The story

This picture traveled around the globe February 2012 and appears on lists of most remarkable photos of the year 2012. It’s the twenty-first century and there are still uncontacted Indians! They stare at you, self-assuredly, directly from the Stone Age. This is what all our ancestors looked like about ten thousand years and only four hundred generations ago. The internet shows crude amateur video of an Indian shooting at a tourist boat with bow and arrow. In 2011 they actually shot somebody.  


All kinds of questions have popped up. Is this fake or not? Wild Indians over five hundred years after Columbus? Why did they show up from the forest only now?  How did this group fare after their debut on the internet? How did the world react? What was YOUR reaction to the fascinating footage? 


Little by little it becomes clear what is going on in the Amazonian rainforest. These  twenty-five or so Indians obviously have no need to be contacted but they do want machetes, pots and pans. This made cynical journalists conclude that they were not ‘uncontacted’ at all. They are right. Nowadays, cultures without any knowledge about the rest of the world are not likely to exist anywhere. Anthropologists prefer the term ‘voluntarily isolated’.

Mashco Piro

 Are their days numbered or will they themselves determine their future?

Photo of the Mashco Piros in Peru
uncontacted Mashco Piro natives looking into the camera
Foto Survival International / D. Cortijo.


Until a hundred years ago the ancestors of these Mashco (Maschco means ‘wild’ in the local dialect) Piros shared their remote Peruvian corner of Amazonia with tens of thousands of other Indians. The rubber boom resulted in large profits for the brutal outsiders who came to the area. It resulted in disease, slavery and death for most of the indigenous people. Survivors who managed to escape into the jungle had learned their lesson. ‘The Manu river was dyed red with our blood.’ That fear still remains, four generations of oral history later.  A large part of the Indians who were contacted by ‘us’ in recent years died within a year or so. Sadly, this also happened to the tribe of the small group of hunters who stumbled into a Shell Oil camp in the eighties and were taken out on a helicopter. The panicked and after leaving the helicopter they ran into the forest, utterly bewildered by the experience. A year later their village was contacted. About half of the people there had died due to the ‘innocent’ western viruses that their own hunters had brought home.


This disaster hasn’t happened to the Mashco Piros. Not yet! In 2012 they have been sighted several times in the dry season. Fortunately, there were still about as many of them as in 2011 and they carried a newborn baby with them. There is no sign of elder men and women. Everything indicates that they move around as nomadic hunters/gatherers. They don’t cultivate manioc or bananas, but they help themselves to whatever remains of old chacras (primitive farms) near the river. There is far less of that food than in 2011, when they camped at the same place throughout the dry season, while gleaning the remains of cultivated fields in the area. There is occasionally communication with them, by shouting safely across the river. Their leader is the one looking directly into the camera on the photo. His name is Mgenoklu: Jaguar. With the other two adult men he shoots the arrows and throws the stones whenever somebody is getting too near: simple and effective communication. These three men seem perfectly healthy and not afraid of anybody. After last year’s casualty they lead by 1-0. Elder people do happen to be around, but stay hidden at the forest’s edge and will not get close to the river. They are likely to have different experiences. Or they are still close to the horror of a hundred years ago because in their youth they have heard the survivors around the campfire tell their tales. 


Now it is a matter of life and death for them to safeguard this status quo. They should not be approached, there should be no unexpected actions and there certainly should be no attempts to lure them with machetes, pots, pans, beads and mirrors. Maybe in the course of time this will bring them closer, maybe not. Let them decide about that. Emergency medical help should be near at hand in case of an infectious disease outbreak. If this works well, time and restraint may solve this situation reasonably well. 


