Oil Exploration in Amazon Threatens "Unseen" Tribes

Kelly Hearn in Jose Olaya, Peru
for National Geographic News
March 21, 2008

Driving along an oil company road in Peru's northern Amazon, Patricio Pinola Chuje looked out the window. He nodded beyond a green wall of rain forest.

"I don't know if they are in this area, but I know they are farther south in other places," said Pinola, an Achuar Indian. "They come out by the rivers."

"They" refers to unseen Amazon Indian tribes said to live in voluntary isolation in the western headwaters of the Amazon in Peru and Ecuador.

Global energy prices have fueled oil and gas booms across oil-laden Amazonian lands. But supporters of native groups say the boom is a bust for remote Amazon Indians, who suffer both physically and socially when exposed to the modern world.

"Isolated Indians are especially vulnerable to any contact, because they have no immunity to outsiders' diseases," said David Hill, a spokesperson for Survival International, a London-based group that defends the rights of uncontacted tribes.

Other groups add that Indians' rights to their traditional lands are increasingly being violated by development-hungry governments.

Now civic groups and native organizations are pushing governments and the courts to rein in oil development. In December, a coalition of groups announced it would petition the Organization of American States to protect the Cacataibo, said to be the last uncontacted tribe in the central Peruvian rain forest.

Meanwhile, complicating an otherwise typical development clash, Peruvian officials have publicly asked: Do unseen natives really exist?

"It is like the Loch Ness monster," Cecilia Quiroz, lead counsel of Peru's oil and gas leasing agency, told The Washington Post in July.

"Everyone seems to have seen or heard about uncontacted peoples, but there is no evidence."

How Many "Unseen" Tribes Are There?

Guevara Sandi Chimboras, an Achuar Indian environmental monitor, wipes sweat from his cheeks in the sweltering heat of an Amazon afternoon, not far from the Ecuadorian border.

Continued on Next Page >>


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