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.

This sets a dangerous precedent, said David Rothschild, co-director of Amazon Alliance, an indigenous rights group in Washington, D.C. When large-scale logging companies are given a concession in the forest, it opens the area for access and encourages permanent settlements.

At a minimum, settlements introduce diseases that isolated peoples have no resistance to. Settlers are likely to force indigenous peoples into contact situations as they begin to compete for resources and land, said Rothschild.

"Even if a logging company has what they call minimal impact, the long-term impact can be huge," he said. "It is very often the pattern in the Amazon region that the new areas settled are settled because some extractive industry has built roads to get something out. In the case of Madre de Dios, it is the logging."

Hershowitz says the only reason the isolated peoples have so far avoided contact is that they are living in the most remote areas of the Amazon. "Large industrial operations and farmers have not been able to reach those areas," he said.

Call for Protection

Indigenous rights activists and conservationists are calling on the Peruvian government and international community to act now to save the isolated peoples from unwanted contact and their potential extinction.

One step the government of Peru can take immediately, said Hershowitz, is to allow old logging concessions in Madre de Dios to lapse at the end of March and adopt a system established under a new forestry law that favors small logging associations with stringent management plans and proper regulation.

The loggers support the old concessions, which allow them to access areas near the reserve and use them as cover to log illegally inside the reserve, according Hershowitz. Loggers are currently pushing the government to extend the old concessions past their March 31 expiration date.

"Key to any progress in protecting these areas is to let the old concessions lapse," said Hershowitz.

Activists and conservationists are also calling on the U.S. government to actively enforce mahogany trade regulations passed at the November 2002 meeting on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Santiago, Chile.

The member nations to the convention, which include the U.S., raised big-leaf mahogany protections to the convention's Appendix II, a statute ensuring mahogany is logged sustainably.

An official with the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., said that the new protections under CITES give the U.S. government the ability to ensure that the mahogany coming into the U.S. is logged in a legal and sustainable manner.

The U.S. government is also training the Peruvian government in the use of tools to enforce laws that prohibit illegal logging, including the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) remote sensing technologies that show where illegal logging takes place.

The problem, according to a U.S. State Department official who spent 10 years working on the issue of illegal logging and spoke on a condition of anonymity, is that "forest managers were like alcoholics. They couldn't admit they had a problem with illegal logging."

New initiatives are starting to have some impact. But if forestry managers do not recognize that there is a problem, they cannot ask for help with it. Now that new statistics and data are pointing to the problem, the first steps to stop it are being taken, the State Department official said.

In an interview with Ortiz and McConnell, Victor Presha, president of the Native Federation of Madre de Dios River and Territories, a Peru-based indigenous rights group that works for the protection of the peoples living in isolation, issued a plea for international support.

"What we ask for is that the world give a recommendation to our government, the Peruvian government, so that it shows more interest, more willingness, in defending the rights of the native Amazon communities who are in voluntary isolation because it's life's right."

Note: National Geographic Today airs the final episode of a five-part series today on the plight of peoples living in isolation in the Peruvian Amazon. The series was produced by Doug McConnell and Enrique Ortiz of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which is headquartered in San Francisco, California. For more information on the series and the National Geographic Channel,

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