Barbara Fraser
This sign, outside the Ministry of Culture in the port on the Madre de Dios River, cautions that if travelers see nomadic people along the riverbanks, they should not try to contact them; give them clothing, food or other items; or take photos (in case cameras are interpreted as weapons), and to inform the Ministry of Culture of any sightings or encounters.

Murder Raises Concerns of Protecting Nomadic and Settled Indigenous in Peru

Barbara Fraser

Just days after a young Matsigenka man was killed by a member of a nomadic tribe, Peru’s largest indigenous organization proposed creating a corridor to protect such isolated groups outside pressures.

Leonardo Pérez, 20, was killed by an arrow when a group of about 30 Mashco Piro passed through the Matsigenka community of Shipetiari, near Manu National Park, according to a statement by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture.

Officials said it was not clear why a member of the group shot Pérez, but people familiar with the case said the group was apparently seeking food in community fields and tools or other implements in houses.

Because such encounters are becoming more frequent, the Ministry of Culture is reviewing its contingency plans to provide better protection for both the nomadic groups and settled communities, Patricia Balbuena, vice minister for intercultural affairs, told a press conference on May 11.

Pérez’s killing was the latest in a series of encounters between people who generally shun contact with the outside world and villagers, many of them also indigenous, living near forested areas and rivers where those groups are known to travel.

A series of parks and reserves stretching across southeastern Peru and into Brazil protects forests inhabited by what may be the largest population of isolated indigenous people in the world.

The government should take measures to protect the isolated inhabitants in that area—which covers some 34,750 square miles, nearly the size of the state of Indiana—as well as the biological diversity, said leaders of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, AIDESEP).

That area also includes six oil and gas concessions, as well as villages, drug trafficking routes, forestry concessions, logging camps and logging roads. All increase the risk of contact that could infect isolated people with diseases to which they have no natural resistance, said Beatriz Huertas, a Peruvian anthropologist who has studied Peru’s isolated groups extensively and wrote the report recommending the protected corridor.

Isolated groups tend to remain near the headwaters of rivers during the rainy season, but in April or May, as floodwaters recede, they move downstream in search of turtle eggs and other resources, Huertas said.

Over the past year, there have been several reports of groups entering communities along the upper Madre de Dios and the Las Piedras rivers in southeastern Peru and taking metal objects, especially machetes, axes and pots.

In 2011, Shaco Flores, a Matsigenka man in the community of Diamante, also near Manu National Park, was killed by an arrow fired by a member of a group of Mashco Piro near the community of Diamante, also near Manu National Park. Flores had allowed Mashco Piro to take crops from his field and had been trying to establish closer contact with them, according to anthropologist Glenn Shepard, who knew him.

The nomadic groups trace their history back at least a century, to the rubber boom in the Peruvian Amazon, when rubber barons enslaved indigenous people. Some fled into the forest and have shunned contact since then.

But oil and gas production, gold mining, logging, drug trafficking, adventure tourism and Protestant and Catholic missionaries continue to put pressure on the groups.

Mashco Piro people have lived in the area around Shipetiari since before the community was established, according to a report by the Federation of Native Communities of the Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries (Fenamad, for its Spanish initials).

Members of a Mashco Piro group had also entered Shipetiari in October 2014 and February 2015, encounters that resulted in “property damage” but no personal injuries, the Fenamad statement said.

“If isolated people appear in an area, it is better for the villagers to move out of that area,” Huertas said.

The residents of Shipetiari, whose houses are distant from one another, have said they would not relocate, however, and have asked for a perimeter fence, according to Fenamad.

The incursions into Shipetiari and into Monte Salvado, on the Las Piedras River, should encourage the government to step up monitoring of the way isolated groups use their territories—without contacting them— and set up guard posts to protect them from outsiders who could carry diseases to which they have no natural resistance, according to Huertas.

“The government has taken some steps,” she said, “but I don’t think there’s a real appreciation of the scope of the problem.”

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