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Jonathan Hill featured on BBC's "Science in Action"

Jonathan Hill with Amazon snakeSIU Anthropology Professor Jonathan Hill, in his capacity as president of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA), was recently interviewed by the BBC’s "Science in Action" about the Chinese project to build a transcontinental railroad across South America and its potential effects for Amazonian people.

Specifically, Hill warns of a “massively negative impact on the environment of these indigenous societies on the border between Peru and Brazil.” These societies, categorized in the broadcast as “uncontacted” groups, consist of completely isolated communities who sequester themselves from contact with any humans outside their own group. Citing the fallout after the rubber boom in South America, Hill says these peoples have compelling historical context for their decision to remain quarantined from outside civilization.

And yet, progress marches on – in this case, projectedly leaving a trail of railroad spikes and hazardous microorganisms in its wake. The Brazilian and Peruvian governments have differing policies on their countries’ treatment of uncontacted communities, but experts say the railway endeavor poses logistical issues and health risks for the indegenous groups, and will require collaboration among leaders. For example, the facilitation of an encounter with one of these groups requires a great deal of medical precaution because the uncontacted societies have not developed significant immune responses to globalized viruses like the common flu or cold.

Professor Hill also advises that agencies preparing to open a dialogue with these societies must take not only health precautions, but also maintain other ethical boundaries to safeguard against cultural threats. Reminiscent of the futuristic "Prime Directive" of Star Trek (preventing explorers from interfering with the evolution of remote alien civilizations), the Amazon railway project represents a very real and present-day global issue facing similar philosophical debates. Anthropological societies such as SALSA are lobbying to protect indigenous tribes like those in South America from being manipulated by outsiders with religious or social agendas.

Hill urges the governments of these countries to “implement policies that respect their right to remain self-isolated, but that also acknowledge their need to have specific medical and other interventions that protect them.”

Listen to the entire Science in Action podcast here.

Learn more about SALSA and its mission here.