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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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