November 26, 2012

Shipwrecked: The sorry state of development in the lower Urubamba

The shipwrecked hospital boat at the mouth of the Camisea River is an apt metaphor for the sorry state of social development in indigenous communities of the lower Urubamba impacted by the Camisea Gas project in southern Peru.  
A $150,000 hospital boat shipwrecked at the mouth of the Camisea River.

Donated at a  cost of $150,000 by PetroBras as part of its negotiations with native communities, the boat was supposed to serve as a fully equipped aquatic hospital and ambulance.  Instead, due to poor coordination between the company, the Peruvian Health Ministry and the community, the boat lies on its side filled with silt like a beached whale: an expensive eyesore, a dangerous jungle-gym for native children playing by the river, and a reminder of where good intentions can lead.

The Camisea region is home to a great diversity of indigenous peoples including the Matsigenka, Piro, Ashaninka, Nahua, Nanti and perhaps others, some of whom remain in isolation to this day.  With 25 years of experience working among the Matsigenka and other native groups in the region, I was called on to take part in an independent advisory panel set up by the Import-Export Bank of the United States as a condition of their loan to Hunt Oil for building a pipeline that brings Camisea gas to the Pacific coast of Peru for export. My preliminary analysis of the situation of social development in the Lower Urubamba has now been published in the most recent report of the South Peru Panel.  The report also includes analysis by other panel members of Peru's energy matrix, environmental impact assessments and community-based monitoring of mining and hydrocarbon projects. 

In this posting I summarize the results of my contribution to the report based on field research in ten indigenous communities in the lower Urubamba.  During the two-week visit, carried out in November-December of 2011, I interviewed community members and leaders about their perceptions of the changes brought about Camisea Gas development.  One indigenous federation leader summed up the situation in this way:

What is happening in the lower Urubamba isn’t development.  It’s confusion.  Everyone has their chain saw, their boat motor, their zinc roof… The rivers are contaminated, the young people who have jobs don’t plant crops… People have money but malnutrition and illiteracy are on the rise.  There is no food, just cans of tuna.  When there’s no tuna, there’s always beer.

October 31, 2012

Between the Cross and the Pleiades: Missionaries, museums and a Baniwa shaman's heritage

"Right there in that deep pool," she pointed a weathered brown hand across the sand towards a bend in the river.  "That's where she told him to dump it."  She counted the items out on her fingers, "Virola snuff, a snake's head, a jaguar tooth, an earth-spirit crystal, yopo snuff.  All of his shaman's instruments.  Sophie made him do it."

Baniwa shamans use crystals and other magical materials to enter the spirit world and transform into various beings.

Ana, a septuagenarian Cubeo woman from Colombia now living among the Baniwa people in Brazil, describes how an American Protestant missionary named Sophie Muller convinced her uncle (now long deceased) to throw his shamanistic paraphernalia into the river and convert to Christianity in the 1950s.  Shamans of the northwest Amazon use hallucinogenic snuffs and other psychoactive plants to enter the spirit world, employing various minerals, animal parts and other magical materials during trance to transform into different animals and spirit beings[1].

"And he regretted it, too.  Says he wished he had thrown his instruments in the woods, so he could go back and get them later.  But at the bottom of the river!  He was finished.  He was the last one."

"All of his shaman's instruments. Sophie made him do it...  At the bottom of the river! He was finished."

I met Ana on a recent trip to the Içana and Ayari Rivers, tributaries of the Upper Rio Negro in the northwest Brazilian Amazon.  Concluding a three-year long project of exchange between the
Goeldi Museum and several indigenous peoples, I traveled to the Upper Rio Negro carrying digital photographs of ethnographic objects collected in the region over a hundred years ago and deposited in museums in Brazil and Europe by German anthropologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg[2].

September 29, 2012

Putting the Reich back in Reichel-Dolmatoff: Nazi past of legendary Colombian anthropologist revealed

While delving into Colombia's rich indigenous heritage, the acclaimed Austrian-born anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff may also have been hiding his own Nazi past. 

