The Mashco Piro, an isolated tribe in Peru's Amazon, are increasingly making contact with the outside world
DIAMANTE (Peru), Dec 6 - In Peru's remote southern Amazon, villagers rushed to the riverbank to witness a rare sighting - a group of Mashco Piro nomads standing on the other side, brandishing bows and arrows.
An elder from the indigenous hunter-gatherers, who have lived largely in isolation inside the rainforest for millennia, called to the Diamante villagers to ferry them across.
But a boat from the culture ministry intercepted the group, and carried them up the Madre de Dios River to issue a warning.
The officials told the Mashco Piro: "Evil people live on the other side of the river. If you cross, they will kill you."
Pressure is mounting to better protect 12 isolated ethnic groups living in the Peruvian Amazon - about 5,000 people - following deadly conflicts there and in neighbouring Brazil.
In Brazil, prosecutors are investigating the alleged massacre of at least 10 members of an "uncontacted" tribe by illegal gold miners near Peru's border, where funding cuts have led to the closure of surveillance posts.
Most indigenous groups living in isolation in Peru withdrew deep into the secluded rainforest after the trauma of being enslaved by white plantation owners during the 19th century rubber boom.
The Mashco Piro have largely shunned contact with outsiders but they are steadily emerging, often displaced by illegal loggers, gold miners and oil companies, as well as traffickers smuggling cocaine to Brazil, officials said.
"This is a complex place ... with communities (and) illegal actors swarming around - and plans for highways," said Lorena Prieto, who runs the culture ministry's PIACI unit, which protects indigenous communities.
"The ministry is intervening to create order."
After an elder in Diamante village was killed by the Mashco Piro in 2011, the ministry of culture and FENAMAD, an indigenous organisation in the Madre de Dios region, set up three permanent surveillance posts along the river.
"Another confrontation could break out and quickly end in a total genocide," said FENAMAD's field coordinator Victor Kameno. "We're trying to avoid this."
Some of the Diamante villagers fear the Mashco Piro, who the government estimates number between 500 and 800 people, might resort to theft and violence.
"This worries me a lot," said Gloria Palma Mormontoy, president of Diamante, with a look of deep concern on her face. "I don't know what we're going to do... This runs a risk for the entire community."
At a surveillance post 40 minutes from Diamante, agents intervene when passing boats approach the Mashco Piro to take photos or offer them gifts, like T-shirts and sodas.
These seemingly innocuous items could trigger an epidemic among jungle communities with no immunity to common diseases.
They can also lead to conflict. It is thought the Mashco killed the Diamante elder in 2011 because he stopped giving them bananas and yucca, after doing so for more than a decade to nurture a good relationship with the tribe.
The culture ministry now routinely leaves bananas and yucca along the beach to deter the Mashco Piro from raiding farms, breaking with a longstanding policy of avoiding contact with isolated tribes.
"This isn't a state policy and never will be," said Prieto. "But, in this specific case, the situation was already established. We're dealing with the consequences."
PUTTING OUT FIRES
Experts said providing the Mashco Piro, who traditionally hunt game and gather turtle eggs on the beach, with a steady source of food could have long-term repercussions.
"Every day they're coming out more and more," said Antonio Trigoso Ydalgo, a government official charged with protecting the Mashco Piro.
The government will end up integrating the Mashco Piro into society, rather than enabling some of the world's last human populations to maintain their original state of being, said Miguel Macedo, an anthropologist based in Peru's capital Lima.
"If you're more focused on putting out fires than taking long-term action for the future, it's going to be a lot more complicated," said Macedo of the Institute for the Common Good, an indigenous rights charity.
But it is the government's support for exploitation of the Amazon that is most damaging, he said.
"State investment in the energy sector, mining and forestry has much more weight than the ministry of culture," he said, adding that this could be leading to land conflicts, like those in Brazil.
"I can't tell you for certain that what's happened in Brazil hasn't happened here in Peru. If it happens in a remote zone nobody finds out," he said. Peru's ministry of culture said it is working to avoid such violence by pressing for more protected areas and increasing the number of surveillance outposts.
"We're advancing. We're not in the unfortunate situation Brazil seems to be in right now," said the ministry's Prieto.
Photo: THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/NEIL GIARDINO