Last Indians of the Amazon

Skip to first unread message

Arnold Tarrobago

Jan 23, 2008, 11:10:28 PM1/23/08

Last Indians of the Amazon

David Hill is a researcher and campaigner for Survival International, the international movement supporting tribal peoples worldwide. Last year he travelled to the Peruvian Amazon and spent months researching some of the world’s last remaining uncontacted tribes. Peru is home to an estimated 15 of these tribes and all of them are facing extinction as oil companies and illegal loggers move in on the natural resources of their habitat. Isolated Indians are especially vulnerable to any contact because they have no immunity to outsiders’ diseases

Lead article photo

Tomas, a Mastanahua man, in Puerto Paz. Photograph: David Hill/Survival

The most incredible part of my trip to Peru was meeting members of the Mastanahua tribe. They were contacted for the first time by missionaries only a few years ago and the rest of this tribe continues to live in isolation. The Mastanahua live in the far reaches of the Curanja River in the south-eastern Peruvian Amazon, near the border with Brazil. It took me about five days to travel upriver in a small canoe from Puerto Esperanza – one of the Peruvian Amazon’s remotest towns – to reach their village.

When I arrived in the village with my guides, two of the Mastanahua women were there and the man was away hunting. My guide called out across the village, but the women didn’t want to come near us and stayed in their hut. We sat down, made a fire and waited. At one point my guide suggested that I go and stand in the middle of the clearing with my hat off as a way of saying “Hello, this is who I am”.

After a few hours the man, carrying arrows on his back, returned. He seemed happy to see me as he burst into the clearing, and presented me with a turtle he had just caught. I felt lucky to be able to spend time with him in this extraordinary place caught between two worlds. One of my guides could understand the Mastanahua language and so I was able to learn about the uncontacted members of the tribe.

A lot of the places I visited were extremely remote, and I spent a lot of time travelling by canoe, stopping off for the night in indigenous villages or camping on the banks of rivers or in palm-leaf huts. One night, as I was trying to sleep on the riverbank, I could hear the splash of caiman entering the river. Their eyes glowed red in my torchlight. We had seen a jaguar crossing the river earlier in the day and I was convinced it was lurking in the dense jungle, just metres behind me.

On my journey to the upper reaches of the Piedras River I stayed in an indigenous Yine village. Uncontacted tribes have been seen along this river more often than anywhere else in the region, particularly the Mashco-Piro tribe. On my first morning with the Yine I arranged a meeting with the whole community and explained that I wanted to record the testimonies of anyone who had seen the uncontacted tribes.

Rommel, one member of the village, had seen them and told me what he witnessed. “They had arrows with them and they weren't wearing any clothes. They had long hair down to their shoulders and they fastened it around their foreheads. Their faces were painted red with achiote. They were painted all over their bodies, too.”

It was in this Yine village that I tried the infamous masato, a fermented drink made from manioc. It was prepared by the women in a massive vat and stirred with what looked like a canoe paddle. The first time I tried it I was calling in on a small community of eight Yine families early in the morning. The masato was presented to me in a plastic blue bowl. I sipped it and immediately realised I didn’t like it, but knew it would be rude not to drink it so got through it as quickly as I could. By the end of my trip, however, I had developed quite a taste for it.

On the Yurua River I met people from the Murunahua tribe, discovered for the first time in the mid-1990s by illegal loggers. The presence of loggers in areas inhabited by uncontacted tribes is extremely dangerous; in the Amazon, up to 90% of entire groups have been wiped out by disease after first contact with outsiders. Jorge, one of the surviving Murunahua, told me: “When the loggers made contact with us we came out of the jungle. Then the disease came, although we didn't know what a cold was then. Half of my people died. My aunt died. My nephew died. The old people especially. When the old people came out of the jungle they had no resistance to the disease."        
Contact between outsiders and these remote tribes can bring about violence. Loggers are often armed and isolated tribes usually carry bows and arrows with them for hunting. There was one particularly brutal encounter when illegal loggers came upon an uncontacted tribe – probably the Mashco-Piro – just after I left one village on the Piedras River. One logger and an unknown number of the tribe were killed.

The Peruvian government has created five reserves for the tribes, but they don’t really mean anything in practice. The government is promoting oil exploration in regions where the tribes live. The president [Alan Garcia Perez] has even gone so far as to say that the tribes don’t exist, although the evidence I gathered proves irrefutably that they do.

While I was there I took care not to enter areas that might have brought me into contact with the tribes. It’s clear that they don’t want to be in touch with the outside world. When there are occasional encounters between them and outsiders they tend to slip back into the jungle. They are aware of an outside society and if they wanted to make contact with it they would. But they should be given the time and space to make that choice and not have it imposed on them by oil companies, loggers or the government – all of whom are more interested in exploiting the natural resources on their land than anything else.

Survival International wants to turn Peru’s tribes into an issue of international concern. We’re using the material I gathered to lobby the Peruvian government and companies, monitor the situation on the ground, and encourage our supporters and members of the public to join our campaign and stand up for the tribes’ rights. Our position is that the Peruvian government should prohibit any form of natural resource extraction on land inhabited by these tribes, and that it should remove outsiders who have invaded their land. If that doesn’t happen, these people will be wiped out.

• David Hill was interviewed by Ann Scholl. To read more about Peru's uncontacted tribes, visit the Survival International website.

A Luta Continua...

Share life's special moments with Photo Gallery. Windows Live Photo Gallery
Reply all
Reply to author
0 new messages