National Geographic : 2016 Jun
Peru’s world Apart 45 2011 some Mashco-Piro killed Nicolas “Shaco” Flores, a Matsigenka man who’d given them tools and food for years. In 2015 they killed a young man in the village of Shipetiari. Romel Ponciano is one of several Yine from villages like Diamante who work for the Peru- vian Culture Ministry trying to build friendly relations with their isolated kin. He and the oth- ers staff a post on the Alto Madre de Dios, across from a riverbank where a group of Mashco-Piro has often appeared. The riverfront post is named Nomole, “broth- ers” in Yine. Still, Romel’s initial contacts with the isolated group were stressful. They asked him to shoot an arrow and take off his clothes. They stared into his eyes and mouth, smelled his armpit, felt his testicles—all to find out whether he really was a brother. Romel has since warmed to them—they nicknamed him Yotlu, meaning “ little river otter”—but he never turns his back on them. “Maybe in five or 10 years they will walk around like us,” he says. “They will still have their arrows for hunting, but not for killing. They kill because they are afraid.” Doctors who’ve examined the Mashco-Piro say that so far their isolation has kept them healthier than local settled indigenous people, who struggle with respiratory infections and dental bacteria transmitted by outsiders that can leave them coughing and toothless. But the Mashco-Piro’s isolation also means they have little or no immunity, so viral diseases like mea- sles and yellow fever could easily kill them. As we round a river bend on the way to Nomole, I catch a glimpse of moving figures on the far shore. We’re too far away to make out faces, but we can see their naked, sienna brown bodies against the beach of gray river rocks. They have a fire going, and white smoke billows upward. For our safety and theirs, to protect them from disease, we don’t seek to make contact. Under the wide blue sky, surrounded by seemingly endless jungle, it’s easy to imagine we’re watching people untainted by civilization, living in primeval bliss. I have to remind myself that they’re more like refugees from genocide. Traumatized unto the fifth and sixth generation by the rubber boom, living as hunter-gatherers where their forebears had farmed, they’re not uncontacted at all. They were contacted in the 1890s, plenty. The devastating rubber boom was fol- lowed by other resource booms. Timber, gold, natural gas—all are being wrested from the forest by poorly paid locals. They then rise in price as they make their way through mid- dlemen to trade centers in the Andes. Aside from some small-scale illegal logging inside the park, Manú remains a dark green exception in this landscape of extraction. Just outside the park’s northwestern bound- ary, pipelines carry the output from the rich Camisea fields, which produce up to 1.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day and contribute enormously to Peru’s economy. Recent explo- ration to the southeast could tempt Peru to run a pipeline through the park to connect with the Camisea lines. David Hill of the Guardian, who has reported from the region for years, says one company, Pluspetrol, is interested in exploring inside the park. Whether the Manú Basin be- comes an oil and gas center, Hill says, “depends on Peruvian and international civil society. It depends on the Matsigenka and the Yine.” Park guards in Manú, though spread thin, are a deterrent to small-scale loggers, miners, and hunters, but most observers agree that Manú’s sheer remoteness has been its best defense. “It is protected by its inaccessibility,” says Ron Swaisgood, scientific director at Cocha Cashu. But “gold mining and oil exploration are start- ing to eat away at the buffer areas. Some of these degradations can leak into the park.” A road would speed that leakage consider- ably, and the governor of the Madre de Dios region, Luis Otsuka, is promoting one that would extend farther along the Alto Madre de Dios to Boca Manú. No longer would tourists— or loggers, or miners—have to use expensive, gas-guzzling boats to get there. The village of Diamante lies along the proposed road. Its residents are eager for it, so eager that they’re working hard to get it built.