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Peru: Isolated Amazon Tribes Threatened By Logging

by Danielle KnightInter Press Service
January 28th, 2000

WASHINGTON -- The survival of four indigenous tribes of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest -- who have decided to live in voluntary isolation -- is being threatened by commercial logging, warned indigenous leaders who traveled here this week from the South American country.

Dressed in traditional robes, multicolored feathered headdresses and beaded necklaces, the tribal leaders told environmental organisations here Friday that the government of Peru is in the process of granting large logging concessions to foreign and domestic companies in the southeastern state of Madre de Dios, where these tribes live.

They warned that allowing logging and other companies into this area threatens to end the Mashco-Piros, Amahuaca, Yaminahuas, and Yora tribes' way of life and culture, which could possibly even become extinct, as has happened to other previously uncontacted groups in the Amazon.

The tribes -- which have refused all contact with the modern world -- will be exposed to new diseases and face the destruction of their environment if logging companies move into the biologically-rich area, said Jeremias Sebastian, a representative from the indigenous community of Monte Salvado, located in Madre de Dios.

"Hundreds of years ago, when the Spanish came, they took away our rights as indigenous people and now today the big logging companies are taking away indigenous rights," said Sebastian, one of the few individuals to have come across the tribes living in isolation.

Natural resource exploitation and colonisation has led to the deaths of many indigenous people previously living in isolation in the Peruvian Amazon, said Antonio Iviche, president of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios Region (FENAMAD), the regional indigenous organisation.

The Kugapakori-Nahuas and the Yora tribes lost more than half of their population to violent confrontations and simple diseases like the flu as a result of contact with loggers and oil workers, he said.

"This is why tribes have isolated themselves; they don't want to disappear," said Iviche.

The current controversy over the logging concessions started in July 1998 when the local government office of the Ministry of Agriculture illegally granted licenses for timber extraction outside of its district in regions inhabited by the isolated tribes, explained Lily la Torre Lopez, a lawyer from Peru who works closely with FENAMAD.

The Tahuamanu Forest Industrial Company and the Mississippi-based Newman Lumber Company had been given logging concessions to cut down cedar and mahogany, she said.

After FENAMAD brought this to the public's attention, the federal government began an investigation and prohibited logging in the area.

Indigenous groups demanded the government declare this area where the tribes are living "off-limits" or "untouchable."

About 10 kilometres of unauthorized dirt logging roads have been cleared, said Iviche, who feared this would open up the area to small-scale miners, oil companies, and other resource exploitation.

In September, the office of Agriculture in Madre de Dios told FENAMAD that the area declared to be territory of the isolated tribes overlapped with the area approved by the Peruvian Institute for Natural Resources as a "Forest Extraction Zone."

In response to the growing threat of logging operations, FENAMAD intensified their campaign to defend the land through networking with national and international organisations and institutions.

The Peruvian government is now in the process of granting final approval for logging in the area, according to Torre Lopez.

"We find ourselves in a very crucial moment," she said.

The leaders said they hoped they would be as successful as FENAMAD was in 1996, when it effectively pressured the government to cancel a contract it made with a consortium led by Mobil oil to explore for crude in the area.

Asked why she did not land rights issues up within the court system, Torre Lopez replied flatly that the justice system of Peru is corrupt.

"It would be a lost cause," she said. "This is why indigenous people have chosen instead to fight through organizing and pressuring the government directly.

During their visit here, the indigenous leaders plan to meet with officials from the US State Department, the World Bank, the Inter-American Bank (IDB), and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organisation of American States (OAS).

The IDB funded a demarcation project to be carried out by the federal government and indigenous groups. The zoning would assess which areas would be off-limits to resource extraction and which would be protected reserves, said Wray Perez Ramirez, director of the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Amazon, the largest national indigenous organisation in Peru.

While the project was praised for its attempt to address various tribes' concerns, Torre Lopez said the project is "basically bogged down in bureaucracy in Lima."

The World Bank is coordinating a similar project priced at 10 million dollars. It attempts to establish five protected areas for tribes that would be co-managed by both indigenous groups and the government.

While supporting these efforts, Sebastian criticised past government efforts to demarcate and protect land.

He said that although the federal government has set aside national parks, like nearby Manu National Park, indigenous communities who had lived there for centuries were denied access to the land.

"It was once our ancestral land, but now the tourists can go in and we cannot," he said.

After meeting with institutions in Washington, the tribal leaders will travel next week to the United Nations headquarters in New York.

"It is very important for people from other countries to pressure the Peruvian government so that they are more likely to listen to us and guarantee the survival of these uncontacted tribes," added Iviche.





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