Off the main Madre de Dios waterways, within the system of smaller tributaries and streams, live a variety of different indigenous groups. All are depleted in numbers due to contact with Western diseases and influences, such as pollution of their rivers, environmental destruction by large-scale gold-mining, and new waves of exploration for oil. While some have been completely wiped out over the last twenty years, several have maintained their isolation. These groups have recently come to worldwide attention as the international press have highlighted the plight of “the uncontacted”.
If you go anywhere in the jungle, especially on an organized tour, you’re likely to stop off at a tribal village for at least half an hour or so, and the more you know about the people, the more you’ll get out of the visit. Downstream from Puerto Maldonado, the most populous indigenous group are the Ese Eja tribe (often wrongly, and derogatorily, called “Huarayos” by colonos). Originally semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, the Ese Eja were well-known warriors who fought the Incas and, later on, the Spanish expedition of Alvarez Maldonado – eventually establishing fairly friendly and respectful relationships with both. Under Fitzcarrald’s reign, they suffered greatly through the engaño system, which tricked them into slave labour through credit offers on knives, machetes, pots and pans, which then took years, or in some cases a lifetime, to work off. Today they live in fairly large communities and have more or less abandoned their original bark-cloth robes in favour of shorts and T-shirts.
Upstream from Puerto Maldonado live several tribes, known collectively (again, wrongly and derogatorily) as the “Mashcos” but actually comprising at least five separate linguistic groups – the Huachipaeri, Amarakaeri, Sapitoyeri, Arasayri and Toyeri. All typically use long bows – over 1.5m – and lengthy arrows, and most settlements will also have a shotgun or two these days, since less time can be dedicated to hunting when they are panning for gold or working timber for colonos. Traditionally, they wore long bark-cloth robes and had long hair, and the men often stuck eight feathers into the skin around their lips, making them look distinctively fierce and cat-like. Many Huachipaeri and Amarakaeri groups are now actively engaging with the outside world on their own terms, and some of their young men and women have gone through university education and subsequently returned to their native villages.