This week, two Peruvian advocacy groups dedicated to protecting the human rights and habitats of indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest released footage of a rare encounter with one of the most isolated tribes on Earth. Known to researchers as the Mashco-Piro, the group is believed to number in the hundreds, and their sudden appearance sparked a tense, three-day standoff with local residents earlier this summer. This is the second time in two years the group has attempted to make contact with outsiders, after an absence of more than 20 years.
On June 24, two dozen clan members appeared along the banks of the Las Piedras River near the tiny hamlet of Monte Salvado in southeastern Peru. The group, comprised of men, women and children, were all equipped with bows, arrows and lances and made threatening gestures at residents across the river before disappearing back into the forest. The next day, a larger group of 110 Mashco-Piro showed up and tried to cross the river to Monte Salvado (itself inhabited by fewer than 150 people), but was stopped by a resident ranger, Rommel Ponciano, who tried to communicate with tribe members in Yine, the local dialect. Ponciano, an employee of FENAMAD—the indigenous rights group that filmed the encounter—was only able to understand portions of the conversation, but was still able to prevent the Mashco-Piro from crossing the river on that occasion and when a third, smaller group appeared on June 26. Yine residents praised Ponciano for his bravery in diffusing the tense situation–no small matter considering the Mashco-Piro are believed to be responsible for the wounding of another ranger in 2011 and the murder of a local indigenous Indian who had befriended members of the tribe over a series of years.
While the safety of Monte Salvado’s residents was a concern, so was that of the Mashco-Piro. Their severe isolation has rendered their immune systems highly vulnerable, and it’s likely that something as simple as the common cold could have disastrous effects on the group. These fears are not unfounded: During the 1980s, exploration by oil companies and the resulting physical contact led to mortality rates in excess of 50 percent for the Nahua (another isolated tribe) and the Mashco-Piro themselves suffered what FENAMAD president Klaus Quicque referred to as a “genocide” when their ancestral lands came under attack by loggers during the same decade. In order to protect the estimated 12,000-15,000 members of the country’s numerous “uncontacted” tribes, Peruvian law prohibits physical contact with groups such as the Mashco-Piro, though advocacy groups such as Survival International stress that these laws are rarely enforced, and that as much 70 percent of the Peruvian rainforest has already been leased for development to oil and logging companies.
Despite their attempts to keep their distance from society, it’s clear that the traditional way of life of the Mashco-Piro and other indigenous tribes has already been irrevocably changed. Researchers believe the group was forced to abandon their sedentary, farming communities for life as itinerant hunter-gatherers when their natural resources supply was destroyed by the encroaching modern world. Forced to follow the weather, they spend much of the dry season fishing along riverbeds, before returning to the rainforest during the wet period, but in recent years even these areas have become increasingly depleted.
During the June standoff, tribe members made repeated requests for food and tools from the local Yine, including bananas, machetes and rope, leading researchers to believe that this most recent appearance was likely triggered by an uptick in incursions into Mashco-Piro territory by industrial companies, drug traffickers and even thrill-seeking adventure tourists, eager to catch a glimpse of the region’s mysterious tribes. The resulting destruction of food and property led to the tribe’s demands for compensation. That may also be the reason behind their last public appearance, along the banks of another nearby river in 2011. These two occasions mark the only known attempts by the Mashco-Piro to make direct contact with non-natives peoples in at least two decades, though there have been isolated sightings or encounters in the wild.
Today, Peru has the third-largest number of “uncontacted” groups in the world, after Brazil and New Guinea. While Peru has established five “reserve” zones designed to protect these tribes, the government is under increasing pressure to open up valuable land for development. The same is true in neighboring Brazil, which has so far managed to set aside 13 percent of its land area for a series of more than 600 indigenous zones, despite complaints that the country’s 67 different isolated, indigenous tribes make up less than 0.5 percent of Brazil’s total population.