Picture by William Huamani

Photo by William Huamani

WHILE GUIDING A GROUP of Danish tourists in the Manu Park region of the Peruvian Amazon in June 2012, William Huamani noticed something odd from their long boat on the Alto Madre de Dios river. “About 900 meters away I saw a naked man waving his hands, like [he was] asking for help,” explains Huamani. Using binoculars, he could see the man’s skin texture was hard and that his penis was strapped to his waist. The stranger had a big capyvara tooth, which is used as a knife. 

“All of a sudden this guy started running toward the boat and grabbed some rocks and started throwing them at us,” recalls Huamani. “He started also to throw arrows and one went on top of the roof of the boat. I told our boat driver to go faster and save the group. We managed to make it to the other side of the river, and from that far we saw more naked people showing their heads out.” 

This surprise encounter with a group of seven males, three females and two children – likely Mascho-Piro people – was Huamani’s first. He has since had two more run-ins, but “they seemed more tranquil” on those occasions. Huamani and his siblings operate Bonanza Tours in a large tract of jungle forest that is perpetually threatened by the logging industry. 

There may be more than 90 uncontacted tribal groups in the Amazon rainforests.

“I know in this park there are other tribes that haven’t been in touch with civilization and they are fighting for territory between other native groups,” says Huamani. Persistent reported sightings of Mascho-Piro people since 2008 – some aggressive – resulted in a short-lived public debate about what to do and how to handle their protection. Former Peruvian president Alan Garcia refused to acknowledge that uncontacted Amazon tribes exist at all, likely because of the complicated and delicate nature of the situation. 

Agencies such as FUNAI (Brazil’s National Indian Foundation) have reported that there may be more than 90 uncontacted tribal groups in the Amazon rainforests. They also report that Mascho-Piro people face pressure from legal and illegal logging practices, drug traffickers, overhead helicopters flown by industrial prospectors and eager missionaries. This might explain their movement in more exposed areas. 

It’s possible that the Peruvian government’s recent pledge to consult Indigenous people about development projects on their land may eventually impact the status of uncontacted people, but it does not address their appearance in places like Manu Park. Patrollers fearing more aggressive encounters have advised the Huamani's to keep away from the Mascho-Piro people. This is not realistic for them and others who live and work in the area. 

Economic pressures are increasing and likely pushing the Mascho-Piro people farther upriver and closer to industry, communities and lodges. Locals feel a genuine and foreboding sense of urgency, compassion and helplessness regarding the tribe’s protection. 

What do we do with an uncontacted culture living precariously in a complex world? Doing nothing only accepts the Mascho-Piro people’s expulsion from the land. Establishing an uncontacted people’s protection zone seems unlikely, given the importance of the region to other communities and industry. An intervention of some sort seems likely, but to what end? Transferring power to the Mascho-Piro to decide their own future would not be easy to do. 

But no solution will emerge until encounters like the Huamani’s are acknowledged as fact, not fiction. 

Joe Pavelka is an associate professor and coordinator of the Bachelor of Applied Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership program at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

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