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Indigenous People in Isolation and Initial Contact in Peru

  • Peru’s Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact (PIACI in Spanish) are extremely vulnerable groups living in remote areas of the Amazon, often leading nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles and relying on subsistence economies. These peoples have a deep and generational relationship with their ecosystems yet face significant threats due to economic interests that seek to exploit their territories.

    Peru is home to many PIACI groups, all of whom share a history of social injustice and territorial dispossession perpetrated by the State and other agents. These groups have opted for isolation as a survival strategy in the face of territorial and resource exploitation conducted both by state actors and through state omission. Territorial invasion and forced contacts have resulted in devastating consequences, from social fragmentation to deaths caused by majore epidemics.

    The Peruvian State recognizes key differences between PIAs (Indigenous Peoples in Isolation) and PICIs (Indigenous Peoples in Initial Contact), establishing differentiated protection measures. An official register of PIACIs and indigenous reserves has been created, managed by the Vice-Ministry of Interculturality.

    The PIACI Law, its regulations and the Protocol of Action clearly define these distinctions, considering the level of contact with the non-indigenous population. It is crucial that the State take concrete and urgent measures to protect these groups, even beyond what is done for other indigenous peoples.

    Some of the PIACI groups that have been identified in recent decades are included in the document below.

    Mashco Piro people are located in three distinct geographic groups in the Peruvian Amazon. They are characterized by their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and their possible abandonment of agriculture to avoid contact with outsiders. Their language, understood by Yine neighbours, has only been identified partially over the course of tense and fleeting encounters.

    There are several theories about the origin of Mashco Piro, linked to a history of clashes with rubber tappers and subsequent isolation to avoid slavery and diseases brought on by outsiders. During the 20th century, this group were the target of aggression by oil and logging companies and also experienced clashes with local people and loggers.

    In recent years, Mashco Piro people have staged violent actions against communities and loggers in the Las Piedras River region, raising concerns among local populations. Despite efforts of indigenous organizations and the state to protect their territory, the Mashco Piro continue to face threats to their survival and experience clashes with the surrounding society.

    Matsiguenka people are scattered in the region between the Urubamba River and the upper Madre de Dios, with different levels of contact with civil society.  Matsiguenka people fear being captured and sold due to the humiliations suffered during the rubber era, which has led some groups to adopted stricter isolation.

    The boom in the rubber industry led to persecution, slavery, disease, and death among Matsiguenka people, causinf them to flee to hard-to-reach areas or to concentrate around rubber extraction areas. Some groups isolated themselves completely in order to survive.

    In the 1950s, contact with the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano led to the formation of the Tayacome community, but illness and internal problems caused divisions. Inter-ethnic conflict with the Yoras, provoked by oil companies, led to migrations, contacts and the spread of disease.

    Today, the Manu National Park, home to Matsiguenka people, continues to be affected by the spread of visitor-borne diseases. The intervention of loggers in the Lower Urubamba River basin has also caused abuses and deaths from disease among Matsiguenka communities in isolation.

    Nanti people inhabit the upper reaches of the Camisea, Timpía and Ticumpinía Rivers, between the Urubamba and Manu basins. Although they have cultural and linguistic differences with Matsiguenka people, they are considered to be of the same people by the latter.

    Some groups live in isolation in headwater forests, while others are in initial contact in settlements along the Camisea and Tipia Rivers, the result of forced contacts promoted by missionaries, loggers and oil companies since the 1970s.

    Forced contacts have led to the spread of epidemics, mainly acute respiratory infections and acute diarrhoeal diseases, which have caused numerous deaths, especially among children and the elderly. Despite this, contacts continue, exacerbating health problems and exposing the population to abuse and labour exploitation.

    The Camisea Gas project has also had negative effects on the health and natural resources of Nanti people, threatening their physical integrity and basic rights. Nanti territory is included in the Nahua, Nanti and other Territorial Reserves, the Megantoni National Sanctuary and the Manu National Park.