This for the Mashco Piros hopeful situation did not happen by itself. For years, the Peruvian government has denied the very existence of uncontacted/isolated groups like them. Also for these Mashco Piros, the government did not do anything at all. It is the local native Indian federation, Fenamad, that built a control post right on the spot where the Mashco Piros had established themselves last year. Now that the control post is in place, misunderstanding is no longer possible. Passing boats now keep their distance. This includes boats with tourists heading for a paradisiacal rainforest experience along the Rio Manu. It is those tourists who caused serious pressure to get close to the Mashco Piros on their river bank in 2011, against all laws, rules and common sense. This control post cost five thousand dollars, mainly due to the cost of tropical hardwood which can easily be sold illegally nowadays. So even in this remote area wood is expensive. Fenamad doesn’t have much money. And although the whole world was fascinated by the wild footage and photos, the only tangible reaction was a website support list by Survival International.


A group of Dutch high school students were the exception. While the rest of the world was just watching the video, they decided to become active and get the money together for the control post. Their school, the Heerbeeck College, organises an educational excursion to Peru every two years. All students involved in the excursion work hard to pay for their own travel expenses and on top of that raise over one thousand dollars each to support projects in Peru. Projects they themselves select, like this control post project! 

the control post at the Rio Madre de Dios, paid by Dutch students
  The story turns out to be even more complex.Rubber is no longer a threat to the Amazon Indians, thanks to the large scale rubber plantations in the Far East and even more so thanks to all kinds of synthetic replacements. Missionaries are also less of a threat, partly because they are less convinced of their own certainties nowadays (this is besides the odd fundamentalist missionary, nowadays curiosities of their own). But nevertheless, the Peruvian government considers those last groups of voluntarily isolated Indians, loosely roaming their ancestral forests, to be a serious problem. For these last tribes, oil and gas pose the ultimate danger. Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia: everywhere along the Andean foothills the oil companies show up, supported by these governments. The bigger picture is that our twenty-five Mashco Piros were pushed southward by other groups of ‘wild’ Indians. These other groups are being pushed away by the large-scale illegally expanding Camisea gas project, located north of Manu National Park. 


From the east a similar threat has arisen. Along the Interoceanica, the newly constructed road paid by Brasil, tropical hardwood can easily be transported over the Andes to Lima and from there shipped straight to Japan. No more detours around Tierra del Fuego, or expensive trips through the Panama Canal. Illegal logging of tropical hardwood has exploded in this part of Peru and Brasil, and it has pushed other groups of ‘wild’ Indians westward, away from the border region, in the direction of the Mashco Piros.


Therefore, salvation for the Mashco Piros will have to come from the Reserva Amarakaeri, not far from where they showed up last year. Nobody lives in the heart of this native reserve anymore. An ambitious Dominican priest managed to get the original inhabitants, the fierce Harakmbut Indians, feared by the Spanish conquistadores, out of the forest and into his mission post at the village of Shintuya, somewhere back in the fifties. Make them cross the Rio Madre de Dios and our band of twenty-five Mashco Piros would effortless blend into this unspoiled reserve. But it is this reserve that the Hunt Oil company, Peru’s largest private foreign investor, has its sites on. Their helicopters have been flying around here for some years already. All of this is completely illegal, but just as at their Camisea project farther north, Hunt Oil has its own solutions for legal problems. The present Peruvian government seems equally receptive to these solutions as the previous one. This has led to a growing resistance against the latest oil plans (for more information google with: david hill peru).


threats encroaching on the Mashco Piros



The Andes to the west, from the north wild Indians scared away by Hunt Oil, from the east wild Indians pushed out by illegal loggers, Hunt Oil itself from the south: these are all threats to the Mashco Piros. On top of that, a year low in fruit and bushmeat and inevitably our small band literally found themselves beached on the bank of the Madre de Dios. Right now, January 2013, the rainy season is on its way and the Mashco Piros, after having survived 2011, have also made it all the way through 2012. But their time for solutions is running out.

This seems too big a job for thirty high school students from Holland. It takes more to continue after their great start. Fenamad needs more money for the legal procedures if the Mashco Piros are to survive. Please think about it: are you also a world-citizen, equally involved as those Dutch students? 

Please donate!