Who are the Mashco-Piro tribe and can they still hope to stay 'uncontacted'?

| 1st February 2012

The isolated Mashco-Piro in south-east Peru (images by D.Cortijo/ www.uncontactedtribes.org)

Politicians deny the existence of isolated tribes like the Mashco-Piro as oil, gas and logging exploration increasingly encroaches on their forest territory
These communities are trying to remain apart from the outside world

Photos of indigenous people in Peru's Amazon who have no regular contact with outsiders were made public yesterday by Survival International.

They are the most intimate photos of Peru's isolated groups ever publicised, clearly showing a man, two women and children by the side of a river. They live in the Manu region in south-east Peru and are known by anthropologists and locals as the 'Mashco-Piro', although that is not the name they call themselves.

Survival researcher Rebecca Spooner said they released the photos, taken in mid-November last year, to 'highlight the ever growing danger for uncontacted tribes' from logging and oil and gas exploration.

'The Peruvian authorities must ensure their safety,' she says.

Who are the Mashco-Piro?

The 'Mashco-Piro' are one of an estimated fifteen indigenous groups in Peru living without any regular contact with outsiders. 'Uncontacted' is a short-hand term often used for them, although the evidence suggests they are the descendants of people who had contact in the past.

During the 'Rubber Boom' in the late 19th and early 20th centuries scores of people poured into the Amazon to source rubber to supply the rapidly growing car and bicycle industries in Europe and the USA. The treatment of the local indigenous people was horrific, their land was invaded, and thousands were worked to death or killed, the 'Mashcos' among them. Those who survived retreated deeper into the rainforest and have lived there in isolation, more or less, ever since.

There have been some exceptions. In the late 1970s and 1980s three 'Mashco-Piro' women were regularly seen by employees at a Manu national park guard post. After years of intermittent contact, they settled in two villages nearby, Diamante and Shipetaeri.

Since the horrors of the 'Rubber Boom' there has been persistent pressure on the 'Mashco-Piro's' land: more rubber tappers, drugs traffickers, oil companies, fishermen, and thousands of loggers looking for valuable hardwoods like mahogany and cedar.

One of the oil companies was Mobil, which explored in the region in the 1990s. Another was the Chinese state company Sapet, which agreed in 2006 not to enter a reserve established for the 'Mashco-Piro' after protests by local indigenous organisation FENAMAD.

Christian missionaries have ventured into 'Mashco-Piro' territory too, hoping to make contact and convert them to Christianity. The US-based Summer Institute of Linguistics targeted them in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and another US organisation, Pioneer Mission, has done the same more recently.

Over the years the name 'Mashco-Piro' has been the subject of some confusion, but today it is generally used to refer to at least two distinct bands of people in south-east Peru. One of these is in Manu, an area famous for its exotic flora and fauna, and another in the headwaters of the Las Piedras and Purus rivers.

Today the 'Mashco-Piro' are nomadic and dependent on hunting and gathering for their food, but until the 'Rubber Boom' hit them they lived in settled communities and practiced agriculture 

Ethnobotanist and anthropologist Glenn Shepard says that makes the 'Mashco-Piro' as 'modern' as anyone.

'The Mashco-Piro ironically epitomise modernity, having abandoned sedentary life and agriculture at the turn of the prior century to make way for rubber tappers feeding the global demand for automobile tires,' wrote Shepard, who has worked in the Manu region for years, in Anthropology News six days ago.

Anthropologist Peter Gow agrees. 'The Mashco abandonment of agriculture is a 20th century phenomenon,' he stated in a seminal paper on the 'Mashco-Piro' presented in Brazil in 2006. 'Only maturing secondary forest contains enough appropriate vegetation to sustain hunter-gatherers. All accounts place the Mashco in such old regenerated forest, whether on the Manu or on the Purus and Piedras.'

Increasing sightings of tribes

In the last decade the number of sightings of or encounters with the 'Mashco-Piro' has increased, and there have been further, dramatic increases since May last year. 

