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When Peru's Isolated Indigenous Emerge From Deepest Amazon Jungle

Isolated Indians in the Amazon jungle
Isolated Indians in the Amazon jungle
Chrystelle Barbier

LIMA — Why are more and more Mashco-Piro native Indians who have always lived in deep isolation in the Amazon jungle being spotted around inhabited areas? This question is worrying Peru as never-before-seen photographs of the tribe emerged in August.

“We usually get a glimpse of them once a year, but their appearances have been more frequent this year,” says Arsenio Calle, director of the Alto Purus National Park, one of the nomadic people’s sanctuaries. Little is known about them, except that they survive by gathering, hunting and fishing. It’s impossible to say how many there are – at least several hundred, according to experts.

Like the Mashco-Piro, 13 other populations have been living cut off from the rest of the world in the Peruvian jungle since the early 20th century. “At the time of the rubber boom, men behaved badly toward the indigenous people,” says Isrrail Aquise from the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP). “Many died and some left the forest.”

To protect them, Peru has set up five specific territories in the heart of the jungle, on almost 5.5 million acres, where “no one is allowed to enter,” says Patricia Balbuena, a Peruvian deputy minister for intercultural affairs.

Any contact with outside people could be fatal to the Mashco-Piro. “They have been isolated for generations. They haven’t developed the same immune defense systems as we have,” Balbuena explains.

Bananas, ropes and machetes

But in June, they left their territory and were filmed by members of the Madre de Dios Indigenous Federation in southeast Peru. The footage was just released in August. “We feared that this film would attract too many curious people, researchers or journalists ... which would have increased pressure on these people,” says Klaus Quicque, head of the indigenous federation.

The video shows dozens of men, women and children, mostly naked, with long dark hair, waiting on a riverbank. “They arrived in the Monte Salvado community and asked for bananas, ropes and machetes,” Quicque adds.

The Mashco-Piro, who were armed with wooden arrows and spears, appeared for three days before vanishing. For AIDESEP, the video is “proof that people living in voluntary isolation do exist,” a reality that former Peruvian President Alan Garcia had publicly doubted. “This footage is a red flag. If they are coming out, it means something is wrong,” Balbuena admits.

For indigenous organizations and government representatives, timber trafficking remains the main cause of the Indians fleeing their territory. “Many forest concessions employ people to harvest wood illegally,” Isrrail Aquise says. Experts also condemn drug traffickers who would have turned this part of the Amazon into a transit area to transport their merchandise out of Peru, the world’s largest cocaine exporter. These “external agents” allegedly scare the Indians and the animals they eat.

Several religious orders also weaken the tribe. “There are evangelical missions looking to contact these Indians because they consider them savages,” Aquise says.

But Aidesep is mostly opposed to the exploitation of gas resources in the reserves. “Helicopters and employees of the Argentinian company Pluspetrol are putting pressure on the isolated people and their natural resources,” Aquise claims, convinced that the government favors private investments to the detriment of indigenous people.

“According to the law, if a natural resource is of national concern and was conceded before the founding of the reserve, it can be exploited,” says the deputy minister, assuring that the government will make sure that isolated Indians will not be affected.

Klaus Quicque says the territory is so big that the government’s control won’t be effective. He adds that his federation is not fighting to keep the isolated Indians far away from the world, but for “their choice to be respected.”

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