May 27, 2016

Ceci N’est Pas un Contact: the Fetishization of Isolated Indigenous People [Excerpt]

Words matter. Peruvian legislation recognizes two categories of indigenous peoples with little or no interaction with outsiders and the state: “peoples in voluntary isolation” and “peoples in initial contact.” And yet there is no term, process or protocol to describe that moment of transition from one category to another: the process we refer to, for lack of a better term as “contact,” which evokes cinematic images of encounters with alien civilizations.1

Throughout 2014, groups of "uncontacted"(?!) Mashco-Piro regularly approached tourism and transport boats along the banks of the upper Madre de Dios river asking for food, clothing and metal implements.

I visited Peru in March of 2015 in the company of retired FUNAI agent José Carlos Meirelles and Brazilian physician Douglas Rodrigues, both with decades of experience among such peoples. My visit was an attempt to help the Peruvian Culture Ministry better address the precarious situation of isolated indigenous peoples along the Peru-Brazil border. It took years for the Peruvian government to even recognize the fact that isolated indigenous groups still exist in some parts of the Peruvian Amazon. Once such peoples were officially recognized in Peru about a decade ago, the official state policy, promoted by indigenous federations such as the Federacion Nativa de Madre de Dios (FENAMAD), has been “no contact.” Whereas in past years, religious and other organizations have sought to initiate contact with such isolated indigenous peoples, typically resulting in their decimation and cultural assimilation, this more enlightened, recent policy has recognized isolation as a form of cultural self-determination that should be respected and enforced.

Mashco-Piro women on the banks of the Madre Dios river. Photo: Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic, June 2016.

I first coined the term “voluntary isolation” in an open letter to Mobil Prospecting Peru protesting this company’s seismic exploration in the Rio Piedras known to be inhabited by Mashco-Piro and perhaps other poorly known indigenous groups, referred to at that time with inaccurate and pejorative terms such as “uncontacted,” “Stone Age,” “primitive,” “uncivilized,” or “naked.” The point of the term “voluntary isolation” is to recognize this situation, not as an accident of nature or history
a human group lost in the backwaters of human evolution — but rather as a conscious choice of these indigenous peoples to isolate themselves from outsiders, often due to disastrous prior experiences, as a mode of survival and self-determination.2 The term seemed to catch on, initially through the activism of FENAMAD and the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs in Peru, and ultimately spread to neighboring Amazonian countries like Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay.

What do we do when a group of isolated people, such as the Mashco-Piro along the upper Madre de Dios River, who had previously rejected all attempts at “contact” by missionaries, scientists, government agents and nearby indigenous brethren, have suddenly emerged along river banks, calling to tourist boats and loggers asking for food, clothes, and metal implements? Mashco-Piro bowmen have raided legally recognized native communities to take food and trade goods, sometimes wounding and even killing apparently inoffensive indigenous “brethren” with their arrows.

Faced with such difficult challenges, one Peruvian Culture Ministry representative asked the Brazilian specialists, “Don’t we need a new category to refer to these people? ‘People in sporadic contact’ perhaps?” This person, and others we met during this visit of exchange between Peru and Brazil, seemed to be contorting the language to find ways of respecting the inviolable principle of “no contact.” Meirelles responded in his characteristically sardonic manner: “Can a person be considered ‘sporadically pregnant’? No. Either they are, or they aren’t.” 

An evangelical missionary communicates with a group of Mashco-Piro through a local Piro interpreter, 2014.

Viewing numerous photographs of Mashco-Piro individuals approaching boats, receiving clothes, metal implements, food, even a Coca Cola bottle, Meirelles commented: “Contact has already happened. You people are in denial.”

