The Mashco Piro inhabit the extremely remote forests of Manu and Alto Purús National Park, which together comprise one of the least disturbed regions in the entire Amazon Basin if not the world. Using small streams to criss-cross the dense forest on their seasonal migrations, the Mashco Piro have chosen to live in isolation, avoiding human settlements and larger waterways. Their recent appearance on the riverbank, and violence towards local villagers, is highly unusual and has experts searching for explanations.
What we do know is that the amount of undisturbed forest in southeastern Peru where the Mashco Piro live is rapidly shrinking. Illegal logging–particularly for mahogany, gold mining, oil and gas exploration, road construction and illegal missionary work are bringing outsiders into their territories and displacing the tribes from their homelands. The invasions have forced the tribes into adjacent lands causing conflicts with settled villagers and other isolated tribes. For years the Mashco Piro have avoided any conflict, but since 2000 there has been an increase in violence toward outsiders, as if the Mashco Piro have been forced to draw a line in the sand and defend what is left of their territory.
Local people living on the border of the Alto Purús Park blame the change in the Mashco Piro’s behavior on the arrival of mahogany loggers, believing that there has been a marked change in behavior in recent years, from one of avoidance to one of aggression. As one villager told UAC staff in 2005:
“When we worked on the Alto Purús River in the 1970’s and 80’s collecting animal skins, occasionally we would see the Mashco and they would always avoid us and run away. There were never any problems. Now it is different. They shoot arrows at us and try to kill us.”
Shelters made by isolated people inside Alto Purús National Park. C Fagan, UAC
Incredibly, instead bolstering protection of these forests, members of the Peru government are arguing in favor of constructing a highway through the Alto Purús National Park and Madre de Dios Reserve for Isolated People–two strictly protected areas created specifically to protect the Mashco Piro. The road, which would connect the Alto Purús with the recently paved Interoceanic Highway, is being promoted by congressman Carlos Tubino, despite the disastrous impacts it would have on the Park’s isolated inhabitants. See UAC’s January report on the highway.
Meanwhile, to the north along the Brazil border, another protected area for isolated people, the Murunahua Territorial Reserve, has been overrun by loggers utilizing tractors and a vast network of illegal roads. The Reserve is home to the Murunahua tribe, a smaller group that has chosen isolation after 50% of their people were killed by disease after forced contact with loggers in the 1990’s.