They live in the deep jungles of Peru, practicing the traditions and customs of their ancestors: hunting monkey, wild boar and other animals with bow and arrow, curing with the abundance of plants available to them, teaching their children the ways of the Amazon forest.
Peruvians call them “calatos,” naked ones. They are Machiguenga, Mashco Piro, Ashaninkas, Isconahua and other nomadic peoples who have chosen voluntary isolation over the encroaching world of television and Coca-Cola.
They are fighting for their right to be left alone, their territory and their lives.
“People in voluntary isolation have a right to be free,” said Jude Jumanga Jacinto, Ashaninka, general secretary of AIDESEP (the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Jungle), an indigenous organization that works to preserve the territory, health and lives of Peru’s Amazonian peoples.
Increasingly, people in voluntary isolation have come under threat from loggers and oil companies who are seeking new lands for exploitation, she said. International explorers and religious organizations have also moved into territory that was once a safe haven for these peoples.
As a result of Native pressure, the Peruvian government has established “protected areas” for people in voluntary isolation. But confrontations between illegal loggers and Native people in isolation are frequent. All too often, death has been the result. As the loggers have invaded their territory in search of wood that has been depleted elsewhere, Native inhabitants have responded with bow and arrow. The deaths of loggers can be counted by the media and government: in the Madre de Dios region there were two last year and one so far this year. In these confrontations, the deaths of Native community members, whose bodies are brought back to the jungle by family and friends, are more difficult for government officials to count.
The Peruvian government is supposed to be monitoring these protected areas against illegal logging, according to Francisco Lozano Perez, chief of illegal logging investigations for the Madre de Dios regional Natural Resources Department, but in actual practice the guard posts are few; and the guards, made up of police and officials of INRENA, the National Institute of Natural Resources, are frequently corrupted by loggers. So the people in isolation have frequently had no choice but to protect themselves.
People in more settled Native communities in contact with the outside world have also acted as “border guards” for nomadic isolated peoples, putting their own lives at risk in the process. In one such community, Monte Salvado, people complain that they receive constant death threats from loggers, who have set up camp inside protected territories. Members of FENAMAD, the Native Federation of Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries, are currently lobbying the government to provide more police and government protection in these communities.
For people in voluntary isolation, diseases of the outside world like the cold and influenza can be fatal.
In 1984, a group of loggers kidnapped four Nahua people and then released them back to their community in the jungle. The Nahua who had come into contact with the loggers came down with the flu, and infected other community members. As a result, half the Nahua died that year.
Despite this well-publicized event, members of communities in isolation continue to be infected by outsiders.
“There have been several epidemics reported from 1999 to 2004,” said Dr. Neptali Cueva, of the Ministry of Health of the Madre de Dios region.
In 2003, 15 members of a community living near the river Mamiria died after contact with European members of an expedition in search of the mythical Incan kingdom of Paititi, according to Pedro Bajualdo Elustondo, a Basque anthropologist who has traveled for four years among the Amazon peoples.
Isolated peoples have also had to defend themselves against the Peruvian oil boom that began in the 1980s. After several members of the Yora community died from viral contamination they caught when Shell/Chevron began drilling near their traditional lands close to the Camisea River, the Peruvian government created the Reserva Nahua Kugapakori. But isolated peoples in the region continue to be affected by the Camisea project, according to a report issued this year by government investigator Beatriz Merino Lucero, who said they are “particularly vulnerable to respiratory and gastrointestinal infections” brought by contamination of the area and contact with workers.
Religious organizations have historically been the first to make contact with isolated peoples, offering metal utensils and weapons along with the Bible to people who have been using stone weapons and tools.
Though new evangelical groups have joined the Catholic Church in their efforts to convert isolated peoples, Marlene Rodriguez, of FENAMAD, said the Catholic Church recently issued a promise to them that it would no longer offer machetes to isolated peoples in an effort to convert them.
Educating the public about the current risk to isolated peoples is one of FENAMAD’s priorities, said another FENAMAD representative, Anoshka Violeta Irey Cameno. “The parents of the children we talk to are loggers,” she said. “Maybe the kids can make a difference.”
Cameno’s interest is not theoretical, but personal.
Like many Amazon Native people, she grew up hearing the stories of her parents and grandparents about life before contact with the outside world, which occurred here only 50 years ago. Her parents, in their 70s and 80s, still practice many of the traditional ways and live in a community that maintains occasional contact with people in isolation.
Cueva, Jude Jumango Jacinto and other Native representatives agree that educating the public is a top priority, as are strengthening the corridor of Native communities that protect people in isolation and increasing government protection.
At a recent conference in Puerto Maldonado, health workers, Native leaders and others worked on a document to establish specific protocol for preventing outside contact with isolated peoples.
“They’ve managed to avoid conquest by the Spanish and the Incan empires,” Neptali said after the conference. “Hopefully they can continue to survive.”
Peru, along with Brazil, is estimated to have the highest number of people living in voluntary isolation. These peoples also live in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia.