Nat Geo Examines Recent Contact with Mashco-Piro

October 2015

An October feature by National Geographic (see article here) explores recent contact events between the Mashco-Piro isolated tribe and local villagers in southern Peru asked the question “why?”.  The Mashco-Piro, or simply Mashco, are considered the most aggressive and dangerous of the handful of tribes living in isolation in the Purús – Manu Conservation Corridor. But in recent years, smaller sub-groups of the tribe are initiating contact with villagers on different rivers. Experts disagree whether this change in behavior is caused by external or internal forces. Are illegal loggers, drug smugglers and unscrupulous missionaries forcing them out of the forest, or are the Mashco simply drawn to villages by a desire for manufactured goods, such as machetes and metal pots, and food handouts?

Several years ago, Upper Amazon staff encountered a group of Mashco during an expedition to document illegal loggers in the headwaters of the Alto Purús River. The Mascho showed no aggression and let us leave without incident.  A video of that expedition called “El Purús: The Plunder of Peru’s Forgotten Forest” can be seen here.

A Mascho-Piro man on the Sepahua River. He was stolen as a child and raised by an Amahuaca family (Chris Fagan, 2004).

A Mascho-Piro man who was stolen as a child and raised by an Amahuaca family (C Fagan, 2004).




Peru announces plan to protect isolated tribe near Manu National Park

July 2015:

Peru’s Ministry of Culture has announced a “special attention plan” (Plan de Atención Especial) to protect a group of isolated tribespeople living along the border of Manu National Park. The group, estimated at 30 individuals, is part of the much larger Mashco-Piro tribe that inhabits parts of Manu and the Alto Purús national parks, and adjacent areas in Acre, Brazil. Tribe members have been entering a local village and waiting on beaches to wave down passing boats to ask for food and manufactured items like machetes. The contact is not new, as there has been sporadic contact between them and villagers for approximately 20 years; however, the frequency of sightings has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2014, the tribe was seen 77 times, usually on beaches but occasionally in the forest near the village. Two villagers have been killed by the tribe, including a young boy who was shot with an arrow near a community garden earlier this year.


Members of the Mashco Piro tribe in Madre de Dios, Peru (Jean-Paul Van Belle, University of Cape Town).

Originally, the plan was announced as “controlled contact”, which immediately raised concerns among indigenous rights groups. For example, it received sharp criticism from the Madre de Dios indigenous federation, Fenamad, the organization who works to ensure the rights of the region’s indigenous tribes. There are numerous examples of isolated people or those in initial stages of contact being decimated by diseases spread during even well-planned contact.

The Ministry has since clarified that the objective is not to contact the group, but to protect them from contact with outsiders in order to reduce the potential for diseases, and to prevent more violence between the tribe and villagers. If the tribe initiates contact, Ministry specialists will try to communicate with them in order to better understand the reasons behind their recent contact with outsiders.

UAC and ProPurús are working with the Ministry to develop protection plans for isolated tribes in the Alto Purús – Manu region. Our priority is to protect the tribes’ territories from illegal activities and incursions so they are able to continue their lifestyles for as long as they want and can initiate contact on their own terms. We are wary of any policy to initiate contact with Amazonian tribes. The risks associated with disease and violence is well-documented. Furthermore, the policy could be promoted by sectors of the government more interested in economic development than indigenous people. Initiating contact and moving tribes into settled communities could be used not in the best interest of the tribes, but to remove obstacles to oil and gas development or constructing infrastructure projects such as dams and highways. 

It is clear, however, that this group of Mashco-Piro desires some level of contact. They have also shown a propensity for violence. If they initiate contact with the Ministry team, limited communication managed by an expert team of anthropologists, linguists, and doctors, could provide valuable information on the tribe’s needs and desires; information that necessary to develop plans for their long-term protection.

