THE BLOG

Contacting An Isolated Peruvian Tribe Will Only End In Trouble

29/07/2015 11:39 BST | Updated 27/07/2016 10:59 BST

By Adam Courtenay, author of Amazon Men.

The best way to ensure isolated Amazonian tribes are kept intact is to keep them isolated - because anything else will end either in trouble or even worse, an epidemic. This has been the experience of the Brazilian Amazon and it will be no less true in Peru.

A recent report from Reuters says the Peruvian government plans to make its first official contact with the Mashco Piro, an uncontacted tribe that lives near the Manu National Park in the Amazon rainforest. If past evidence is anything to go by, the Peruvians should refrain from doing so.

Officials say that they need to contact the Mashco Piro because the group has recently been emerging from the forest, and have already had contact with villagers, tourists and missionaries. This may be so, but it could easily be considered an invasion by the Mashco Piro. Remote tribes only come out of their own areas when outsiders make unwanted incursions. The Mashco Piro are reacting, sometimes with hostility, to unwanted forays into their only known universe. They simply do not know how big the outside world is.

If they are isolated as they appear, then the Peruvians should take a leaf out of the Brazilian experience - Indian experts, known as sertanistas, mark out the total area which constitutes tribal territory - they then add a larger buffer zone around that and prohibit entry from the outside.

As is the case in Brazil, an outsider moving in on a designated tribal area will not have recourse to Brazilian law or protections. He is legally on foreign turf. If he is killed or impaired in some way within that tribal zone the authorities are powerless to help.

The Amazon's most experienced sertanista, Sydney Possuelo, says the tribe's welfare, not the outsiders' - should be sacrosanct and enshrined in law. In 1996, Possuelo led a mission to make contact with the Korubo, who lived in the isolated Javari Valley in the North-East of Brazil. Possuelo made contact for exactly the same reasons the Peruvians are making today - relations between the tribe and outsiders were getting out of hand.

Even when effective contact was made by Possuelo's team and both parties enjoyed friendly relations, an unrelated clash within the tribe's territory led to one of Possuelo's team being killed as a reprisal. The Korubo did not distinguish one outsider from another.

This kind of misunderstanding happens, but what happens after contact is worse. Possuelo says the previously uncontacted Indians are so often seduced by new implements from the outside - radios, clothing, tools and other consumer goods. In the search for more, they may visit the townships and take up alcohol or suffer venereal and other contagious diseases. Some may even trade sections of their own land in exchange for goods. When the rot sets in, it's irreversible.

The Peruvians claim clashes since 2014 have forced their hand to contact the tribe, but the only answer is to place a ring around the area and vigorously enforce it as a no-go area. That's the tested Brazilian experience and it works.

The so-called "enlightened contact", led by a team of anthropologists, will not work. The gap between their culture and ours is simply too wide. Demarcation of Indian lands and subsequent non-contact is the only way forward if these myriad Indian cultures are to have any realistic chance of survival.

Adam Courtenay is the author of Amazon Men, published by Endeavour Press.