Oil and Logging Companies Threaten Peru’s Uncontacted Tribes

It was the dogs that woke me. One minute I had been fast asleep, the next the dogs’ yapping, rising to a frenzy, came drifting across the village and my eyes opened with a jolt. What I didn’t know then was what had set the dogs off: one of the world’s last uncontacted Indian tribes had just entered the village where I was staying.

March 11, 2008

It was the dogs that woke me. One minute I had been fast asleep, the next the dogs’ yapping, rising to a frenzy, came drifting across the village and my eyes opened with a jolt. What I didn’t know then was what had set the dogs off: one of the world’s last uncontacted Indian tribes had just entered the village where I was staying.

It was before dawn in one of the most remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon, and the Indians left as mysteriously as they came. But, later that day, they returned.

“What is it? What’s he saying?” I asked my guides, three Cashinahua Indian men, as our canoe pulled up at the village that afternoon. We had just come back from a hunting trip further upriver.

One of the villagers, Hipa, was shouting agitatedly. Octavio, one of my guides explained, “He’s saying one of the women in the village just saw some uncontacted Indians.”

“How many?”

“Three. They were armed with bows and arrows.”

“Where were they?”

“At the far end of the village, picking plantains.”

“What happened?”

“Hipa called out to them and they ran off immediately.”

Cashinahua girl fishing with plant poison, Balta, River Curanja. (©David Hill/Survival)

We spent that night barricaded in our huts speculating about what had happened. Who were they? According to Hipa, they were one of three different uncontacted tribes living deep in the surrounding jungle, possibly crisscrossing Peru’s border with Brazil. This wasn’t the first time he had seen them, but their presence in that part of the jungle was very unusual. If I had known there was any chance them of appearing, I wouldn’t have gone there myself.

Amazonian history shows uncontacted tribes are extremely vulnerable to any form of contact with outsiders, no matter how brief, because they do not have immunity to Western diseases, including the common cold. Indeed, after oil exploration by Shell opened up the territory of the previously uncontacted Nahua tribe in the mid-1980s, more than half of the Indians died.

“Why do you think they ran off like that?” I asked Octavio.

“Probably because they saw us,” he replied, “or realised we were here.”

The tribes Hipa spoke of are just three of an estimated 15 different uncontacted tribes in Peru, all of them living in the most remote parts of the rainforest. At least two of these tribes live in the northern Peruvian Amazon near the frontier with Ecuador, but the majority live in Peru’s southeastern lowlands. Some may never have had contact with outsiders at all. But it is believed that others are the descendants of tribes who had some form of contact over 100 years ago amid the so-called “Rubber Boom.” These groups, it is believed, fled the atrocities committed against them by rubber magnates and their employees: enslavement, massacres, and decimation by new diseases.

Aerial view of abandoned huts on river shore, believed to have belonged to the Mashco-Piro, 2004. (©ACCA)

Perhaps the largest of all these 15 tribes is the Mashco-Piro, numbering an estimated 600 people. Currently, they are under enormous threat from illegal loggers invading their territory to cut down mahogany trees. Mahogany is one of the world’s most valuable hardwoods, and southeast Peru is home to some of the last commercially viable stands of mahogany in the world. The loggers’ presence there brings them into contact with the Mashco-Piro every year, often leading to violence, sometimes deaths.

“The loggers want to kill the Mashco-Piro,” said one local indigenous man who asked not to be named. “And that’s what they’ve done, although the police come here and say it’s the uncontacted Indians who kill the loggers. But that’s not the case.”

The other major threat to the tribes is oil. Earlier this year, the Peruvian government opened up 70% of its Amazon to oil companies for exploration, where uncontacted Indians now face an invasion by oil workers. Currently, the most critical area is in the north near the border with Ecuador where Spanish company Repsol-YPF and U.S. company Barrett Resources are awaiting the green light from Peru’s Ministry of Mines and Energy to enter the next stage of exploration and production.

Abandoned hut, believed to be Mashco-Piro in Peru's Amazon. (©FENAMAD)

In their “Contingency Plans,” both Barrett and Repsol recommend that their workers use megaphones to “communicate” with the tribes if contact is made. Some of the phrases Barrett’s workers are expected to say through the megaphones include: “Is something disturbing you?”; “We are people just like you”; and “We haven’t come here to look for women, we have our own women in our own village.”

Both companies acknowledge the enormous danger posed by contact between outsiders and the tribes, but they have stubbornly refused to suspend their plans. What makes the tribes’ situation even more perilous is that the Peruvian government almost totally disregards them. Recently, a spokesperson for Perupetro, the government body charged with granting oil exploration licenses, compared the tribes to the Loch Ness monster, while Perupetro’s chairman, Daniel Saba, questioned their existence on national television.

“It’s absurd to say there are uncontacted peoples when no one has seen them,” Mr. Saba said. “Who are these uncontacted tribes people are talking about?’

Mr. Saba’s comments were made despite the fact that oil companies and even his own government have confirmed the existence of the tribes, to say nothing of the huge amount of evidence collected by Survival International, Peruvian indigenous organizations, and many other institutions and individuals over the years. If Perupetro allows companies to explore in areas inhabited by uncontacted tribes, it is likely to decimate their population—maybe then, they really won’t exist.

David Hill is a researcher and campaigner at Survival International.
For more information about uncontacted tribes in Peru and how to get involved with Survival’s campaign, please visit: www.survival-international.org. To watch Survival’s new film about uncontacted tribes around the world, narrated by acclaimed actress Julie Christie, visit: http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/uncontactedtribes.

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