Alto Purús: Transit Route through Brazil Promoted as Alternative to New Road

April 2018

UAC recently led an investigation of a new transit route to connect the Alto Purús region with the rest of Peru. Called the “multimodal,” the route utilizes existing roads and the Purús River in Acre, Brazil, and is being promoted as a way to reduce dependence on expensive air transport and a sustainable alternative to a proposed highway (see Map). The investigation was conducted in collaboration with the Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental (SPDA), Peru’s experts on environmental law and policy, and journalists from the country’s largest newspaper, El Comercio.

The Alto Purús region is roadless and contains some of the least disturbed forests in the Amazon. Roughly half of the 5,000 inhabitants live in the capital town of Puerto Esperanza. All goods and manufactured items are flown to Puerto Esperanza from the city of Pucallpa on chartered planes. Unscrupulous businesspeople take advantage of a monopoly on flights and charge exorbitant freight charges, which results in expensive goods and a generally high cost of living. For example, gasoline costs 28 soles (9$) per gallon in Puerto Esperanza, roughly three times the costs in Pucallpa. This is especially difficult for the region’s indigenous majority who comprise 80% of the population. Most live in small, remote villages upstream from Puerto Esperanza and practice subsistence activities like hunting, fishing and farming. There are very few opportunities to earn income needed to purchase staples like gas for boat travel, salt to preserve meat and fish, soap, and clothing.

The high costs of living is exacerbated by inadequate government support and services. Medicine is severely limited and , again, non-indigenous storeowners take advantage of the paucity to charge exorbitant prices. The town’s generator provides electricity only three hours per day.

Over the past decade, a small but influential group of non-indigenous religious leaders and business owners have aggressively lobbied the government for a new road that would connect Puerto Esperanza to the Interoceanic Highway in Madre de Dios. However, the indigenous majority vehemently oppose the road,  fearing the inevitable impacts to their resources and way of life as well as to the isolated tribes who live in the protected areas along the road’s proposed path.

Last June, Congress rejected the latest bill mandating construction of the highway. In its place, it passed  Law 30574 which declares “the sustainable development of the Purús Province, prioritizing a multimodal connection, is of national interest and a public necessity”. But since then, the government has been reluctant to act. Both Peru and Brazil lack adequate infrastructure and staff at the two border crossings along the multimodal route. This prevents legal trade between the two countries as well as the transport of Peruvian goods from Puerto Maldonado to Puerto Esperanza. Currently, the limited amount of goods that arrive by river to Puerto Esperanza from Brazil are illegal, lackign the necessary permits.

UAC is working with indigenous leaders to pressure the government to enact the new law and develop the multimodal as a legally and financially viable transit route. It is a critical component of a larger strategy to promote sustainable development in the Alto Purús, in addition to cheaper and dependable flights to and from Pucallpa, vastly improved government support and services, and the development of new income-generating projects for the indigenous majority.

In the coming months, UAC will publish additional materials related to the multimodal transit route and other strategies that promote the sustainable development of the Alto Purús with respect for indigenous rights and nearby protected areas.






Peru Ignores Pope’s Plea for Indigenous Rights, Approves Road Law

January 2018

During his recent visit to the Peruvian jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, Pope Francis gave an impassioned speech about the importance of protecting the Amazon forest and respecting the rights of its indigenous inhabitants. He warned about the impacts of corporate greed on the Amazon and its indigenous peoples, and called on Peru’s government to respect indigenous rights to self determination and their struggles to defend their life, land and culture. The Pope’s message was in stark contrast to Peru’s aggressive policies to open up Amazonian indigenous lands to road construction and extractive industries.

Just a few days after the Pope’s visit, Congress announced a new law which declares road construction in relatively intact and remote areas of the Amazon headwaters as “a matter of national interest.” At the core of this new law is a controversial proposal to construct a road to connect the remote Purús region with the Interoceanic Highway in Madre de Dios, just north of Puerto Maldonado. The road would cross the Alto Purús National Park and the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve, core territoris of indigenous tribes living in isolation, some of the last isolated, nomadic hunters and gatherers left in the world.

The architect of the Purús road idea is Miguel Piovesan, an Italian Catholic priest based in the Purús. Over the past 15 years, Piovesan has orchestrated a manipulative campaign to generate local support for the road and advance legislation for its construction, this despite continued and vehement opposition from the indigenous federations in both the Purús and Madre de Dios regions. Proponents argue that the road is needed to end isolation and improve the quality of life in the Purús, however, indigenous leaders believe that there are ulterior motives, and that Piovesan and his handful of supporters in congress are more interested in opening up the Purús’ intact forests to  Mahogany logging, mining other extractive industries. They argue that a road would destroy their way of life, which depends on healthy forest, and threaten the survival of the region’s isolated tribes.

During the Pope’s visit, the president of the Madre de Dios indigenous federation (Fenemad) and winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, Julio Cusurichi, presented Pope Francis with a letter demanding Piovesan’s removal from the Purús due to his fanatical support of the Purús road despite indigenous opposition. This is the third time in recent years that indigenous leaders have demanded Piovesan’s removal.

Meanwhile, indigenous and conservation leaders throughout Peru and the world have denounced the new highway law. On January 31st, Peruvian congresswoman Tania Edith Pariona Tarqui submitted a new bill calling on Congress to reject the new highway bill and declaring of national interest the protected areas and indigenous tribes in isolation and initial contact in Ucayali and Madre de Dios.

