The recent invasion of an Amazonian village in Peru by members of the isolated Mashco-Piro tribe is just the latest in a series of encounters that are becoming more frequent, and more risky. Why is this happening?

There are around 15 uncontacted tribes in Peru. They live in the most remote, isolated regions of the Amazon rainforest, but their land is being rapidly destroyed by outsiders.They include the Mashco-Piro, Nanti and Yora.

Multiple threats

All of these peoples face terrible threats – to their land, livelihoods and, ultimately, their lives. If nothing is done, they are likely to disappear entirely. They are extremely vulnerable to any form of contact with outsiders because they do not have immunity to Western diseases. International law recognizes the Indians’ land as theirs, just as it recognizes their right to live on it as they want to. That law is not being respected by the Peruvian government, or the companies who are invading tribal land.

Uncontacted for good reason

Everything we know about these isolated Indians makes it clear they seek to maintain their isolation. On the very rare occasions when they are seen or encountered, they make it clear they want to be left alone. Sometimes they react aggressively, as a way of defending their territory, or leave signs in the forest warning outsiders away. The Indians have suffered horrific violence and diseases brought by outsiders in the past. For many this suffering continues today. They clearly have very good reason not to want contact.

The greatest threats to Peru’s uncontacted Indians are oil workers and illegal loggers. More than 70% of the Peruvian Amazon has been leased by the government to oil companies. Much of this includes regions inhabited by uncontacted tribes. Oil exploration is particularly dangerous to the Indians because it opens up previously remote areas to other outsiders, such as loggers and colonists. They use the roads and paths made by the exploration teams to enter.

In the past, oil exploration has led to violent and disastrous contact with isolated Indians: in the early 1980s, exploration by Shell led to contact with the isolated Nahua tribe. Within a few years around 50% of the Nahua had died.

Now a consortium of companies led by Argentina’s Pluspetrol is working on the Nahua’s land and plans to expand the massive ‘Camisea’ gas project. Camisea lies inside a reserve for uncontacted and isolated tribes that includes the Nanti and Matsigenka Indians. Further expansion of the project could result in the demise of these vulnerable tribes.

Meanwhile, Peru describes its policy to international companies as ‘open door’. The government is actively encouraging new companies to explore in areas inhabited by uncontacted tribes including the Mashco-Piro and Isconahua.

Mahogany: ‘Red gold’

The other principal threat is illegal loggers, many of them after mahogany. Known as ‘red gold’, mahogany commands a very high price on the global market. Peru’s rainforest has some of the last commercially viable mahogany stands anywhere in the world, prompting a ‘red gold fever’ for the last of them. Tragically, these are the same regions where the isolated Indians live, meaning that loggers invade their territory and contact is almost inevitable.

In 1996 illegal loggers forced contact with the Murunahua Indians. In the following years over 50% of them died, mainly from colds, flu and other respiratory infections. Loggers have also been forcing members of an uncontacted tribe to flee from Peru across the border into Brazil.

The evidence

A vast amount of evidence, including video footage, audio material, photographs, artifacts, testimonies and interviews, has been collected over the years. For example, on the 18th of September 2007 a plane chartered by the Frankfurt Zoological Society checking for the presence of illegal loggers flew over a remote part of Peru’s south-eastern rainforest. By chance they came across a group of twenty-one Indians, probably members of the Mashco-Piro tribe, in a temporary fishing camp on a river bank. Just six weeks after the sighting, Peru’s President Garcia wrote in a newspaper article that the uncontacted Indians had been ‘created by environmentalists’ opposed to oil exploration.


Almost all the isolated Indians are nomads, moving across the rainforest according to the seasons in small, extended family groups. In the rainy season, when water levels are high, the tribes, who generally do not use canoes, live away from the rivers deep in the rainforest. During the dry season, however, when water levels are low and beaches form in the river bends they camp on the beaches and fish.

Turtle eggs

The dry season is also the time of year river turtles appear on the beaches to lay their eggs, burying them in the sand. The eggs are an important source of protein for the Indians, and they are experts at finding and digging them up. The Indians’ appearance on the beaches means that they are most likely to be seen by loggers, other outsiders or neighbouring, contacted Indians at this time of year. Besides turtle eggs, the uncontacted Indians eat a variety of meat, fish, plantains, nuts, berries, roots and grubs. Animals hunted include tapir, peccary, monkey and deer.

Urgent need for action

The plight of the Mashco-Piro tribe now appears to be acute. They seem to be being pushed out of their traditional territory by a combination of illegal loggers and drug traffickers. Unless the government takes rapid action to protect their territory from these invaders, a tragic outcome is almost inevitable.

Text by Jonathan Mazower
Advocacy Director
Survival International