Outside Pressures Threaten Isolated Amazon Cultures

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 11, 2003
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In April 2002, the government of Peru set aside more than 2 million acres (809,400 hectares) of remote jungle in the Amazon River Basin for the protection of indigenous people who live isolated from the outside world.

In theory, the reserve allows the Yora, Yine, and Amahuaca peoples to live as they have for thousands of years. They are believed to be migratory groups who survive by collecting seasonal resources, such as turtle eggs from exposed riverbanks in the dry season and Brazil nuts from trees in the forest in the rainy season.

"They are moving all of the time," said Enrique Ortiz, a program officer with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Ortiz and colleague Doug McConnell, communications 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.

While the government of Peru believes it has a responsibility to protect and promote the well being of these ancestral communities in the Peruvian Amazon, setting aside such a large swath of land for them has met resistance from other Peruvian people who make a livelihood from the country's natural resources

Eduardo Salhuana, the congressional representative for Madre de Dios region where the territorial reserve was established, said the problem is that the good intention to protect these peoples living in isolation is not in tune with the social and economic reality of the region.

"As much as we can try to enact laws, create a reserve, we run the risk of it not being respected because the local populations find a way to extract the resources from the forest," said Salhuana in an interview with Ortiz and McConnell.

Resource Pressures

Indigenous rights groups say that the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989, an agreement enacted by the United Nations (the number does not refer to a year, but rather a treatise number), gives indigenous peoples the right to control their own development and have their cultural and social values protected. Convention 169, as it is called, was entered into force by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1991 and ratified by Peru in 1994.

"In the case of isolated peoples, clearly they choose to remain in isolation and follow their own path of development," said Janet Lloyd, an anthropologist in Northumberland, England, who works with Amazon Watch, a California-based organization formed to protect indigenous peoples' rights.

Lloyd argues that the energy and timber industries seek to establish contact in order to integrate the indigenous peoples with modern society, thus freeing up the resources currently in the reserve for extraction and sale in the international market.

Currently, the greatest pressure on the people in the territorial reserve in Madre de Dios comes from loggers extracting tropical hardwoods such as mahogany. Demand for this resource is causing loggers to penetrate deep into the territorial reserve, which has resulted in violent confrontations.

"Since 1980, there has been an increase of loggers due to the wood products. They are dominating like a plague, a plague that is after the mahogany and cedar and is causing social unrest," Antonio Iviche, former president of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios Region (FENAMAD), told Oritz and McConnell. Indigenous rights activists fear that contact with the loggers could lead to the spread of devastating diseases, such as influenza. Increased settlement in the area of the reserve also puts greater pressure on the reserve's hunting and fishing resources, reducing food sources for the isolated peoples.

These same impacts are likely to be felt in the coming years as a result of exploration and production of fossil fuels, said Lloyd. A consortium of oil companies have license to extract and transport natural gas from a tract of land in the Sacred Valley (Urubamba) river basin of the remote Peruvian Amazon. The project, known as the Camisea Gas Project, is under construction.

"Fossil fuel exploration and production is the second biggest threat [in Madre de Dios]," said Lloyd. Development plans for other parts of the Amazon are currently in the initial stages and activists fear that this threat will become a reality as new concessions are created and licensed to energy companies.

Contact Missions

Indigenous rights activists also view missionaries as a threat to the uncontacted people. The missionaries feel it is their responsibility to reach these peoples in isolation and convert them to Christianity, as well as improve their living conditions.

Father Ricardo Alvarez Lobo, who runs the Dominican Mission in the town of Sepahua on the delta of the Sepahua and Urubamba rivers in Amazonian Peru, said that this Catholic mission was started in 1948 to prevent the trafficking of children.

"In this simple, human, and social way, the mission began," he told Ortiz and McConnell. "Not simply to preach Christianity, but simply as a social and humanitarian base."

The children were enslaved and sold in the cities to work on large farms and ranches. The mission, said Father Lobo, was able to successfully abolish this practice by 1957 and the rescued children were allowed to attend school at the mission.

The mission is still active today, working to contact the people he says are living in voluntary isolation, but certainly not uncontacted. Lobo believes the isolated peoples are afraid of contact and it's the role of the mission to allow them to communicate with human kind.

Another missionary group, the Pioneers from Orlando, Florida, have established a camp along the Alto Purus River not far from the new reserve in Madre de Dios. The Pioneers believe that God placed them on Earth to spread the message of the gospel to remote peoples.

Steve Richardson, director of the Pioneers, declined comment for this story but writes on the mission's Web site that "We believe that the primary task that God has called us to is ministry among Unreached Peoples—those groups remaining in the world who have the least opportunity to hear and understand the life-giving message of the Gospel."

Iviche, however, tells how contact between the missionaries and isolated indigenous peoples can be just as devastating as contact with loggers, oil, and gas companies, or others planning to extract resources from the Amazon.

His tribe was contacted when his father was a boy. The missionaries lured his people by dropping machetes from an airplane, later coming by boat and dropping clothing. At first, the indigenous people burned the clothing and accepted the machetes.

After time passed, a missionary would travel to different indigenous settlements and talk with them using people from evangelized tribes to help communicate. Eventually, the tribes were grouped into one mission.

"After they grouped them, they began to use clothes," said Iviche. "The clothing was the cause of diseases, due to the soaps and other things such as the iron, or the machete."

Iviche says his ancestors lasted in the mission for four or five years. "After that they disintegrated because the elders started dying," he said. "Like an epidemic, both kids and older people were dying." Iviche says that the population of the villages went from 30,000 to 1,500.

Note: National Geographic Today airs the second in 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.

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