Isolated Peoples Moving towards Contact

Isolated People Around Yanayacu River, Alto Madre de Dios

When father David Martinez de Aguirre, Dominican Missionary in the native community of Kirigueti told me that those called “Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation or Initial Contact” were not such and, rather, were “family groups in captivity”, his position seemed exaggerated to me.  My only up-to-date information at the time was from headlines in social media or on the web pages of organizations that defend indigenous rights.

I read that loggers, drug traffickers, extractive industries, tourist businesses, and missionaries constituted a constant threat to the health and life of the isolated people. I also read that the Peruvian State, through its institutions and norms, protected the right to isolation in Territorial Reserves.

I confess that though I have read about the isolated people I had never met any. I have heard thousands of stories about them but, though an anthropologist who works in the Amazon lowlands, I never directly became acquainted with them.

On the other hand many people do know isolated peoples first hand:  for example, the Dominican fathers who work in the missions of Shintuya, Kirigueti, Timpía y Sepahua; the workers and community relations coordinators of extractive industries; the illegal loggers; the drug traffickers; the people of native communities near where the isolated peoples live; and leaders of the FENAMAD (Indigenous Federation of the Madre de Dios Region).  To understand the situation we must speak with them.  Of course, given the nature of conflicts in the region and legal issues, it is unlikely the illegal loggers or drug traffickers will speak with us publicly.  The Extractive industries also tend to have a policy of “business silence”.  As a result we have few options. [1]

After conversing with some of the Dominican fathers and reading the information published by FENAMAD on its Facebook page, I realized the situation was different from what I had thought.

First: the threats we mention are real and constant. They quit being simple threats and became day to day realities with visible consequences.

Second:  the State does little to protect the territorial reserves of these people or, if it does, it acts very late, after damage has been done. Instead of protecting people when contact is imminent, it prefers to confine them to reserves with the excuse of protecting their life and their culture. [2]

Third:  as a consequence the territorial reserves are not spaces of protection, rather they are a border erected by the State and and  agencies that work for protection of the isolated peoples so that they cannot leave their preserves, although agents of extractive industries, traffickers, and illegal loggers are allowed to enter. [3]

Fourth: it is evident from one year to another isolated peoples wish to quit being isolated and that they have the firm intention of entering into contact.

A report from FENAMAD on the last sighting of the Masho Piros on the Las Piedras river  says “Security agents tried to calm them since they spoke almost the same language, Piro or Yine.  The isolated people told them that on the coming Thursday they would return to gather up the bananas offered and in exchange would give them meat.” [4]  They ask for things as gifts  and also to barter.

This is not an intention of voluntary isolation on their part, nor is it a declaration of war.  It is a proposal of contractual relations.  It is an invitation to exchange.  It is the first step down the path of reciprocity and developing relations of kinship.

They are not afraid of us any more. No longer are there any land lords, rubber barons, slavers or ethnic cleansing. The indigenous people no longer attack and kill each other.  The isolated people are, instead, attracted to our modernity.  They know it and live it in the tales of intrepid young men, and the approve it in the visions of the elderly.  They know that in the dry season they can approach settled populations down river in order to obtain food and other articles.  They are smart enough to know why it is they face.  They do not want to remain isolated and nevertheless we isolate them.

What Father Martinez said began to make sense to me.

What happens is that we are afraid.  That is why we reject them.  That is why we isolate them.  That is why we keep them in captivity.

But what are we afraid of? That they will get sick and die from a flu or measles?[5] That they will lose their ancestral culture?  That they will shoot arrows at us? That they will capture our women and children? These are lies, pure lies.

In reality we are afraid of our incapacity to help them in the case of epidemics.  We are afraid to share what we have, instead we wish to sell!.  We are afraid of being solidary.  We also are ashamed because “primitive” people still exist, people who are naked and barefoot.  They mirror back to us our Indigenous faces.  We are embarrassed by innocence, by a frank and clear look, by a form of life that is counterposed to our privileges due to modernity.  We also carry prejudices rooted in our illusion of an ancestral culture or in the continuity of a “natural, primitive life”.  We do not want these isolated people to be contaminated.  We do not want to give them the right of inclusion.  Is this just?

From my point of view contact is imminent.  More and more people are coming out of the jungle.

What is the true risk in this?  That we confine them to their fate in the reserve so that they cannot go out while others go in? What can we do?

First we must face and conquer our own fears, calm our shame and transform our prejudices.  This is one of the hardest tasks we face in our modern society.