Links to more information:

Reuters article on the planned contact (in English)

Editorial by government specialist describing rationale for the new plan (in Spanish)


UAC’s work to protect isolated tribes highlighted in Science magazine

June 2015
Science magazine has published an extensive expose on issues surrounding isolated tribes in the southwestern Amazon in light of recent contact events between the tribes and local villagers.  The articles are divided into two sections—Peru and Brazil. The Peru section was informed by an April expedition to the Alto Purús led by UAC and its Peruvian sister organization ProPurús. A summary of the trip was described in an earlier post and available here.

A Mastanahua woman in initial contact (C. Fagan).

A Mastanahua woman in initial contact in the Alto Purús. She and three family members left the forest several years ago but maintain relations with the rest of their tribe still living in isolation (C. Fagan).

The articles describe an exceedingly complicated situation in this extremely remote region of the Peru – Brazil borderlands, as several distinct tribes have decided to end their isolation to obtain food, machetes and other manufactured items for local villagers. These contact events are usually disastrous for the tribes, resulting in deadly disease transmission or outright violence. Science explores how both governments are responding to recent contact events, raising serious concerns about the fate of some of the world’s last isolated peoples.

The articles are available on the Science website here, and as pdfs below.

Peru: Making Contact: Some of the last isolated tribes are emerging from Peru’s rainforests. Andrew Lawyer

Brazil: In Peril: As contacts spike, critics fear the Brazil’s once-vaunted protection of isolated tribes is crumbling. Heather Pringle

For more information on Peru’s isolated tribes, the work of UAC and ProPurús to protect them and how you can help, please contact: email hidden; JavaScript is required.

Expedition team members traveling ion the Curanja River, Peru (Jason Houston)

Expedition team members traveling on the Curanja River, Peru in April (Jason Houston).

Frustrations Grow after Communities are Raided by Isolated Tribes

March 2015:

Huni Kuin (Cashinahua) families on the Alto Purús River  have been raided by isolated tribespeople in recent months. Living in one of the most remote regions of Peru, they have few income opportunities, and are asking the government to replace or compensate them for the stolen items (C. Fagan).

Huni Kuin (Cashinahua) families on the Alto Purús River have been raided by isolated tribespeople in recent months. Living in one of the most remote regions of Peru, they have few income opportunities and are asking the government to replace or compensate them for the stolen items (C. Fagan).

A UAC and ProPurús expedition to the remote headwaters of the Alto Purús River found growing frustration among local people towards isolated tribes living in nearby forests. In October and November of last year, four communities on a tributary of the Alto Purús were raided by isolated tribespeople who broke into houses and took clothing, machetes, pots and pans, as well as a short wave radio and solar panels. The heavier items including the radios and panels were destroyed and left in the nearby forest. The villages were abandoned due to local elections being held downstream. Now, several months later, villagers are demanding that they receive full compensation for the stolen items, and that the government do more to prevent future raids.

While sightings of isolated tribes in the area are relatively common during the dry season when the tribes travel to the larger rivers to collect turtle eggs, there has been a dramatic increase of sightings in recent years: 25 in fact since 2009. Actually entering the communities, however, marks a dramatic change in behavior. It seems that a desire for manufactured items is overcoming their fear of outsiders. Remarkably, the trend is occurring with other isolated tribes elsewhere in the Alto Purús region and surroundings (see news on recent events in Simpatia and Monte Salvado).

A Mastanahua man in initial contact (C. Fagan).

A Mastanahua man in initial contact with modern society lives with his two wives and mother-in-law near the Alto Purús River. He was contacted by US missionaries 10 years ago. However, members of his tribe still live hidden in the forest and in recent months have raided local communities for machetes, pots, clothing, and other manufactured items (C. Fagan).

The expedition team included representatives from government and indigenous groups working to protect the isolated tribes, including official guards from the Alto Purús National Park and Communal Reserve, volunteer Vigilance Committees from nearby communities, and protection agents from Ucayali’s indigenous federation, ORAU’s, project to protect tribespeople in isolation and in initial contact. Unfortunately, neither Peru’s parks service nor ORAU have a budget to compensate villagers on losses from the raids. Peru’s Ministry of Culture has provided some compensation, but according to local people it is not enough, and they have stated that in the future they will have no choice bu to defend their homes and possessions.