A tireless fieldworker and scholar, Reichel-Dolmatoff carried out research throughout Colombia's diverse geographical and cultural regions. He founded Colombia's first department of anthropology and made contributions in all fields of the discipline, including archeology.  His ground-breaking research and prolific writings spanning nearly six decades inspired multiple generations of anthropologists in Colombia and throughout the world, including myself.

In the Spring of 1986, archeologist Anna Roosevelt, then at the Bronx Museum of the American Indian, lent me her copy of Reichel-Dolmatoff's Amazonian Cosmos[1] and changed my life.  At the time I was a a pre-med student at college but found myself increasingly drawn to foreign languages, folk medicine and ethnobotany.  After reading Reichel-Dolmatoff's brilliant study of mythology and shamanism among the Tukano people of the Vaupes river I became set on working in the Amazon.

Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, born Erasmus Gerhard Reichel in Austria in 1912, emigrated in 1939 to Colombia where he pursued anthropological research on diverse indigenous groups including the Guahibo, Kogi, Kuna and Tukano.  His work in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta resulted in the classic ethnography on the Kogi people[2] as well as important archeological discoveries[3].  He was best known for his work on Tukano shamanism, pointing out the role of ecological concepts in indigenous cosmology[4] and highlighting the significance of the hallucinogenic vine yagé (ayahuasca)[5].  He also made pioneering contributions to the archeology of the Amazonian lowlands[6].

Considered the "father of Colombian anthroplogy," Reichel-Dolmatoff published 33 books and hundreds of scientific articles, crowning his career with prestigious visiting positions at Cambridge and UCLA beginning in the 1970s.  In 1975, he received the Thomas H. Huxley medal from the British Royal Anthropological Institute.

He was admired by students and colleagues as much for his erudition and meticulous scholarship as for his generosity and humanism.  He died in 1994 at the age of 82.  In 2012, the Colombian anthropological community was prepared to celebrate his centennial with accolades.

At an anthropological conference in Vienna this July, however, Colombian anthropologist Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo presented disturbing evidence concerning Reichel-Dolmatoff's Nazi past.  According to documents he uncovered in German federal archives, Erasmus Gerhard Reichel was a member of the SS, participated in Hitler's murderous "Night of Long Knives" in 1934 and served as a guard in the notorious Dachau concentration camp in 1935.

A Nazi party notice seeking Erasmus Gerhard Reichel in 1937 after he had left Germany. 
(Image source: Bogotá Blog)

August 17, 2012

Rainforest Crunch: Origins of the Brazil nut in ancient Amazonia (Bertholletia excelsa)

If you still miss "Rainforest Crunch" ice cream, you can finally rest assured that Amazonian Indians really were behind all those Brazil nuts in the recipe, only not in quite the way that Ben & Jerry's had advertised.
The stately Brazil nut tree appears to have been managed
and perhaps cultivated by ancient Amazonian peoples.

Recent scientific studies show that Brazil nut groves have been managed, facilitated and probably spread throughout the Amazon by indigenous peoples since before European conquest. As highlighted in this month's issue of the Brazilian science news magazine, Revista FAPESP, "the human factor" has played an important role in shaping this emblematic rainforest landscape.

July 6, 2012

Brazil's Original Sin: New film declares war on Belo Monte dam

Brazilian film maker André D'Elia has declared war on the controversial hydroelectric dam along the Xingu river in the new film "Belo Monte: Anúncio de uma Guerra."

The 104 minute film premiered at a free public showing in São Paulo on June 17 -- timed to coincide with the "Rio +20" Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro -- and was immediately released for free viewing on Vimeo. An English translation was posted on YouTube last week.

The production team took advantage of the new landscape of online social media, funding the project entirely through web-based contributions by 3429 donors totaling over 140,000 Brazilian reais (about $78,000) and distributing the film freely on the internet.

Belo Monte: A Declaration of War
Photo source: Belo Monte film FaceBook page

The film is built around a series of interviews with indigenous leaders, non-indigenous Xingu inhabitants, NGO representatives, writers and representatives of the Brazilian government including ombudsmen, politicians and FUNAI Indian Agency employees.  