The reasons for this recent increase aren't clear, but pressure on 'Mashco-Piro' territory remains. Tourists are a constant in the Manu region, and there are reports of logging activity and oil and gas company helicopters flying low over the rainforest.

There aren't any oil and gas companies in Manu itself, but Peru's biggest gas fields lie immediately to the west and US oil company Hunt is operating to the east.

Despite this increase in sightings and encounters, the 'Mashco-Piro' show no interest in taking things further.

This was made clear in November last year when a 'Mashco-Piro' shot an arrow at a Matsigenka man, Nicolas 'Shaco' Flores, and killed him. Flores had been trying to establish permanent contact with this 'Mashco-Piro' group for more than twenty-five years, and was believed to have known them better than anyone else.

Flores had planted a garden on the river bank opposite his house which he allowed the 'Mashco-Piro' to use. The reasons for his death remain unclear.

'This tragic incident underscores the hazards of forcing contact on people who have so adamantly expressed their desire to be left alone,' says Glenn Shepard, an old friend of Flores. 'Shaco's death saddens me. He was a generous and courageous man.'

Just six days before he was killed, a Spanish man, Diego Cortijo, was in Flores' house when a group of 'Mashco-Piro' appeared on the opposite side of the river. It was Cortijo, a member of a Spanish Geographical Society (SGS) expedition looking for archaeological ruins and petroglyphs, who took the photos released by Survival yesterday.

'There were thirteen of them,' Cortijo says. 'Two men, women, adolescents and children. Shaco thought he heard them call him so he went out to see them.'

But the attack on Flores is a rare exception.

'In the large majority of encounters between the Mashco-Piro and non-Mashco-Piro, the Mashco-Piro have reacted by simply watching or moving off slowly,' said Cabeceras Aid, an American NGO with extensive experience in Peru's Amazon, in a 2007 report about the Purus region.

The biggest concern about encounters with the 'Mashco-Piro' is their lack of immunological defences to outsiders' diseases, meaning that even the transmission of a cold could kill them.

Initial contact in the Amazon has often wiped out more than 50 per cent of entire groups. In Peru in the last century, the Nahua, the Cashinahua, the Nanti, the 'Murunahua' and the Harakmbut, mistakenly called 'Mashcos' by the Dominican priests who contacted them, were all decimated.

Can they remain isolated?

In 2007 photos of a 'Mashco-Piro' group were taken from an aeroplane, but six weeks later Peru's president, Alan Garcia, publicly claimed such 'unconnected tribes' had been 'invented by environmentalists opposed to oil exploration in the Amazon.'

Despite Garcia's denials, the plight of Peru's isolated indigenous groups has climbed the political agenda in recent years. This has largely been the result of increasing media coverage and vigorous lobbying by indigenous and other civil society organisations.

Five reserves for the isolated groups have been established, and another five proposed. The problem has been making the reserves mean anything in practice and keeping loggers and oil and gas companies out.

'What's the point in creating a national park in Manu or reserves for uncontacted groups if you don't bother to protect them?' says Survival's Rebecca Spooner. 'There's nothing unrealistic about this. All it needs is Peru's government to demonstrate enough political will and allocate enough resources to protect the Mashco-Piro's land.'

Peru's government took a major step last year by passing a law guaranteeing indigenous people the right to be consulted about and in agreement with any project that affects them, effectively making it illegal for Peru to permit any kind of activity on any 'uncontacted' group's land.

That hasn't stopped Peruvian congressman Carlos Tubino Arias Schreiber and a Catholic priest from calling for a highway to be built in the Purus region. This would cut right across rainforest used by the 'Mashco-Piro.'

Mariela Huacchillo, from Peru's National Protected Areas department, says the 'Mashco-Piro' should be left alone. People should 'never attempt to enter into contact with these communities who are trying to remain apart from the outside world,' she says.

These communities are trying to remain apart from the outside world
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