Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II

by Acate Amazon Conservation
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Sustaining Matses Indigenous Medicine - Phase II
Ministry of Health using Matses Indigenous Map
Ministry of Health using Matses Indigenous Map

In April 2022, Acaté and the Matsés governing board (junta directiva) held an in-depth conference in the city of Iquitos. The conference was attended by all the officers of the Matsés junta. Acaté was represented by our Peruvian and US based team, David Fleck, Christopher Herndon, William Park, and Carla Noain. The Matsés junta was elected in December of 2021 and this was the first opportunity they had to meet as a governing body. Except for the President, who was reelected, the junta members were new and most had never been in leadership positions before. Due to the formalities of the Peruvian government and in general for interinstitutional meetings, we had to send official invitation letters to each agency, some delivered in physical form, and wait for the countersigned acceptance letters. The Matsés delegation flights were delayed several times so we had to reschedule all the myriad of meetings with governmental agencies (Health, Education, Culture and others) three times but after this juggling of schedules we were ready to begin. The objective of the meetings with the various agencies was to provide the leaders an opportunity to understand the programs that each agency provides and to build connections to improve their access to services in the communities. In an extremely bureaucratic country like Peru, that suffers from rampant corruption there are many services available on paper but actually benefiting from the programs requires significant effort and diligent follow through to navigate the barriers to accessing the services, which range from bureaucratic obstacles to lack of available ear-marked funding due to embezzlement at level of national or regional ministries.

The first conference meeting was with the El Programa Nacional. This program focuses on services for the international border areas of Peru that are underserved and, in the case of the Matsés, practically lack government services. The idea is to build government centers that would offer all services from access to the National Bank to healthcare and preschool education. The program has constructed two facilities in Matsés territory but a lot of the functionality has not been added apart from a kitchen that can be used for certain activities and satellite internet connection that can be turned on when they have fuel to run the generator, which is rare according to the Matsés. The Matsés had an opportunity to express their disappointment in the program and to make suggestions that the facility be turned over to members from the community. This was agreed to and the Matsés leaders now have all the contacts for the program directors in Lima who have published on-line their intention to bring the promised services to the Matsés. We will monitor this situation along with the Matsés leaders.

The next meeting was Asuntos Indígenas or the Native Affairs agency of the State of Loreto. Acaté had partnered with them for the evacuation and care of the Matses stranded in Iquitos at the start of the pandemic. They are aware of Acaté’s numerous successful projects with the Matses and wanted to assess the ability of the communities to carry out a sustainable economic project and in order to present a project for consideration they needed a lot of demographic data from the Matses. After breaking up into subgroups and much discussion it was decided that a program to sell banana flour in Iquitos would be the proposal that Asuntos Indígenas would submit. It usually takes about a year or more for this type of project to materialize so the admins believe it will start in early 2023 and employ over 100 Matsés.

El Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado – Sernanp was the next session. This was a very controversial meeting as the Matses National Reserve administered by SERNANP occupies much of the Matses Ancestral Territory. The long and sad story of the Matses losing their ancestral land is beyond the scope of this report and was discussed in June 2017 Field Report. Although the formation of the so-called Matsés National Reserve had been touted at the time by involved large international conservation organizations and Peruvian government as bringing job opportunities for the Matsés. The Matsés were told that there would be a specified number of jobs as park rangers to patrol and protect the Reserve. The reality, over a decade, is that the majority of park rangers (70% at the time of our meeting) are non-Matsés hired from local settlements outside of the Matsés communities. The Park Directors prefer to only work with the villages in the buffer zone that the government imposed on the Matsés. It was agreed as a result of the meeting that the National Park would Matsés would hire more Matsés. We are pleased to report that, as of writing  the number of Matsés hired as park rangers for the Reserve has now more than doubled.

The next part of the meeting focused on the major lack of communication and consultation with the Matsés leadership, which again was not what the proposed operating model with the National Park was formed. The Matsés leaders in attendance emphasized the importance of communication and consultation and an understanding was reached that this would be improved. In a follow up meeting in June the Matses leaders came back to Iquitos to negotiate a new Master Plan for the National Reserve on terms more favorable to the Matses especially with regards to new employment opportunities and prior consultation.

Last year, there was a tragic incident where a SERNANP speedboat struck at high velocity a Matsés canoe killing three Matsés. The families were not able to obtain relief, with many barriers and delays due to the complexities and requirements of the SERNANP insurance policy and the fillings required. This understandably is a point of major sensitivity and importance to the affected families as the Matsés communities at large. The Park Director informed the Matsés how to proceed in order to provide the SERNANP officials in Lima the papers required by their liability insurance to compensate the families of the deceased.

The next session was with the Department of Education. The representative they sent had visited the Matsés communities and knew some of the participants. It is well known that the Education Department is underfunded so the Matsés were appreciative that a large new school had just been completed in their largest village. The discussion turned to the issue of absentee teachers. These teachers give up half their salaries to corrupt administrators in return for being excused from work. Complaining to the corrupt administrators would not be effective but higher up the chain of command there are ombudsman who have to send carbon copies of official complaints to all the offices. They reviewed the procedure to remove these absent teachers and also how the parents associations can help to improve educational outcomes.

