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


Video Shows Extraordinary Wildlife Activity on the Las Piedras River

February 2013:

Amazon Naturalist Paul Rosolie used remote cameras to document extraordinary wildlife activity near the Las Piedras River in Madre de Dios, Peru.

See the video here.

The Las Piedras River begins inside the Alto Purús National Park and flows through some of the least disturbed forests in the entire Amazon Basin. (See Map).



Advisor to Congressman Tubino Investigated for Links to Accused Drug Trafficker

January 2013:

Congressman Carlos Tubino, the main proponent of a controversial proposal to construct a road through the Alto Purús National Park, fired his advisor Javier León amidst charges linking León to money laundering and drug trafficking.  

Congressman Carlos Tubino claimed to be “shocked” to learn of his advisor’s alleged role in perpetrating fraud and laundering drug money.  (See article from Peru’s El Comercio.) Tubino’s legal advisor, Javier León, is being investigated for his business relationship to the accused drug trafficker, Fernando Zevallos.

The scandal highlights the pervasive influence of drug trafficking in Peruvian society and politics. The investigation is especially damaging to Tubino’s efforts to obtain congressional approval to construct a road to connect Puerto Esperanza, Purús with Iñapari, Madre de Dios. The road would cross the Alto Purús National Park, Purús Communal Reserve, the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve for Isolated Tribes, and the Mabosinfron Conservation Concession (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.

Highway proponent and congressman Carols Tubino, his ex advisor, Javier León, and accused drug trafficker Fernando Zevallos. Source: El Comercio

The highway faces overwhelming opposition from the Alto Purús indigenous federation, FECONAPU, which represents members of the Huni Kuin, Sharanahua, Culina and six other tribes. Local leaders fear that the road would provide easy access to Peru’s largest stands of mahogany (the region is the source of most of Peru’s illegal mahogany) and make it easier for “narcos” to use the dense forest to smuggle and produce cocaine. The region is already a known transport route for bringing coca paste into Brazil. In April 2012, three men with links to the terrorist and drug trafficking group, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, were arrested in Puerto Esperanza for smuggling ammunitions on a chartered plane.

Increased logging and cocaine trafficking and production is a direct threat to local indigenous people who depend on a healthy forest for hunting, fishing and other subsistence activities. In addition, the road threatens the survival of isolated tribes that live in the forests directly along the proposed road route.

The road supporters are mainly non-indigenous businessmen involved in logging, land speculation and other businesses that could benefit from the road. They argue that the road will bring the region economic opportunities and development. The leader of the pro-road group is the local Catholic priest who has organized and funded a small group of men to begin road construction by clearing the forest along the proposed route. Their work was halted in September 2012, however, when local authorities legally accused them of cutting trees and setting forest fires inside a conservation concession and the buffer zone of the Purús Communal Reserve.

Congress is scheduled to vote on the road bill in March. The Tubino scandal is a timely reminder that the road would not only have significant implications for the people and forests of the Alto Purús, but also promote increased narcotic activity on a critical stretch of the Peru – Brazil borderlands.

Proposed Purús Road Criticized During Congressional Roundtable

September 2012:

On September 14, Peru’s Congress held a roundtable meeting organized by congresswoman Veronika Mendoza Frisch and the indigenous association AIDESEP. The objective of the meeting was to debate the social, legal, economic and environmental impacts of a Bill proposing the construction of a terrestrial connection, either a road or train, between the towns of Puerto Esperanza, capital al the Purús, and Iñapari, in Madre de Dios department. Special attention was given to impacts to the region’s tribes in voluntary isolation.

The meeting was attended by the Bill’s author, congressman Carlos Tubino; Quijandría Gabriel, Vice-Minister of Strategic Development of Natural Resources for the Ministry of Environment; Ivan Lanegra, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Intercultural Affairs for the Ministry of Culture; Félix Denegri, Director of Border Integration and Development of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Carmen Ferreyros, Office of Planning and Budget of the Ministry of Transport and Communications; Arsenio Calle, Chief of the Alto Purús National Park; and several indigenous representatives from the Purús.

The meeting began with a presentation by Dr. David Salisbury from the University of Richmond and UAC board member, who detailed the serious negative impacts of a road or railroad though such a sensitive and valuable mosaic of indigenous territories and protected areas on both sides of the Peru-Brazil border. He presented the results of a study conducted with student George Appling in the University of Richmond’s Spatial Analysis Laboratory using border data to map the potential impacts to the region.

The representatives from the government ministries and the Purús indigenous communities unanimously expressed concern about the Bill and rejected Turbino’s argument that the  land connection between Purús and Iñapari is a matter of critical interest national. Despite vehement opposition to his proposal, congressman Tubino defended his Bill to construct a road or railroad through one of the most remote and best preserved areas on the planet with exceptional biological and cultural diversity.

More information on the event is available on the following websites:

Ministry of Environment proposed to improve the air connection with the Purús

Blog of congresswoman Veronika Mendoza

Arguments about the “denationalization” of the Purús region to Brazil

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