Indigenous-Outing

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Mr. Anderson’s work is often, like his colleague Elizabeth Kolbert’s, unusually thick in detail, and often kind of heavy. This item is heavy, detailed, but fascinating. His writing is often without illustration yet this piece is reported with abundant and excellent photography. Read a snippet below to get a sense of the interior of the article:

AN ISOLATED TRIBE EMERGES FROM THE RAIN FOREST

In Peru, an unsolved killing has brought the Mashco Piro into contact with the outside world.

By Jon Lee Anderson

…The Ministry of Culture’s team gathered a few months ago in Cuzco, high in the Andes, where a van was loaded with provisions. The leader was an anthropologist named Luis Felipe Torres, a slim man in his early thirties with an aquiline face and the unassuming manner of a professional observer. He was joined by Glenn Shepard, an American ethnobotanist. A youthful-looking man of fifty, Shepard had lived for a year in the nineteen-eighties among the Matsigenka people, who shared territory with the Mashco; he had learned their language and returned many times since. Shepard worked at the Emílio Goeldi Museum, an Amazonian-research center in Brazil, but he travelled to Peru frequently as an informal adviser to Torres’s department.

 

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Luis Felipe Torres, an anthropologist with the state’s isolated-tribes team. PHOTOGRAPH BY AARON VINCENT ELKAIM FOR THE NEW YORKER

Soon after we set out, the paved road ended, and we began dropping down the eastern escarpment of the Andes, zigzagging through cloud forest and into the humid lowland jungle. After seven hours, we reached the end of the road, at Atalaya, a huddle of rough wooden houses and bodegas on the upper Madre de Dios River. Atalaya was a destination for adventure tourists; at the shoreline was a jetty lined with brightly painted river canoes. But the recent killing had threatened business in the area. A sign, depicting the silhouette of an aislado with a bow and arrow, announced, “Beware! This is a zone of transit for Isolated Indigenous Peoples. Avoid conflicts: Don’t attempt to contact them. Don’t give them clothes, food, tools, or anything else. Don’t photograph them; they might interpret the camera as a weapon. In the event of incidents, contact the Ministry of Culture.’’

Torres had recently overseen a rendezvous with a group of Mashco Piro: several families, possibly interrelated, who were led by a young man called Kamotolo. In photographs that Torres showed me, Kamotolo—tall and beardless, with alert eyes—was clearly recognizable as the man who appeared in the Internet video carrying a soda bottle. Other pictures showed an older man, with wild hair and a scruffy beard, who was likely Kamotolo’s father. He was rumored by locals to have killed Shaco Flores; Kamotolo was thought to have killed Leonardo Pérez.

At the department’s outpost, Torres had left a small team of local Yine people, who spoke the same language as the Mashco. Their goal was to discover why they were coming out of the forest, and to get them to stop their attacks. But the Mashco didn’t like answering questions about themselves, so Torres’s crew knew little about them. They estimated that between five hundred and a thousand Mashco lived in four groups in the jungle of Peru and Brazil, around an expanse of protected land called Manú National Park. They were related to the Yine, but separated by history: the Yine were the descendants of Fitzcarrald’s conscripts, and the Mashco were believed to be the descendants of those who had fled. Former farmers who had become nomadic hunter-gatherers, they had forgotten how to plant food, and were the only indigenous people in the region who didn’t know how to fish. But they hunted efficiently, using unusually stout arrows, whose heads were attached in a distinctive manner that allowed anthropologists who found discarded shafts to track their movements. The community that Torres’s team was trying to contact was perhaps three dozen people. In their first encounters, it had been unclear how much they understood of the outside world.

The Department of Native Isolated People was drastically underfunded and understaffed, so Torres shuttled between the Mashco outpost and other assignments in Madre de Dios. He had just returned from an even more remote area, where he had followed up on reports of aislados whose territory was being threatened by loggers. He showed me photographs of the remains of a cookfire and a campsite, evidence that the department could use to begin the process of having the land protected. But Torres spoke of his work as almost futile. The department—tasked with looking out for all of Peru’s isolated indigenous people—was a tiny office with little political clout. The Ministry of Energy and Mines, by contrast, was a well-funded agency with the power to open up the Amazon to development that would bring wealth and jobs. “In the battle for the government’s ear,” Torres said dryly, “you can imagine who is more influential.”…

Read the whole article here.

One thought on “Indigenous-Outing

  1. We were in Manu two weeks ago and saw both illegal gold mining and logging. Our guide told us about the killings and that he had known the men. The area deserves serious attention and protection from the Peruvian government, which has been lacking. Thanks for helping to bring this to the world’s attention.

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