Defensoría del Pueblo is an independent agency of the government created by congress whose findings can not be overruled by any other agency of the state. Their function is to fight corruption and injustice. The lawyer who came to the meeting as their representative became wide-eyed as he heard about the total lack of services the Matses population receives from the District Government. It turned out the Matsés had previously tried to use Defensoría del Pueblo to fight corruption without any results due to a series of Catch 22s. You need documents from the corrupt government to file against them but the government won’t give anyone the required papers. The Matses feel that this agency is more bark than bite but were glad to have an update on the activities and possibilities from this agency.

The final agency was the Ministry of Health (MINSA). Acaté has a Memorandum of Understanding with them and we frequently help coordinate medical evacuations and pay for shortfalls in care, for which in absence of direct grant support with our own funding. The health care system does not really exist in Matsés territory but has an outpost in one village. MINSA apparently believed that this post, as limited as it is, served three of the largest Matses villages. We showed the map of Matsés territory so she could see that the villages are hours apart in the best circumstances and that it would be practically impossible to transport patients from one to the other. We agreed that the most remote Matsés villages need their own clinics and that more medicines were needed to stock the existing outpost. This is a very positive outcome for the Matsés but will require a multiagency funding.

The Ministry of Transportation and OSINFOR, the environmental police, both declined to participate in the program.

In addition to agencies of the Peruvian state we also wanted to coordinate with any other NGOs that might have programs to benefit the Matses. Unfortunately, although there are many that apparently work in the region, few have any presence in the region. CEDIA, who helped the Matses with their land title years ago in creation of the Matsés Communal Reserve, came to the conference but are focused solely on Land Titling at this point. Formabiop also came to the meeting and they specialize in training bilingual teachers for native communities. The Matses leaders showed a lot of interest in this program as there is a lack of properly trained teachers who speak Matsés. They signed the necessary papers so that Formabiop can seek funding to set up a training program for future Matsés teachers. Formabiop does excellent work but struggles with their own funding.

The conference also provided an opportunity to work with the new Matsés leaders and present them with the 10 year history of Acate’s activities with the Matses and answer any questions. We then went on to discuss our current projects with the leaders and present work plans and budgets. Then we discussed the types of projects that we could do in the coming years and got a sense of their priorities. It was apparent that they all had hopes for a carbon project that would be able to fund multiple different projects and we agreed that we would try to find a reputable partner.

The last session of the conference was dedicated to the community bylaws and the Life Plans as well as the roles of each member of the leadership council. We also had an opportunity to go over some general leadership principles and traits and the dynamics created through good versus poor leadership.

Last, but not least, we are proud to announce that we have partnered with Matsés youth to revitalize the long defunct and inactive Matsés Youth Organization, restoring full its legal incorporation and standing, which is an involved process. The Matsés leaders and communities are presently working to enhance organization ByLaws, vision, and select members from all the Matsés communities. It is difficult to convey the excitement and support of the Matsés younger generations for the Matsés Youth Organization to become engaged as emerging leaders in their communities and effect positive change. More on this important development in future reporting.


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By Dr. David Fleck

In the latest update from our ongoing initiative with the Matsés to support bilingual education and intergeneration transfer of ecological knowledge, Dr. David Fleck reports on the development of three new interactive cellular phone apps as well as the latest publication addition to Acate’s bilingual ecological readers collection.

Governments are finally acknowledging the importance of indigenous territories and promoting indigenous land ownership rather than national parks as the most effective conservation strategy. This shift is certainly a step in the right direction but stand-alone it is not a well-developed conservation strategy as it ignores the rapid cultural changes occurring in remote areas. It is the cultural practices and worldview of these groups that drive their protection of their territories so this strategy can only be effective if the people chose to maintain their cultures. It is within this context that Acaté has been working since 2012 to ensure the continued intergenerational transmission of cultural knowledge and especially ethnoecological knowledge among the Matsés. One of the drivers of cultural degradation is when young people become ashamed of their culture and feel it is backward compared to the technological marvels of the global culture. To engage young Matsés, Acaté has created three new educational mobile phone apps (downloadable here from Google Play store). Beyond the value of the apps as practical learning tools, they also demonstrate to the Matsés that they can both enjoy modern technology and maintain their culture.

The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting response in Peru has had devastating effect on the quality of education across the country. This is particularly true in Matsés territory, where internet service and cellular telephone service is absent. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Matsés education system struggled profoundly with chronic lack of teachers, educational materials and resources. The few available educational materials are poorly written. Last year, the Peruvian Ministry of Education has distributed tablets to students in some of Matsés villages, but without any content in the Matsés language which is their primary language. To provide educational resources, Acaté Amazon Conservation, in collaboration with Matsés elders, has produced four new cellular phone apps (download here from the Google Play store) that Matsés children can use to learn at home as well as another ecology advanced reader. In September 2021, Acate field coordinator, Felipe traveled to all the Matsés villages, installing the apps on the cell phones and tablets of the Matsés who have them and distributing the ecology reader to the children.