Second we must care for the life of these people by giving them timely medical care to prevent  or care for them in health emergencies.  Only after that can we think of other specific actions such as training the native communities and giving them all the necessary tools to handle the sporadic and ongoing contacts.  (The current protocol of contact are more than anything else protocols of fright, that is they serve to frighten the isolated people.)

The Isolated peoples also need citizenship. (Of course they are Peruvians, but they need the documents we all have though they have no birth certificates).  We need to title their lands, give them education and public health, strengthen their representative government and their capacity of speaking in formal venues, and avoid the formation of clientelist relationships and those of servitude.  Finally we must permit the evolution of their religious and interpretive system. [6]

They became isolated after a set of experiences and discussions in order to protect themselves from extermination and those now are giving them the bravery to undertake contact with others, then it is up to us to help them avoid the traumatic and destructive aspects of engagement with our modern society.


[1] The Kigueti mission is found in the lower Urubamba River basin, in the district of Echarati and the province of La Convencion, Department of Cusco, Peru. This mission receives reports of contact with the Nanti in the headwaters of the Camisea River.  Other missions that are vitally important for understanding the situation of isolated indigenous peoples who are in initial contact are: Shintuya (Manu, Madre de Dios), Timpía (La Convención, Cusco) and Sepahua (Atalaya, Ucayali).

The Dominican Father David Martínez de Aguirre Guinea has worked as a missionary for more than 11 years in the kirigueti native community.  I had the opportunity of conversing with him in June of 2014.  His opinions and writings about isolated peoples, as well as those of other missionaries, can be read in the journal Estudios Amazónicos (Lima), published by the Centro Cultural José Pío Aza (

You might wish to look, for example, at numbers 6 (2007) and 9 (2011). You can also watch a video where Father Martínez states, among other things, about the “Peoples in isolation: Voluntary or Forced?” (“pueblos en aislamiento: ¿voluntario o forzoso?”)

[2] In May of 2006 the Peruvian government established law number 28736 to protect indigenous and original peoples in isolation and in the situation of initial contact. The entity of the Peruvian government responsible for this theme is the Viceministerio de Interculturalidad, of the Ministerio de Cultura. Its role is much questioned because it does not take concrete actions to defend and protect the isolated people.

[3] The extractive industry that is working in the Lower Urubamba (Province of La Convencion) is the Consorcio Camisea, headed up by Pluspetrol. It holds a concession to lots 85 and 56 as large swathes of territory are designated. Lot 86 is super-posed on top of a reserve for isolated people called the Reserva Territorial para indígenas en aislamiento y contacto inicial Kugapakori, Nahua, Nanti and others (RTKNN).

The expansion of its activities inside the RTKNN over the last year, permitted by the current government is the best example of how outsiders can enter these reserves but those who live there are not allowed to leave.

[4] FENAMAD (Federación Nativa del Río Madre de Dios y Afluentes) constantly reports on its Facebook page news about sightings and contact with the indigenous people of the upper Madre de Dios River along with the Las Piedras, Los Amigos y Tahuamanu rivers, thanks to the presence of agents of community security (agentes de vigilancia comunitarios). Here is a link to a recent report.

The position of FENAMAD is clear: avoid forced contact because of the risk of illness and the initiation of begging and dependency relationships. Furthermore, it is one of the organizations that frequently demands concrete actions from the government for the protection of isolated peoples.

[5] One must remove myths from the theme of the diseases that are lethal among Indigenous peoples in isolation.  Not all of them respond the same way to colds the flu, cough, measles, or chicken pox. For example, a friend from the native community of Cashiriari (located on ten river of the same name which is a tributary of the Camisea River), told me that various Nanti had come into their community some two years ago.  My friend was afraid that they would get sick with a cold or cough and warned them of the risk. When the Nanti heard the names of the sicknesses they did not recognize them but when they were told of the symptoms they said they had already had those symptoms and that they posed no risk to their lives.

[6] A great friend of mine, a former leader of FENAMAD, told me that in 2006 his organization charged him with accompanying the isolated peoples of the Las Piedras river in one of their customary rituals.  As a result he traveled by river with them for two weeks.  Among his many stories the one that most caught my attention. was that the isolated people would take Ayahuasca every night.  Were they living in a state of modified consciousness all the time?  If they were then they will see us completely differently from how we think.  Whatever the case, it seems they now see us as ready for contact and ask for goods for exchange.


This post was originally published in Spanish here:


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