Leaving the Forest: Recent Encounters with Isolated Tribes in Southeastern Peru

August 2013:

In three separate instances in June and July, members of the Mashco-Piro tribe left the forest’s interior and appeared near communities outside the Alto Purús and Manu National Parks. Other than some initial displays of aggression, they acted peacefully and left after a few days, taking with them crops from the community gardens and metal tools and other manufactured goods from the villagers’ houses.

Members of the Mashco Piro isolated tribe near Manu National Park in 2012 (Photo: D. Cortijo / Survival International).

Members of the Mashco Piro isolated tribe near Manu National Park in 2012                (D. Cortijo / Survival International).

The Mashco-Piro are Peru’s largest tribe of indigenous people living in voluntary isolation, also referred to as “uncontacteds,” and total perhaps as many as 1,000 people. They live in smaller familial clans in remote headwater streams and historically have avoided contact with outsiders, choosing to remain hidden in the forest. Occasionally they are seen during the dry season when they visit the larger rivers in search of turtle eggs and other resources. Experts believe they have chosen isolation in order to avoid the horrible violence and devastating epidemics that have resulted from previous contact with outsiders, particularly during the rubber boom 100 years ago.

What is not clear, however, is why they are appearing near populated areas with more frequency over the past few years.

“One possible reason for their appearance is their frustration with the dramatic increase in turtle egg collection in their territory by local villagers and commercial collectors who travel several days from towns located downstream,” says Arsenio Calle, director of the Alto Purús Park. Isolated tribes throughout the Amazon depend on the eggs of aquatic turtles for their survival during the dry season when resources are scarce.

Isolated tribes expert, Beatriz Huertas, agrees with Calle. “The constant presence of the isolated tribes could be to show their anger that other people are stealing resources that they consider vital to their survival. They feel threatened.”

Accounts of the three encounters over the past few months support Calle and Huertas’ theory.  They also indicate that the tribes desire for food and metal and other manufactured tools and goods may have grown greater than their fear of outsiders; however the real reason is anyone’s guess. Regardless, UAC will continue to work with Park guards and local villagers to prevent overexploitation of turtle nests on beaches used by the Mashco-Piro during the dry season, and control access to more remote areas where they are known to live. Our hope is that the Mashco-Piro will choose to leave the forest on their own terms and not be forced out due to scarcity of resources or illegal activities in their territory.

 

 

Alto Purús National Park control post, Alto Purús River. The kitchen was broken into by Mashco Piro tribesmen in July 2013 (Photo: UAC 2013).

Alto Purús National Park control post, Alto Purús River. The kitchen was broken into by Mashco Piro tribesmen in July 2013 (ProPúrus).

Alto Purús

In July, a group of Mashco-Piro broke into an Alto Purús National Park control post near the community of Monterrey on the Alto Purús River. They stayed for two days eating yucca and plantains from the post’s small garden but quickly disappeared into the forestwhen the guards returned, taking with them pots, spoons and machetes.  According to park guard Ernesto Meléndez, “they are the same Mashco-Piro who come here every year to collect turtle eggs. However, this is the first time they have broken into the control post.”

 

Las Piedras

In June, more than 100 Mashco-Piro men, women and children appeared at the community of Monte Salvado on the Las Piedras River close to the border of the Mashco-Piro Territorial Reserve. Unlike the encounter on the Alto Purús where the Mascho-Piro left immediately upon seeing the guards, the group in Monte Salvado stayed for three days and showed no fear of the villagers.

In fact, on several occasions the group made attempts to cross the river and enter the community but the villagers were able to persuade them not to by pushing canoes filled with food across the river. The villagers are members of the Yine tribe, also called Piro. They were able to communicate with the tribe in broken Piro, which helped diffuse the initial tension and aggressive behavior shown by the Mashco-Piro. “It is not strange that they appeared on the Las Piedras,” said Huertas. “What is strange is how close they came to Monte Salvado.”

Click here to see remarkable footage of the encounter.

Yurua

Shelters made by isolated hunters and gatherers on the upper Yurua River

Shelters made by isolated people on the upper Yurua River in March 2013 (ProPurús).

A third encounter occurred on the northern side of the Alto Purús Park on the Yurua River in the small community of Selva Virgen.

A group of approximately 100 Mashco-Piro entered the community and made aggressive gestures with their spears and arrows towards the villagers who fled to the other side of the river. One of the villagers spoke a few words of Piro and began to communicate with the tribe, at which point they put down their weapons and acted peacefully. They stayed for four days eating peanuts, sugar cane and squash and left with machetes, spoons, a mosquito net and some clothing.