What makes this situation especially unique is the presence of a Mastanahua family in initial contact near where the raids occurred. Contacted by missionaries roughly 10 years ago, the family of four live near the Purús Communal Reserve, and they serve as a link between two worlds: people like the Huni Kuin living in settled villages downstream, and the rest of their families still living in isolation in the forest. The Huni Kuin believe they may have helped their families conduct the raids.

The expedition was part of UAC and ProPurús work to train local guards and community leaders to react appropriately to contact events with isolated tribes in order to avoid violence and disease transmission. Lacking adequate government support in these remote areas, we are working to develop new projects that enable local people to not only react appropriately to future contact events, but to benefit from their critical role in ensuring that any contact is safe and ethical for both groups.

For more information contact email hidden; JavaScript is required.

Peru Passes Resolution to Title Saweto after Murders

January 2015

After a 12 year struggle to obtain title to their homelands which cost the lives of four of it’s leaders who were murdered by loggers in September, last month the Peru government finally passed a resolution legally recognizing 80,000 hectares as belonging to the Ashéninka community of Saweto. Furthermore, officials have promised to travel to Saweto by helicopter in February to present the title to Saweto’s newly elected leaders in a community assembly. Upper Amazon Conservancy and its Peruvian sister organization, ProPurús, has been helping Saweto in their quest for land recognition and justice for three years.

The struggle has been resisted by illegal loggers benefiting from open access to Saweto’s timber, as well as corrupt, pro-logging officials in the Ucayali regional government. Please see the following document for a summary of Saweto’s decade-long effort to remove illegal loggers and obtain title to their lands, including various links to additional information on Saweto’s struggle. The Alto Tamaya Indigenous Community: A summary of illegal logging, land titling, and violence in the Peruvian Amazon.

Workshop participants

Saweto leaders and allies at a workshop to advance Saweto’s titling efforts held in Pucallpa in August 2012. Murder victims Jorge Ríos Pérez and Edwin Chota Valera are in the front row wearing their traditional cushma clothing.







December News: Saweto at Climate Conference, Plotkin TED talk, Alto Purús Resource Use Studies

December 2014

COP foto

Leaders from the Asheninka communities of Saweto, Peru and Apiwxta, Brazil hold a press conference during the UN climate change conference in Lima demanding justice for the murder of four Asheninka leaders by illegal loggers in September. Julia Pérez and Ergilia Rengifo are the widows of Jorge Rios Pérez and Edwin Chota, and Diana Rios is the son of Pérez. The women are supported by Isaac Pikayo and Francisco Piyako, leaders from the neighboring Brazilian community of Apiwtxa (Photo: Martin Mejia, AP)

For links to articles related to Saweto and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change currently taking place in Lima, click here.


“The greatest and most endangered species in the Amazon rainforest is not the jaguar or the harpy eagle,” says Mark Plotkin, “It’s the isolated and uncontacted tribes.” In an energetic and sobering talk, the ethnobotanist brings us into the world of the forest’s indigenous tribes and the incredible medicinal plants that their shamans use to heal. He outlines the challenges and perils that are endangering them — and their wisdom — and urges us to protect this irreplaceable repository of knowledge.

Click here for full screen version of Plotkin’s 16 minute talk. 

University of Texas PhD student and former Upper Amazon Conservancy researcher, Aaron Groth, successfully defended his Masters Thesis on the impacts on Mahogany logging on Alto Purús indigenous communities.  “Social and Environmental Impacts of Big-Leaf Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) on Peruvian indigenous communities.”

Previous to his Master’s research in 2010, Groth spent several months in the Alto Purús collecting data on how local communities use their forest resources.  The three-year study included four communities of three ethnicities: Monterrey (of the Yine ethnicity) and Laureano (of the Amahuaca ethnicity) on the Purús River, and the Juni Kuin (Cashinahua) communities of Balta and Santa Rey on the Curanja River.  The studies were led by Upper Amazon Conservancy and ProPurús with active participation from communities members.

