The Mascho Piro

The Mascho Piro are an indigenous tribe who live in the South American country of Peru.  According to a BBC article, “The Mashco-Piro are one of the several tribes designated by the government as “uncontacted people”.  Uncontacted is a short-hand term that is often used for tribes like the Mashco Piro, however, there is evidence that suggests that they are the descendants of people who in the past had contact with the outside world.  There are estimated to be about fifteen uncontacted tribes in Peru including the Mashco Piro; there are between 12,000 and 15,000 people from uncontacted tribes living in the rainforests east of the Andes mountain range  It is believed that the population of the tribe is in the hundreds and separated into several different clans.  They speak a dialect of the Piro language.  When studying a tribe like the Mashco Piro it is important to think about Intangible Cultural Heritage.  It is defined by UNESCO as the wealth of cultural knowledge and skills that are passed down from one generation to the next; it is an important factor for maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization.  The government of Peru forbids outsiders from having direct contact with tribes like the Mascho Piro because their immune systems are not able to cope with the kind of germs carried by most other people in Peru.  According to an article from The Ecologist, “Politicians deny the existence of isolated tribes like the Masho-Piro as oil, gas and logging exploration increasingly encroaches on their forest territory”.  Throughout history the Mashco Piro have had their land invaded many times; often these events have turned violent.  Unfortunately, during these invasions they have been subjected to forms of genocide.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large groups of resource developers came into remote regions in the Amazon to source rubber supplies; this period became known as the ‘Rubber Boom’.  During this time the indigenous groups in the area including the Mascho Piro were mistreated, their land was invaded and thousands were worked to death or killed; the ones who survived retreated deeper into the rainforest to live in isolation.  So, it is partly because of the succession of violent invasion that the Mascho Piro have chosen to live in such extreme isolation.

Many researchers that study indigenous groups refer to these tribes as voluntarily isolated.  Since the tragedies of the ‘Rubber Boom’ there has been persistent pressure on the Mashco Piro’s land; rubber tappers, drugs traffickers, oil companies, fishermen, and loggers have all attempted to enter their land and some have been successful.  The Mashco Piro are a nomadic tribe and they rely on hunting and gathering for their food; ironically before the ‘Rubber Boon’ started they lived in relatively settled communities and practiced agriculture. It seems that the invasions from outsiders undermined their development and disrupted their relatively organized society.  They were forced to abandon agriculture so that they could have increased mobility to keep a distance from the invading outsiders.  The Mashco Piro’s lands have also been invaded by Christian missionaries.  Recently a group of missionaries from the South American Mission, known as ‘Pioneers’ have created a community with the purpose of converting the Mashco Piro and this has lead to dangerous confrontations between both groups.  This signals that forms of imperialism are still occurring throughout Latin America even in the modern age.

For centuries, Jesuit Missionaries from Europe have been coming over to Latin American countries with the intent of converting indigenous people to Catholicism through force.  With the invasion of missionaries, the Mascho Piro have been forced into areas occupied by other native communities such as the Amahuaca of Santa Cruz; this has led to major conflicts between both groups.  The tribe lives by their own social codes one of which includes kidnapping women and children from other tribes.  Their traditional way of life has been significantly interrupted by the invasion of outsiders.  The tribe’s regular hunting grounds have been affected by the increase of low-flying airplane traffic that supports natural gas and oil explorations in the area.  The Mascho Piro live in the Ucayali Region and Upper Purús Region of Southeastern Peru, nearby the border with Brazil and Bolivia. They live along the banks of the Las Piedras River within the Alto Purús National Park in huts that are made out of palm leaves; in the rainy season, they retreat to huts in the interior of the rain forest.  It has been suggested that the Mascho Piro are an ethnic mix that resulted from the intermarriages of the ethnic Yine and the Harakmbut (Piro) who were living in a different region prior to the arrival of resource developers in search of rubber.  This means that both indigenous groups were open and in contact with one another if intermarriage was allowed.

It is ironic that it was the invasion of resource developers that contributed to the creation of the Mashco Piro indigenous group; as history has shown that they detest invaders and go into hiding to avoid interaction with them.   There is a lot unknown about the Mashco Piro’s way of life.  The men of the tribe hunt with bow and arrow as well as spears; a staple in their diet is turtle eggs found at river banks.  Refer to Image A to see a picture of tribal members hunting on the banks of a river.  They have an athletic build and have long black hair; their clothing mainly consists of a yellowish cloth covering their lower body.  According to an article from the journal, The Americas, “The Peruvian government honored the Mashco-Piro’s wishes by creating a territorial reserve in 1997 where the group can live in isolation under legal protection. The territorial reserve is embedded in the national park, which explicitly recognizes the rights of the Mashco-Piro”.  This reserve is part of the massive, 6.6 million hectares Alto Purus Conservation Complex in the Amazon region of Peru along the border with Brazil; it aims to preserve the lands in which endangered animal species and several indigenous groups live on including the Mascho Piro.  Refer to Image B for a map of the Alto Purus Conservation Complex and the lands occupied by the Mascho Piro.  A current issue that the Mashco Piro are dealing with is increased sightings of the tribe from tourists.  Part of their territory is in parts of the Mario National Park of Peru which is a popular place for tourists to go to experience the Amazon rainforest, and sightings of the tribe have increased in recent years.    In conclusion, the Mashco Piro have had a complex and multi-layered history, and they continue to survive through many hardships.  Many aspects of their life and culture are still a mystery and have yet to be revealed.

Ilish Chan

Work Cited

“Cujareno, Mashco Piro of Peru.” U.S. Center for World Mission: Joshua Project. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

“GOD & CHAINSAWS.” The Ecologist 31.4 (2001): 18. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

Hill, David. “Who are the Mashco-Piro tribe and can they still hope to stay ‘uncontacted’?” The 

Ecologist. Web. 1st February, 2012.

Holmes, Bob. “A look at the last uncontacted tribes in the world.” Washington Post. 3 Sept. 2013. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

Huertas Castillo, Beatriz. Indigenous Peoples in Isolation in the Peruvian Amazon: Their Struggle for Survival and Freedom. Somerset, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2004. Print.

Hierro, Pedro García; Hvalkof, Søren and Gray, Andrew. Liberation Through Land Rights in the Peruvian Amazon. Copenhagen, Denmark: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. 1998. Print.

“Peru: alarm over appearance of isolated Mashco-Piro tribe.” The Guardian News and Media Limited. 20 August 2013. Web. 16 November 2013.

“Peru’s isolated Mashco-Piro tribe [‘asks for food’]”.  BBC News Latin America and Caribbean. 20 August, 2013. Web. 11 November, 2013.

“Spread Of ‘Human Safaris’ Threatens Peru’s Uncontacted Indians.” Indian Life 32.5 (2012): 8. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

“What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?” UNESCO. 2012. Web. 25 November, 2013.

This entry was posted in Alto Purus National Park, Amazon rainforest, Intangible Cultural Heritage, Jesuit, Mascho Piro, Peru, Rubber Boom, uncontacted people, UNESCO. Bookmark the permalink.

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