If Raoni -- a charismatic Kayapó leader who has led the protest movement against Belo Monte since the 1980s -- is the film's hero, its villain is Nicias Ribeiro, the smooth-talking Special Secretary for Mines and Energy of Pará state.

What the film lacks in subtlety and depth, it makes up for in breadth and urgency.

One of the most intriguing interviews in the film is with anthropologist Marcio Meira, who was president of Brazil's Indian Agency, FUNAI, from 2007-2012. Portrayed in the film as a Faustian figure, Meira provides a surprisingly candid assessment of the historical context surrounding Belo Monte.

He characterizes the colonization of the Amazon, and the concomitant conquest of its indigenous inhabitants, as Brazil's "original sin." And he appears to acknowledge -- whether in irony or resignation -- the role of FUNAI and its predecessor, the Indian Protection Service (SPI), in facilitating this conquest over the past century.

Other prominent voices in the film include Marcelo Salazar of Instituto Socioambiental, Renata Pinheiro of Xingu Vivo, journalist Luis Flavio Pinto and federal prosecutor Felicio Pontes Jr.

In one especially powerful scene a Xinguano chief berates the camera as if it were some captured enemy, and then his formidable wife swings a war club directly at it, entreating the film-makers to take their war-cry against the dam across the globe, but especially to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Video still: Xinguano warrior woman swings a club at the camera

The interviews are mingled, not altogether successfully, with breathtaking but sometimes gratuitous vistas of rivers and forests, vignettes of indigenous life and historical footage showing the international protest movement that successfully halted the original Belo Monte dam project in the late 1980s.

Shunned by international banks ever since, the Belo Monte dam was shelved for two decades until it was finally approved in 2010 by the Brazilian government and heavily funded by Brazil's development bank, BNDES, despite protest by local indigenous groups, repeated national legal challenges and concerns raised by international bodies including the Organization of American States.  

"Stop Belo Monte": Protestors occupy the causeway
Photo source: Atossa Soltani / AmazonWatch

Celebrities like Sting, James Cameron and Bianca Jagger have supported a renewed protest movement that gained traction and visibility in recent weeks during the Rio +20 Summit with street protests in Rio de Janeiro and an ongoing occupation of the construction site on the Xingu River.  

D'Elia's film, with its crowd-sourced funding, viral marketing and audacious "declaration of war" makes for a timely and innovative documentary about this movement, as well as a provocative contribution to it.  


June 20, 2012

Monkey-Frog at the Racetrack: Horse dope from the Amazon (Phyllomedusa frog venom)

More than thirty racehorses in Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas have tested positive for an illegal performance-enhancing drug derived from South American frog venom.  As reported in today’s issue of the New York Times, racing regulators have long suspected that trainers were doping horses with dermorphin, a painkiller forty times more powerful than morphine that is found in skin secretions of the Waxy Monkey Leaf Frog, Phyllomedusa sauvagii, traded internationally as an exotic pet.  Dermorphin belongs to a novel class of compounds first identified in skin secretions of the related frog species Phyllomedusa bicolor, used as a stimulant by indigenous hunters of the Amazon.  Frog venom had so far evaded detection in racehorse drug screening until Denver-based Industrial Laboratories tweaked its tests.

Several Phyllomedusa species have toxic skin secretions

The Spiritain missionary Constantin Tastevin[i] was the first outsider to document the use of frog toxins known locally as kampo by Cashinahua (Kaxinawa) Indians of the upper Juruá River in Brazil.  The Cashinahua collect secretions from the Giant Waxy Monkey Frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) and administer the substance directly into the bloodstream through small wounds burned with smoldering twigs on the skin.  The treatment produces short-lived bouts of nausea, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes unconsciousness, but leaves the user with a lasting sense of strength, well-being and heightened sense perception.  The treatment is especially valued by indigenous hunters for improving their stamina, skill and luck at hunting.  "Hunting magic," as it is sometimes (and perhaps erroneously) called, proves to be an important category of traditional medicine in Amazonia. 