Aprende a Leer Matsés
This cellular application was an instant hit among the Matsés children. It is a fun interactive application with incorporated audio clips that teaches Matsés children to read at the word level in their language. The app features 200 illustrations drawn by Matses artist Guillermo. In the first half of this talking reader, each letter of the Matsés alphabet is introduced with 5 or 6 simple words. In the second half of the app, the different syllable types are introduced.

 On the even pages, the introduced words are associated with images that can be tapped to hear the pronunciation of the word, and on the odd pages the children play a matching game with the same words and illustrations introduced in the preceding page (a correct match elicits an approval tune and the word and image disappear from the page). The matching game can be used by a single child as a self-evaluation exercise, or two or more children can play competitively taking turns to see who gets more correct matches.

Animales Matsés
This app features drawings of 504 species of animals present in Matsés territory by Matsés artist Guillermo, along with names of the animals in the Matsés language and in local Spanish, accompanied by sound clips of the Matsés names that play when an image is tapped.

Older Matsés men and women know the names of all the animals, but many young Matsés know only the more common species, so one of the principle aims of this app is to encourage the intergenerational transmission of traditional ecological knowledge. Non-readers can use the app to learn the animal names by tapping the images, emergent readers can learn to learn to read at the word level in Matsés, and older Matsés students can use it to learn the local Spanish names and to become familiar with scientific classification. At all levels younger Matsés will become familiar with the traditional nomenclature of all the types of animals in their territory.

Taxonomía de Plantas Matsés
This app is in effect the botanical counterpart of the Animales Matsés app. It is the first of its kind. The 122-page application illustrates the amazingly high plant diversity found Western Amazonia along with the sophisticated traditional plant knowledge of the Matsés people with drawings of 361 species of plants drawn by Matsés artist Guillermo. It is the product of more than a year or research trekking through the forests with Matsés elders, searching for and photographing trees and plants with fruits or flowers (without which it is difficult to identify Amazonian plants). We will also be seeking funding to produce even more educational applications for the Matsés, including math games, games for teaching Spanish and English, and talking ecological readers.

If you have an Android cell phone or tablet, we encourage you to download and check out the apps here. If you do not have access to an Android device, you can download pdfs below:

Aprende a leer Matsés

Animales Matsés

Taxonomía de plantas Matsés

Ecología Completa de los Reptiles (Complete Natural History of Reptiles)

This 77-page printed book (also available as a pdf) is the third volume in Acate’s collection of advanced level ecological readers, which are designed to facilitate the intergenerational transfer of traditional ecological knowledge and assist Matsés students in learning to read.

The book was written by Matsés author Jessenia based on recorded monologues about reptile natural history provided by Matsés elders Joaquin and Luis. Scenes depicting behaviors of 54 folk species of reptiles are illustrated with 70 watercolor drawings by Matsés artist Guillermo. The advanced reptile ecology reader was distributed in September 2021 to all the Matsés communities in Peru.

Counting the 7 elementary level ecological readers published by Acate in 2018, the Matsés now have 10 published bilingual ecological readers for helping children learn their ancestral ecological knowledge and to learn to read in their language and in Spanish. This body of work has effectively doubled the number of educational books in the Matsés language. The next book in the advance ecology reader series will be one on amphibians, and later ones on fish, invertebrates, monocot plants, and dicot plants.

We would like to express our gratitude to Nouvelle Planète who generously financed this project.

If you missed it, take a look at our July 2021 Field Report on major advances in the Matsés critical initiative for indigenous empowerment and governance! As a result of this initative, the Matsés have translated their community bylaws into the Matsés language, explained key Peruvian government regulations to all their leaders and communities. The initiative has resulted in training of over 140 Matsés in computer literacy as well as the set-up and equipping of the first computer lab in Matsés territory. The Matsés developed a written Plan of Life (Plan de Vida) to guide their implementation of their vision and aspirations for their communities and protection of their ancestral territories for years to come. The Matsés applied and received United Nations recognition of the Matsés Ancestral Territory as an indigenous and community conserved area (ICCA), the first such designation for an indigenous community in Peru.

 All content and images copyright 2022 Acaté





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Guard post on Upper Yaquerana River
Guard post on Upper Yaquerana River

Background: To reach the Matsés territory requires either a weeklong boat trip passing through Brazil; a flight on a small plane; or a multi-day walk through the jungle. This inaccessibility and the Matsés fierce reputation have been the major factors protecting this area historically. The Matsés communal territory is the key to a binational area that includes the Matsés National Reserve, the Sierra del Divisidor National Park, the Javari Tapiche Indigenous Reserve and the Vale do Javari Reserve in Brazil (alone the size of Austria). Together this area is one of the largest and wildest areas left on our planet and the home of the highest number of people still living in voluntary isolation or uncontacted people.  These people are at extreme risk of disease should they be contacted by adventure seekers; fanatical missionaries; or illegal resource extractors. The Matsés have had encounters with the uncontacted in their ancestral hunting grounds and there is the potential for conflict. South of the Matsés territory there have been deadly conflicts when uncontacted bands raid isolated villages seeking metal tools and food stores. The movement patterns of the uncontacted groups that enter the Matsés Ancestral Territory are not understood but are likely linked to land use changes to the southeast in Brazil and to normal seasonal movements for hunting.  The potential for conflict remains if one of these bands should raid a Matsés camp looking for axes or other metal implements. The Yaquerana River (headwaters of the Javari) is the international border between Peru and Brazil through part of Matsés territory. As such, it is not legal for the Matsés to close the river to boat traffic from the settler communities downriver in both Peru and Brazil. Poachers take advantage of this to enter the territory for commercial fishing, endangered turtle egg collecting, and timber cutting. The construction of a road from the Ucayali to the Javari makes this work even more urgent. The road will bring a wave of settlers looking for new land to exploit along with the timber mafias who will use the road to exploit previously inaccessible highly valuable timber species like Spanish Cedar and Mahogany.

