During the middle of May 2017, Jack Lo Lau, a Peruvian Journalist, Víctor Kameno of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Affluents (FENAMAD) and myself entered the heart of the Manu National Park, founded in 1973 and declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and World Heritage in 1977.

It really is an impressive forest: with one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on Earth. National and many foreign scientists arrive to observe the wild animals from abundant fauna on 17,162.95 square kilometers, with 4,385 registered species. There are all types of monkeys, jaguars (Panthera onca), short ear dogs (Atelocynus microtis), giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis), the anaconda and many other animals. Only some of the most well known have been mentioned.

The high value of the place, heritage of millenary cultures, lies in the presence of the Matsigenka, Mashco-Piro, Yora, Harakmbut and Yine indigenous peoples. There are thousands of villagers living in different situations of initial contact with society in general or native communities in initial contact, in voluntary isolation or just not connected.

This population is often semi-nomadic and lives from the forests rich biodiversity, hunting with bows and arrows, fishing and collecting fruits, besides the yucca (manioc or Manihot utilissima) farmlands they own.

The higher part of the Manu National Park has an elevation of 4,000 m.a.s.l. and these high regions are populated by Quechua speakers and mestizos (racially mixed individuals).

In May, we embarked on a two-day journey on a small boat and first arrived at the Tayakome Native Community. On the third day we had to travel to Yomibato, in the heart of Manu, on a “peque peque” boat (small canoe with a motor) due to the narrow and rugged river. All rivers in this region, such as Manu and Yomibato, are populated by Matsigenkas. We hoped to find people living their culture in a healthy environment, eating a balanced diet in the midst of so much biodiversity. We expected to find a situation similar to images of paradise, those shared by Peruvian authorities with the outside. The park and life in harmony with nature.

We were in for a great surprise. FENAMAD leaders headed by Julio Cusurichi,[1] had already warned us that the situation of the communities responded to a terrible neglect by Peruvian authorities, besides the fully aware marginalization by the Park Administration, in charge of the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP).

Nobody knows precisely how many families live in Yomibato. The professor estimates about three hundred, among peasants and families in initial contact, some having arrived from the headwaters of the river only a month before, including those not contacted voluntarily, who only visit the village when Puerto Maldonado Dominican Missionaries arrive to celebrate Sunday mass. All these people or their predecessors are reportedly the ones that “saved the Matsigenka indigenous people”, providing them with clothes, constructing schools and establishing the Tayakome and Yomibato Native Communities.

Although few people in the Community speak Spanish, constructing the school was the myth for Western education, to this day attracting families to live near schools and health centers in the Community. This same myth motivated rebellions of the1950s in the Andes.

We found a technician originally from Arequipa at the health center. Temperatures dropped during our trip and everyone in the valley became ill with the flu. However, the technician never left the health center and was dedicated to distributing Paracetamol and Amoxicillin to those in need. There had not been work on risk-prevention programs.

According to a study by Victoria Tauli Corpuz,[2] Manu fits perfectly into a series of protected areas where indigenous rights are not respected, with a high mortality and extreme poverty. We did not find people over sixty years of age in Manu and a one and a half month old child died in our arms. Once Víctor Kameno of FENAMAD sent a message through a radio program reporting this death and the flu epidemic, a medical team was sent from Salvación, a Community located in the parks buffer zone. Vaccines were also sent for families recently contacted.

According to the unanimous complaint by the population and FENAMAD, the Park Administration restricts cultivated areas, bans the breeding of small animals and limits the free access. Something required is that different institutions intervening in the Park, whether NGOs or Ministries (of Education, Health, Production, Agriculture, Culture and Environment), coordinate with each other.

The rapidly growing Matsigenka Community in Yomibato, follows the productive logic of semi-nomadic people who get rid of all the natural resources in their proximity, either palm and fruit trees, wild animals or fish. As they are already living in the areas, resources are farther and farther away from the villages. In our opinion, there is the need to help them produce food based on traditional plants, cultivated in the neighborhood and used sustainably; in addition to agroforestry practices, small animal farms and the diversification of agricultural production that would offer them alternatives.

To this day, the Community lives basically from the production of yucca, eventual hunting and fishing in the streams, with a reduced harvest. As a result, we found a strong presence of malnutrition in children and anemia, mainly in expectant mothers and mother of newborns. With the help of a local NGO they have clean drinking water, but in general, the hygiene situation is alarming.

The family structure in the zone is surprising: generally, a man has two women and a number of children; all family chores revolve around the children. This explains the appeal to live in a village, due to the myth of education as well as the existence of a health center, as child mortality is very high according to the villagers.

In July 2017, Julio Cusurichi, President of FENAMAD, and Mauro Metaki Lipe, President of the Tayakome Community, travelled to Geneva invited to the Tenth Session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a Mechanism created by UNO, to denounce the case of the Manu National Park. Our images were projected during the meeting and the points on our report were part of the statement of claim. Both entered the file of this mechanism.

Jack and I are not trained to find paradise, but to identify and intervene, in this case, in the defense of the basic rights of Matsigenka people in the Manu Park.




[1] Winner of the Goldman Prize for his efforts in the protection of Indigenous Peoples in isolation and Initial Contact (Piaci).

[2] United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Geneva, 2017).