December News: Saweto at Climate Conference, Plotkin TED talk, Alto Purús Resource Use Studies

December 2014

COP foto

Leaders from the Asheninka communities of Saweto, Peru and Apiwxta, Brazil hold a press conference during the UN climate change conference in Lima demanding justice for the murder of four Asheninka leaders by illegal loggers in September. Julia Pérez and Ergilia Rengifo are the widows of Jorge Rios Pérez and Edwin Chota, and Diana Rios is the son of Pérez. The women are supported by Isaac Pikayo and Francisco Piyako, leaders from the neighboring Brazilian community of Apiwtxa (Photo: Martin Mejia, AP)

For links to articles related to Saweto and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change currently taking place in Lima, click here.


“The greatest and most endangered species in the Amazon rainforest is not the jaguar or the harpy eagle,” says Mark Plotkin, “It’s the isolated and uncontacted tribes.” In an energetic and sobering talk, the ethnobotanist brings us into the world of the forest’s indigenous tribes and the incredible medicinal plants that their shamans use to heal. He outlines the challenges and perils that are endangering them — and their wisdom — and urges us to protect this irreplaceable repository of knowledge.

Click here for full screen version of Plotkin’s 16 minute talk. 

University of Texas PhD student and former Upper Amazon Conservancy researcher, Aaron Groth, successfully defended his Masters Thesis on the impacts on Mahogany logging on Alto Purús indigenous communities.  “Social and Environmental Impacts of Big-Leaf Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) on Peruvian indigenous communities.”

Previous to his Master’s research in 2010, Groth spent several months in the Alto Purús collecting data on how local communities use their forest resources.  The three-year study included four communities of three ethnicities: Monterrey (of the Yine ethnicity) and Laureano (of the Amahuaca ethnicity) on the Purús River, and the Juni Kuin (Cashinahua) communities of Balta and Santa Rey on the Curanja River.  The studies were led by Upper Amazon Conservancy and ProPurús with active participation from communities members.

A draft of the study is available here: Evaluación del Uso de los Recursos Naturales en Cuatro Comunidades Nativas de la Provincia de Purús, Ucayali, 2009 – 2011.


Amahuaca villagers on the Alto Purús River with eggs from the Yellow-Spotted Side-neck Turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) (A. Groth).

Saweto Receives Soros Foundation Award for Environmental Activism

November 2014

Diana and Soros

Diana Ríos Rengifo and Alexander Soros in New York City, November 17, 2014 (D. Salisbury)

Diana Ríos Rengifo, 21, gave a stirring speech to the human rights and environmental advocates who cheered her acceptance of the Alexander Soros Foundation’s Environmental Activism award on behalf of her community of Saweto and the four assassinated leaders: Edwin Chota, Leoncio Meléndez, Francisco Pinedo, and her father, Jorge Ríos. For her part, Diana presented Alexander Soros with a necklace from her Ashéninka people, and invited him to the community when he comes to South America in April. Diana also shared her resolve to continue fighting for title to her lands, and her continued worries for the safety of her people given she believes at least 10 other killers continue at large beyond the two men in jail who have formally been accused.

Prior to the ceremony, NGO Global Witness released a groundbreaking report, Peru’s Deadly Environment, that sheds light on the murders of environmental activists in Peru over the last decade. The findings call into question the commitment of Peru, which will host international climate talks in less than a month, to protect its forests – and those who have called them home for generations – from mining, logging, oil exploration and infrastructure development.

The event included the screening of a documentary about the life of last year’s award winner, Cambodian anti-logging activist Chut Wutty, who lost his life defending the Prey Lang forest community.  The event also showed a 7 minute film by Handcrafted Films of Edwin Chota, Saweto, and the Ashenínka of the Tamaya River basin’s efforts to defend their forest from illegal loggers. UAC/ProPurús assisted Handcrafted in this second film, and ProPurús Coordiantor Jose Borgo Vasquez is interviewed about his work with the Ashenínka of the Tamaya River in their fight against illegal logging and for legal recognition of their homelands.

