Loggers vs. "Invisible" Tribes: Secret War in Amazon?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 12, 2003

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East of the Andes Mountains, deep in the Amazon River Basin in the southeastern region of Peru known as Madre de Dios, loggers congregate in the village of Monte Salvado. The loggers come from throughout the region to Madre de Dios to extract mahogany from the forests.

Close to the village of Monte Salvado, across the Las Piedras River, lies a newly-created reserve for indigenous people. Anthropologists believe these indigenous people are living in voluntary isolation from the rest of the world. Though they may know the outside world exists, they want nothing to do with it.

After a six-year campaign by indigenous rights activists, the government of Peru established the reserve in April 2002 for the protection of these peoples. The reserve encompasses more than two million acres (810,000 hectares) and by law is closed to resource extraction.

"But a lot of people are invading this area, they are going against the law and cutting as much as they can, as fast as they can, and they are getting into the area of uncontacted Indians," said Enrique Ortiz, an expert in rainforest management and senior program officer with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Ortiz and colleague Doug McConnell, communication director at the foundation's San Francisco, California headquarters, produced a five-part series currently airing on National Geographic Today about the plight of these people who live isolated from the outside world.

The greatest pressure the isolated peoples face is from the loggers who have come to Madre de Dios to extract mahogany from the forests. Recent encounters between loggers and the isolated peoples have resulted in violence.

Environmentalists and indigenous rights activists say that if the government does not step in and actively enforce protection of the reserve, the isolated peoples will meet certain death. They are at risk to disease that their immune systems cannot fight as well as mortal injury from the loggers.

Unspoken Conflict

Some loggers argue that there is no need for enforcement of the reserve because they doubt the isolated peoples exist. Alan Schipper, a forestry engineer for a logging company in Puerto Maldonado, expressed this doubt in an interview with Ortiz and McConnell.

"To see is to believe. I do not have any evidence. No one has come to me and said, 'Hey, I saw them.' But since I am in forestry, I have ample knowledge of the forest and the world and they may exist," he said. "Inside me there is doubt, but they may exist."

Wilson Miranda is president of the Association of Small Loggers of Tambopata (APEFOT), the group negotiating a truce between the isolated peoples and the loggers. He told Ortiz and McConnell that it is in the best interest of loggers to deny the existence of the isolated peoples despite evidence of several recent encounters.

Continued on Next Page >>


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