Do Lost Amazonian Tribes Exist?


Survival International is extremely concerned about the situation of Peru’s un-contacted tribes. The Peruvian government is permitting oil and gas exploration in regions inhabited by these tribes, and standing by while other regions inhabited by them are invaded by illegal loggers. The government is failing to uphold the tribes’ rights, and this could lead to the extinction of many of them.


Survival estimates there are 15 un-contacted tribes in Peru. They all live in the most remote regions of the Amazon rainforest and have chosen to live in isolation from the outside world.

Note: An estimated 100 un-contacted tribes still exist in the world, with the majority of them inhabiting Brazil (with an estimated 67 uncontacted tribes) and Peru (with 15). Most are located not far from the Peru-Brazil border… in the Amazonian portions of those countries. Meanwhile, more than 180 oil and gas blocks now cover most of the western Amazon, the most species rich area on earth and home to many un-contacted or extremely isolated tribes. Many of these oil and gas concessions currently overlap indigenous territories, that is, land that has either been titled to native groups or else is currently lived upon by isolated tribes. In Peru, 64 oil and gas blocks now cover the Peruvian Amazon; 80% of these have been created very recently, since 2004. In 2006, Peru passed the “Law for the Protection of Isolated Peoples in Voluntary Isolation” (Law 28736). A year later, however, Peru’s President, Alan Garcia, issued a Presidential Decree in October of 2007 stating that reserves for people in “voluntary isolation” (that is, un-contacted or extremely isolated tribes) can be exploited for their natural resources. Many view this decree as a “loophole” designed to allow for the extraction of oil and gas on un-contacted people’s lands. Typically, between 30% and 50% of un-contacted indigenous people often die within a year or two after contact, due to their lack of resistance to germs such as the common cold. The following is a report by Survival International and sent to CERD (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination)–KM).

The tribes are nomadic or semi-nomadic, moving across large areas of the forest according to the seasons. They hunt tapir, peccary, deer and monkey, fish, and collect nuts, roots and berries.

It is believed that some of these tribes may have had some form of contact over a hundred years ago during the ‘Rubber Boom’. This ‘Boom’ led to the enslavement, massacre and decimation by disease of thousands of indigenous people. Some of those that survived retreated to the most remote parts of the forest and have remained there to this day.


The Peruvian government is permitting companies to explore for oil and gas on un-contacted tribes’ land.

Companies who have already signed contracts with the government and are now working or plan to work in these regions include Perenco, Repsol-YPF, Petrolifera, Petrobras and a consortium led by Pluspetrol.

The un-contacted tribes’ land is also being invaded by illegal loggers. Peru has some of the world’s last commercially-viable mahogany stands and these are, tragically, in the same areas

Other threats include road construction and colonists clearing the forest for cultivation.

It should be made clear that Peru’s un-contacted tribes, like un-contacted tribes anywhere, are exceedingly vulnerable to any form of contact because they do not have immunity to outsiders’ diseases. Even something as apparently innocuous as a cold could kill them. Indeed, the history of Amazonia shows that, following first contact, it is very common for more than 50% of a tribe to die. Often that percentage is even higher, and sometimes entire tribes have been wiped out.

Two recent examples demonstrate this. Following initial oil exploration in the Camisea region in Peru’s south-east, the Nahua [Yora] tribe were contacted for the first time. In the ensuing years, more than 50% of the Nahua [Yora] died.

Do these tribes even exist?

Perhaps most illustrative of the Peruvian government’s attitude and policy to the un-contacted tribes and its failure to recognize and respect their rights are the attempts by various high-ranking members within the Peruvian establishment to deny the tribes’ existence.

Peru’s president, Alan Garcia, wrote an article in one of the Peru’s most widely-read daily newspapers in which he suggested the tribes have been ‘invented’ by environmentalists in order to block oil exploration in the rainforest. ‘In opposition to oil, [environmentalists] have created the figure of an ‘unconnected’ Amazon native; that’s to say, unknown but presumed to exist,’ Garcia wrote in El Comercio, just four weeks after photographs of members of one tribe were published on El Comercio’s front page.

Spokespeople from Perupetro have expressed similar sentiments. During an interview on Peruvian TV, the chairman said, ‘It’s absurd to say there are un-contacted peoples when no one has seen them. So, who are these un-contacted tribes people are talking about?’ In an interview with the US newspaper Washington Post, spokesperson Cecilia Quiroz said, ‘It is like the Loch Ness monster. Everyone seems to have seen or heard about un-contacted peoples, but there is no evidence.’


The future of Peru’s un-contacted tribes remains desperate. Their lands are being invaded with and without consent of the government and as long as this continues the prospect of contact between them and outsiders remains a very real one. Contact could either lead to violent conflict, or an epidemic in which a large percentage of the tribe is likely to die.

In accordance with international law, the government should immediately recognize the un-contacted tribes as the rightful owners of their land and prohibit any form of natural resource extraction there. It should also prohibit any other form of activity on their land, remove any outsiders who have invaded, and take measures to ensure that no other outsiders can enter in the future.

Read Kim MacQuarrie's full article - also many other interesting articles about Peru & South America can be found here on her Blog.

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A recently contacted Yora girl in Peru’s southeastern Amazon

A recently contacted Yora girl in Peru’s southeastern Amazon

Regions where un-contacted tribes live in Peru

The majority live in the south-east of Peru, but there are also two tribes in the central rainforest and at least another two in the north. They include the Cacataibos, Isconahua, Matsigenka, Mashco-Piro, Mastanahua, Murunahua (or Chitonahua), Nanti and Yora. The majority belong to two linguistic ‘families’: the Arawak and the Pano.

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