The official Peruvian policy of “no-contact” is reinforced by vehement, idealistic media campaigns by indigenous rights organizations and concerned individuals who post on social media networks
“leave them alone!” While their intentions are of course noble, such a simplistic view of the complex and quickly changing situation tends to romanticize and fetishize the condition of “isolation” as a pristine, natural, unadulterated state of the last autonomous, free peoples of the planet beyond the clutches of capitalism, organized religion and the state. People forget that the very state of “isolation” is most often a historical product, a conscious choice by certain groups of people, in certain moments, to defend themselves from moments of violence and territorial invasion, notably during the Rubber Boom at the turn of the 20th century. For this very reason I have resisted the idea that such peoples should be referred to as “uncontacted.” 

Mashco-Piro children remove clothing and food from a tourism boat. Photo: Jaime Corisepa/FENAMAD

As Felipe Milanez has written, “Contact is a myth: it is a colonial myth.” It is a myth that fetishizes as a primordial condition
“uncontacted,” autonomous, free, beyond the state what is in fact a historically contingent response.  The response of isolated peoples is evolving, in some cases rapidly, in a rapidly changing world impacted not only by roads, mining, logging, gas pipelines, and colonization, but also by global warming, environmental change, and changing social relationships with neighboring peoples.3 It is only by looking beyond these myths and the idealistic, sometimes naïve notions they evoke, that scholars and supporters of indigenous rights and the relevant government institutions can develop policies that defend the long-term rights of survival, territory and self-determination of indigenous peoples, rather than blindly defending their own fantasies about them.


Excerpt: Full text at Tipiti 14(1): 135-137 (article 8)

Read more from the special forum on isolated peoples at Tipiti 14(1), with articles by Felipe Milanez & yrs truly, Lucas Bessire, John Hemming, Minna Opas, and Warren Thompson & Obed Garcia

Read more on isolated indigenous peoples from this blog:

Mashco-Piros on the verge 
Too-close encounters 
Quiet war in the Amazon
Forget colonial myths


1. Shepard, G.H. 2002. “Prólogo.” In: Huertas, B., Los Pueblos Indígenas en Aislamiento: Su lucha por la sobrevivencia y la libertad. Lima: IWGIA, 11-14.

2. Shepard, G.H. et al. 2010. “Trouble in Paradise: Indigenous populations, anthropological policies, and     biodiversity conservation in Manu National Park, Peru.” Journal of Sustainable Forestry     29(2): 252-301.

3. Walker, R. S., and Hill, K. 2015. “Protecting isolated tribes,” Science 5 June 2015: 1061.


May 12, 2016

Water in Yomibato: Guest post by National Geographic writer Emma Marris

I traveled last November to Manu Park in the Peruvian Amazon with writer Emma Marris to guide her among the Matsigenka people for a story she published this week in National Geographic. In this post from the science blog The Last Word on Nothing (reproduced with permission), Emma describes her visit to the water purification system recently inaugurated in this remote village by the charity organization Rainforest Flow.

Text: Emma Marris
Photography: Glenn Shepard

Durable, hygienic drinking taps, sinks and bathrooms were installed near the Yomibato village school by Rainforest Flow.
Last November, I went to the Peruvian Amazon on assignment for National Geographic.  I focused on a group of indigenous people, the Matsigenka, living inside Manu National Park.

One of these people is Alejo Machipango
[1], a hunter, farmer, and member of the water committee for the village of Yomibato. Alejo is about 32, but I would have guessed his age at 22. He is married and has several kids. He is a jokester. He likes chewing coca, drinking manioc beer. He takes his arrows with him most places, just in case. I saw him shoot at some birds, but never hit one. And he always laughs when he misses.
Alejo with his arrows, just in case.

One day, Alejo takes me to see the spring where Yomibato gets its water. The water system in the village was installed by a charity called Rainforest Flow between 2012 and 2015.

A few generations ago, the Matsigenka used to be more dispersed on the landscape. Each family lived apart, and households moved often. The whole community would gather together once a month, on the full moon, and have a big party with manioc beer. But many families decided to move to Yomibato to be near the school and clinic. As the community grew to several hundred, the local river and streams became contaminated with bacteria and waterborne illness became a chronic problem.