It is possible that this was the same group documented by ProPurús and park guards in March 2013 during a monitoring patrol.

 

 

Corruption and Bribes Behind Purús Highway Bill According to Report

An illegal road and mahogany logging near the Alto Purús Park

An illegal road and mahogany logging near the Alto Purús Park (Photo: UAC)

 

May 2013:

A recent investigation by Global Witness uncovered widespread government corruption, bribery and egregious conflicts of interest behind the Purús highway bill.

UAC helped with the report as part of our campaign to publicize the highway’s potentially devastating impacts on the protected areas, isolated tribes, and settled indigenous communities of the Alto Purús region.

Read the full report here.

Visit Global Witness’ website to read the press release.

Read more about Global Witness’ report on Servindi.org (Spanish)

See The Guardian’s article, “Peru Funded Illegal Amazon Road, Claims Global Witness”

Upper Amazon Conservancy Featured in National Geographic

April 2013:

Measuring illegally cut mahogany near the Murunahua Territorial Reserve for isolated peoples (Photo: NG)

April’s edition of National Geographic magazine features the work of Upper Amazon Conservancy and its Peruvian sister organization, ProPurús, in an exposé on illegal logging in southeastern Peru. In 2011, UAC and ProPurús staff led a National Geographic team on two trips to the field to document illegal mahogany logging and its impacts on Peru’s protected areas and indigenous people. The article focuses on the Alto Purús region, where UAC has worked since 2002. The region is home to several indigenous tribes in voluntary isolation and initial contact with the outside world. It also harbors Peru’s largest stands of mahogany, one of the world’s rarest and most valuable timber species.

 

Members of the National Geographic expedition posing in front of a giant mahogany near the Yurua River (Photo: UAC)

The story also describes a trip to the upper Tamaya River where illegal loggers are targeting unprotected indigenous lands along the Peru – Brazil border. UAC board member and University of Richmond professor, Dr. Salisbury, has been working in the Tamaya since 2005; and in 2012, David, UAC and ProPurús initiated a collaborative project with the community of Saweto and their leader, Edwin Chota, to help secure legal ownership of their traditional homelands. In addition to unregulated and widespread logging, their lands are used by drug traffickers to smuggle cocaine from the Andes into Brazil.

The article is available on National Geographic’s webpage, the April edition of the magazine and here as a pdf.

Also, see National Geographic’s NewsWatch blog for an update on Edwin Chota’s struggle against illegal loggers.

 

 

 

 

 

Titling the Native Community of Saweto: a Challenge for Social Justice and Conservation in the Ucayali Borderlands

Pucallpa, March 2013:

Illegal logging, drug trafficking and invasions by neighboring Brazilians are the major problems affecting the native community of Saweto, located in the headwaters of the Tamaya River along the Peru – Brazil border.

Saweto, which is comprised of 33 families of the Ashéninka tribe, was formally recognized by the Peruvian government as a native community in 2003. The recognition was an important step in legitimizing the community and its chief, Edwin Chota’s, fight against the social and environmental problems caused by illegal activities on their ancestral lands.

Since 2003, Chota has filed numerous complaints about the illegal activities to Ucayali’s forestry officials, but with very little success. A decade later, loggers continue working with impunity in Saweto, as documented by a recent article in National Geographic magazine.

Illegal logging in Saweto, November 2012

Concerned about the impacts that illegal logging is having on the people and forests of Saweto and the entire Alto Tamaya region, in 2012 ,UAC and its sister organization, ProPurús, joined forces with Chota to help the community with conservation planning and securing title to its territory. Without title, the Ashéninka of Saweto are virtually powerless to protect their homelands, serve as barriers to deforestation in nearby protected areas, or resist damaging infrastructure initiatives, such as the proposed Pucallpa – Cruzeiro do Sul highway. 

 

As a first step, in April 2012, UAC / ProPurús signed a collaboration agreement with Ucayali’s titling agency (DRSAU) and the Borderlands Research Center at the University of Ucayali. The partnership has two primary objectives: 1) secure title for Saweto, and 2) develop a replicable, participatory titling process for Ucayali’s native communities. The process will be implemented by DRSAU in future titling projects and also help community leaders participate and monitor efforts to title their lands. Two University of Ucayali student-interns have focused their theses on developing parts of the titling process, thus making a key contribution to the project and gathering invaluable real-life conservation work experience in the process.