Riverine turtles play a vital role in the ecology and their eggs are an important indigenous traditional food throughout Amazon region. They are now threatened with extinction due to over collecting of eggs from their nesting beaches and the hunting of adult turtles. The largest turtle in the Amazon, known locally as Charapas (Podocnemis expansa), which can weigh up to 200 pounds, is facing extinction in Peru because the large adults are easily hunted and the eggs are large and highly sought after.  For the Matsés the eggs from both the Charapa and the smaller Taricaya (Podocnemis unifilis) are a important source of protein and calories. Unfortunately, there are now stretches of the Yaquerana river where the turtle nests are no longer found due to commercial egg poaching. It is important to emphasize that the lack of controls on the egg trade will eventually lead the poachers further up river. Egg collecting can not be seen in isolation as the poachers will also hunt for bush meat and potentially cut timbers. Without an intervention these activities will spread up river further endangering those in voluntary isolation. 

The objectives of this project were to provide protection both for the Matsés Ancestral Territory and peoples living in voluntary isolation. This was accomplished as follows below: 

Project Achievements: 

  • In a General Assembly Meeting (Matsés legislative session) all the Matsés communities and their leaders agreed that the protection of peoples living in voluntary isolation is important and that the Matsés would take appropriate measures to avoid conflicts with them while shielding them from encroachment.  
  • During the same General Assembly Meeting the Matsés agreed to set aside a portion of the Yaquerana River beaches as a turtle conservation area. This is very important as in general conservation projects fail due to the lack of engagement with the local communities. In this case the Matsés took the initiative to learn how to successfully hatch turtle eggs and gained the cooperation of the other Matsés communities who do not have nesting beaches near their own communities. Additional Matsés villages including two in Brazil want to participate in the project and have a vision of restoring the precontact turtle populations.
  • A team of 12 Matsés was equipped to patrol the upper Yaquerana in shifts and deploy camera traps looking for evidence of uncontacted peoples entering the Matsés Ancestral Territory.
  • Construction of a guard post downriver from the Matsés community of Puerto Alegre. The poachers stay away from the Matsés villages and the sounds of their motors can’t be heard from the villages. This guard post allows the Matsés to monitor a key area of the Yaquerana as a base of operations for the patrols. The presence of the post also discourages poachers.
  • We supplied the Matsés with two boat-motors to use for the patrols.
  • We purchased a short-wave radio that will allow for communication of the guard post with all the other Matsés communities and government agencies if necessary.
  • We supplied the 30 patrol members with project uniforms, flashlights, and boots.
  • We supplied fuel and food supplies so they can reach distant areas and remain on extended patrols.
  • We supplied equipment for the collection of turtle eggs and for the construction of a turtle egg hatchery. The hatchlings were returned to their nesting areas for release. When the patrols reach the turtle eggs before the poachers it discourages poaching as the poachers come back empty handed.
  • 7000 turtle eggs were collected and we are especially pleased that the rare giant river turtle eggs were also collected bringing hope for the restoration of these turtles in the area.
  • The patrols are also removing turtle traps and freeing the turtles they find trapped.
River turtle rendering by Matses artist Guillermo
River turtle rendering by Matses artist Guillermo
Note taking at night
Note taking at night
River turtle nest in sand
River turtle nest in sand


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Matses leadership and governance workshop
Matses leadership and governance workshop

Matsés Advance Critical New Initiative for Indigenous Empowerment and Self-Governance

Indigenous groups the world over have historically been dispossessed of their ancestral territories, exterminated, or cheated for the extraction of their natural resources. Once missionaries established first peaceful contact with the Matsés in 1969, timber and petroleum interests quickly followed. In the turbulent years following sustained contact agents of timber companies took advantage of the Matsés communities by tricking them into cutting down high value timber species such as Spanish cedar and mahogany without any compensation. Petroleum companies carried out surveys and drilled exploratory wells deep into Matsés ancestral territory.

In February 2019, Acaté leadership and the Matsés governing body (Junta Directiva) met and agreed that following the completion of the Matsés Indigenous Mapping Initiative, our next major collaboration would be to address the very heart of the challenges that underpin the Matsés internal struggles and enable external threats. The Matsés Indigenous Leadership and Governance project is a critically important initiative. The benefits, developed through this project and realized by the participants and the wider communities include: 1) the ability to obtain benefits from government agencies and NGOs by avoiding pitfalls through navigating the bureaucracies, 2) the ability to participate in the national economy, and 3) the ability to protect their territory from extractive industry including oil and timber companies encroaching on their territory. Most importantly, the project will contribute to the capacity and resiliency of the Matsés in maintaining unity against the external forces that threaten to degrade their unique way of life.

