Researchers suspect Indigenous tribe spotted in Peruvian jungle lived in isolation

By Leslie Josephs
Lima, Peru (AP) 10-07

Flying above the verdant cover of Peru’s deep Amazon jungle, a team of ecologists searching for illegal loggers stumbled upon 21 Indians they believe were living in voluntary isolation.

The Indigenous group – which has not yet been identified – was photographed and filmed in mid-September along the sandy banks of the Las Piedras River in the Alto Purus National Park, near the Brazilian border.

A woman in the group pointed a bow and arrow toward the plane as it flew overhead, said Ricardo Hon, a government official who oversees the national park and was on the flight.

“We’ve found five other sites with this kind of shelter along the same river,” Hon said in a telephone interview Wednesday, referring to the three palm huts spotted on the bank. “This group is nomadic.”

Hon called it a “stroke of luck,” and said the government-run Natural Resource Institute has no plans to try to locate the tribe again.

Some Indians living in the Amazon Basin who have shunned outside contact do so fearing the introduction of new illnesses. Others have retreated into the forest, fleeing gas, timber and oil industries.

Atossa Soltani, founder and director of the San Francisco-based Amazon Watch, an ecological activist group, says some indigenous groups in Peru’s jungle chose voluntary isolation during the rubber boom a century ago.

She estimates that there are 65 indigenous tribes living in voluntary isolation throughout the Amazon Basin.

“For all of them, contact with outsiders represents serious threats to their abilities to survive because they have no immunity to outside diseases,” she said. “The experience in the Amazon has been that usually within a few years from contact, a third to a half of a tribe’s population can die off.”

Peru has been harshly criticized by rights groups for failing to protect Indians living deep its jungle – which covers two-thirds of the country – from timber, oil and gas industries.

Jorge Payaba, who heads the Peruvian Jungle Inter-Ethnic Development Association’s program on uncontacted and isolated peoples said even curiosity seekers are a danger.

“It’s not only the loggers,” he said. “There are a lot of students who want to go and photograph them, even the government itself.”

Payaba said that if the group is interviewed at close range by outsiders, or if gifts are introduced, the contact could end up killing them.