Peru: more photos released of “uncontacted” Amazon peoples —as roads encroach

Survival International has released new close-up pictures of an “uncontacted” indigenous band in Peru, exactly a year after aerial photos of an “uncontacted” indigenous band in Brazil astonished the world. The new photographs taken in Peru’s southeastern Madre de Dios region show a family believed to be from an “uncontacted” (or voluntarily isolated) band of the Mashco-Piro ethnicity. Uncontacted Mashco-Piro bands are known to inhabit Manú National Park, and sightings of them have increased in recent months. Many blame illegal logging in and around the park and low flying helicopters from nearby oil and gas projects, for forcibly displacing the bands from their forest homes. The Mashco-Piro are one of just some 100 “uncontacted” peoples in the world. The new photos are the most detailed images yet revealed of “uncontacted” indigenous peoples.

One of the Mashco-Piro photos was taken by a bird-watcher last August, Survival International said. The other two were shot by Spanish archaeologist Diego Cortijo on Nov. 16— six days before his colleague, local Matsiguenka indigenous person Nicolás “Shaco” Flores, was killed by an arrow believed to have been shot by one of the band near the Manú Park. Flores, who was helping Cortijo search for petroglyphs in the area, was probably been the only outsider in contact with the band, learning to communicate with them in their dialect and sometimes leaving them gifts of machetes and cooking pots. Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist and friend of Flores, wrote on his in Anthropology News: “Shaco’s death is a tragedy: he was a kind, courageous and knowledgeable man. He believed he was helping the Mashco-Piro. And yet in this tragic incident, the Mashco-Piro have once again expressed their adamant desire to be left alone.”

Beatriz Huertas, a Peruvian expert on uncontacted people, told Survival International that the Mashco-Piro case is “unusual, complex and extremely delicate.” She warned: “Contact could happen at any time. We must implement preventative measures and a contingency plan with local authorities as soon as possible to ensure this does not happen again.” She especially warned of the threat of illegal logging near the band’s homelands, saying, “They are removing wood very close.” She also cited a rise in air traffic related to natural gas and oil exploration in the region as adversely affecting native hunting grounds, forcing increasing movement by semi-nomadic tribes.

Last year Survival wrote to SERNANP, Peru’s agency for protected areas, expressing its concern at a video showing tourists leaving clothes for the “uncontacted” bands on riverbanks. The area was subsequently closed off to tourists, and an emergency warning issued to local residents. the indigenous affairs agency INDEPA announced plans to set up a guard post to protect the uncontacted groups.

Survival director Stephen Corry said upon release of the new images: “One year later these photos provide yet more overwhelming evidence of the existence of uncontacted tribes. It is no longer acceptable for governments, companies or anthropologists to deny this. First contact is always dangerous and frequently fatal—both for the tribe and those attempting to contact them. The Indians’ wish to be left alone should be respected.” (Survival International, AP, Jan. 31)

Indigenous rights advocates in Madre de Dios are raising the alarm over a proposal to build a highway through Alto Purus National Park, Peru’s largest, which borders the Manu Park on the north and is also believed to shelter isolated bands. Carlos Tubino Arias Schreiber, a lawmaker from the right-wing Fuerza 2011 party, has been promoting the highway in Peru’s Congress. “In Purus the monkeys and plants have more rights than human beings,” he stated in November after a visit to the region. “The national parks have cut it off.”

Currently the Purus region is only accessible by plane or river. “Something must be done about Purus’ isolation,’ Tubino told Peru’s Congress on Jan. 5. “Three and a half thousand people are living in an unacceptable and unjust situation which creates many kinds of problems: exorbitant prices, difficulties with education, and, above all, lives threatened when there are medical emergencies. Human beings are worth more than trees and animals.”

On the day Tubino visited Purus in November, the local indigenous organizations Federation of Native Communities of Alto Purús (FECONAPU) issued a statement categorically rejecting the highway, citing the “possible invasion of our territories by colonists and mestizos.” Their statement also claimed a local Catholic priest, an Italian named Miguel Piovesan, is behind the highway plan, and has been applying “constant pressure” to have it built.

The Upper Amazon Conservancy agreed, asserting in a statement: “‘The road controversy first emerged as an obscure proposal with little public support by Piovesan. After intense political maneuvering, Piovesan succeeded in bringing his case to the legislature, which promptly shelved the project, citing a lack of public support in the region”‘ Piovesan has now “reemerged,” the Conservancy said, continuing “to push his road plan with the Peruvian media” with a “campaign of misinformation.”

Piovesan met Peru’s President Ollanta Humala in Lima in December. That month, the Purus’ parish magazine dedicated a special issue to plugging the road project, stating: “Without a highway there will be no development for this region… Purus today feels excluded.”

The Upper Amazon Conservancy counters: “Nearly 80% of Purus’ inhabitants are members of indigenous groups, the majority of which have organized against the proposal. The road’s supporters, meanwhile, are largely minority mestizo settlers in the provincial capital of Puerto Esperanza, relative newcomers to the region and many former loggers who would benefit from improved access and increased opportunities for resource extraction.”

Survival International’s Jonathan Mazower called the highway “a road to ruin.” He told The Ecologist magazine: ‘”The worst thing you can do to the Amazon and the people who live there, particularly if they’re uncontacted, is build a road through their territory. Every time that happens, the result is the same: lots of people die.”

Humala visited Purus on Dec. 23, just eight days after he met with Piovesan. Two days before that, Peru’s alliance of Amazonian indigenous peoples, AIDESEP, wrote to Humala, warning: “Since 2001 until the present day, the Catholic priest Miguel Piovesan has been trying everything he can to promote the construction of the highway, supposedly to ‘solve Purus’ isolation. This is without considering the negative environmental impacts that this kind of project would have, such as the destruction of millions of hectares of the rainforest, the death of the indigenous people living in voluntary isolation, and the invasion of indigenous land.”

The proposed route for the highway is from Puerto Esperanza, Purus’ only town, to a settlement on the Peru-Brazil border, Inapari, where it would connect to the “Inter-Oceanica” road system now under construction to link Peru’s Pacific coast with Brazil’s Atlantic ports.

The highway would also cut through Purus Communal Reserve, established to protect the lands of “contacted” indigenous people in the region, and the adjacent Territorial Reserve for “uncontacted”‘ peoples, established in 2002 after vigorous lobbying by Native Federation of the Rio Madre de Dios (FENAMAD). “The proposed highway is a major concern for us,” said Jorge Payaba, the director of FENAMAD’s isolated peoples team. “We have a great deal of information demonstrating that the areas that the road would cross are used by the Mashco Piro in voluntary isolation.”

FENAMAD charges that the highway would contravene a new law passed last year guaranteeing indigenous people the right to be consulted on any project affecting their territory. Carlos Tubino hailed that law a “historic page” for Peru’s Congress. He did not respond to The Ecologist’s requests for an interview. Miguel Piovesan also refused to respond to questions about the highway. (The Ecologist, Jan. 19)

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  1. “Mashco-Piro”

    Generally speaking, the article has a good focus and is correct. However, I still object to referring to these people as “uncontacted”. Their need and desire for isolation is precisely a result of too much contact. Also, Shaco was not a Matsiguenka person, but a colonist.