As a result of the Matsés Indigenous Leadership and Governance Initiative to date, the Matsés have translated their community bylaws into the Matsés language and explained key Peruvian government regulations and documents to all their leaders and communities. Matsés have enhanced their ability to interface and access government agencies, thereby improving their services. During the process, the Matsés uncovered massive irregularities in government funding earmarked for their district that was never received. This is now under investigation by the Peruvian anti-corruption authorities.

Prior to the start of the project, most Matsés had never even opened up a computer, let alone have the proficiency in use of computers and software that is so critical for their success in governance and their interactions with the outside world. To date, the Matsés Indigenous Leadership and Governance Initiative has resulted in the training of over 140 Matsés in computer literacy as well as the set-up and equipping of the first computer lab in Matsés territory.

Further, the Matsés have developed a written Plan of Life (Plan de Vida) to guide their implementation of their vision and aspirations for their communities and protection of their ancestral territories for years to come. The Matsés applied for and received United Nations recognition of the Matsés Ancestral Territory as an indigenous and community conserved area, the first such designation for an indigenous community in Peru.


Traditionally, in the time prior to sustained contact, the Matsés lived in longhouses in large family groups. They had no formal governance, with decisions made through community consensus guided by the wisdom of respected elders. Following sustained peaceful contact with the Peruvian national culture, leadership structures were constructed in Matsés society based on Peruvian political structures. The requirement for Spanish speakers in leadership positions biased selection to primarily younger Matsés in leadership roles in order to facilitate communication with non-Matsés speakers in regional and national government. This had the effect of excluding many experienced and recognized elder Matsés community leaders from participating in the political decision making process and in official representation of their people to the outside world.

Elected Matsés leaders receive no formal training before starting office to prepare them for the enormous challenges they face. These Matsés leaders, with limited formal education, given no training or even an orientation class on assuming office, and supported with few external resources are left unaided to negotiate with well-funded timber companies, oil companies, NGOs, local government, regional government, national government, Department of Education, Department of Health, Department of Agriculture, Department of Culture, National Bank, adventure tourists, and even wildlife smugglers. These various organizations have their own agendas, and regrettably, not all are working in the best interests of the Matsés people or the rainforest the Matsés protect. The consequences have been profound for Matsés education, health, food security, and territorial integrity.

The specific aims of the Matsés Indigenous Leadership and Governance Initiative include the following goals:

1) To train Matsés participants and future leaders with knowledge of Peruvian laws and regulations

2) To provide training in accounting, regulatory compliance, and communication for good governance

3) To build their intrinsic governance and communication capacity across the communities

4) To capacitate Matsés participants and future leaders with computer literacy skills

5) To implement an innovative leadership training program for Matsés women’s empowerment

This initiative is designed to progress in four stages, three of which have been completed as of the writing of this field report.

Stage 1: Planning Workshop, Leadership Training, Translation of Matsés Bylaws, Meetings with government agencies

The Matsés territory is vast. It can take four days to travel from one upriver community to the most distant community on a different river. There is no phone service in Matsés territory and not all the villages have working radios. These communication issues are compounded by the expense of holding meetings. Matsés leaders are neither allocated funds by the Peruvian state to organize large community meetings nor support for food and travel costs. This lack of governance infrastructure is exploited by organizations with their own agendas to create agreements with Matsés individuals but without community wide engagement and consent.

One of the most egregious examples was the “Carbon Cowboy” incident in 2011. This was a scheme to get the Matsés to sign over their carbon rights. The modus operandi utilized by the unscrupulous actors involved in this scam was to pay one or more elected Matsés leaders to sign their documents. In the case of the Carbon Cowboy, these signed documents were written in English. The scheme failed. The Matsés who received the payments ended up moving away from their territory in disgrace, and no carbon projects were ever developed.

Although Western use of the term “tribe” may connote a sense of unity in a people, the reality is that many indigenous groups emerge from the turbulence of contact with the outside world fiercely divided. Although many organizations would be extremely cautious about the optics and irregularities of perceived corruption in dealings with elected officials at home in the United States or Europe, it does not hold them back from sending direct payments to elected Matsés leaders to advance their agendas in a setting where there is less direct accountability. These organizations show little regard for the internal conflicts that inevitably erupt as the Matsés community discovers the payments and the conflicts of interest.

Recognition of Matsés Ancestral Territory as an Indigenous Protected Area

The first sessions of the meeting were to get the Matsés Ancestral Territory registered with the United Nations as an internationally recognized indigenous protected area or ICCA. The Matsés Ancestral Territory comprises an area of 3.7 million acres in Peru and contains among the most intact, biodiverse and carbon-rich forests in the world. Their communities safeguard and shield some of the last remaining uncontacted tribes living in isolation from unwanted encroachment by the outside world. With climate change and the accelerated rates of deforestation in the Amazon Basin, this vast area of intact primary forest that generations of Matsés have fought to protect is of vital importance for their future and is of global significance.

