The tourists may be well-intentioned. But that doesn’t mean the photos they’re taking of the Mashco-Piro people in a Peruvian forest, near the Brazilian border, are a good idea.
The tourists’ images — which document people living in voluntary isolation, cut off from the rest of the world — are arriving at a worrisome rate at Survival International, according to the advocacy group’s Peru campaigner, Rebecca Spooner.
“It’s been happening with more and more frequency,” Spooner told Live Science. The tourists, she said, are eager to share their photographic findings. Survival International, Spooner said, is even more eager to keep tourists away from “uncontacted tribes” such as the Mashco-Piro.
Survival International and other advocates are now sounding the alarm and warning travelers to avoid tour groups that might offer glimpses of uncontacted tribes, of which there are believed to be at least 77 in the Amazon, as The Washington Post previously reported.
“Uncontacted Indians are not a tourist attraction,” Spooner has said. “So-called tour guides should already know better.”
Interactions and close encounters between the tribes and the tourists seeking them out on so-called “human safaris” have become so concerning that one group, Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries, recently called for government intervention.
“It’s high time the Peruvian government put words into action instead of these endless meetings about devising protocols and policies,” the federation’s president Klaus Quicque said, according to Live Science.
In this case, there’s concern for the Mashco-Piro people, who live in Peru’s Madre de Dios region.
Common health problems and contagious diseases can be extremely dangerous for members of an uncontacted tribe. According to Live Science, “illnesses like the flu and malaria … devastated the Zo’e tribe in northern Brazil after Christian missionaries established a base camp in the area in the 1980s.”
“This is obviously really worrying, because the Mashco-Piro are an uncontacted tribe and are extremely vulnerable,” Spooner told Live Science. “They don’t have resistance to common diseases.”
Uncontacted people also face threats of violence related to illegal logging and drug trafficking, according to the group, and they’re also imperiled by gas and oil exploration.
“There is a huge amount of conflict in the Amazon at the moment,” Spooner told The Post earlier this year.
In July, seven members of an indigenous tribe caught the flu and needed treatment from a team of officials in Brazil. In an interview with The Post, one member of that team later described a challenging, “tense” encounter with the sick Indians.
“It was a difficult situation, a tense situation, and within this situation you could perceive a reaction of distrust,” said Carlos Travassos, a government worker in Brazil’s indigenous affairs department.
In 2012, amid concern about the tourist expeditions, the Observer contacted companies in Peru and asked about arranging a trip to the uncontacted tribes.
“The uncontacted peoples have been sighted on the Madre de Dios river in Manú. Let me know how many days you want and I’ll suggest a tailor-made programme for your party,” said one, contacted anonymously by the Observer with a specific request to seek out the tribe. “We can’t be 100% sure we can see the uncontacted. If we are lucky we can see. In 2011 they came out in the months of May and October,” said another.
As Live Science noted, “‘uncontacted’ is a bit of a misnomer … Most of the peoples who are considered uncontacted are aware of the outside world, and some maintain ties with nearby tribes, but they choose to live in relative isolation.”
The existence of the Mashco-Piro people has been known and recorded since the 1970s, Live Science said — and the site features a photo gallery that includes “the closest images of an uncontacted tribe ever … a family of Mashco-Piro people on film near a river.” But, Live Science noted, the Mashco-Piro people “have long resisted contact with missionaries and other visitors.”
A few years ago, anthropologist Glenn Shepard wrote a blog post that detailed the death of a friend who was familiar with the Mashco-Piro’s culture. The man would occasionally leave them gifts from a distance, Shepard wrote in the post, which was published in January 2012. He planted a garden and allowed the Mashco-Piro to take his crops. In 2011, he was killed in that garden by a Mashco-Piro bowman.
“Shaco’s death is a tragedy: he was a kind, courageous and knowledgeable man,” Shepard wrote. “He believed he was helping the Mashco-Piro. And yet in this tragic incident, the Mashco-Piro have once again expressed their adamant desire to be left alone.”
Survival International and other advocates have called on the Peruvian government to “prevent tour operators from stopping their boats when the Indians appear; or allowing tourists to take photographs of the Indians; or leaving items as gifts for the tribes.” The groups are also calling on the government to “create an emergency contingency plan for cases of contact, and measures to prevent unwanted contact.”
Said Stephen Corry, Survival International’s director: “What we’re seeing with uncontacted tribes today is merely a continuation of the genocide that started with the arrival of the first European colonists in the Americas. Whole populations were destroyed when outsiders stole their land and resources, and spread diseases to which they had no immunity. It’s still happening. Peru must act immediately before more tribes are annihilated.”