November 17 Press:

New York Times on Soros award to Saweto (Andrew Revkin) on Soros award to Saweto (Madrid, Spain)

El Comercio on Global Witness Report (Lima, Peru)

 Other Links: 

Saweto’s new website

September murders of Saweto leaders

Saweto’s 10 year struggle to secure land title




New Alliance Created to Protect the Alto Purús

October 2014:

UAC and ProPurús have initiated a new project to prevent illegal activities and promote sustainable resource use on the La Novia River, a tributary of the Alto Purús River near the town of Puerto Esperanza. The project’s primary objective is to create a working alliance between the Conta indigenous community, the Mabosinfrom conservation concession, and the Purús Communal Reserve which is administered by Peru’s protected areas agency, Sernanp. It is a unique opportunity to bring together these diverse stakeholders to create the region’s first-ever indigenous-mestizo (non-indigenous) conservation alliance with the goal of protecting one of the most threatened parts of the greater Alto Purús region.


Pernambuco Lake located within the Conta indigenous community.

In October, partners convened to discuss the new alliance and elect a leadership committee. To mark the beginning of the project, ProPurus staff, community members, and guards from the Communal Reserve released several hundred yellow-spotted sideneck turtle hatchlings (Podocnemis unifilis), locally called Taricaya, into Conta’s Pernambuco Lake. The hatchlings came from eggs collected in the Alto Purús River and transported to artificial beaches at Reserve headquarters in order to be protected from unsustainable collecting. Among the project’s objectives are to re-establish healthy populations of Taricaya in Pernambuco while sustainably managing common fish species as a source of both food and income for the people of Conta.

Other project objectives include training and equipping Alliance members to conduct regular patrols along the river to prevent illegal activities and to monitor threatened species. The Alliance will initiate a publicity campaign in Puerto Esperanza to educate people on resource use regulations in the La Novia region and engage local people in new Alliance-led conservation activities. Funding for the project is being provided by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders Latin America and Caribbean program.


Members of the new La Novia Alliance releasing Taricaya turtle hatchlings into Pernambuco Lake.

Peru Promises to Title Saweto in Response to the Murders

September 2014:

visita-primera-dama-a-saweto-1024x601 2

Peru’s Prime Minister visits Saweto (Source PCM).

After several weeks of silence, Peru’s government is finally responding to the tragic and senseless murders of four leaders from the Ashéninka community of Alto Tamaya-Saweto on September 1st. Last week, a large committee of senior government officials, led by Peru’s Prime Minister, Ana Jara, traveled in helicopters from the city of Pucallpa to Saweto to meet with the villagers and discuss their needs in the wake of losing four leaders, including their chief, Edwin Chota. The commission included Ministers and Vice Ministers from various government agencies including Education, Housing, the Interior, the Environment, Health, Women and Vulnerable Populations, as well as the Executive Director of Peru’s new Forestry Agency, SERFOR.

After touring the community and murder site and holding a community assembly in the schoolhouse, the authorities pledged to post a special unit of police officers in the community to protect them from illegal loggers and narcotic traffickers that use the surrounding forest. Officials also committed to investing in improvements for the dilapidated school and abandoned health post. More importantly, they promised to help the community obtain legal title to their homelands.

For the past decade, the community, led by Chota, has been fighting against loggers, as well as the regional government of Ucayali, for legal recognition of their land rights. The government has repeatedly rejected Saweto’s request for title, including a formal comprehensive petition submitted earlier this year with the help of UAC and ProPurús. The government has argued that the lands around Saweto could not be titled due to the presence of two timber concessions overlapping the community’s lands. However, the same government’s titling agency clarified in the formal petition that the concessions were created illegally, because the community was located there, and officially recognized by the government, at the time the concessions were granted. Furthermore, Chota had repeatedly documented widespread illegal logging inside the concessions. It was this struggle against Ucayali’s powerful logging mafia to stop illegal logging near Saweto that cost Chota his life, along with Francisco Pinedo Ramirez, Jorge Rios Perez, and Leoncio Quintisima Melendez.

Community leaders present their demands to the government commission (Source PCM).

Community leaders present their demands to the government commission (Source PCM).

As a result of the Ucayali unwillingness to prevent illegal logging on the Alto Tamaya River, as well as their egregious mismanagement of Saweto’s titling petition, Peru’s Prime Minister immediately transferred Saweto’s case to the central government in Lima. In addition, Minister Jara promised to create a new government commission to study illegal logging in the Alto Tamaya region and its social and environmental impacts.