    Asháninka people occupy the forests of the Vilcabamba mountain range in the Central Jungle (Selva Central), between the departments of Junín and Cusco. Here, different groups maintain varying levels of isolation, from a complete refusal to contact to sporadic interactions with neighbouring communities.

    In 2010, SERNANP and the Central Asháninka Indigenous Organization of the Ene River (CARE) located several of these groups in the Ene River basin, estimating that more than 90 families live in the area. During times of political violence, the mountain range provided a refuge for the Asháninka, who fled the occupation and violence of the rubber tappers, as well as the guerrillas operating in this region during the 1980s and 1990s.

    The rubber slave system and guerrilla violence deeply affected the Asháninka, leading to deaths, kidnappings, displacement and the loss of entire communities. Many sought refuge in the heights of the mountain range, using ancient trade routes as escape.

    Sierra del Divisor

    The strip between the headwaters of the tributaries of the lower Ucayali River and the Yavari and Yaquerana Rivers, in the Loreto and Ucayali regions, is home to indigenous peoples, probably of the Pano language family. This region, known as ‘Serra do Divisor’, borders an extensive area in Brazil, where the Yavari Valley Indigenous Land has been established for several local groups in isolation and initial contact. Characterized by its rugged terrain and biodiversity, this area has led to the creation of protected natural areas on both sides of the border, forming part of an extensive area that extends to the regions of Madre de Dios and Acre, to the south, and which is home to the largest concentration of Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact in both countries.

    The Yaraví-Tapiche Indigenous Reserve, located in the Loreto and Ucayali regions, is home to isolated groups that have been sighted for decades by the native Matsés community, with whom they share ethnolinguistic characteristics. According to the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), this area is inhabited by Matsés and Isconahua peoples, with divisions between the northern and southern Mayoruna. Historical records show the ancestral presence of the Mayoruna on both sides of the border. However, these displacements have not always been peaceful, with conflicts related to logging invasion and past events such as the incursion of armed forces resulting in violence. AIDESEP has proposed the territorial delimitation and official recognition of an indigenous reserve for these isolated groups.

    The creation of the Yavarí Tapiche indigenous reserve in the northern Amazon of Peru, after 18 years of application by indigenous organizations, faced a series of obstacles derived from economic interests, which delayed the process and affected the territorial rights of indigenous peoples. This reserve, located in Loreto and Ucayali, is the largest in the country for isolated peoples, and is part of the ‘Yavarí Tapiche Territorial Corridor’, identified by the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO) as an area with a high concentration of isolated peoples. AIDESEP and ORPIO played a key role in the protection of these peoples, demanding the recognition of their rights from the Peruvian State. However, the creation of the reserve was hampered by overlapping legal categories and economic pressure for the exploitation of natural resources.

    Iskobákebu people, also known as Isconahua, are an ethnic group that inhabits the northern region of the Peruvian Amazon, near the Alto Callería, Utuquinía and Abujao Rivers, on the border with Brazil. In 1998, the Peruvian State established a Territorial Reserve for this group, supported by technical studies carried out by AIDESEP that confirmed their presence. Historically, this group has faced persecution, forced contacts and displacement, mainly at the hands of local people, missionaries and loggers.

    The first documented contact occurred in 1959, when missionaries from the South American Mission located a group of Iskobákebu. Subsequently, a part of the population was moved to the lower Callería, where they settled and studied their language and culture. Research suggests that the Iskobákebu may have links to the ancient ‘Remus’, mentioned in 17th-century chronicles.

    The territory of the Iskobákebu has suffered severe impacts due to logging, mining and mining exploration. In addition, these people face the threat of the construction of a highway from Cruzeiro do Sul, in Brazil, to Pucallpa, in Peru, which would cross their Territorial Reserve. Although information on how these activities affect the population in isolation is limited, there are concerns about the possible violation of their fundamental rights.

    Callería-Maquía peoples, often identified as Kapanawa, inhabit the region between the Callería and Maquía Rivers, tributaries of the lower Ucayali. In 2004, the Federation of Native Communities of the Lower Ucayali (FECONBU) led a lawsuit to investigate the situation of the people and officially recognize their territories.