Since Tastevin’s early record, kampo use has been documented by anthropologists among other indigenous groups of the Brazil-Peru border region including the Amahuaca, Yaminahua, Matis, Matses (Mayoruna), Marubo, Katukina and Yawanawa.[ii]  Writer Peter Gorman’s 1993 article in Omni magazine[iii] on Matses "magic" in Peru -- echoing Gordon Wasson's famous 1957 story[iv] on the magic mushrooms of Mexico -- generated  widespread popular interest in the substance.  More recently, indigenous healers from the state of Acre have brought the “frog vaccine” to urban centers throughout Brazil as part of an expansion and popularization of indigenous shamanistic practices.[v]
Indigenous healers administer frog secretions directly into the bloodstream by means of small burns to the skin.

Berkeley anthropologist Katharine Milton first collected scientific samples of Phyllomedusa bicolor secretions among the Mayoruna of Brazil[vi] (the same group known as Matses on the Peruvian side of the border), and ensuing studies have revealed novel chemical compounds with a wide range of physiological and neurological activities.[vii]  Over 20 patents have since been registered on various compounds derived from Phyllomedusa venom, including dermorphin which is now synthesized and sold on-line.

Racehorse trainers have been known to use other exotic substances including cobra venom to improve horse performance and cheat at the tracks.  In addition to its analgesic effects, masking the pains of overexertion by horse or man, dermorphin appears to produce physiological excitement and euphoria.  Two of the horses testing positive for the substance in Louisiana had earned substantial purses.  As Louisiana's Racing Commission director Charles A. Gardiner III told the Times, “A lot of money’s got to be given back.” 

If only such ill-gotten winnings could be returned to the Matses…



[i]  Tastevin, C. Le fleuve Muru. La Geographie 43: 14-35.
[ii] Carneiro, R. 1970. Hunting and Hunting Magic among the Amahuaca of the Peruvian Montaña. Ethnology 9(4): 331-341; 
     Erikson, P. 1996. La griffe des aïeux: Marquage du corps et démarquages ethniques chez les Matis d’Amazonie. Paris: CNRS/Peeters; 
     Lima, E.C. 2005. Kampu, kampo, kambô: O uso do sapo-verde entre os Katukina. Revista do IPHAN 32: 254-267; 
     Carneiro da Cunha, M. Des grenouilles et des hommes. Télérama hors série, Les Indiens du Brésil. March, 2005: 80-83.
[iii] Gorman, P. 1993. Making magic: A Westerner glimpses one of the secrets of a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. Omni Magazine 15(9): 64. July, 1993.
[iv] Wasson, G. 1957. Seeking the magic mushroom. Life Magazine, May 13, 1957.
[v] Lima E.C. & B.C. Labate. 2012. Kambo: From the forests of Acre to the urban centers. May 31, 2012.
[vi] Milton, K. 1994. No pain, no game. Natural History 9: 44-51.
[vii] Daly, J.W., J. Caceres, R.W. Moni, F. Gusovsky, M. Moos, K.B. Seamon, K. Milton, and C.W. Meyers. 1992. Frog secretions and hunting magic in the upper Amazon: Identification of a peptide that interacts with an adenose receptor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 89(22): 10960-10963.

May 16, 2012

Camisea Hostage Crisis: Matsigenka natives locate Peruvian commandos ambushed by Sendero Luminoso

It took a pair of Matsigenka natives, armed only with machetes and jungle savvy, to retrieve the fallen commando after the Peruvian military, using helicopter gunships and hundreds of troops, failed after searching for nearly three weeks.

On April 9, Sendero Luminoso guerrillas stormed Kepashiato town square in the Peruvian rainforest north of Cusco and took hostage 36 workers on the Camisea gas pipeline, demanding $10 million in ransom.  Peruvian police and military commandos were helicoptered in three days later but the rescue mission ended in disaster:  one soldier, Landert Tamani, was killed, while two others, badly wounded, were abandoned in the retreat.  For the next seventeen days, the Peruvian press followed the dramatic search for the missing men, José Astuquilca and Cesar Vilca.

