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Controversy Stirs Over Television Series on a Peruvian Tribe

A reality television series filmed in Machiguenga communities in the Peruvian Amazon misrepresented the tribe and reinforced stereotypes, says an anthropologist who has studied the group for several decades.

But producers deny the accusation, and the head of a Peruvian non-profit organization that works with the Machiguenga and helped coordinate arrangements between the producers and the community said the participants knew the series was not a documentary and that the community was compensated for its participation.

The “Mark & Olly” series, broadcast in 2009 on the Travel Channel in the United States and on BBC Knowledge in Africa in 2010, shows two purported modern-day explorers supposedly visiting a mysterious, remote tribe and facing various tests to determine if they will be allowed to stay in the community.

But the Matsigenka, or Machiguenga, as the name is generally spelled in Spanish, are a large, well-known and well-organized group, and the Urubamba River area where the programs were taped is visited by missionaries, itinerant merchants and gas-field workers. Moreover, anthropologist Glenn Shepard says, the Machiguenga would never subject outsiders to such trials.

Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds, who star in the World’s Lost Tribes series, “want to live out their fantasy of going native,” he said. “They have this shtick that they impose on people.” In an article published in the May issue of Anthropology News, Shepard cites various parts of the shows in which he says the subtitles are unrelated to the Machiguenga speakers’ words.

“The sound bites had nothing to do with what was in the subtitles, often,” Shepard said in a telephone interview. As a result, the series “reproduces a completely outdated idea of Indigenous Peoples.”

But Lelis Rivera, who heads the Lima-based Center for the Development of Amazonian Indigenous People (Centro para el Desarrollo del Indígena Amazónico, Cedia) said the community members knew the program would be what he called a “gringada” – a “U.S.-style program for U.S. audiences.”

“They prepared their script first,” Rivera said. “It was clear from the beginning that it was not a documentary.”

Rivera said the producers from Cicada Productions, a now-defunct British company, approached Cedia after visiting a community in Peru’s Manu National Park while scouting for a location. Four people in another community in the area died around that time and the scouting team was accused of having introduced a virus to which more isolated native people had no immunity.

Rivera said Cedia saw the filming as an opportunity for Machiguenga people in Timpía, on the Urubamba River, to gain experience operating a tourist lodge in their community, where the production crew would stay during the filming.

He said the producers negotiated an agreement with the community of Sababantiari, on a tributary of the Urubamba upstream from Timpía, to tape the programs there. The agreement included providing traditional garments called cushmas, building materials and a boat motor, he said.

“They met all their commitments to the community,” said Rivera, who believes the controversy “has been blown out of proportion.”

Nearly two years passed between the airing of the program in the United States and the publication of Shepard’s criticism in Anthropology News. Shepard said he did not want to comment until he had seen all eight episodes, but did not obtain a full set of the programs until late last year.

Rivera said he had received a DVD copy of the programs, but could not respond to some criticisms, including the charges of mistranslation, because the programs are in English. He said the two-stage translation – from Machiguenga to Spanish, and then from Spanish to English – was done by professional translators during the production in Peru.

The Travel Channel and FremantleMedia Enterprises, which distributed the program, issued a statement denying the accusations, which they said “are almost entirely opinion based or concern matters which are highly subjective and open to personal interpretation.”

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A statement from Frances Berrigan, former managing director of Cicada Productions, said the company compensated the community with “funding via Cedia for communications equipment for use in emergency situations and for the construction of a lodge.” Program star Steeds issued a statement in which he said he had “nothing but the deepest respect for the Matsigenka, their history and culture,” and that the program “reflected events as I experienced them.”

Survival International, a non-profit organization that defends indigenous rights, which publicized Shepard’s comments in early August, issued a proposed code of ethics for film producers.

Reality television may be mainly entertainment, but Shepard, who works at the Emílio Goeldi Museum (Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi) in Belén, Brazil, said distortion and misrepresentation do a disservice to indigenous people throughout the Peruvian Amazon.

That is a particularly sensitive issue in Peru, he said, where former President Alan García accused indigenous people of blocking progress and development and referred to Amazonian natives as “savages” after protests over land rights in 2009 that left more than 30 people dead.

Ron Snell, who grew up in Machiguenga communities in the 1950s as the son of missionaries, said he was torn between amusement and anger as he watched the programs.

“They portrayed the Machiguenga as being demanding and mean and putting (Anstice and Steeds) through their paces and asking them to prove themselves in ways that were bizarre, that we haven’t heard of being done,” he said. “They’re a quiet, unassuming, gentle people” who would not talk openly about sex or be inhospitable to visitors.

“It was clearly edited and chopped, and my opinion is that there was some kind of a script, either pre- or post-production, that tied this into a fairy tale,” he said.

Snell attended a meeting of Machiguenga representatives in 2009, shortly after seeing the series, and spoke with several people who said they were in the community during the taping. One man, who said he had been an interpreter for the film crew, told him some of the scenes were staged.

Life in the native communities along the Urubamba has changed dramatically in the past decade with the opening of the Camisea natural gas field and construction of a pipeline from the Amazon basin across the Andes Mountains to the coast.

In response to protests by indigenous and environmental groups worried about settlers moving into the region, the companies building the pipeline and operating the gas field agreed to transport equipment by river or air instead of building roads.

Even before Camisea went on line in 2004, however, Machiguenga leaders complained that noise from helicopters had frightened game away, while increased motorboat traffic disrupted fishing and was a safety hazard. And local governments have since used tax revenue from the project for road construction, which could trigger the negative impacts the indigenous groups and environmentalists had sought to avoid.

Shepard criticized the program for ignoring those issues.

“They’re at ground zero for these oil and gas impacts, and they don’t mention it,” he said of the programs’ producers. “There’s complete non-engagement with the real issues. They make up a theme-park indigenous experience.”

But Shepard said that while the program seems rooted in a stereotype from the past, viewers are probably savvier.

“I think people’s ideas about Indigenous Peoples have evolved quite a bit,” he said. The program’s hosts “paint themselves as the last of the great Victorian explorers going off into the wild unknown, but the world isn’t like that.”

Below is a clip from Episode 2 of Mark & Olly: Living with the Machiguenga.