Rights Groups Urge Peru to Protect Isolated Peoples

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 14, 2003

Tensions are high deep in the Peruvian Amazon where thousands of desperate farmers from high in the Andes mountains have descended to scratch out a living by logging Earth's last remaining stands of pristine mahogany.

The area is believed to be home for several hundred indigenous people who have chosen to live exactly as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. Now the presence of the loggers may force them into unwanted contact and potentially lead to their demise.

The isolated peoples have little resistance to common illnesses like the flu, which have killed thousands of indigenous peoples since contact began with the Europeans in the 1500s. For their own survival, those still alive have retreated deeper and deeper into the Amazon.

"With all the development needs of society and government plans including roads, including oil development [and] hunger for wood, mainly mahogany, you have people entering and looking to the most isolated parts of the continent," said Enrique Ortiz, a 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 living in isolation from the outside world.

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

But the law, say the activists, is not being enforced and the isolated peoples' way of life is threatened with extinction by contact with loggers going after the last remaining stands of pristine mahogany for sale as luxury furniture in the United States, Asia, and Europe.

Growing Conflict

In August 2002, when Ortiz and McConnell went to the region of Madre de Dios in the Peruvian Amazon to film their series, tensions between the loggers, Peruvian government, and activists speaking on behalf of the isolated peoples were beginning to boil.

The government had dispatched the National Guard to the region to evict illegal loggers from the territorial reserve, but the loggers refused to leave. In a fit of rage, the loggers burned government buildings to the ground. Today, the gentleman who led the protest, Rafael Rios Lopez, is governor of Madre de Dios and tensions remain high.

"The area is in a crisis," said Ari Hershowitz, director of Save the Biogems Project for Latin America at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. "Representatives of logging companies have forced their way into politics and have won positions in local government and are promoting the logging companies' interests over the interests of the uncontacted people in the forests," he said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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