The requirements and process were explained to the Matsés leaders by SERVINDI (Servicios en comunicación Intercultural), the communications partner of the United Nations Small Grants Program in Peru. Fortunately the documentation that usually takes years to accomplish, had already been done by the Matses in conjunction with prior initiatives with Acaté, including mapping their territorydocumenting their culture, and most importantly protecting their forests. With a large team working on all the necessary documentation, including a Plan of Life, we generated, organized, and submitted the proposal to the United Nations Environment Programme including the maps, ethnoecological books, and descriptions of the traditional medicine program. The registry was completed and can be seen here.

Matsés COVID-19 Relief Effort

The next order of business was to present Acaté’s Matsés COVID-19 Relief effort. After decades of phantom projects with other NGOs, false claims of association with the Matsés, and no reporting nor transparency for the Matsés, the Matsés are rightly suspicious about projects and wanted to understand our COVID-19 relief effort that we led in collaboration with several partners including Pervuvian Ministry of Culture, Peruvian Ministry ofo Health, Xapiri Ground, Amazon Watch as well as the support of private donors. This was a great opportunity to present the basics of accounting and transparency using a real- life example of great interest to the leaders. The amounts and sources of the funding along with the receipts were presented. Then we created a report with the accounting, receipts, and photos of the effort with Matsés language explanations. The Matsés can now use this as a template for reporting to their constituents.

The requirements and process were explained to the Matsés leaders by SERVINDI (Servicios en comunicación Intercultural), the communications partner of the United Nations Small Grants Program in Peru. Fortunately the documentation that usually takes years to accomplish, had already been done by the Matses in conjunction with prior initiatives with Acaté, including mapping their territorydocumenting their culture, and most importantly protecting their forests. With a large team working on all the necessary documentation, including a Plan of Life, we generated, organized, and submitted the proposal to the United Nations Environment Programme including the maps, ethnoecological books, and descriptions of the traditional medicine program. The registry was completed and can be seen here.

Navigating Governmental Agencies

For the next day’s session, we invited the Loreto Ministry of Culture to give a presentation on the relevant departments of the Peruvian government and their functions and responsibilities. This provided a basis for the Matsés to navigate difficult bureaucratic hurdles by knowing which agency is responsible.

The consequences of this lack of ability to interface with the Peruvian health and education agencies are severe. In the case of the health system, the impact can be measured in human lives. The health care provision to the Matsés communities is challenging and suffers from chronic and profound insufficiencies due to their remote geography and other contributing factors. In the morning, before we started the regular agenda, a team from the Ministry of Health met with the Matsés responding to an invitation from Daniel, the Matsés chief. This meeting led to doctor and dentist visits to the larger Matsés communities and a resupply of medicines. In addition, we now have a Memorandum of Understanding between the Health Ministry, the Matsés, and Acaté. There will be more on this major development in a future field report. 

The Ministry of Culture also provided the team with the agencies that provide funding to communities for economic projects and detailed some of the existing projects. They then took the Matsés through an exercise of developing a project with all the steps and information required.

Land Tenure and Rights

The next part of the meeting was to address the land tenure of the Matsés Ancestral Territory which spans their communal reserve, the Matsés National Reserve, and the Sierra del Divisor National Park. When the Matsés mapped their ancestral territory in the Matsés Indigenous Mapping Initiative, it became clear that many Matsés had no idea that a large portion of their territory had been negotiated away in the creation of the so-called Matsés National Reserve (Matsés ancestral territory in which the Matsés hold no title to the land) and the Sierra del Divisor National Park.

We brought in a local expert who worked on many projects in the region. The leaders were given a presentation on the rights and obligations of the Matsés titled land along with the applicable land codes under Peruvian law. Then the same was done for the National Reserve, which is the equivalent to a National Forest in the US, and the National Park. The event also included timber regulations. The most controversial aspect was the buffer zones established by the park authorities. We presented the regulations and, as this was very important, wrote a summary in the Matsés language.

Translation of Matsés Bylaws into Matsés Language

Throughout the conference we were working to update and translate the Matsés bylaws, developed on establishment of the Matsés Communal Reserve. The bylaws were written in Spanish and all were very reasonable. The problem was that they were out of date and not available in Matsés language, which is the primary language for most Matsés. The challenge with translating Spanish technical terms into Matsés is that there are simply no equivalent words in Matsés language. Through the efforts of Matsés native speakers, Peruvian lawyers, and Acaté field coordinator Davewho is the leading academic expert on Panoan languages, we decided that we would make the best translation possible and then supplement the document with explanations in Matsés. Given that so many updates were required, the leaders could not complete the updates without first getting the consent of the people. The final document was delayed until the village meeting and a general assembly were held to finalize the document.


With so many difficult and controversial subjects that arose, we planned to finish the conference on a positive note with the creative leadership component. The leadership training portion of the program was led by Acaté staff member Carla who was certified during a New England Biolabs Foundation course run by The Creative Action Institute in Peru. This groundbreaking course for indigenous leaders and youth promotes creative problem solving. While creativity is often perceived as an abstract concept, numerous studies and reports indicate that creativity is becoming a key feature of 21st century leadership due to the need to generate innovative solutions, test new approaches, and respond effectively to the complex social and environmental challenges we face.