(Photo source:

The hostages were freed suddenly on April 14, and although the Peruvian government and the Camisea pipeline consortium have denied any such negotiations, it is widely presumed that a substantial ransom was paid.  Military operations continued as some 1500 police and soldiers combed the jungle to hunt out Sendero fighters and rescue the missing men.  Matsigenka villagers abandoned their homes and fled from the heavy bombardment.  But by the end of April, six more Peruvian troops were dead and the two wounded men were still missing.

Then on April 29, two native Matsigenka women from the community of Inkaari found José Astuquilca alive and helped him get to the small town of Kiteni on the lower Urubamba River.  Dionisio Vilca went to the remote region by himself and hired two Matsigenka guides to help search for his own missing son.  On May 2, they located Cesar Vilca's body less than 300 yards from where the ambush had first taken place.   

Cesar Vilca
(Photo source:

The Peruvian press has lambasted the military and police for abandoning the wounded soldiers, and for the travesty of the botched rescue mission.  With a growing public outcry, the Ministers of Defense and the Interior recently resigned.

Yet the episode also highlights the bravery and dire predicament of the anonymous heroes of the story, the Matsigenka, an indigenous people caught up in the rapid and sometimes chaotic transformations ushered in by the Camisea gas pipeline.

Camisea pipeline during construction
(Photo source: Panoramio)
The Camisea gas project has brought in over 4 billion dollars in foreign investment to Peru's booming economy, and the regional government of Cusco has received roughly $1 billion in direct royalty payments.  The municipality of Echarate, where these events unfolded, is now among the richest in Peru, awash in royalty payments from the Camisea gas fields.

Camisea pumping station at Malvinas
(Photo source: Panoramio)

And yet the Matsigenka and other native communities within Echarate have seen minimal long-term benefits:  large amounts of development money have been wasted on failed projects, fish and game populations have dwindled, social problems like alcoholism and prostitution have multiplied while health care remains precarious.  Yet another gas spill (the 7th in the 8-year history of the pipeline) was reported in March, contaminating streams near the Matsigenka community of Camaná.  A wave of illnesses and several recent deaths in Camaná have been blamed on the spill, though these claims are still being investigated.

The recent hostage-taking incident and dramatic resurgence of Sendero Luminoso reveal further dark consequences of gas development in this region.  One can only hope that the Peruvian government will emerge from this tragedy with a renewed covenant not only with its armed forces, but also with its unsung native heroes.


Media sources:

April 11, 2012

Miss Kayapó: Filming through Mebengokre Cameras

In a make-shift editing room in Belém, Brazil, seven aspiring Kayapó filmmakers hunch over laptops viewing footage shot during the prior year. These young men, representing three Mebengokre-Kayapó villages, are part of a Goeldi Museum project funded by Brazil’s National Research Council (CNPq) that is providing indigenous communities with equipment and training in digital film production. After three days of editing, the novice cinematographers are ready to screen their first films.

Some, such as the Woman’s Festival
and Belo Monte Dam Protest are examples of what Terence Turner calls “cultural performance,” a staple element in indigenous-made films.[i] Others focus on less usual topics: a professional soccer game in Rio de Janeiro and a local health worker’s explicit presentation on STDs.

The most intriguing work, however, is Miss Kayapó
, a forty-minute documentary about a beauty contest held yearly in a Brazilian town near Kayapó territory.

A video still from "Miss Kayapó"

With a backdrop of São João carnival fairgrounds, neon-lit Ferris wheels, and a country band warming up, adolescent Kayapó girls saunter one-by-one around a makeshift runway painted in chalk on the dusty ground. As during traditional Kayapó dance festivals, the girls wear long bead necklaces, wide bracelets, and brightly colored bikini underwear. Their bare torsos are decorated with elaborate geometric patterns in black Genipa

Far from traditional, however, is the girls' deliberately swaying gait, punctuated by a dramatic pause at each corner of the chalk runway, hands on cocked hips, with pouting lips and a sultry tilt of the head. This erotic body language, which they have learned from watching fashion models on Brazilian TV, is a far cry from the collective feminine stomping of traditional Kayapó dance performance.