We are hopeful that these bold promises will finally result in tangible progress, and eventually fulfill Edwin Chota’s dream of titling Saweto so that his people can lead safe and productive lives.



September 24, Peru’s forestry director admits that Saweto should have been granted title last year

September 25, two suspects have been arrested for the Saweto murders.



Murder in the Peruvian Rainforest

September 9, 2014:

Last week, Edwin Chota, leader of the Asheninka community of Saweto, was murdered along with Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quinticima Melendez, and Francisco Pinedo as they traveled on a forest trail to attend a meeting in the Brazilian community ofApiwtxa. The men had spent over a decade fighting to title Saweto, and they were killed just days after a visit from Peruvian forestry officials to document continued illegal logging on their lands.

Edwin Chota, bottom right, and Jorge Rios, bottom right, with ProPurus staff displaying a banner to mark their territory.

Edwin Chota, bottom right, and Jorge Rios, bottom right, with ProPurus staff displaying a banner to mark their territory.

We are working with the widows and family members of the four slain leaders to ensure that the government conducts a full investigation and the perpetrators are brought to justice. We look forward to working together with all of Saweto’s friends and supporters to carry on Edwin’s legacy of protecting the forest and securing legal recognition of Saweto’s homelands. 

Please see the attached press release for more details.

In English

En Espanol

Isolated Tribe Village Documented for the First Time In Peru’s Alto Purús Region

September 2014:


Abandoned village of isolated indigenous people in the Purús Communal Reserve (Source: Purús Communal Reserve).

Two clusters of houses used by isolated indigenous tribes have been discovered inside the Purús Communal Reserve. The tribes were known to live in the region, as members are occasionally seen during the dry season when they travel from the remote headwaters to the larger rivers to collect turtle eggs. This is the first evidence, however, that they live in semi-permanent villages, providing invaluable information on their territory and land use needed to develop effective plans for their protection. The Purús Communal Reserve serves as a buffer zone between the Alto Purús National Park and an area of settled indigenous communities on the Purús River (see map).

The two small villages are separated by approximately 200 meters and are located on hilltops, perhaps as a defense strategy. The first village appeared abandoned while the second is active and includes a large garden with banana trees and corn among other crops.


Isolated tribe village and recently cleared garden inside the Purús Communal Reserve (Source: Purús Communal Reserve).

They were discovered in late August during an overflight organized by the Vice-ministry of Interculturality of Peru’s Ministry of Culture (Peru’s agency in charge of protecting isolated tribes) and in coordination with the Public Ministry, the Ministry of Interior, and the National Service of Protected Natural Areas (Sernanp). UAC’s sister organization, ProPurús, provided technical support during the flight.

In June, a group of previously isolated people initiated contact with an indigenous community on Brazil’s Envira River. The objective of this overflight was to document illegal activities in response to the theory that the tribespeople had come from Peru and initiated contact in order to avoid continued violence with drug smugglers. In addition to the Purús Communal Reserve, the overflight covered remote rivers inside the Alto Purús National Park and the Murunahua Territorial Reserve for Isolated Tribes. Isolated tribes living in these protected areas continue to be impacted not only by drug trafficking but illegal logging, oil and gas exploration, and road construction. UAC and ProPurús are working with the Peru government, indigenous organizations, and NGO’s on both sides of the Peru – Brazil border to develop and implement protection plans for the region, considered the largest contiguous territory for isolated tribes anywhere on the planet.

UAC Responds to Isolated Tribes Crisis

August 2014:

UAC and its sister organization, ProPurús, are implementing emergency contingency plans in response to the previously isolated tribe initiating contact with villagers on the Envira River near the Brazil – Peru border. Twenty-four members of the tribe have chosen to stay and live near the village, at least for now. The rest have returned to the forest.

Earlier this month, ProPurús staff led a team of isolated tribes experts from Peru’s Ministry of Culture to the Yurua River, located near the Envira, to conduct emergency training for local villagers on how to react if similar contact events happen there. Peru hopes to learn from errors made during the Envira contact, when seven tribespeople became sick. Fortunately, Brazil’s isolated tribes agency, FUNAI, responded by sending a team of doctors and anthropologists to provide medicine and provide leadership to the villagers. However, sensitive information about the contact was publicized on the internet, resulting in an onslaught of media attention. Last week, English television reporters conducted an unauthorized overflight to film an isolated tribe village near the Yurua on the Peruvian side of the border. We can only guess how these intrusions impact the tribes.

