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Leaving the Forest: Recent Encounters with Isolated Tribes in Southeastern Peru

August 2013:

In three separate instances in June and July, members of the Mashco-Piro tribe left the forest’s interior and appeared near communities outside the Alto Purús and Manu National Parks. Other than some initial displays of aggression, they acted peacefully and left after a few days, taking with them crops from the community gardens and metal tools and other manufactured goods from the villagers’ houses.

Members of the Mashco Piro isolated tribe near Manu National Park in 2012 (Photo: D. Cortijo / Survival International).

Members of the Mashco Piro isolated tribe near Manu National Park in 2012                (D. Cortijo / Survival International).

The Mashco-Piro are Peru’s largest tribe of indigenous people living in voluntary isolation, also referred to as “uncontacteds,” and total perhaps as many as 1,000 people. They live in smaller familial clans in remote headwater streams and historically have avoided contact with outsiders, choosing to remain hidden in the forest. Occasionally they are seen during the dry season when they visit the larger rivers in search of turtle eggs and other resources. Experts believe they have chosen isolation in order to avoid the horrible violence and devastating epidemics that have resulted from previous contact with outsiders, particularly during the rubber boom 100 years ago.

What is not clear, however, is why they are appearing near populated areas with more frequency over the past few years.

“One possible reason for their appearance is their frustration with the dramatic increase in turtle egg collection in their territory by local villagers and commercial collectors who travel several days from towns located downstream,” says Arsenio Calle, director of the Alto Purús Park. Isolated tribes throughout the Amazon depend on the eggs of aquatic turtles for their survival during the dry season when resources are scarce.

Isolated tribes expert, Beatriz Huertas, agrees with Calle. “The constant presence of the isolated tribes could be to show their anger that other people are stealing resources that they consider vital to their survival. They feel threatened.”

Accounts of the three encounters over the past few months support Calle and Huertas’ theory.  They also indicate that the tribes desire for food and metal and other manufactured tools and goods may have grown greater than their fear of outsiders; however the real reason is anyone’s guess. Regardless, UAC will continue to work with Park guards and local villagers to prevent overexploitation of turtle nests on beaches used by the Mashco-Piro during the dry season, and control access to more remote areas where they are known to live. Our hope is that the Mashco-Piro will choose to leave the forest on their own terms and not be forced out due to scarcity of resources or illegal activities in their territory.

 

 

Alto Purús National Park control post, Alto Purús River. The kitchen was broken into by Mashco Piro tribesmen in July 2013 (Photo: UAC 2013).

Alto Purús National Park control post, Alto Purús River. The kitchen was broken into by Mashco Piro tribesmen in July 2013 (ProPúrus).

Alto Purús

In July, a group of Mashco-Piro broke into an Alto Purús National Park control post near the community of Monterrey on the Alto Purús River. They stayed for two days eating yucca and plantains from the post’s small garden but quickly disappeared into the forestwhen the guards returned, taking with them pots, spoons and machetes.  According to park guard Ernesto Meléndez, “they are the same Mashco-Piro who come here every year to collect turtle eggs. However, this is the first time they have broken into the control post.”

 

Las Piedras

In June, more than 100 Mashco-Piro men, women and children appeared at the community of Monte Salvado on the Las Piedras River close to the border of the Mashco-Piro Territorial Reserve. Unlike the encounter on the Alto Purús where the Mascho-Piro left immediately upon seeing the guards, the group in Monte Salvado stayed for three days and showed no fear of the villagers.

In fact, on several occasions the group made attempts to cross the river and enter the community but the villagers were able to persuade them not to by pushing canoes filled with food across the river. The villagers are members of the Yine tribe, also called Piro. They were able to communicate with the tribe in broken Piro, which helped diffuse the initial tension and aggressive behavior shown by the Mashco-Piro. “It is not strange that they appeared on the Las Piedras,” said Huertas. “What is strange is how close they came to Monte Salvado.”

Click here to see remarkable footage of the encounter.

Yurua

Shelters made by isolated hunters and gatherers on the upper Yurua River

Shelters made by isolated people on the upper Yurua River in March 2013 (ProPurús).

A third encounter occurred on the northern side of the Alto Purús Park on the Yurua River in the small community of Selva Virgen.

A group of approximately 100 Mashco-Piro entered the community and made aggressive gestures with their spears and arrows towards the villagers who fled to the other side of the river. One of the villagers spoke a few words of Piro and began to communicate with the tribe, at which point they put down their weapons and acted peacefully. They stayed for four days eating peanuts, sugar cane and squash and left with machetes, spoons, a mosquito net and some clothing.

It is possible that this was the same group documented by ProPurús and park guards in March 2013 during a monitoring patrol.