Shuri carries a wooden bow and two six-feet arrows topped with razor-sharp bamboo.
He’s about 60 years old, and his deeply furrowed brow hints at a hard life in the jungle. Stopping at the top of a hill, he turns to me and lifts his faded red shirt to show a six-inch scar on his side just below his ribs. “Mascho,” he says quietly, referring to the Mascho-Piro tribe. He holds up his bow as if shooting, then moves his hand to the scar, closes his eyes, and grimaces to mimic pain.
Shuri is a Mastanahua, one of several tribes that inhabit the remote southern Peru-Brazil borderlands. Fifteen years ago, evangelical missionaries came to the Curanja River to lure his people out of the forest. The missionaries built a village, cleared land for a farm, recruited interpreters from local tribes, and left gifts along hunting trails. Eventually Shuri and his two wives (who are sisters) and mother-in-law joined the missionaries. The rest of his group, perhaps 20 people, chose to stay in the forest with other isolated tribes-including their mortal enemies, he Mascho-Piro.
We reach a clearing, and Elena, the younger of Shuri;s wives, emerges from a perfectly camouflaged palm-frond shelter. She’s wearing a red soccer shirt advertising the U.K.’s Arsenal team, a gift from guards with the Ministry of culture, stationed downstream. Her face is painted with indigo dots from huito fruit, and like Shuri, she wears a metal nose ornament and he top of her head has been shaved like that of a Franciscan monk. She shouts something as Celia, our interpreter. “She’s hungry, and her stomach hurts,” Celia says. “She wants pills.”
Faces of Peru
I’ve known Shuri and Elena since 2006, through my work implementing conservation and sustainable development projects in indigenous communities downstream. I’ve been witness to their ongoing struggle to assimilate into modern society with minimal support.
On this occasion photographer Charlie Hamilton Jmaes and I have come to the Cutanja River, some 15 miles south of Peru’s border with Brazil, to document the lives of remote tribes and the pressures facing those still holding on in isolation. We are close to the Alto Purus National Park, which is overlapped by the Mascho Piro Indigenous Reserve for isolated tribes. The park, at nearly 9700 square miles, is Peru’s largest, and it shares a border with the biodiverse Manu National Park to the south.
This massive Purus- Manu landscape is home to one of the highest concentrations of isolated indigenous people left anywhere on Earth, as well as several groups like Shuri’s who are in the early stages of contact. While threatened by various causes of deforestation, including logging and road construction, this remote and relatively intact are stands in stark contrast with the diminished forests of eastern Brazil where the Awa live.
The word “isolation” is relative: The tribes are astutely aware of their surroundings, and all but the remotest groups have used metal tools for decades and therefore have had some contact with the outside world.
Many are descendants of those who fled to remote headwaters to escape enslavement and devastating epidemics during the rubber boom more than a century ago. Subsequent contact with missionaries, loggers, oil and gas workers and other outsiders often resulted in more violence and disease. That they continue to live in isolation is a conscious decision, in their view essential for survival.