A shelter made by isolated people near the Envira River (Chris Fagan, UAC).

A shelter made by isolated people near the Envira River (Chris Fagan, 2008).

After years of limited collaboration, in March, FUNAI and Peru’s Ministry of Culture signed an agreement to work together on protecting the rights of isolated tribes along the border. Obviously, the tribes do not recognize international borders, thus effective collaboration between the two countries is imperative.

Over the past year, UAC / ProPurús has been working closely with the Ministry to assess threats and the presence of isolated tribes in and around the Yurua River and the Murunahua Territorial Reserve. While illegal mahogany logging has been reduced significantly, drug smugglers are still active in the area. In fact, two years ago smugglers took over a FUNAI post on the Envira, very close to the recent contact event, and unfortunately were not removed by the Brazil government. The Envira tribe explained to interpreters that they decided to leave the forest due to fighting with “white people” who experts believe are smugglers. UAC has been documenting illegal logging and drug smuggling near the Envira for the past decade, including this 2010 report.

Last week, ProPurús participated in an emergency meeting in Acre, Brazil hosted by conservation and indigenous rights organization Comissao Pro Indio Do Acre (CPI – Acre). Participants included indigenous leaders and isolated tribes experts from the Acre government. The purpose was to convene experts to share information and design a bi-national protection plan for protecting the Ucayali – Acre borderlands and the people who live there, both settled villagers and isolated tribes alike.

See recent news on the Envira contact

Complejo Purús

Alto Purús is most important protected area for carbon storage in Peru

A new study by Stanford University found that the forests of the Alto Purús National Park store more carbon than any other protected area in Peru. The groundbreaking report, complete with high-resolution 3-D maps, provides a new way for Peru to fight climate change. Long recognized for its critical role in protecting Amazonian fauna and flora, as well as some of the world’s last isolated tribes, the study highlights the Park’s importance as a carbon sink.


By quantifying carbon storage in vegetation throughout the entire country, the maps provide a tool for prioritizing strategies for preventing deforestation and slowing climate change. The results of the two-year study will become particularly important in negotiating prices for carbon offset projects. A limiting factor to such projects has been accurately estimating how much carbon is stored in the vegetation. These maps enable Peru to put a monetary value on its forests which is needed to secure  investments in carbon offset and REDD+SES projects in carbon rich areas like the Alto Purús.

The study shows that Peru’s largest state, Loreto, holds the largest amount of stored carbon, 52%, while the Alto Purús National Park holds more carbon than any other protected area. Preventing deforestation in the Alto Purús should thus be an integral part of Peru’s–and the world’s–strategies for fighting climate change.

See full report and maps here.

Meanwhile, members of indigenous communities located outside the Alto Purús Park are already taking action to respond to climate change. In June, representatives from the 24 communities along the Alto Purús River convened in Puerto Esperanza to sign the first ever “Native Communities of the Alto Purús Declaration on Climate Change”. The declaration was signed during the region’s first-ever workshop on local impacts of climate change. The workshop was sponsored by The University of Richmond, The National University of Ucayali, and UAC’s sister organization, ProPurús.

In related news, a separate study recently found that 95% of  Amazon deforestation happens near roads or major rivers. This highlights the impact that the Alto Purús – Iñapari Highway proposal could potentially have on not only the forests and inhabitants of the Alto Purús, but for Peru’s and the world’s fight against climate change.

New video of recent contact event on the Envira River

July 2014:

Brazil released a video documenting the contact event between a formerly isolated tribe and villagers on the Envira River.

See video here

The tribe explained that they had come from across the border in the Alto Purús National Park and had suffered attacked from armed non-indigenous people, most likely narcotic traffickers. Several tribesman have machetes, indicating previous contact with people with access to manufactured goods. Several members of the group were treated for the flu. It is not known whether it spread to the rest of the tribe. With no immunity to illnesses from the outside world, these contact events often result in devastating epidemics.  Additional information available here.

Members of the tribe on the Envira River (FUNAI).

Members of the tribe on the Envira River (FUNAI).