Construction of new boundary markers (Photo: DRSAU)

DRSAU’s technical teamjoined ProPurús for a month-long expedition to Saweto to conduct all the necessary fieldwork to support the titling proposal. This included an exhaustive socio-economic study, complete soils analysis and  demarcation of boundaries around the 80,000-hectare territory. Results were presented during a binational workshop focused on improving Ucayali’s titling process and advancing the case of Saweto. Participants included representatives of the Ucayali government, NGOs working in both Ucayali and neighboring Acre, Ashéninka leaders from Brazil, and representatives from the Acre regional government. At the workshop’s conclusion, all participants signed a document declaring the importance of titling Saweto and other Ashéninka indigenous lands on the Tamaya.

As of March 2013, all technical reports (socio-economic study, soil analysis, GIS products) needed to support the formal titling proposal have been completed; however, serious obstacles remain. Foremost is working with Ucayali’s forestry agency to annul two inactive forestry concessions that overlap Saweto’s lands. In addition, part of Saweto was categorized as permanent production forest, meaning that the government has set aside these lands for timber production not native communities. These problems occurred because, without legal title, the people of Saweto were invisible to forestry technicians in Pucallpa and Lima who divided up their lands for timber production.

The titling field team, upper Tamaya (Photo: UAC)

The good news is that Saweto’s struggles have been recognized by senior officials in the Ucayali government who are lending their help to title Saweto. In a region of rampant illegal logging and corruption, titling Saweto is viewed as an opportunity to  achieve social justice in the Tamaya region, recognize the rights of its Asheninka citizens to their territorial lands, and prevent the continued illegal logging in an area of the Peru – Brazil borderlands of exceptional conservation value.

 

Ssee National Geographic’s NewsWatch blog for an update on Edwin Chota’s struggle against illegal loggers.

Evidence of Isolated Tribe Found in the Murunahua Territorial Reserve

March 2013:

A monitoring patrol of the upper Yurua River uncovered evidence of people in voluntary isolation living inside the Murunahua Territorial Reserve. The patrol was a collaborative effort between the Alto Purús National Park, local community vigilance committees, protection agents from the Organización Regional Aidesep Ucayali (ORAU), the Yurua indigenous federation, Aconadiysh, and UAC’s sister organization, ProPurús.

 

A shelter constructed from palm fronds used by isolated people (ProPurús 2013)

The expedition was organized to investigate reports from local people of illegal logging inside the Reserve. While traveling upstream, members discovered what they believed was a logging trail leading up the river bank and into the forest. Approximately 10 meters from the river they found the camp. It was comprised of  eight shelters constructed of palm fronds each with its own cooking fire. Broken turtle shells and various palm frond baskets were scattered about. It seemed as if the camp had been used within the previous few days. After taking a few photos, expedition members left the area immediately and traveled back downstream. Fortunately, there were no signs of illegal logging in the area.

 

The evidence confirms, once again, that at least one isolated tribe lives inside the Murunahua Territorial Reserve, and refutes claims made by government officials and the timber and oil industries that the tribes no longer live there or exist at all. Established  in 1997 to protect people in voluntary isolation, the Reserve covers 480,000 hectares located between the Alto Purús National Park and Brazil. The area of the camp is relatively close to the Envira River where a different tribe was photographed two years ago.

 

Local villagers refer to the isolated people as their “brothers” and often find their camps during the dry season, usually in July or August. This is when the nomadic hunters and gatherers leave the remote headwaters to collect turtle eggs on large rivers like the Yurua. Finding a camp in March, however, is quite rare. Local people believe that mahogany loggers working in western part of the Reserve along the Huacapistea and Mapuya rivers have displaced the tribe, forcing them to move closer to the Yurua.  UAC documented widespread illegal logging in the Reserve in 2010 and again in 2012.

 

Shelters made by isolated hunters and gatherers on the upper Yurua River (ProPurús 2013)

Members of the Yurua Vigilance Committees (ProPurús 2013)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Murunahua Reserve is part of the buffer zone of the Alto Purús National Park. In order to help protect both the Murunahua and the Park, Peru’s park service, Sernanp, and ProPurús have organized 20 men and women from local communities to serve as volunteer Park guards. ProPurús provides patrolling equipment and technical training that the committees need to effectively protect the Reserve and Park, as well as their own titled communal lands.

