Peru: plan to 'contact' isolated tribe draws protest

In late July, Peru's Ministry of Culture announced a "Care Plan" for a band of Mashco Piro indigenous people believed to be living in voluntary isolation in a remote area of Madre de Dios region in the southern Amazon basin. Ministerial Resolution No. 258-2015-MC stated that the Vice-ministry of Inter-Culturality, through its General Directorate of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, would implement the plan, which emphasized establishing peaceful coexistence between the Mashco Piro and other indigenous communities in the area. The plan was sparked by increasingly frequent sightings of the band and two fatalities in confrontations between band members and communities on the edge of its territory. Encroachments on the band's territory by illegal loggers is believed to be pressuring the group to seek new lands. But government plans to initiative "contact" with the group immediately drew harsh criticism from indigenous rights advocates. "We are extremely worried about this situation and its possible disastrous consequences," said Francisco Estremadoyro, director of Lima-based ProPurús, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the peoples and environment in the area.

The Culture Ministry emphasized that the group has itself been initiating contact. "You can see a group on the beaches for hours, waiting for the boats to pass [to] request certain products," wrote Luis Felipe Torres, a ministry anthropologist. "They are especially interested in bananas, cassava, sugarcane, machetes, and pots... they are deliberately seeking to interact with people transiting the river."

Given such credible reports, "there are no reasonable grounds to interpret this behavior as a sign that this group wants to remain unconnected to the rest of society," concluded Patricia Palacios Balbuena, vice-minister for Inter-Culturality. Culture Minister Diana Alvarez-Calderon said the plan called for increasing patrols and making contact "only if they make an appearance and show a willingness for a conversation." But a ministry official also told reporters that the government planned a "controlled contact."

Rebecca Spooner of Survival International insisted that the desires of the band remain unclear. Although tribe members may have sought goods, "shooting arrows at people is a clear indication that they do not want contact." Instead, she urged Peru's government to prevent outsiders from entering the area and educate local residents about the dangers of interacting with isolated people. (Science Insider, Aug. 7; Peru This Week, Aug. 6; Live Science, July 24)