Courtesy FENAMAD
“This should not be understood as a process of assimilation into society or a road towards forcing a more permanent contact with these people.”

Protect the Uncontacted: Peru’s Plan for Isolated Peoples

Rick Kearns

Peru is planning a "controlled contact" effort to communicate with the Mashco-Piro, a voluntary isolated people, that has been unexpectedly appearing in other indigenous communities and has been left items by tourists on the so-called “human safaris” but some advocates are warning that any contact can result in tragedy despite assurances from Peruvian officials and a team of United States anthropologists.

The Mashco-Piro, since 2011, have left their part of the Peruvian Amazon and have come in conflict with other indigenous communities and others. Advocates said that drug traffickers and illegal loggers in both Brazil and Peru were pushing the Mashco-Piro out of their traditional territory.

In the next few years the uncontacted Mashco-Piro caught the attention of the so-called human safari – where groups of tourists viewing the Indigenous Peoples would leave food, personal items and beer in the people’s territory. Advocates from the NGO Survival International (SI) and others quickly condemned these activities due to the risk of passing diseases to the Mashco-Piro for which they have no immunity and, as has happened to many millions of Indigenous in the last 500 years, they die in significant numbers.

By May of this year the Peruvian Ministry of Culture issued a press release announcing their initial plans after some Mashco-Piro came into contact with a few other tribes and especially one conflict in the Spring where a young man was killed by an arrow shot by a Mashco-Piro warrior.

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The Ministry also stated that: “This should not be understood as a process of assimilation into society or a road towards forcing a more permanent contact with these people.”

More photos of the Mashco-Piro were published in late July and the Ministry again issued press statements asserting that the government would seek to communicate with the uncontacted people with the aide of members of the indigenous Yine people. It was also noted that there were 70 confirmed encounters with Mashco-Piro in 2014.

Vice Minister of Intercultural Exchange of the Ministry of Culture, Patricia Balbuena stated that “the situation of extreme vulnerability of this group requires immediate action from the authorities to safeguard their health and prevent negative consequences of uncontrolled contact, such as the eventual confrontations with neighboring villages.”

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“This communication would constitute the first experience of a relationship between the state and a group with these characteristics, avoiding the informal intervention of other parties,” Balbuena said.

“This carries the enormous goal of intercultural dialogue that cannot be postponed,” she added.

Certain U.S. scholars also asserted the need for a controlled contact effort. In an article published in Science Magazine by U.S. Anthropologists Robert S. Walker and Kim R. Hill, the scholars argue that a well-designed plan of ‘controlled contact’ can work in favor of the indigenous people.

“A well-designed contact can be quite safe, compared to the disastrous outcomes from accidental contacts. But safe contact requires a qualified team of cultural translators and healthcare professionals that is committed to staying on site for more than a year…Given that isolated populations are not viable in the long term, well-organized contacts are today both humane and ethical. We know that soon after peaceful contact with the outside world, surviving indigenous populations rebound quickly from population crashes, with growth rates over 3 percent per year,” according to Walker and Kim.

However, advocates from SI and elsewhere have asserted that any contact is fraught with danger.

In a press statement from July 30, SI emphasized the need for strict guidelines to manage the contact safely, at the same time stating that the organization was skeptical that the efforts will be carried out correctly.

“Where not already in place due to contact being expected, expert medical teams and auxiliaries must travel to the area immediately after an appropriate quarantine period, and be trained and equipped to attend to the particular circumstances prevailing in early contact situations. They must remain in situ on a long-term basis but care must be taken not to encourage the tribal people to become dependent. This requirement, though basic, is unlikely to be properly fulfilled,” SI said.

“The tribe’s land must be protected for its ownership and use, and its boundaries policed to prevent incursions by unauthorized people. The latter must also be kept away if tribespeople have voluntarily left the borders of their own land. Contact must not be initiated by anyone other than the tribe in question, as nearly all contacts result in loss of life.”

As of press time, the Peruvian Government had not announced a date for the planned contact with the Mashco-Piro.

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