A draft of the study is available here: Evaluación del Uso de los Recursos Naturales en Cuatro Comunidades Nativas de la Provincia de Purús, Ucayali, 2009 – 2011.


Amahuaca villagers on the Alto Purús River with eggs from the Yellow-Spotted Side-neck Turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) (A. Groth).

Saweto Receives Soros Foundation Award for Environmental Activism

November 2014

Diana and Soros

Diana Ríos Rengifo and Alexander Soros in New York City, November 17, 2014 (D. Salisbury)

Diana Ríos Rengifo, 21, gave a stirring speech to the human rights and environmental advocates who cheered her acceptance of the Alexander Soros Foundation’s Environmental Activism award on behalf of her community of Saweto and the four assassinated leaders: Edwin Chota, Leoncio Meléndez, Francisco Pinedo, and her father, Jorge Ríos. For her part, Diana presented Alexander Soros with a necklace from her Ashéninka people, and invited him to the community when he comes to South America in April. Diana also shared her resolve to continue fighting for title to her lands, and her continued worries for the safety of her people given she believes at least 10 other killers continue at large beyond the two men in jail who have formally been accused.

Prior to the ceremony, NGO Global Witness released a groundbreaking report, Peru’s Deadly Environment, that sheds light on the murders of environmental activists in Peru over the last decade. The findings call into question the commitment of Peru, which will host international climate talks in less than a month, to protect its forests – and those who have called them home for generations – from mining, logging, oil exploration and infrastructure development.

The event included the screening of a documentary about the life of last year’s award winner, Cambodian anti-logging activist Chut Wutty, who lost his life defending the Prey Lang forest community.  The event also showed a 7 minute film by Handcrafted Films of Edwin Chota, Saweto, and the Ashenínka of the Tamaya River basin’s efforts to defend their forest from illegal loggers. UAC/ProPurús assisted Handcrafted in this second film, and ProPurús Coordiantor Jose Borgo Vasquez is interviewed about his work with the Ashenínka of the Tamaya River in their fight against illegal logging and for legal recognition of their homelands.

November 17 Press:

New York Times on Soros award to Saweto (Andrew Revkin) on Soros award to Saweto (Madrid, Spain)

El Comercio on Global Witness Report (Lima, Peru)

 Other Links: 

Saweto’s new website

September murders of Saweto leaders

Saweto’s 10 year struggle to secure land title




New Alliance Created to Protect the Alto Purús

October 2014:

UAC and ProPurús have initiated a new project to prevent illegal activities and promote sustainable resource use on the La Novia River, a tributary of the Alto Purús River near the town of Puerto Esperanza. The project’s primary objective is to create a working alliance between the Conta indigenous community, the Mabosinfrom conservation concession, and the Purús Communal Reserve which is administered by Peru’s protected areas agency, Sernanp. It is a unique opportunity to bring together these diverse stakeholders to create the region’s first-ever indigenous-mestizo (non-indigenous) conservation alliance with the goal of protecting one of the most threatened parts of the greater Alto Purús region.


Pernambuco Lake located within the Conta indigenous community.

In October, partners convened to discuss the new alliance and elect a leadership committee. To mark the beginning of the project, ProPurus staff, community members, and guards from the Communal Reserve released several hundred yellow-spotted sideneck turtle hatchlings (Podocnemis unifilis), locally called Taricaya, into Conta’s Pernambuco Lake. The hatchlings came from eggs collected in the Alto Purús River and transported to artificial beaches at Reserve headquarters in order to be protected from unsustainable collecting. Among the project’s objectives are to re-establish healthy populations of Taricaya in Pernambuco while sustainably managing common fish species as a source of both food and income for the people of Conta.

Other project objectives include training and equipping Alliance members to conduct regular patrols along the river to prevent illegal activities and to monitor threatened species. The Alliance will initiate a publicity campaign in Puerto Esperanza to educate people on resource use regulations in the La Novia region and engage local people in new Alliance-led conservation activities. Funding for the project is being provided by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders Latin America and Caribbean program.


