Uncontacted tribe's encounters with civilization fuel ethical debate

Missionaries and tourists are increasingly making contact with an "uncontacted" tribe in Peru, fuelling a "dangerous situation" and an ethical debate about how governments should deal with the world's uncontacted tribes.

'Dangerous situation' as tourists, missionaries make contact with Peru's Mashco Piro people

Members of the Mashco-Piro tribe, are photographed at an undisclosed location near the Manu National Park in southeastern Peru 2011. The Mashco Piro have recently initiated contact with local indigenous people, and have increasingly had encounters with missionaries and tourists. (AP Photo/Diego Cortijo, Survival Internationa)

Missionaries and tourists are increasingly making contact with an isolated "uncontacted" tribe in Peru, fuelling what the Peruvian government calls a "dangerous situation" and an ethical debate about how governments should deal with the world's uncontacted tribes.

For decades or centuries, the nomadic Mashco Piro people have kept to themselves in the jungles of Manu National Park in southeastern Peru, Luis Felipe Torres Espinoza, Peru's deputy minister of multi-culturalism told CBC's The Current.

However, recently they have started to make contact with nearby indigenous populations, seeking cultivated food such as plantains and metal objects such as knives and pots. Missionaries have also made contact with them, offering them gifts and trying to convert them to Christianity. Tourists en route to the national park have stopped to take pictures of them and give them gifts, Torres Espinoza said.

The encounters could put the Mashco Piro at risk of contracting deadly diseases — they have no natural immunity to contagious illnesses such as influenza and measles. They are also potentially risky to outsiders, as uncontacted tribes been known to attack and kill people outside their tribe.

"What we have seen is a dangerous situation," Torres Espinzo added through a translator. "It's an emergency that we're starting to get under control."

The Peruvian government says it's trying to protect the so-called uncontacted peoples known as the Mashco Piro. But increasingly members of the tribe appear to be reaching out asking for food and tools. So what happens when the uncontacted want contact?

The situation has fuelled a debate about how government should be dealing with uncontacted tribes.

Advocates of "controlled government contact" argue that tribes generally want to make contact, and they're best protected if governments take the initiative. But others say such "forced contact" violates international laws and contact often causes great harm to uncontacted people.

With respect to the Mashco Piro, Torres Espinoza says the Peruvian government acknowledges that it is possible the tribe wants to make contact, but officials are not sure of that.

"What is sure is they do not seem to want to be completely isolated," he said, adding it may mean they would like access to objects such as machetes and pots, but not necessarily that they would like to integrate with society and make use of schools and social services.

Because of that, the government has cracked down on tourist companies advertising the possibility of seeing the Mashco Piro during tours, and are hiring security staff along the river to keep people away from the Mashco Piro.

"We need to be very careful with how we understand the Mashco Piro behaviour now," Torres Espinoza added, "so we are not going one step beyond what they really want."

'Incorrect information'

However, Kim Hill, a professor at Arizona State University who has been studying uncontacted peoples for decades, says if the Mashco Piro seem to be avoiding full contact, they are probably "making a decision based on incorrect information."

Hill told The Current that he has interviewed half a dozen tribes in their own native languages immediately or soon after first contact.

I can't impose my desire to see them pure and pristine wearing feathers and coloured paint… it's not what they want and it's not what best for them- Kim Hill, Arizona State University

"Repeatedly what I've found is they all want outside interactions. They understand there are benefits of interacting with outsiders," he said. "The main reason they're staying hidden in the forest and isolated is they're afraid they'll be exterminated, massacred or enslaved."

He said when he first started studying uncontacted tribes, he too thought it was best to leave them alone. But he said that was a product of his own romantic desires.

"I can't impose my desire to see them pure and pristine, wearing feathers and coloured paint … it's not what they want and it's not what best for them," he said. "They want what everybody else wants in the world: They want a chance to participate, to be part of the world community."

He said he's advocated for controlled government contact with the Mashco Piro since 1983, after observing them going into mining camps — sometimes just minutes after they were abandoned — to look for bottles and cans they could use as water containers.

He thinks the government should initiate contact with a group of language and cultural translators, along with a dedicated medical team that could stay with the tribe for two years after contact to treat them for diseases resulting from contact.

Otherwise, he thinks the tribe is at risk of making contact with groups such as miners or drug traffickers under uncontrolled circumstances: "Those people are certainly not going to take the kind of medical precautions that are necessary to in order to save this tribe from an epidemic disaster."

'Human right to remain isolated'

Survival International, a group that advocates for the roughly 140 uncontacted tribes around the world, is opposed to controlled government contact with uncontacted tribes.

"It's their human right to remain isolated," said Rebecca Spooner, SI's campaign officer for Peru.

International laws require countries to respect that right, she added, including protecting them from potential contact with groups such as miners and loggers.

 If Peru doesn't do that, she says, it's because of a lack of political will.

"People who are advocating forced contact are playing right into the hands of the companies that want to go in and develop those areas," she said.

In the case of the Mashco Piro, she said, the Peruvian government is now doing what Survival International advocates. The Mashco Piro have indicated they want some contact with local indigenous people to get access to certain items, and the government is present to prevent outsiders from making forced contact.

In many cases, she says, making contact with the outside world can have terrible consequences for uncontacted people. Often, a large part of the populations dies from disease.

"After that," she added, "they often lose their land and so their complete identity is lost."