Yurua Vigilance Committee members and their families (ProPurús 2013)

Additional information:

2012 UAC report on illegal logging in the Murunahua

2010 UAC report in illegal logging in the Murunahua

News from website Servindi.org

Expedition Highlights Natural Riches of the Purús Communal Reserve

February 2013:

Guards, community volunteers and ProPurús staff travel up the La Novia River inside the Purús Communal Reserve. (Photo: Purús Communal Reserve Jan. 2013)

UAC’s Peruvian partner, ProPurús, participated in an expedition to the La Novia River in January to evaluate the conservation status of the Purús Communal Reserve. The activity was part of ProPurús’ partnership with Peru’s protected areas agency, SERNANP, to conduct patrols and train local communities to work as volunteer guards in protecting both the Communal Reserve and adjacent Alto Purús National Park.

The expedition found no evidence of recent illegal logging or road building. Instead, they were able  to document the presence of several rare and endangered species, including several species of monkeys, various birds such a macaws, toucans and currasow, and an enormous tapir.

Local people use the Reserve for hunting, fishing and other subsistence activities; however, in the past, non-indigenous loggers have entered to cut mahogany. A new control post on the La Novia River has dramatically reduced the extent of illegal logging over the past two years. Now Reserve managers and indigenous leaders are focused on an even more dangerous threat: preventing construction of the Puerto Esperanza – Iñapari highway which, if approved by Congress, would bisect the Reserve and Park.

 

Mustached Tamarin, Saguinus mystax. (Photo: Purús Communal Reserve, Jan. 2013

Yellow Footed Tortoise, Chelonoidis denticulata (Photo: Purús Communal Reserve, Jan. 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View additional photos from the expedition on the Purús Communal Reserve’s Facebook page.

Illegal Road Discovered in Alto Purús Protected Areas

February 2013:

Local authorities have filed a formal complaint against a group called the Central Committee of Agricultural Producers for constructing a road inside two protected areas near the town of Puerto Esperanza in Peru’s Purús Province. The committee is comprised of a small group of non-indigenous men and women who are promoting the construction of a road to connect Puerto Esperanza with the town of Iñapari in neighboring Madre de Dios state. A bill to construct the road is pending in Congress.

An investigation documented the presence of unauthorized construction workers, camps, tree cutting and large-scale forest fires. By beginning construction themselves, the pro-road group hopes to generate political support for the bill by making it appear that local people support the road. However, in reality, approximately 80% of the of the region’s population is vehemently opposed to the road due to environmental, cultural and social impacts. The region’s indigenous federation, FECONAPU, has repeatedly expressed its opposition.

The road would cross the Alto Purús National Park, Purús Communal Reserve, and Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve for Isolated Tribes (see map of proposed road). The region contains some of the least disturbed forests in the entire Amazon Basin and is home to some of the world’s last isolated or “uncontacted” tribes.

Illegal road outside the town of Puerto Esperanza, Purús. (Photo: UAC, Jan. 2013)

Fires set to clear forest for the road inside the MABOSINFRON Conservation Concession. (Photo: Purús Communal Reserve)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to members of the pro-road group, they received food and financial support from the mayor of Puerto Esperanza and the local Catholic priest in exchange for helping build the road. The priest has been tirelessly promoting the Puerto Esperanza – Iñapari road over the past decade.

Not only does the group lack the permits necessary for building roads, but also they have ignored protected area laws by constructing the road inside two protected areas: the MABOSINFRON Conservation Concession and the buffer zone of the Purús Communal Reserve. (See Map.) The MABOSINFRON Concession was created in 2012 by local people concerned about illegal logging near Puerto Esperanza. The Purús Communal Reserve is utilized by local indigenous communities for sustainable resource use and managed jointly by Peru’s protected areas agency, SERNANP, and the indigenous conservation organization EcoPurús.

As of February 15th, the government has yet to respond to the formal complaint. Local authorities requested a formal investigation into the road building and legal charges against the individuals responsible for its construction and financing.

Peru’s congress is scheduled to vote on the road bill in March or April.

Additional information:

View photos of the region’s biodiversity taken during a January 2013 expedition to the Purús Communal Reserve.

The Catholic Parish in Puerto Esperanza, Purús publishes a publication called the  “The Living Word”  (“La Revista Palabra Viva”). See the latest version of the publication which celebrates the illegal road and provides various pro-road propaganda.

View a video of the illegal road construction, posted as pro-road propaganda to show supposed local support for the road.

 

Map of the illegal road inside the Mabosinfron Conservation Concession