Too-Close Encounters: The Mashco-Piro and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Glenn Shepard]

Just over a month ago a Peruvian indigenous federation circulated remarkable video footage showing about a hundred isolated (so-called “uncontacted”) Mashco-Piro Indians just across the river from a Piro indigenous village along the Rio de las Piedras in Peru. They  appeared to be asking for food and trade goods like rope and metal tools. The Piro and Mashco-Piro languages are close enough to allow communication. Hoping to avoid direct contact and the possibility of disease contagion, forest rangers at Monte Salvado floated a canoe laden with bananas across the river. After a tense three-day standoff, the Mashco-Piro eventually disappeared back into the forest. No one is quite sure why the Mashco-Piro — who have so steadfastly avoided such contact until recently — suddenly showed up. Many suspect that illegal loggers active throughout the region have disrupted their usual migration routes.

In late 2011, a different group of Mashco-Piro living near the border of Manu National Park shot and killed Shaco Flores, an old Matsigenka friend of mine, with an arrow. Having lived among the Piro for many years and learned the Piro language, Shaco had been patiently communicating and trading with the Mashco-Piro for over twenty years, always maintaing a safe distance but slowly drawing them closer with his gifts, food and conversation. But something happened on that fateful day in late November: perhaps the Mashco-Piro were spooked by Shaco’s appearance with several relatives at the manioc garden on a small river island where he had been allowing the Mashco-Piro to harvest his crops; perhaps there was internal disagreement among the Mashco-Piro whether or not to accept Shaco’s long-standing offer to bring them into permanent contact. We may never know.

Just a few days earlier, a Spanish ornithologist had been staying at Shaco’s house and photographed a small group of Mashco-Piro across the river through a birding scope. It is possible that the powerfully built, somewhat bearded man pictured in these photographs is the same one who fired the single arrow that killed Shaco. After Shaco’s death, these sensational photographs, like the Mashco-Piro video clips this year, went viral across the internet, briefly drawing the attention of international media outlets including the BBC, MSN, Huffington Post and even Fox News. Our overly connected, globalized world is fascinated with stories about “uncontacted” peoples, especially if those stories involve violence.

Today the Mashco-Piro are entirely nomadic hunters and gatherers who keep no gardens and make no permanent houses, just lean-to palm shacks under the forest canopy, sometimes woven from living, standing palm saplings. Yet they are hardly throwbacks to the “Stone Age,” as some media outlets present them. In fact, the Mashco-Piro are every bit as modern as, well, the automobile and the rubber tire. In the late 19th century, before John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire and Henry Ford drove the first “horseless carriage” out of his shed in Detroit, the Mashco-Piro inhabited the upper Manu River in settled agricultural villages. In 1894, the infamous “King of Rubber” Carlos Fermin Fitzcarraldo, hauled a steamship across a small hillock into the Manu River basin and opened this isolated region to rubber tappers. This historical event was immortalized (and heavily fictionalized) by Klaus Kinski’s signature performance in Werner Herzog’s film, “Fitzcarraldo.” After the “Mashco” (as they were then called) resisted Fitzcarraldo’s incursions, his men slaughtered them in a gory battle that was said to have left the river water undrinkable from so many corpses (see Shepard et al. 2010). Apparently, surviving Mashco-Piro took to the woods and have maintained a nomadic lifestyle ever since, hunting and gathering in several distinctive local groups throughout a wide territory between the Piedras and Manu Rivers in Madre de Dios, Peru.

It is hardly appropriate to call such peoples “uncontacted,” since their very isolation occurred in the aftermath of a particularly violent form of contact. For this reason, I coined the term “indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation” in 1996, when I wrote an open letter to Mobil Oil warning the company as well as the Peruvian authorities and several indigenous federations of the many dangers of oil exploration along the Piedras River, where the Mashco-Piro are known to circulate. Then again, “voluntary isolation” may also be another kind of misnomer, given their forced, almost refugee-like status. But the concept of “voluntary isolation” caught on in Peru and elsewhere in Amazonia, emphasizing the important fact that most such groups are not Stone Age innocents, isolated and left behind by Progress, unaware of modernity and all its wonders and discontents. Rather, the Mashco-Piro and other groups have chosen ongoing isolation as a conscious strategy for survival, and have actively resisted  repeated attempts by missionaries, tourists, film crews and even well-meaning indigenous neighbors to establish “first contact.” In addition to the cultural erosion and personal indignities recently contacted groups usually endure, they also inevitably suffer severe, often fatal epidemics of viral diseases, including the flu. Amazonian groups like the Mashco-Piro who have been isolated since the turn of the 20th century essentially re-live (and often die from) the great flu pandemic of 1918, and all its virulent permutations since then, when they enter (or re-enter) “contact.”