    Between 2005 and 2007, anthropologists supported by AIDESEP carried out studies that confirmed the presence of these peoples through evidence such as dwellings, footprints, direct encounter and historical and ethnographic analyses. Their territory was demarcated, which is considered an area of exchange and displacement for isolated groups, with a linguistic affiliation to the Pano.

    The history of these peoples is marked by attempts at forced contact. Their territory borders the proposed Yavarí-Tapiche Territorial Reserve to the northeast and the Isconahua Territorial Reserve to the southeast, and it lies within the Sierra del Divisor Reserved Zone.

    The Peruvian-Brazilian border area between the Yurúa and Purús rivers, in the Ucayali region, is home to several isolated peoples with linguistic similarities. Known Yora or Murunahua, Chitonahua and Mastanahua, these groups maintain differentiated relationships, marked by alliances or conflicts, and have been influenced by historical events such as the rubber boom.

    According to recent anthropological studies, Yaminahua and other linguistically and historically related groups belong to the Pano subdivision of the southeastern Amazon. The rubber boom was a significant event in their acculturative history, as communities were dispersed throughout the region and forced to merge. Marinahua people, for example, virtually disappeared as an identifiable group, while some Yaminahuas were integrated into the Sharanahua community.

    The Morunahua, Yaminahu, and other groups isolated themselves for decades, fleeing the rubber tappers, but returned to the main rivers in search of iron tools. However, some of these groups returned to isolation. It is possible that there are other as-yet-unnamed villages in the area of the Curanja River, and that the isolated village in the upper basins of the Yaco and Tahuamanu rivers in Madre de Dios is also part of this group.

    The Murunahua, also known as the ‘shaved heads’, along with the Chitonahua, inhabit the upper basin of the Yurúa River and possibly move northeast towards Brazilian territory along the Envira River. Considered an uncontacted group and another decimated by disease and attacks by neighbouring groups, such as the Bashonahua and Sharanahua, these peoples have suffered systematic persecution and annihilation by loggers.

    The nearby Asháninka and Yaminahua population have witnessed their presence and have participated in encounters promoted by loggers, although they have also provided aid to groups in initial contact. However, they have been subjected to territorial invasions and massacres, being victims of one of the largest massacres in 2003, organized by loggers.

    Chitonahua people, who until recently chose to live in isolation, have established links with surrounding populations, usually as a result of being captured by loggers or seeking medical help for contagious diseases. Although the Murunahua Territorial Reserve was established in 1997, this has not guaranteed their protection or that of their territories.

    Mastanahua people occupy the basins of the Purús and Curanja Rivers. In 2006, three of its members were contacted by United States evangelical missionaries from The Pioneer Mission, after several failed attempts at contacting them from the native community of Puerto Paz, located in the upper Curanja. To facilitate communication, they transferred Shipibo settlers from Ucayali, who speak the same Pano language. They blazed trails in the forest, leaving eye-catching gifts and setting up food camps to lure the isolated and make contact.

    The contacted Mastanahuas depend on the Shipibos of Puerto Paz and have faced attacks from their larger group, which remains isolated and explores the area, looting the farms of nearby communities. Despite this, their territory has been included in the Alto Purús National Park.

    Cacataibo people occupy the upper basins of the Pisqui, Aguaytía, San Alejandro, Sungaroyacu and Pozuzo Rivers, in the departments of Loreto, Ucayali and Huanuco. They are segments of historic Cacataibo people, mostly organized in native communities. Although they share the same village, those in sustained contact indicate that they have failed to understand their language in brief interactions. Information about the isolated groups comes from Shipibo villagers, park rangers and loggers.

    Historically, contact with Cacataibo people took place in the eighteenth century, but soon the foreigners were expelled, remaining isolated or with sporadic contact until the twentieth century, when most of them established permanent contact that brought with it the arrival of tuberculosis epidemics.

