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Story Publication logo July 13, 2023

How the Last Isolated People on Earth Live (Spanish)


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A proposed bill seeks to strip isolated nomads of protection to satisfy the global demand for energy...

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An English summary of this report is below. The original report, published in Portuguese in Folha de S.Paulo, follows.

A Matsés Indigenous man who has witnessed sightings of groups in voluntary isolation inside a reserve in Puerto Alegre. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

A tour of some of the most remote corners of the Peruvian Amazon provides several lessons for the future

The eastern Amazon is home to the jungle blocks with the highest concentration of Indigenous groups in voluntary isolation on the planet; peoples who a century ago took refuge in the most inaccessible corners of the jungle, fleeing from slavery in rubber plantations. Since then, they have lived self-sufficiently, outside of the market economy, consumer goods, and the abstractions of the nation state; moving between Peru and Brazil along paths now invaded by drug traffickers, in lands encircled by illegal fishermen and coveted by loggers and miners. Despite all this, their territories remain among the best preserved in the basin and are a priority for climate, biodiversity, and global food security, the three great challenges of a decade that will determine the future of the planet.

For the majority of society, dependent on money, cell phones, and fossil fuels, the questions are many: How do the last isolated peoples of the Earth live? What is it like to share territory with them? How did those who established contact with the outside world a few decades ago fare?

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This newspaper has traveled to some of the most remote corners of the Peruvian Amazon to talk to the Indigenous Matsés, who came out of isolation in 1969, and to document the coexistence between a settlement of Yine settlers and the Mashco Piro: the former, grandchildren of slaves who killed the rubber boss and fled south; the latter, descendants of other speakers of the Yine language who would have chosen to go into the forest, becoming the largest isolated people in Peru.

This media has also traveled to the Amazonian city of Pucallpa to meet a new generation of Isconahua, a group forcibly contacted half a century ago and abandoned on the margins of society; without a voice in the decisions that affect them, but determined to change their fate. And threaded into these stories are Spanish researchers, a bishop from León, and Gustave Eiffel. Three Indigenous peoples, three stories, and many lessons for the future of the Amazon.

Nilo Vargas, 27, shows his scars. In 2010, in the community of Monte Salvado, a group of people in voluntary isolation attacked him with an arrow that pierced his abdomen. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

A group of Indigenous Matsés children demonstrate for the protection of groups in voluntary isolation in Puerto Alegre. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

Children from the Monte Salvado community wear their typical Yine Indigenous clothes during a festival in Monte Salvado. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

Abel Biná, a Matsés Indigenous man, remembers being contacted by missionaries flying over his territory in a small plane in 1969, when he was still a child. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

Belizario Sebastian, a 40-year-old Yine and protection agent of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and its tributaries (Fenamad), holds a branch bent by isolated Indigenous groups as a warning not to enter their territory. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

Detail of a cloth to hold a newborn baby and a wooden weaving utensil. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

Branches in the shape of a cross as a sign of no trespassing. Thus, the groups in voluntary isolation block the passage through the trails and prevent entry into their territory. The Yine community of Monte Salvado borders the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve for isolated Indigenous people. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

Figure 1: In the Peruvian region of Loreto, a road project between Genaro Herrera and the border colony of Angamos threatens the Yavarí-Mirim reserve for isolated Indigenous groups, which is at an advanced stage of creation. Resistance by the Matsés to this same type of road led to air force bombing in the 1960s.

Figure 2: In the Madre de Dios region, a road inaugurated during the COVID-19 pandemic passes within half an hour's walk of one of the guard posts for the protection of isolated Indigenous people. Around this road, human and drug trafficking is proliferating. Infographic by Pedro Tipula, Institute for the Common Good.

General view of the Piedras River from the community of Monte Salvado. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

Sara Beso Dunu weaves some palm leaves for the roof of her house. Her father was one of the Matsés in voluntary isolation until he was contacted by missionaries in 1969. Image by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.