Aside from questioning popular notions about “primitive” nomadic societies, the recent appearance of the Mashco-Piro at Monte Salvado asking for food brings up vexing issues about the ethics of isolation and contact. In Peru’s close neighbor, Brazil, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and its predecessor, the Indian Protection Agency (SPI), throughout much of the 20th century pursued an aggressive strategy of locating and contacting isolated indigenous groups who were dangerously close to (or in the way of) expanding frontier zones. The tragedy of this official policy became especially apparent during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, as rapid road construction and colonization accompanying the “Brazilian miracle” devastated huge swathes of forest and threw hitherto remote indigenous groups like the Cinta Larga, Waimiri-Atroari, Arara, Surui, Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and others into apocalyptic situations of demographic and cultural collapse. In 1987 FUNAI reversed this policy under a new “Department of Isolated Indians,” focusing their efforts on locating, demarcating and protecting territories where isolated groups live  in order to avoid contact as long as possible. Contact, carried out by teams with long-time field experience, is considered a final, emergency option if a particular group is in imminent threat of conflict with outsiders. Such was the case in 1996 when a FUNAI team contacted a small group of the warlike Korubo (known locally by the quaint moniker of “head smashers”) in the vast Javari River indigenous reserve, close to the Peruvian border. This group had apparently split off from the main population in the center of the reserve and moved dangerously close to the reserve’s border, entering into conflict with local non-indigenous populations. FUNAI decided to contact this one group, giving them vaccinations, health care and other assistance but maintaining them in a state of partial isolation to this day.

In Peru, however, there is no such agency as FUNAI with the funding, institutional presence and field experience (however tragically earned) necessary to carry out such contact operations and protect recently contacted groups. In the past, missionary groups have typically been the ones to handle (and often initiate) contact situations in Peru. Yet neither missionaries of various denominations nor the anthropological team of Manu National Park were able to respond quickly or effectively enough to the Nahua (Yora) contact on the Mishagua river in 1984-1985, leading to the death of nearly half the group (Shepard et al. 2010).

The Peru-Brazil border region has perhaps the world’s largest concentration of isolated indigenous groups, and is also beset by numerous problems associated with illegal logging, gold mining and drug trafficking, rapid deforestation along the new Interoceanic (Trans-Amazon) Highway, and a boom of oil and gas exploration and extraction. FUNAI has long sought institutional partnerships with the Peruvian government to deal with these often overlapping problems across the porous, mostly invisible border, but so far little progress has been made. The indigenous federation in Madre de Dios province, FENAMAD, has taken on the role of recognizing and defending Peru’s isolated indigenous populations in the face of self-serving denials by loggers, oil and gas companies and even government agencies themselves as to the very existence of such groups. FENAMAD, like FUNAI, supports a fundamental policy of “no contact”, respecting such peoples’ apparent choice of isolation.

But what if the Mashco-Piro, for whatever internal reasons or external pressures, return to Monte Salvado to ask for food and gifts in the future? What of the risks of flu contagion, or worse, as these exchanges continue and perhaps intensify? In addition to the risks of of contact or near-contact to isolated groups’ health, Shaco’s tragic death underscores the risks that isolated groups can pose to local populations. Peruvian protected area management plans, anthropological impact studies, and oil exploration projects in the Madre de Dios region and elsewhere now often include “contingency plans” for dealing with isolated indigenous groups. The improvised yet apparently effective (for now) response to the tense situation at Monte Salvado shows that this process of reflection and planning has paid off; the forest rangers, rather than succumbing to the usual paternalistic instinct to give not just food but clothes, matches, and so on to the “poor naked savages,” took the precaution of floating their food gifts across in a canoe, reducing the chance of direct disease contagion. Yet what would happen if a Mashco-Piro were to come down with a cold? Is there an emergency medical-anthropological-indigenous team in Peru that could be put into action on short notice to contain an epidemic outbreak before it decimates the group? How could Peru take better advantage of the experience of FUNAI’s Department of Isolated Indians in neighboring Brazil to prepare itself for the real and possibly imminent contingencies of contact with the Mashco-Piro and other isolated groups?

I don’t claim to have the answers to these difficult questions, but I do hope this posting will provoke useful debate.

Glenn Shepard is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist and film-maker now working at the Goeldi Museum in Belém do Pará, Brazil. He has done field research in Amazonian Peru and Brazil as well as in Mexico, Asia and the Middle East. He writes on topics ranging from shamanism to human ecology to indigenous modernity. He blogs at “Notes from the Ethnoground” and is on Twitter @TweetTropiques.