Guardians of biodiversity
By Diego Cortijo
The jungle is a place too inhospitable to allow large human settlements, or that’s what we have always believed until now. New archaeological discoveries tell of highly developed cultures that have lived in the heart of the jungle. The myths of ancient cultures and places lost deep in the jungle may no longer be myths in light of these new discoveries.
With this proposal I began my second expedition to the Amazon rainforest as a member of the Spanish Geographic Society, to try to learn about and document unknown places in the jungle. Members of native communities I visited in the past had spoken to me about ancient settlements, and now I wanted to locate them.
This was a grueling expedition that began in Brazil and ended up in the Peruvian Amazon. We came across undiscovered archaeological sites that were mystical to the native communities who were their unofficial caretakers, and isolated tribes that received me as a total stranger, but always with a smile. I tried to document their traditions and legends so that they wouldn’t be lost forever with the passing of time.
But through all this, I never imagined that a simple pause in the jungle to visit our good friend Nicolas Flores would initiate a global media frenzy. The good-natured Nicolas, who is a native Matsiguenka Indian we all call by his nickname Shaco, invited us to his humble straw-roofed cabin where he lived alone. He took us downriver the second day to a neighboring community from where we could roam the area. Always in good spirits, he described how his life was so far from everything, far even from his own people.
On the second day in the community, Shaco heard a noise, as if he had been summoned. We left the hut and walked to the river’s edge, and there on the opposite bank of the great Alto Madre de Dios River was a group of natives that Nicolas immediately recognized as from the “Mashco-Piro” tribe. I had heard of their existence as an ‘uncontacted’ tribe that live totally isolated. They had been spotted only a few times by other natives of nearby communities. In fact, Shaco had experienced contact with them previously when tending to his crops on their other side of the river. The Mashco-Piro are in a delicate situation. The activities of lumber and oil companies that encroach illegally on these territories has displaced them. Shaco knew that this wasn’t the first time they had appeared on the river bank. The besiegement that they were suffering made their attitude towards strangers unpredictable.
The first moments were tense, and my senses were heightened as I tried to notice any strange movement. But the Mashco-Piro did nothing but sit on the river’s edge. They had recognized Shaco, who showed confidence, and that calmed me. Trying to react quickly, I backed up a few meters and with only a pocket camera in hand, I recalled the technique that I had used in the past to photograph birds and even a distant jaguar. With the help of fellow explorer Fernando, we manually coupled the camera with a small telescope. It took a few tries but we managed to take very close-up pictures of the natives, who also remained calm in full view.
At no point did anyone try to establish contact, nor try to cross the river. In spite of the possible hostile reaction, any contact between us could have been lethal for them. They lack the immunological defenses that we have, and a simple bacteria or virus on us could result fateful for the whole community.
After a few minutes there on the bank, they marched off into the jungle. Utterly surprised by the sighting, we eventually continued our trip with Shaco further downriver. The next day he returned home and I continued the expedition.
It was six days later, much further south, when I received tragic news over the radio at a forest ranger station. The Mashco-Piro had killed Shaco. The news left me speechless. It seemed impossible after all we had seen, after Shaco himself had demonstrated that the natives trusted him.
The tragedy made clear the delicate situation of the Mashco-Piro, and created huge dilemmas about their future. This ‘uncontacted’ tribe is besieged by the encroaching logging and oil industries, and the tragic incidents in which natives have been killed by armed gunmen were well known. Their suspicion of the outside world is evident. In this case they had ventured outside and established contact with a Matsiguenka native, Shaco. And they had killed that native with one precise arrow to the heart.
It’s difficult to interpret the true meaning of what happened. The moment Shaco was killed he was on the left bank of the river tending to his crops, when the Mashco-Piro appeared. I don’t know what to think. Maybe the ‘uncontacted’ felt that they were the true owners of this land, and were bothered by Shaco’s presence. Maybe he was attacked by a different group of Mashco-Piro who weren’t happy with the contact he had made with the first group. And now without Shaco, the only person who understood their dialect and could serve as interpreter, it will be very difficult to understand what the tribe’s true intentions are.
I hope that the publication of these photographs serves to call attention to these unknown communities, communities whose rights are ignored and with whom there should be a protocol prepared in case contact is made. I have no doubt that they should be the ones to decide, if they want to know about the outside world.
They are part of the natural wealth in the world we live in. They are the guardians of biodiversity.