Violence Highlights Dangers to Peru’s Isolated Tribes

December 2017

Last month in the remote headwaters of Peru’s Alto Purús River, a young indigenous man was shot with an arrow by a member of the Mashco Piro isolated tribe. The attack occurred while the man was sharing food with several members of the tribe. He was transported by boat and plane to the hospital in the city of Pucallpa where he is expected to make a full recovery.

The Mashco Piro is Peru’s largest tribe living in voluntary isolation. They live in familial groups and use small headwater streams to criss-cross the forest on seasonal migrations in search of resources. Historically, they have avoided any contact with the outside world, presumably to avoid the violence and sickness that usually comes with it. However, this behavior may be changing among some groups who are being seen with more frequency near remote communities and protected area control posts.

The dangers of contact

This recent attack is the latest of several violent encounters in recent years between the Mashco and members of remote indigenous communities living near the Alto Purús and Manu national parks. In almost all of the cases, the violence falls into two categories. The first is efforts by the tribe to defend its territory from illegal incursions by mahogany loggers or local people hunting, fishing and collecting turtle eggs. The second is the result of misunderstandings that arise during contact events, the majority of which are encouraged, if not initiated, by the villagers. This recent attack falls into the latter category.

The community involved was brought to the Alto Purús in the early 2000’s by evangelical missionaries from the United States specifically to help contact the Mashco Piro. They settled on the tribe’s known migratory route, eventually received title to the lands, and because they speak the same language, Yine or Piro, have over the years developed a relationship, albeit tenuous, with members of the tribe.

This relationship is replicated on other remote streams near the Mashco’s territory, including on the Las Piedras River where another Yine community has aggressively sought contact with the Mashco with similar consequences. In 2010, a 10-year-old boy was seriously wounded by an arrow, and in 2014 the community had to be evacuated when supposedly it was surrounded by an estimated 200 armed Mashco tribesmen.

Any effort to contact Peru’s isolated tribes is illegal, as the tribes should initiate contact on their own terms to avoid violence from misunderstandings and to prevent the spread of diseases. Any kind of contact, even of a peaceful nature, usually proves disastrous to the tribes who have no natural defenses to common illnesses. Recent history is full of examples of Amazonian tribes being decimated by epidemics shortly after contact with missionaries, oil and gas workers, and loggers.

New road law represents grave threat to the tribes

These contact events are especially concerning in light of a government proposal to construct the Puerto Esperanza — Iñapari highway through the Alto Purús Park and Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve for Isolated Tribes, the core of the Mashco’s territory. Local communities in the Alto Purús vehemently oppose the road, but they are up against powerful logging and mining interests and their advocates in congress who covet the Alto Purús for its relatively untapped, abundant resources. Debate over the road is being renewed after Congress approved just last week a law promoting and prioritizing road building in Ucayali department, where the Alto Purús is located. In a December 10th interview on the online news site Servindi, Julio Cusurichi Palacios, president of the Indigenous Federation of the Madre de Dios River (FENAMAD), summarizes the fears of regional indigenous tribes, warning that, “. . . approval of this law would lead to genocidal extermination of our indigenous peoples.” (Julio’s interview is available here, and more information on the road law here.)

New roads could have one of two effects on people living in voluntary isolation. It could cause some to abandon their traditional, migratory way of life and settle in permanent villages in less remote areas. Or they could try to continue their migratory lifestyle in a much smaller area, leading to more violence among other isolated tribes and remote communities as they compete for limited resources.