Members of the Mashco-Piro isolated tribe appeared near communities outside the Alto Purús and Manu National Parks on three separate occasions in June and July, unusual behavior for the usually reclusive nomadic hunters and gatherers. Experts speculate they may be angry or distressed by uncontrolled turtle egg collection inside their territories by outsiders, and are demanding food and manufactured goods from communities as a form of compensation. (Tribes throughout the Amazon are dependent on turtle eggs for nourishment during the dry season.) Others believe that its simply a case of their desire for manufactured goods growing greater than their fear of outsiders. Regardless of why, it is very likely that the behavior will continue and sightings and actual encounters will become more common. Unfortunately, if the events of the past few months are any indication, Peru is not prepared to respond to these exceedingly dangerous and potentially violent situations.
In not one of these three instances did the Ministry of Culture, the agency in charge of protecting Peru’s isolated tribes, travel to the sites to implement contingency plans and offer support to the villagers Without any professional guidance, the villagers were forced to manage the encounters on their own. There is deep-rooted fear on both sides, both from the tribes towards the local people and vice versa, and these encounters can easily turn violent. For example, in 2011 a local man was killed by Mashco-Piro outside Manu National Park. Ironically, the man had tried to help the tribe several times in the past by leaving them food and manufactured goods. Why they felt he was a threat on that particular day is anyone’s guess.
Fortunately, the local people reacted calmly and were able to diffuse the tribe’s initial aggression by speaking a few words of broken Piro and offering food. Equally important is that they did not allow the tribes to get too close to them. They are extremely susceptible to sicknesses common to settled peoples, and historically epidemics have decimated tribes after even brief contact with oil and gas workers, filmmakers, missionaries and other outsiders.
It is imperative that the villagers living in areas visited by the Mashco-Piro and other isolated tribes receive training on protocols for reacting to sightings and encounters. The government should develop contingency plans specific to each area, and then train local people to carry them out. Recognizing this need, in July, UAC and its sister organization, ProPurús, partnered with the Regional Organization of Aidesep Ucayali (ORAU) and the Alto Purús National Park to conduct the first of several training workshops on avoiding conflicts with isolated tribes for local people and park guards living in critical areas.
In addition, the inhabitants of these remote villages must be compensated for losses incurred by the isolated tribes. Crops such as yucca, plantains, peanuts and even sugar cane are a vital food source for these villagers who are among the poorest people in all of Peru. Crops are also as currency and sold or traded for everyday necessities such as salt, gasoline and soap. The manufactured items that the tribes often steal such as machetes, axes, pots and kitchen utensils are exorbitantly expensive. If they are not compensated for these losses the villagers will have no choice but to defend their possessions. As one man explained, “We don’t want to hurt our Mashco brothers, but we have to defend what is ours.”
It should be obvious but bears repeating that access to the tribes’ territories needs to be controlled. ProPurús is working the Alto Purús National Park to train “vigilance committees” made up of men and women from local communities to help official park guards prevent loggers, commercial egg collectors and other outsiders from entering areas used by the tribes. A new partnership with the Park and Purús Communal Reserve works to protect beaches from unsustainable egg collection by both local people and outsiders alike so that the isolated tribes will have eggs each dry season.
Meanwhile, incredibly, Peru’s congress is still considering a potentially devastating highway project directly through the heart of the Mashco-Piro’s territory.
Despite Peruvian and international laws intended to protect isolated tribes from groups trying to contact them, evangelical missionaries from the United States still work in southeastern Peru region. While so far they have failed to “civilize” the Mashco-Piro, in 2005 they successfully lured an isolated Mastanahua tribe from the forest on the upper Alto Purús River. After establishing contact and constructing a village for the tribe, the missionaries left, perhaps returning their attention to their ultimate objective of contacting the larger Mashco-Piro tribe. Meanwhile, a family of four Mastanahua, one man and three women, have remained near the village. With no government support to ease their transition to a settled lifestyle, they depend to a large extent on nearby communities for food. ORAU and the indigenous federation of the Alto Purús, FECONAPU, and their NGO partners also provide critical support.
There is little doubt that the frequency of encounters with the Mashco-Piro, Mastanahua and perhaps other tribes will increase in the future. Some may even choose to maintain regular contact with the outside world. UAC will continue to work to safeguard Peru’s voluntary isolated tribes so that they are able to leave the forest on their own terms and not be forced out by resource scarcity or pressure from outsiders. We hope the government will take the lead in responding to future encounters in a manner that ensures the tribes protection and respects their way of life.