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Fisticuffs Erupts in Peru Over Uncontacted Tribes

Officials deny plans to open rain forest reserves, promise new protections

By Scott Wallace

Peru says it will bolster protections for uncontacted tribes roaming the deep Amazon after a public row erupted last week that sent indigenous affairs officials scrambling for cover.

The debate began in recent days after officials from the outgoing administration of president Alan Garcia let slip a series of statements hinting at plans to modify—and perhaps even revoke—protected status for two so-called territorial reserves set aside for isolated indigenous groups and the rain forest that harbors them.

As many as 15 nomadic or seminomadic indigenous groups are believed to inhabit remote stretches of eastern Peru in willful isolation from the rest of the world. They figure among the very last uncontacted tribes on Earth. That’s not an arbitrary number; it’s based on extensive documentation of sightings of furtive tribespeople or the vestiges they leave behind—footprints, spears, ceramic pots, shelters—as they move through the forest.

To safeguard these peoples, in the 1990s Peru began to set aside territorial reserves that made large swathes of the Amazon off-limits to commercial exploitation. Today five such reserves spread across Peru’s Amazon region, totaling nearly 11,000 square miles of pristine forest and an astonishing diversity of flora and fauna. Traveling along a remote river on the edge of the Murunahua Territorial Reserve, I recently saw four different kinds of monkeys, as well as capybaras, river otters, caimans, and countless avian species—toucans, parrots, macaws, and many rare songbirds.

True, the reserves have been invaded frequently (and nearly always with impunity) by the usual suspects: loggers, gold prospectors, drug traffickers, skin hunters. Their location in some of the wildest redoubts of the Amazon makes policing their boundaries especially difficult, the more so because the cash-strapped government devotes little to enforcement. Still, their status has offered a critical margin of protection. Which was why the proposed changes triggered such vociferous protest.

“The changes they propose appear to be motivated by politics, not scientific evidence,” said Arsenio Calle Cordova, director of the Alto Purus National Park, which abuts or overlaps four of the five territorial reserves. The park forms the core of a mosaic of protected areas, known as the Purus Complex, covering 10,500 square miles of dense rain forest in southeastern Peru. Nearly a fifth of that lands lies within the bounds of the Murunahua reserve, a critical buffer for the park that contains some of the very last stands of highly coveted mahogany in all of Peru—and at least two groups of uncontacted Indians. The Murunuhua was one of two reserves slated for review.

Photo by Chris Fagan, Upper Amazon Conservancy

Huts abandoned by isolated Indians inside Alto Purus National Park, Peru.

 

At a meeting Calle attended last month in the timber hub of Pucallpa, an official from Peru’s indigenous affairs agency, known as INDEPA, said he did not believe there were any isolated tribes left in the reserve. “He said the territory has been so overrun by loggers as to think the isolated [Indians] must have fled to somewhere else,” Calle wrote in an email from Puerto Esperanza, a remote outpost on the Upper Purus River.

Calle said the official, Luís Lacerna, told him that the Murunahua might soon lose its legal protection for lack of recent documentation proving the ongoing presence of isolated Indians in the reserve.

According to Francisco Estremadoyro of the NGO Pro-Purus, Lacerna repeated similar assertions at a meeting two weeks ago in Lima. I was with Estremadoyro in April as he gathered eyewitness testimony among natives on the Huacapistea River confirming the presence of uncontacted tribespeople inside the Murunahua reserve. Lacerna showed little interest in the evidence, Estremadoyro said. “It was completely disappointing to learn how little value the Murunahua reserve represents for INDEPA.”

Photo by Chris Fagan, Upper Amazon Conservancy

Illegal logging camp inside Murunahua Territorial Reserve, Peru.

 

When the UK-based rights group Survival International issued a strong condemnation of any possible shift in Peru’s protection of the uncontacted tribes, officials responded with strident denials. “It’s false that the government has any intention to ‘abolish’ any Territorial Reserve,” the Ministry of Culture declared in a statement released last Friday. The Ministry of Culture oversees INDEPA’s work and the territorial integrity of the reserves.

“We categorically denounce and will prosecute all intrusions,” Vice Minister of Culture José Carlos Vilcapoma told me. “We are committed to protecting the isolated tribes.”

The row over the territorial reserves comes just months after the release of sensational television footage of uncontacted Indians filmed by the BBC from an airplane along Brazil’s border with Peru, just opposite the Murunahua reserve. Brazilian officials took the film crew to observe the thatched-hut dwellings of the isolated tribespeople to prove their existence and to prompt Peru to crack down on illegal logging in its protected areas. At the time, Peru promised it would take action, a promise vice minister Vilcapoma repeated last week. He will host a symposium in Lima later this month, he said, to discuss protecting isolated Indians on the border with Brazil.

Scott Wallace writes about the environment and indigenous affairs for National Geographic and other publications. His forthcoming book, The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, will be published by Crown in October 2011. For more information about his work, please visit www.scottwallace.com

Comments

  1. [...] Económico y Territorio de INDEPA, es el único de esos empleados cuyo nombre ha trascendido a la prensa internacional hasta el [...]

  2. [...] Click here to read the story in National Geographic – and quotes from ProPurús director Francisco Estremadoyro. [...]

  3. [...] Click here to read the story in National Geographic – and quotes from ProPurús director Francisco Estremadoyro. [...]

  4. [...] Luis Lacerna, the director of Indepa’s Indigenous Protection, Economic Development and Territory department, is currently the only employee whose identity has been revealed by the international press. [...]

  5. [...] Luis Lacerna, the director of Indepa’s Indigenous Protection, Economic Development and Territory department, is currently the only employee whose identity has been revealed by the international press. [...]

  6. [...] Luis Lacerna, the director of Indepa’s Indigenous Protection, Economic Development and Territory department, is currently the only employee whose identity has been revealed by the international press. [...]

  7. A. Scholz
    June 13, 2011, 6:45 am

    surely they deny that any uncontacted tribes are present – it’s all about money, the greedy world nowadays. unbelievably horrible that they don’t care that there are still some tribes living there – the tribes are human beings just like them, so they should respect their rights (i.e. their territory, their home).
    fantastic story, liked to read about it.

  8. Lily
    Marseille
    June 9, 2011, 10:34 am

    It’s quite a success for the uncontacted tribes of this region of the world and for Survival’s aims that the reserve won’t be closed. But these incidents show us how the situation is in Peru. What is done to protect uncontacted tribes is not enough. Loggers and gold prospectors continuously invade the reserves and force the uncontacted tribes to run away.
    It is obvious that the Peruvian government cares about the problems of the indigenous peoples but it is a shame that we must wait for Survival to pull the emergency cord so that it redoubles its efforts.