The slow sand filtration treatment tanks, with water committee members.

The newly-installed water system itself is a very simple slow sand filtration setup. Water is piped from a spring away from the main village to a series of three portable geomembrane tanks[2] filled with sand and rocks. Microbes living on the sand gobble up bacteria, viruses, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and parasites. The water is stored in a 30,000 liter bladder tank that is essentially a big tough geomembrane pillow, then is distributed throughout the village through pipes. The whole system is gravity fed, so there are no pumps, no electricity required, no moving parts. It is also light and easy to transport by canoe. It was designed by hydrological engineer Humphrey Blackburn. The water committee clean the filters every couple of months and repair pipe breaks, and that’s about it.

We cross the river by canoe, stop to look at the filters and reservoir, and then start climbing the foothills of the Andes towards the spring. When we get there, the spring itself looks like nothing. A wet spot in the ground. A pipe with holes in it is buried below the surface, I am told.

We sit down to rest in the hollows made by the huge buttressed roots of massive fig trees. Alejo says he knows a tree nearby that is fruiting, and he and his friend Alex disappear, then reappear with their T-shirts filled with brown seed pods, about five inches long. They are called azucar huayo in Spanish; koveni in Matsigenka
[3]. The water committee hack them open with machetes and begin eating the sweet brown fluffy stuff inside. It is almost too sweet.

Alex with azucar huayo.

I ask Alejo about laying the 16 kilometers of pipe the project required. “Everybody came to work,” he says. “The women came. We all suffered a lot.”

I ask him if it was worth it. Sometimes, I think, development projects are more about what rich people think a community ought to want, rather than what they actually do want. “If we had to do it again, we would.” Alejo says. “One of my children died of diarrhea, and I had it many times.”

He says this so matter of factly that I don’t say the kinds of things I would say if someone back home told me their child had died. I suppose that in a place where people have a dozen kids and where childhood mortality is relatively common, it is possible that the etiquette is a bit different. But in truth, I am stunned that this happy-go-lucky guy who looks like a teenager has lost a child. And as a mother, I feel that vaguely sick feeling you get whenever you hear about any child dying.

I wonder if he is on the water committee because his child died, or if he just thought he’d make a little money without having to leave the village—which is the way most people make money in Yomibato, if they need some for soap or cooking pots or gasoline. But I don’t know how to ask him any more about this dead child.

Nancy Santullo, founder and director of Rainforest Flow.

The American woman who runs Rainforest Flow, Nancy Santullo, sees clean water as a basic step on the road towards empowering indigenous communities that have historically been victimized by outsiders: paid less than non-natives for their work, denied benefits owed to them as citizens, abused by those sent to help them

She is on a spiritual quest to make the Matisgenka strong and confident. Alejo already seems strong and confident, but I don’t know. His smiles may cover a shell thicker than the koveni

We walk back along the pipe, and it is a hot day, like every day. When we get to the first house of the village, I stop and take a long cool drink from the tap.

Access to clean, safe water has transformed health and sanitary conditions in the project communities, benefiting children especially.

Find out about Rainforest Flow's water projects in indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon at

Read more about the Matsigenka people and Manu Park in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic:

by Emma Marris
photography by Charlie Hamilton James

by Susan Goldberg
photography by Glenn Shepard


1.  As a young boy, Alejo appeared in the Discovery channel documentaries Spirits of the Rainforest (winner of two Emmys) and The Spirit Hunters, both filmed in Yomibato in 1992. Alejo's grandfather, Mariano Vicente, a storyteller, shaman, and "star" of the films, passed away in 2012. The Spirit Hunters , narrated by James Earl Jones, streams free online at Culture Unplugged.
2.  Slow sand filtration is a centuries-old technology used by many small towns as well as by the U.S. military on extended combat missions and the U.N. in disaster relief efforts. Read more at
3.  Azucar huayo (or jatobá in Brazil) is a legume seed pod from the tree Hymenaea courbaril L.