Although not commonly referred to in the context of indigenous communities in the remote Amazon, there are creative leaders in the Matsés community and through this program we helped to develop their potential growth to lead their communities. One of the creative techniques is called “Problem Tree/Solution Tree”. A large drawing of a “Problem Tree” is used to analyze the causes and effects of a specific problem in order to identify strategic interventions. The problem is written in the center of the trunk, the participants then exchange ideas and write down all the underlying causes in the roots of the tree and all the negative impacts on the branches. Next, a “Tree of Solutions” is used to identify how to transform the problems by reversing the original causes and to track the conditions that yield positive results. The objective is to visually analyze the origins and effects of a problem in order to identify possible solutions and strategic interventions. The result is the ability to identify the origins of a problem and transform them into solutions through strategic analysis, identification of intervention points, and project planning.

Stage 2: Village Meetings to Disseminate the Information from Stage 1 and Community Engagement

After Stage 1 was completed we worked with the Matsés chief to compile all the information in digital and print form. Then a team of Matsés leaders and their main advisor, Pepe, visited each of the 15 Matsés communities. Pepe was essential to this project because his experience and background. As both former Matsés chief and a former local Mayor, Pepe could speak with authority after having experience dealing with all these issues. We can only imagine how difficult it was in the past for the Matsés village leaders to report on material they were not very familiar with written in, what is for them a second language. With a projector and all the documents in digital form supported by the tribal leaders the village chiefs were able to inform their villages of all that had been learned. Each village was also given copies of the documents, explanations, and translation in print. It was during this phase that the final bylaws were prepared for ratification at the general assembly. 

Stage 3: Computer Training for Future Matsés Leaders

Nowhere is the “digital divide” more stark than in Matsés territory. Most young Matsés, except for those who go to school in Angamos, have never used a computer. In Matsés territory, some leaders and teachers have computers but there are none in the schools or available for people to use. The irony is that we have never encountered people who pick up computers and software faster than the Matsés. In the Stage 3 of the initiative, the Matsés set up a computer lab with 12 computers, projector and printer in the community of Anushi. Then they developed a plan to hold twelve week-long courses for all the Matsés communities with spaces apportioned according to village size. Prior to the start of the classes we held a training session in Iquitos for the Matsés computer teachers, Daniel, Jesinia, and Felipe. They developed an appropriate course curriculum for Matsés with little to no computer experience. The course started with basic usage and the operating system. Then the course progressed through Word, Powerpoint, and Excel. For many Matsés who have never used a computer their lack of experience is a source of shame. As soon as Matsés start to gain confidence in their computer skills their perceived inferiority to outsiders fades. They realize that they can use a computer but an outsider could never thrive in the forest.  total, to date, we trained 144 Matsés students.

Prior to this initiative, both a lack of computers and the lack of training in document preparation among the Matsés population limits the number of potential leaders who can function in their roles. Capacitation in these domains will strengthen the ability of the Matsés to represent themselves to the outside world, navigate the bureaucracies of government agencies, participate in the national economy, and enhance coordination of their communities to foster strength in unity. Through this initiative, the Matsés will be better able to resist the powerful external forces that threaten the environment they depend on for their survival and sustain their unique way of life. The initiative will engage younger generations by inspiring youth that their identity as Matsés can lie in both traditional and modern systems, and that to choose one is an artificial choice; one can thrive in the outside world, yet retain a proud identity as Matsés.

Outlining Matses regional government
Outlining Matses regional government
Working with Matses on leadership training
Working with Matses on leadership training
Matses village community meeting
Matses village community meeting
Matses computer class students and instructors
Matses computer class students and instructors
First computer lab developed in Matses Territory
First computer lab developed in Matses Territory
Leadership Workshop Completion
Leadership Workshop Completion


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After chance encounter with an uncontacted group in remote headwaters of their ancestral territory, Matsés are launching new measures to help ensure continued protection of isolated peoples.

In the age of satellite communication and globalism, the fact that there are still tribal groups isolated from the outside world and its technology excites the imagination and sparks curiosity. Yet, this excitement can obscure the extreme fragility and precarious situation of these last remaining people in voluntary isolation. The reality is that there are few places left on the planet that are still remote enough to shelter isolated peoples.

The headwaters of the Yaquerana (Javari), in the Matsés Ancestral Territory (Territorio Ancestral Matsés) and the Sierra del Divisor National Park in Peru, is one such area. The adjoining Javari Valley Reserve across the river in Brazil contains the highest number of tribal groups living in isolation in the world. There is evidence that isolated groups may also inhabit the Tapiche-Blanco area on the western border of the Matsés Ancestral Territory. The Matsés have long served to shield uncontacted groups, whom they regard as their brothers and sisters, in the region from unwanted contact from the outside world. Matsés communities are strategically positioned at the gateways to these remote areas.

Earlier this month, on a follow-up survey from the Matsés Indigenous Mapping Initiative, in the headwaters of the upper Yaquerana river, the Matsés had a chance encounter. They were there to verify some data points from a previous journey and to check on the status of an abandoned exploratory oil well. This area lies within the now annulled petroleum concession lot #135 that was leased by Pacific Stratus Energy. Pacific Stratus and the concession are gone but the status of the exploratory well and the extent of any damage done remains unclear.