Before the beauty contest, villagers perform a traditional dance on the fairground
The clash of cultural traditions captured in Miss Kayapó raises a troublesome question: is the film self-degrading, subverting native self-understandings and aping Western paradigms in the worst possible way?[ii] 

The Menire Biok festival celebrates traditional notions of feminine power and beauty
Not if you ask Tatajere and Pymare, the film’s creators:  “We are showing Kayapó beauty to all Brazilians.”

March 31, 2012

Dark Shamans, Goth and Kittens: Remembering Neil Whitehead

Neil Lancelot Whitehead
1956 - 2012

Amazonian anthropology has lost another innovative voice, cherished friend and "astronaut of the human soul" this month. Neil L. Whitehead was best known for his explorations on the "dark side" of shamanism. Eschewing romantic depictions of benevolent shaman-healers, he drew connections between indigenous sorcery and sexualized tribal and political violence in the Guianas from colonial through modern times.

With his flowing blonde hair, dramatic British accent and electrifying stage presence, Neil looked like he beIonged in a heavy metal band. Which he did. As part of a "performative ethnographic work" in collaboration with Jeff Fields, Neil took on the persona of Detonator, lead singer of Blood Jewel. The band participated in Goth festivals in Europe and recorded bone-crunching industrial music that plumbs similarly dark themes of violence and terror, fetishized sexuality and the post-human condition.

And yet scattered among heavy postings on his Facebook page one also finds warm family correspondence and cute kitten photos. All who knew and admired Neil mourn his passing and honor his legacy.

Left: Onstage as "Detonator" with Blood Jewel;
Right: A recent co-edited volume on post-humanity.

More about Neil's life and work:

March 19, 2012

"Astronaut of the Human Soul": In Memoriam - Steven Rubenstein

Anthropology is a special vocation; you and I did not select the ordinary job or anything close to it.  We are astronauts of the human soul, half scientist  and half explorer, part poet and part trickster.

-- Steven Rubenstein (1962 - 2012)

This month, the anthropological community lost a provocative and productive scholar, a passionate advocate for indigenous rights, a generous colleague and a gentle friend.  He will be sorely missed.  


For more about Steven's life and work: 

"Astronauts" quote by Steven courtesy of Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti


Amazonian anthropology lost another "astronaut of the human soul" this month with the death of Neil Lancelot Whitehead:
see "Dark Shamans, Goth and Kittens"


February 16, 2012

Roadless (and Fishless) in Camisea: Insidious impacts of a gas pipeline in Peru

The road to Camisea, so the saying goes, may be paved with good intentions.

In a recent news feature in Nature magazine[1], Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior of the United States and a prominent conservationist, lauds the conservation benefits of the ‘offshore-inland’ model for gas drilling in the sensitive Camisea region of Peru, where a consortium of companies led by PlusPetrol and Hunt Oil is currently pumping natural gas in a pipeline through the Amazon rain forest and across the Andes to refineries on the Pacific coast.

Local people blame gas spills and heavy river traffic for the disappearance of fish, their main source of protein.

The “roadless” model championed by Babbitt, using only air and river transportation to supply the gas wells, prevents much road-induced deforestation. It also aligns hydrocarbon extraction with conservation since forest cover bolsters pipeline security. And yet as César Gamboa of the Law, Environment and Natural Resources Center points out, avoiding direct deforestation is only the first small step.

Moreover, the Camisea pipeline has been beset by controversy, including six spills resulting from corroded pipes. Some have raised questions over the legality of contracts and the long-term sustainability of a project which is forever transforming not only Camisea and its indigenous peoples but also the entire energy matrix of Peru, all for what may prove to be only another decade’s worth of natural gas.

In our response to this Nature news feature, ecologist Douglas Yu and I call attention to the cascading impacts of the hydrocarbon economy on the region’s resources and indigenous peoples.  

During a recent visit to Camisea, every indigenous person we interviewed bemoaned the disappearance of fish, their main protein source. Although they blame boat traffic and gas leaks, we also suspect commercial overexploitation by booming regional markets.

Merchants sell boatloads of beer to small indigenous communities newly flush with cash income  
A more insidious ‘leakage’ from the hydrocarbon economy is the social degradation that indigenous people themselves recognize as a threat to social cohesion and self-governance. Without communal planning and social controls, cash income is being wasted on days-long drinking binges.