Isolated Tribe Initiates Contact with Villagers near Peru-Brazil Border

July 21, 2014:

Update: Members of the tribe that initiated contact with villagers on Brazil’s Envira River contracted influenza during contact. They were treated by FUNAI medical personnel and have since rejoined the rest of their tribe in the forest. FUNAI reports that the tribe sought contact to escape recent violent attacks by narcotic traffickers who use these remote borderlands to transport coca paste from Peru to Brazil.  See Survival International’s website for more information.

See UAC’s original post from July 15th below.

July 15, 2014:

In June, a tribe of voluntarily isolated people, also referred to as “uncontacteds,” emerged from the forest and entered a remote Ashaninka indigenous village on Brazil’s Envira River. The group of approximately 60 men, women, and children approached the village peacefully. The Envira is across the border from Peru’s Alto Purús region, where UAC has been working to protect isolated tribes for the past decade. This incident on the Envira highlights a recent increase in encounters between isolated tribes and villagers in these extremely remote borderlands.

Complejo Purús_EnviraBrazil’s agency in charge of isolated groups, FUNAI, immediately responded by sending a commission of translators, health workers, and experts in isolated tribes to assist the villagers and carry out a contingency plan for such incidences of contact in order to prevent any transmission of disease or violence. Since then, the tribe has remained in the area and expressed a desire to end their isolation. This is the first contact initiated by isolated tribes in Acre, Brazil since 1996.

Isolated tribe photographed near the Envira in 2010 (Gleison Miranda / FUNAI / Survival International).

Isolated tribe photographed near the Envira River in 2010 (Gleison Miranda / FUNAI / Survival International).

It is believed that most tribes in isolation have had at least some contact with the outside world. The type of contact could range from verbal communication with villagers from across a river, or the tribe raiding an empty village or logging camp for manufactured items. Some may even have trade relations with other semi-isolated groups that have sporadic contact with the outside world. Most have acquired some manufactured items, such as machetes and metal pots, and seek contact when they need new ones. These tools give them a considerable advantage over other rival isolated groups without such items. In fact, the group on the Envira carried a shotgun. It is not known whether they have ammunition or know how to use it.

Experts are speculating on why the Envira group may have chosen to end their isolation. Some blame illegal logging across the border in Peru’s Alto Purús National Park and Murunahua Territorial Reserve for Isolated Tribes, which could have forced the tribes to flee into Brazil. However, recent river investigations and overflights conducted by UAC and its Peruvian sister organization, ProPurús, found a decrease in illegal logging in these protected areas. Stricter enforcement of regulations related to Mahogany exports have reduced the demand for illegal timber.

Unfortunately, narcotic traffickers are still active in the more remote areas of the Peru – Brazil borderlands, in the exact areas where the isolated tribes live. It is quite possible that the tribes have been forced to change their migratory routes or leave certain watersheds altogether in order to avoid conflicts with the smugglers who are always heavily armed.

While Brazil’s response to the Envira situation should be commended, the future of these tribes depend on both Brazil and Peru’s ability to prepare villagers living in areas with isolated tribes to avoid direct contact, and for the government to respond immediately with contingency plans when the next contact occurs. Entire tribes have been wiped out by common illnesses, and misunderstandings and fear from both the villagers and tribes often leads to violence.

Within the past few days, two different isolated groups have appeared near villages on the Alto Purús River. Neither tribe initiated contact, however, and returned to the forest without communicating with the villagers.

UAC is working with Peru’s park service, ministry of culture, and indigenous federations to protect the isolated tribes living in and around the Alto Purús. In May, we completed a comprehensive assessment of threats and the status of isolated tribes in the Murunahua Territorial Reserve. Results are being used to develop the Reserve’s first ever protection plan.


FUNAI press release

 Article in Science

Camps made by tribes across the border in Peru (C. Fagan, UAC, 2008).

Shelters made by an isolated tribe on the Curanja River, Peru (C. Fagan, UAC, 2008).

Possessions of an isolated tribesman left behind after an encounter with villagers on the Yurua River, Peru. The bag was sewn from clothing taken from the  village during an encounter the previous year (C. Fagan, UAC, 2014).

Possessions of an isolated tribesman left behind after an encounter with villagers on the Yurua River, Peru. The bag was sewn from clothing taken from the village during an encounter the previous year (C. Fagan, UAC, 2014).

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