While walking along a stream, the Matsés survey team noticed a trail marked by plant stems bent in half, not cut with a machete. As they reached a small stream they saw a set of bare footprints along the bank. They then heard scattered voices of a small group of individuals who were imitating spider monkey calls. Realizing it was the isolated people hunting, the team immediately withdrew back to the river to avoid any contact.

Over the years, the Matses have reported similar encounters in the jungle although this one occurred closer to their communities. It is generally thought that isolated groups come across the river from Brazil in the low water season, although this group may reside semi-permanently on the Peruvian side.  Matsés who have had encounters indicate that some of the words spoken by uncontacted people calling out to each other are intelligible to them, supporting the Panoan origin theory (family of languages spoken in Peru, western Brazil, and Bolivia). The Matsés, and most of the neighboring tribal groups in the Javari including the MatisMarubo, and Korubo are Panoan-language speakers. The tribal groups in isolation are not Matsés; the Matsés report that all their kin were accounted for at the time of their sustained contact with the outside world.

The headwaters of the Matsés Ancestral Territory shelter thriving populations of giant river otters, a species that has been extirpated in most areas of the Amazon due to pelt trade and mining.

The best policy towards people living in voluntary isolation is to leave them alone with sufficient territory to live in peace and respect their autonomy. Contact attempts by missionaries, adventure seekers, and government agencies has, in most cases, led to tragic outcomes. Isolated peoples are extremely vulnerable to disease pathogens, with mortality rates ranging from 25% to 100% in the immediate time period post-contact. The survivors face a grim future, in which their culture and self-sufficiency are stripped away, leaving them struggling to reclaim their identity in a new world marked by poverty and external dependence. The forests, which once supported their way of life, are soon exploited post-contact for commercial resource extraction.

For the Matsés, chance encounters come with risks to their own lives. Isolated peoples do not have the context to distinguish between protectors and outsiders with malintent. Isolated peoples avoid outsiders and likely associate them with conflict and disease, both from stories passed down from their elders as well as in their living memories.

The few remaining forests in the world that can support isolated groups often are beset with incursions and encroachment from miners, loggers, and narcotraffickers generating conflict. Desperate to protect their lives, their kin and their way of life, and indeed to avoid annihilation, isolated people will resort to violence to protect themselves. This danger was highlighted earlier this year with the tragic killing of experienced FUNAI sertanista Rieli Franciscato from the arrow of an uncontacted group in western Brazil.

In response to this potentially dangerous situation Acaté and the Matsés leadership are launching new measures to help ensure the continued isolation of the uncontacted and decrease the likelihood of conflicts with Matsés hunters who fear being shot at with arrows. This new initiative is an important extension of the Matsés Leadership and Governance Initiative launched last year to monitor and protect the Matsés Ancestral Territory (Territorio Ancestral Matsés) through an enhanced communication network between the widely separated villages; the establishment of monitoring stations at sensitive areas; and the use of camera traps to detect incursions into their lands.

This plan of action was finalized in August 2020 during a nine-day workshop held in Iquitos supported by Acaté. At this extraordinary meeting, the Matsés leadership, including representatives from each village, created a draft of their Plan of Life. This comprehensive document lays out the Matsés vision and plan for protection of their territory and culture. In it, the Matsés commit to continue to protect their isolated brothers and sisters. Our next report will detail this important initiative.

Acaté Amazon Conservation is a non-profit organization based in the United States and Perú that operates in a true and transparent partnership with the Matsés people of the Peruvian Amazon to maintain their self-sufficiency and way of life. Operating at the leading edge of conservation, our initiatives have included the first indigenous medicine encyclopedia as well as projects with original methodology in sustainable economic developmenttraditional medicinemedicinal agroforestrynutritional diversityregenerative agriculturebiodiversity inventoryeducationnative language literacy, and mapping of ancestral landsAll of our initiatives are developed with, led and implemented by the Matsés indigenous people. Donations are tax-deductible and go directly to fund these on-the-ground initiatives that operate with unparalleled transparency.

Recent Field Reports

July 2020 – Emergency COVID-19 relief efforts and safe return of the Matsés to their communities!

June 2020 – Completion of the first-ever dictionary phone app created for an Amazonian indigenous language and more from our ongoing initiative with the Matsés to support bilingual education and intergeneration transfer of ecological knowledge.

December 2019 – Completion of the landmark five-year Matsés Indigenous Mapping Initiative in which the Matsés mapped and demarcated for the first time their entire ancestral territories in Peru. The resulting maps, written in their language, are comprehensive cartographic records of their ancestral territory, history, land use and culture. 

Petroleum drill pipe found by Matses survey team
Petroleum drill pipe found by Matses survey team
The past is not forgotten
The past is not forgotten
Plan of Life
Plan of Life


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Acate Amazon Conservation

Location: San Francisco, CA - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @acateamazon
Project Leader:
Christopher Herndon
San Francisco, CA United States
$9,391 raised of $33,340 goal
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