Ministry of Culture/Peru

Peru’s government is making a controversial effort to communicate with the Mashco Piro, an isolated indigenous tribe that has had almost no contact with the outside world.

The project, announced earlier this week, has drawn fire from indigenous rights activists who argue that contact with isolated groups can be deadly for tribes who lack immunities to western diseases.

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But Peruvian officials say they need to make “limited contact” because members of the tribe are starting to venture further into nearby villages, prompting one deadly encounter with a nearby villager in May. Government officials say they want to ask the Mashco Piro why they are wandering outside their traditional territory in the Amazon, and if they're looking for help.

A Mashco Piro child tries to take a t-shirt from a missionary during a rare encounter in 2013

Lorena Prieto, a top official at Peru’s Ministry of Culture, told Fusion that contact will be restricted to a group of Mashco Piro that has settled along the banks of the Upper Madre de Dios River.

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“This is not a mission to walk into the jungle and actually come into physical contact with them,” Prieto said in a phone interview. “What we will do is establish verbal contact with a group that now lives on a river beach, and try to speak with them from a distance.”

Prieto says that for the past two years a family of Mashco Piro has been living along the Upper Madre de Dios River, on a section that gets occasional boat traffic. The group has been spotted several times by settlers, tourists and loggers making their way down river. A group of campesinos reportedly gave them a fermented yucca beverage earlier this year. And missionaries shot this video when they gave them t-shirts during another encounter.

“What is happening is very dangerous,” Prieto said of these random encounters between the Mashco Piro and the outside world. “If one of them catches a disease and they go back into the jungle, they can infect the whole tribe.”

Prieto said a government boat has already made its way to the area to prevent anyone else from coming into contact with the tribe members.

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The government mission includes medical personnel and translators who will try to communicate with the Mashco Piro in Yine, a language that is thought to be similar to the tribe's native tongue. Prieto said government translators are trying to communicate with the Mashco Piro by shouting from their boat. Officials are trying to avoid physical contact.

Sometimes the group of Mashco Piro along the river grows as tribe members join the family that lives there. This image was taken by villagers in 2013

“There’s already been a few conversations,” Prieto said. “But it’s tough because they don’t always respond to the questions our translators ask. We have to build more trust with them.”

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Survival International, an indigenous rights group, says illegal loggers may have pressured tribe members off their traditional land.

In a press release, the group said the Peruvian government’s efforts to protect the Mashco Piro’s lands in South-east Peru have been “slow and inadequate.” But the group said the Mashco Piro currently face an emergency situation and should be given government help if they “request it.”

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Anthropologists estimate there are 50 isolated tribes still living deep in South America’s lowlands.

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The governments of Peru, Brazil and Colombia have attempted to restrict contact with these tribes, while protecting their habitats. But they often lack the proper resources to patrol the jungle, or prevent incursions by illegal loggers, settlers, and miners.

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.