Members of the new La Novia Alliance releasing Taricaya turtle hatchlings into Pernambuco Lake.

Peru Promises to Title Saweto in Response to the Murders

September 2014:

visita-primera-dama-a-saweto-1024x601 2

Peru’s Prime Minister visits Saweto (Source PCM).

After several weeks of silence, Peru’s government is finally responding to the tragic and senseless murders of four leaders from the Ashéninka community of Alto Tamaya-Saweto on September 1st. Last week, a large committee of senior government officials, led by Peru’s Prime Minister, Ana Jara, traveled in helicopters from the city of Pucallpa to Saweto to meet with the villagers and discuss their needs in the wake of losing four leaders, including their chief, Edwin Chota. The commission included Ministers and Vice Ministers from various government agencies including Education, Housing, the Interior, the Environment, Health, Women and Vulnerable Populations, as well as the Executive Director of Peru’s new Forestry Agency, SERFOR.

After touring the community and murder site and holding a community assembly in the schoolhouse, the authorities pledged to post a special unit of police officers in the community to protect them from illegal loggers and narcotic traffickers that use the surrounding forest. Officials also committed to investing in improvements for the dilapidated school and abandoned health post. More importantly, they promised to help the community obtain legal title to their homelands.

For the past decade, the community, led by Chota, has been fighting against loggers, as well as the regional government of Ucayali, for legal recognition of their land rights. The government has repeatedly rejected Saweto’s request for title, including a formal comprehensive petition submitted earlier this year with the help of UAC and ProPurús. The government has argued that the lands around Saweto could not be titled due to the presence of two timber concessions overlapping the community’s lands. However, the same government’s titling agency clarified in the formal petition that the concessions were created illegally, because the community was located there, and officially recognized by the government, at the time the concessions were granted. Furthermore, Chota had repeatedly documented widespread illegal logging inside the concessions. It was this struggle against Ucayali’s powerful logging mafia to stop illegal logging near Saweto that cost Chota his life, along with Francisco Pinedo Ramirez, Jorge Rios Perez, and Leoncio Quintisima Melendez.

Community leaders present their demands to the government commission (Source PCM).

Community leaders present their demands to the government commission (Source PCM).

As a result of the Ucayali unwillingness to prevent illegal logging on the Alto Tamaya River, as well as their egregious mismanagement of Saweto’s titling petition, Peru’s Prime Minister immediately transferred Saweto’s case to the central government in Lima. In addition, Minister Jara promised to create a new government commission to study illegal logging in the Alto Tamaya region and its social and environmental impacts.

We are hopeful that these bold promises will finally result in tangible progress, and eventually fulfill Edwin Chota’s dream of titling Saweto so that his people can lead safe and productive lives.



September 24, Peru’s forestry director admits that Saweto should have been granted title last year

September 25, two suspects have been arrested for the Saweto murders.



Murder in the Peruvian Rainforest

September 9, 2014:

Last week, Edwin Chota, leader of the Asheninka community of Saweto, was murdered along with Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quinticima Melendez, and Francisco Pinedo as they traveled on a forest trail to attend a meeting in the Brazilian community ofApiwtxa. The men had spent over a decade fighting to title Saweto, and they were killed just days after a visit from Peruvian forestry officials to document continued illegal logging on their lands.

Edwin Chota, bottom right, and Jorge Rios, bottom right, with ProPurus staff displaying a banner to mark their territory.

Edwin Chota, bottom right, and Jorge Rios, bottom right, with ProPurus staff displaying a banner to mark their territory.

We are working with the widows and family members of the four slain leaders to ensure that the government conducts a full investigation and the perpetrators are brought to justice. We look forward to working together with all of Saweto’s friends and supporters to carry on Edwin’s legacy of protecting the forest and securing legal recognition of Saweto’s homelands. 

Please see the attached press release for more details.

In English

En Espanol

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