    Isolated indigenous peoples on the border with Ecuador, comprised by the Napo, Aushiri, Nashiño, Curaray, Arabela, Tangarana and Pucacuro rivers  north of Loreto, are confirmed by local villagers, loggers, military and personnel of oil companies such as PERENCO. Reports from institutions such as ORPIO, AIDESEP and IIAP have recorded their presence.

    Groups in isolation are mainly classified within the Waorani and Záparo language families. AIDESEP suggests that the groups of the Nashiño, Cononaco and Curaray rivers could be Waorani, which coincides with the presence of this group in Ecuadorian territory, where the Tagaeri Taromenani Intangible Zone has been established for their protection.

    On the Peruvian side, soldiers and army officers have repeatedly sighted these groups, especially in the area of the Nashiño River. The Cacataibo, in contact with the local population, have confirmed the presence of isolated groups near the Napo River, Curaray and Cononaco, which they refer to as ‘Aucas’. In addition, reports from consulting firms such as GEMA mention the presence of groups such as the Feromenami and Tagaeri in the region.

    Despite AIDESEP’s requests to establish a Territorial Reserve and protect these peoples, the interest of the government and companies such as PERENCO in exploiting oil reserves has hindered these initiatives. Lack of attention to these demands increases the risk of clashes and epidemics, especially in areas such as the Cordillera Azul National Park, where there has been an increase in sightings of isolated indigenous people.

  • The concept of ‘otherness’, which is often used in the context of PIACI, refers to the perceptions and denominations used to refer to indigenous peoples in isolation. These perceptions vary significantly and reflect different attitudes and approaches towards these groups, generally referred to as PIACI in Spanish (even though this is not a term these groups accept to identify themselves).

    The term ‘uncontacted’, though widely used, suggests an idealized and anachronistic connotation by insinuating cultural purity and historical stagnation, contributing to exoticization and marginalization. On the other hand, terms such as ‘brave’ or ‘savage’ are used derogatorily by some local populations, reflecting an ethnocentric commitment to forced contact and cultural assimilation.

    Analysis of the origin of the isolation of these peoples shows that they do not live in complete isolation but are influenced by their environment and by historical interactions with the surrounding society. Although they reject direct contact, they observe what is happening around them and show interest in certain objects brought in by outsiders.

    In short, the different perceptions of these peoples in isolation are marked by historical processes, interests, ideologies and inter-ethnic relations, which influence the attitudes, decisions and practices of both the peoples themselves and the surrounding society.

  • Respect for the right to self-determination and territory is essential to protect the existence and cultural diversity of PIACI peoples. The Peruvian State must guarantee their isolation as a way of life and prohibit any activity that threatens their integrity. The protection of PIACI peoples is an act of historical and humanitarian justice, essential to affirm the democratic governance of a multicultural country like Peru.

    The vulnerability of PIACI includes health risks due to their low immunity to common diseases; territorial vulnerability due to the invasion of their lands, demographic risks due to their small population size; sociocultural challenges due to changes in their ways of life when they contact the outside, political risks due to the lack of state preparedness for emergencies, and identity risks due to the lack of official documentation.

    As stated earlier, the so-called ‘voluntary isolation’ of Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact (PIACI) in Peru is a survival strategy in the face of historical aggressions. This misleading term does not reflect the reality of these groups, whose estrangement from society has largely been a response to trauma such as slavery in rubber camps, epidemics and evangelizing missions. This isolation is not a free choice, but a way to protect their integrity and cultural rights from invasions and exploitation of resources. So-called ‘voluntary isolation’ is an internationally protected right and a manifestation of their self-determination.

    AIDESEP and IBC have requested the creation of Territorial Reserves for the Cacataibo in 1999 and 2005, respectively, due to the exposure of the area to logging and hydrocarbon activities. The increase in sightings of isolated indigenous people has led to information and awareness-raising workshops to avoid contact and its consequences. This tense situation contrasts with the State’s lack of interest in responding to these requests, which increases the risk of clashes and epidemics, especially in the adjacent Cordillera Azul National Park.

Updated June 2024

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