21 Aug 2013

Out of sight: how long can tribes escape the outside world?

As members of one of Peru’s most remote tribes emerge from the Amazon jungle to ask for food, Channel 4 News explores how long uncontacted communities can avoid the influence of the outside world.

More than 100 members of the Mascho-Piro tribe were caught on camera across a river from a remote community in Madre de Dios state, in the south east of Peru (see video, above).

Forest rangers who filmed the approach said members of the tribe, of all ages and sexes and carrying lances and bows and arrows, appeared to be asking for food.

It has been speculated that the tribe may have been complaining about the use of its resources, and wanted food as a form of compensation.

The Madre de Dios area of Peru is home to many of the Latin American country’s “uncontacted tribes”, but the region, as with many other parts of the Amazon rainforest, is under threat from cultivation.

Indeed, across the world uncontacted peoples – of which there are thought to be 70 in 60 different countries – face the threat imposed by economic development and colonisation.

Under threat

Tribes such as the Mascho-Piro are encountering the combined threats to their habitats of logging, ranching, mining and roads.

Additionally, with the advance of mainstream society comes the advance of its diseases. An undeveloped immunity to illnesses such as measles means, to the tribal people, infection is very often fatal.

South American governments have not remained silent on protecting tribal communities. Brazil has led the way in protecting the lands of uncontacted tribes, with other countries also following suit.

However, a lack of resources to police areas, and economic pressures, mean these territories remain under threat.

A new road running through Madre de Dios is under debate in Peru’s congress, a road that would cleave through Mascho-Piro territory.

It was originally proposed by an Italian priest, who argues that the road would mean tribal communities would gain access to the advantages of more developed society.

‘Historic memory’

However, as Fiona Watson, research director at tribal people’s charity Survival International argues, many tribal communities do not want to mix with developed society.

“The historic memory is strong (in these tribes)” she said. “They know what contact means. They know how down the generations their ancestors have been persecuted.

“The fact that they shun all contact speaks volumes.”

She added: “All over Brazil, Peru, Paraguay there is large pressure on their land. Particularly in the Amazon, more and more areas are being penetrated because of their natural resources.”

What dangers?

Cattle ranching

There are just five members of the Akuntsu tribe, who live in the Rondonia area of Brazil. The rest of the tribe was massacred in the 1980s by cattle ranchers, who then bulldozed their homes to cover-up their actions.


Peru’s rainforest is home to some of the world’s last commercially viable mahogany, and as such is drawing in illegal loggers. The Murunahua people were decimated by contact with loggers, and violent conflicts have taken place between loggers and tribesmen.


Mining causes damage in different ways. Large scale mining involves destruction of large areas of habitat, potentially destroying homes and the means by which tribal communities feed themselves. Wildcat, or illegal mining, brings with it pollution of rivers with mercury, and therefore pollution of fish supplies.


However, with the advance of economic interests into tribal areas comes something more damaging – people.

“Where you have industry you get roads,” says Ms Watson. “In Brazil they have been incapable of controlling access. People pour into the area to colonise it.”

And with people comes disease, something that uncontacted tribes have often not built up immunity against.

“There have been examples of particular communities where 50 per cent of people have been wiped out within a year of contact,” Ms Watson continued.

And there is a darker side to social interaction. Ms Watson describes how for members of the Yanomami indigenous community, gold miners in Brazil brought with them prostitution and sexual diseases.

‘Dirty’, ‘backward’

Part of the problem is the perception of these tribes.

In the Indonesian region of West Papua, for example, tribal communities have suffered horrific human rights abuses over the decades at the hands of soldiers because their communities are considered to be “dirty”, “backward” and “stone-age”.

According to Survival International, since the Indonesian occupation that began in 1963, Papuans in remote areas have been routinely killed, raped and tortured by soldiers.

Western attitudes can sometimes stereotype remote tribes as violent and cannibalistic.

There have been examples of people from the outside world being killed by tribes, as happened to two illegal fishermen who entered the territory of the Sentinelese, who occupy North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean.

However, Ms Watson argues, these tribes are no more or less violent than the rest of the world.

“Basically one human society is like any other,” she told Channel 4 News. “And there is no doubt that frontier society – bringing with it colonisation, genocide and disease – has been far more devastating to them than they have been to it.”