Photojournalist and documentary photographer Jason Houston has spent over 20 years photographing community, culture, and how we live on the planet for editorial and NGO clients. His engaged, long-term approach to complex issues captures...
The Chitonahua community of Victoria II on the Yurúa River was first contacted in the mid-1990s by loggers and soon after by Catholic missionaries. Their experience with the loggers was essentially one of slavery, with men forced to work in exchange for basic food and things like clothing they didn't want. Attempts to escape were met with violence. Illness also followed, as it usually does, and then conflicts with other recently contacted tribes. In the early 2000's they left and settled Victoria II.
The port in Pucallpa lines the city side of a side channel of the Ucayali River and is almost exclusively dedicated to sawmills for the regional timber industry. Logs from the surrounding areas come by river to be processed and shipped out by truck on one of the few main highways over the Andes to markets on the coast.
A young girl bathes at the riverside while we load our boat in Puerto Esperanza, Peru. Puerto Esperanza is the last developed outpost on the Purús River and the launching point for visiting indigenous communities and the heavily restricted Purús Communal Reserve upstream.
Puerto Esperanza is an island in the Amazon—a triangle bordered on two sides by Brazil and the other side by the Alto Purús National Park. The only way in or out is by chartered plane or a very long boat ride. There is no running water and electricity is available each day from about 6 pm to 11 pm.
Much of the range of the Emperor Tamarin (Saguinus imperator), previously remote, is increasingly subject to development and deforestation, largely as a result of colonization along highways associated with logging and cattle ranching. Emperor Tamarins are included on the national official lists of threatened species of both Brazil and Peru. They are rarely hunted but are subject to some trade as pets.
A map of the Manu River and its tributaries on the wall at the Pakita Ranger Guard Post in Manu National Park show how these rivers snake through the landscape. River travel is measured in 'bends of the river' instead of miles.
A butcher makes calls to try and sell a freshly slaughtered cow. With a limited market for fresh meat in Puerto Esperanza, selling this much meat requires carefully coordinating with the occasional flights and opportunities to ship to larger cities like Pucallpa.
Marcelino Pinedo Cecilio lives in Columbiana, about a day's boat ride up the Curanja River from Puerto Esperanza. Marcelino is a shaman, versed in traditional medicine using local plants, a knowledge fast disappearing in the modern world. He was contacted as a young boy by Catholic missionaries and then an anthropologist. He fled into the forest and shortly after many—maybe 200 people—in his village died from illnesses. (Puerto Esperanza, Peru)
The Chitonahua community of Victoria II on the Yurúa River was first contacted in the mid-1990s by loggers and soon after by Catholic missionaries. Their experience with the loggers was essentially one of slavery, with men forced to work in exchange for basic food and things like clothing they didn't want. Attempts to escape were met with violence. Illness also followed, as it usually does, and then conflicts with other recently contacted tribes. IN the early 2000's they left and settled Victoria II.
Epa (Shuri) is a liaison between the Isolated Indigenous Tribes and the modern world. In part because this is one of the few places in the world where isolated people still exist, Epa is one of the few examples in the world that continues to live in both.
There were maybe a dozen dogs living with Epa and his wives. They sleep in the hammocks seen here, while Epa and his wives sleep on the floor. He lives with three wives, a mother-in-law, and many dogs in a hand-built shelter along the Curanja River in the Purús Communal Reserve. He also spends time in the isolated ("uncontacted") communities.
There are few places left in the world unpolluted by light from urban and rural areas. Even at dusk, when you're several hundred miles into the proposed "Corridor for Indigenous Tribes in Isolation and Initial Contact" and far from any light pollution, the sky is already filled with stars and planets. Inversely, it is also said that there are more trees in the Amazon than stars in all of the Milky Way.
Cover Story for Science Magazine (June 2015) & On-Going Independent Project
The Purús/Manu region in the Peruvian Amazon is one of the most remote, inaccessible areas in the world. Comprised of specially protected areas, titled indigenous lands, and forestry concessions, it includes some of the most biodiverse and least disturbed forests in the entire Amazon basin—and perhaps the highest concentration of isolated tribes anywhere on the planet. While still largely intact, this 10-million hectare complex is threatened by a number of familiar deforestation drivers including illegal logging and mining, oil and gas development, illegal coca plantations, and most concerning, proposed road construction through the heart of this unique landscape.
In the past several years, there has been a dramatic increase in sightings of isolated tribes near remote villages and control posts as well as outright violence initiated by the tribes. While the causes for this change in behavior are still unknown, one group that recently initiated contact explained that they sought contact because men with guns had hunted them down, presumably illegal loggers or drug traffickers in the Alto Purús Park. Regardless of why some tribespeople have become less reclusive, any kind of contact, even of the peaceful nature, often proves disastrous to the tribes who have no natural defenses to common illnesses. Recent history is full of examples of Amazonian tribes being decimated by epidemics shortly after contact with missionaries, oil and gas workers, and loggers.
In response to this crisis, the indigenous rights organization, Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, is proposing designation of this entire region as the “Corridor for Indigenous Tribes in Isolation and Initial Contact”.
I was introduced to this story in 2015 on assignment for Science Magazine. In 2017 I returned with Chris Fagan of Upper Amazon Conservancy (UAC) to document indigenous communities and related issues on the Purús, Curanja, and Yurúa rivers. In March 2018, Chris and I return again to travel the ‘Multi-Modal’, an expedition investigating the legal and logistical constraints to developing a route using existing roads and rivers as a viable alternative to the proposed Purús-Inapari highway.