their own future years. This will also aid the process of formal education when the group begins that process. Secondly, we wish to contribute this information to the wealth of knowledge that humans are gathering about ourselves and the world we live in. We use the written word, photographs, audio recordings,and video recordings to create a diverse set of documents.

The Cabeceras Aid Project fieldwork team learns the language of the indigenous people with whom we are working.

In order to work directly with an isolated indigenous group, we think it is essential to learn to speak their language. Not only does this make our work more effective, but it also demonstrates our respect for their culture in a palpable manner, and allows us to function as advocates through whom the indigenous group in question can voice their desires and opinions to the outside world.

Cabeceras Aid Project works directly with and in indigenous communities.

Our fieldworkers are committed to spending as much time as possible living and working in indigenous communities, dealing with the people as friends and allies. In order to do responsible and ethical research, we feel it is essential to understand the people as individuals as well as as an "ethnic group".

Since we believe that the indigenous groups we are working with have the right to articulate their own desires and needs, Cabeceras Aid Project does not work via intermediaries. Our experience suggests that intermediaries in early contact situations frequently put their own interests ahead of those of the indigenous group they pretend to represent.

Our experience also suggests that organizations who work with indigenous groups, but who do so with minimal contact with the group in question, often incorrectly assess the needs and desires of that group. We believe it is difficult to be helpful to an indigenous group without an intimate familiarity with their daily lives, desires, and culture.

Cabeceras Aid Project's fieldworkers act as advocates for indigenous people who otherwise have no voice in the modern world.

Clearly, a recently contacted indigenous group has no means by which to speak for itself effectively in the modern world. Unfortunately, all too often others will speak for the group in the forum of local and national politics without an understanding or even a respect for the desires of that group; and all too often important decisions are made as a result that impact the well-being of the group. Therefore, our fieldworkers are committed to learning and understanding the will of the indigenous group with which they are working, and then bearing that message to any outsiders for whom this information is relevant. For the Nanti of Montetoni, our advocacy work on both the local and national levels turned the tide for them in bringing them recognition as an independent ethnic group, and they now stand to maintain their previously-threatened autonomy as a community.

The strategies used by Cabeceras Aid Project in a given indigenous group are determined by the needs of the group as the group itself sees them.

We believe that a community knows what is best for its own well-being. Therefore, our activities in a community are shaped and guided by the interests and requests of our hosts. At times it can be very challenging to integrate our perspective as outsiders from the modern world with the values of a small and isolated community, but with patience and effective communication we feel that it is possible. Our goal is to exchange experience and knowledge with our hosts, and thereby find the most effective strategies to solve the problems of early contact.

Cabeceras Aid Project seeks to provide resources and knowledge to indigenous groups and thereby to minimize their dependence on the outside world.

Our interest in aiding indigenous groups keeps the long-term future in mind. While giving our immediate assistance may solve certain problems a group is facing (such as a health emergency), we aim to find the ways in which an isolated indigenous group will best be able to live in physical and cultural health for the longest time possible. We can not read the future. But we can hope to apply some of the knowledge humans have gained over the centuries to avert problems, even catastrophes, that have happened in our collective past.

Cabeceras' interests in health education, native language literacy and documentation projects, and political advocacy work all reflect our commitment to implementing long-term solutions to the challenges of early contact.


Camisea River 2006Last updated: 18 September 2010

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