Myriad company- and government-financed projects have failed due to lack of oversight: tap-water systems deliver contaminated water or no water at all[2]; flush toilets languish dry and abandoned; fish-culture ponds are washed away by rainy season floods; an expensive hospital boat lies capsized and useless.

Development investments in native communities have had disheartening results: Failed tap-water systems (left), filthy toilets (center), and a deteriorating schoolhouse (right).

About the only consistently successful infrastructure projects being built with the ~1 billion dollars in gas royalties received by the regional government over the past four years are… roads!

The lesson is that nature conservation in the face of petrochemical extraction in the Amazon must solve two challenges: companies must implement best practices, and we need stronger governance and improved health and education, with a focus on indigenous polities.[3]  This is the key.

The social degradation caused by misspent money and squandered projects not only blights lives, it also saps native populations’ capacity to defend 1.3 million ha of indigenous rainforest reserves and titled lands surrounding Camisea. This figure grows to 2 million ha if drilling proceeds in Madre de Dios, where Hunt Oil is currently prospecting.

It will be a tragedy if the hydrocarbon economy overwhelms indigenous cultures and destroys their well-documented ability to protect nature.[4] Without closer scrutiny of such insidious long-term impacts, the roadless utopia envisioned by Babbitt may prove to be a mirage.

"Roadless?":  The lion's share of gas royalties has gone to building... roads! 

Glenn H. Shepard Jr.
Department of Anthropology, Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi
Belém do Pará, Brazil
Douglas W. Yu
School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK and
State Key Laboratory of Genetic Resources and Evolution, Kunming Institute of Zoology, Kunming, Yunnan, China

---This article is being published simultaneously with Spanish and Portuguese translation by O Eco Amazonia.

-- For updates on the Camisea situation, see: Camisea Hostage Crisis 

[1]  J. Tollefson. Nov. 30, 2011. Fighting for the Forest: The Roadless Warrior. Nature 480(7375), 22-24.
[2]  For an example of successful water projects in nearby native communities of the Peruvian Amazon, see House of the Children.
[3]  D. Yu, T. Levi & G. Shepard. 2010. Conservation in low-governance environments. Biotropica 42(5): 569-571.
[4]  D. Nepstad et al. 2006. Inhibition of Amazon deforestation and fire by parks and indigenous lands. Conservation Biology 20(1): 65-73.

January 26, 2012

Close Encounters of the Mashco Kind: Fatal attack by an isolated indigenous group in Peru

The look on Casiano’s face was beginning to worry me.  He had been helping me and Harvard ecologist Douglas Yu hack trails, scale trees and collect specimens in a thorny thicket of bamboo two miles across the river from the native community of Tayakome within Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon. Strange sounds had piqued Casiano’s ears and distracted his attention from the tedium of science. Agosto, another of our Matsigenka guides, left Doug and came to Casiano’s side.

“Did you hear that?!” Casiano pointed, as if aiming an arrow, into the shaded depths of the forest. I heard nothing but the background symphony of cicadas and birds.
“Tortoises?” asked Agosto hopefully.

“There!” pointed Casiano further to his left. “Bamboo breaking.”

“Maybe a jaguar…” said Agosto, not sounding convinced.

There was an urgent edge in their voices and expressions, something I had never before observed besetting the Matisgenka’s tacit confidence within the forest and its many predicaments: something approaching panic. Doug called out, “Could you tell Agosto to bring back my tape measure?”

Just then, not more than twenty yards ahead of us, the forest rang with an eerie, hollow whistle—a miracle of acoustics produced by cupping one hand over the chin and blowing across the thumbnail—that the Matsigenka use as a hail. Only there were no Matsigenka in front of us.

Casiano went pale and whispered, “Mashco.”

This Mashco-Piro group was photographed from across the river by Diego Cortijo just a few days before they presumably killed Cortijo's native guide and my old friend, Shaco Flores, in November. (photo source: Survival International)

For an update on the evolving situation of the Mashco-Piro, see the more recent posting "Mashco-Piros on the Verge: Missionaries, human safaris, head-ball and a tale of two contacts"