Why they must flee to the forest

Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman
Macaw in the Amazon, taken by Shawn Smallman

I’ve written before about how there aren’t truly “uncontacted tribes” in Amazonia, but rather refugees from a long history of slave-raiding, disease, missionary work, and development. Partly for this reason, the term now used in Amazonia for these populations is “Isolated Peoples.” This term makes clear that these peoples are separated from the dominant culture by choice, rather than only because they live in some pristine environment preserved from contact. For some nation-states, particularly Peru, the existence of these peoples has sometimes been controversial, because they limit the state and corporations’ ability to extract resources from Amazonia. Still, there are Isolated Peoples remaining in Latin America and elsewhere; Amazonia likely has more than any other region of the world.

Jon Lee Anderson has an article, “An Isolated Tribe Emerges from the Rainforest,” in the New Yorker, which examines one particular people, the Mashco Piro in Peru. These people live in the Madre de Dios river region in southeastern Peru, near the borders of both Brazil and Bolivia. What I particularly like about this piece is its discussion of the Mashco Piro’s history, which makes it clear why these people chose to be isolated. This well-written essay also details the ethical and practical issues entailed with contact between these peoples and other Amazonian populations. The article would be a good reading assignment in any course that addresses either the Amazon or Isolated Peoples.

Curious to see more? You can view video footage of the Mascho Piro taken by Survival International. Or read some more of my posts about Amazonia.

Shawn Smallman, 2016.

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