More information on the road law and the Pope’s visit to the Peruvian Amazon:

New report by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project on the impacts of the proposed Purús – Madre de Dios Highway

Pope Francis’ speech in Puerto Maldonado

ABC News and the New York Times report on the Pope’s visit


Violence Highlights Dangers to Peru’s Isolated Tribes

December 2017

Last month in the remote headwaters of Peru’s Alto Purús River, a young indigenous man was shot with an arrow by a member of the Mashco Piro isolated tribe. The attack occurred while the man was sharing food with several members of the tribe. He was transported by boat and plane to the hospital in the city of Pucallpa where he is expected to make a full recovery.

The Mashco Piro is Peru’s largest tribe living in voluntary isolation. They live in familial groups and use small headwater streams to criss-cross the forest on seasonal migrations in search of resources. Historically, they have avoided any contact with the outside world, presumably to avoid the violence and sickness that usually comes with it. However, this behavior may be changing among some groups who are being seen with more frequency near remote communities and protected area control posts.

The dangers of contact

This recent attack is the latest of several violent encounters in recent years between the Mashco and members of remote indigenous communities living near the Alto Purús and Manu national parks. In almost all of the cases, the violence falls into two categories. The first is efforts by the tribe to defend its territory from illegal incursions by mahogany loggers or local people hunting, fishing and collecting turtle eggs. The second is the result of misunderstandings that arise during contact events, the majority of which are encouraged, if not initiated, by the villagers. This recent attack falls into the latter category.

The community involved was brought to the Alto Purús in the early 2000’s by evangelical missionaries from the United States specifically to help contact the Mashco Piro. They settled on the tribe’s known migratory route, eventually received title to the lands, and because they speak the same language, Yine or Piro, have over the years developed a relationship, albeit tenuous, with members of the tribe.

This relationship is replicated on other remote streams near the Mashco’s territory, including on the Las Piedras River where another Yine community has aggressively sought contact with the Mashco with similar consequences. In 2010, a 10-year-old boy was seriously wounded by an arrow, and in 2014 the community had to be evacuated when supposedly it was surrounded by an estimated 200 armed Mashco tribesmen.

Any effort to contact Peru’s isolated tribes is illegal, as the tribes should initiate contact on their own terms to avoid violence from misunderstandings and to prevent the spread of diseases. Any kind of contact, even of a peaceful nature, usually proves disastrous to the tribes who have no natural defenses to common illnesses. Recent history is full of examples of Amazonian tribes being decimated by epidemics shortly after contact with missionaries, oil and gas workers, and loggers.

New road law represents grave threat to the tribes

These contact events are especially concerning in light of a government proposal to construct the Puerto Esperanza — Iñapari highway through the Alto Purús Park and Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve for Isolated Tribes, the core of the Mashco’s territory. Local communities in the Alto Purús vehemently oppose the road, but they are up against powerful logging and mining interests and their advocates in congress who covet the Alto Purús for its relatively untapped, abundant resources. Debate over the road is being renewed after Congress approved just last week a law promoting and prioritizing road building in Ucayali department, where the Alto Purús is located. In a December 10th interview on the online news site Servindi, Julio Cusurichi Palacios, president of the Indigenous Federation of the Madre de Dios River (FENAMAD), summarizes the fears of regional indigenous tribes, warning that, “. . . approval of this law would lead to genocidal extermination of our indigenous peoples.” (Julio’s interview is available here, and more information on the road law here.)

New roads could have one of two effects on people living in voluntary isolation. It could cause some to abandon their traditional, migratory way of life and settle in permanent villages in less remote areas. Or they could try to continue their migratory lifestyle in a much smaller area, leading to more violence among other isolated tribes and remote communities as they compete for limited resources.

Asháninka Communities Receive Title to Lands

September 2017

After a decade long struggle, the Asháninka communities of Beu, Oori, and Koshireni received titles to their lands during a ceremony in Pucallpa earlier this month. The communities are located in the extremely remote Yurua River region in the Amazon headwaters near the Brazil border. Community members have been in conflict with their Brazilian neighbors over illegal hunting and logging. The new titles provide the Peruvians with legal justification to protect their lands from outsiders and develop new projects involving the sustainable use their resources.

The communities are also located adjacent to a new protected area being proposed by local and regional indigenous federations, and community members are being trained to serve as the PA’s primary stewards and protectors. Already community members have been organized into vigilance committees which will assist the government in monitoring and vigilance activities around their lands and the proposed PA. (See this pamphlet for more information on the  proposed Yurua protected area.)

The titles were delivered just in time. Construction is about to start on a 240 km road to connect the Yurua with a logging center on the Ucayali River. The road will provide loggers and land speculators with easy access to the Yurua, home to isolated tribes and some of the largest stands of mahogany left in the Amazon.

The titling involved extensive fieldwork to conduct socio-economic studies of the three communities, demarcate boundaries, develop management zoning, and analyze soils. UAC/ProPurús led the work in collaboration with the Ucayali government’s titling agency and with funding from the Andes Amazon Fund and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


Related News:

A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences provides more evidence that titling indigenous communities results in better protected forests in the Peruvian Amazon.



UAC Leads Expedition to Raise Awareness of Threats to Peru’s Isolated Tribes

June 2017

In May, UAC led a team affiliated with National Geographic Magazine to remote parts of the Alto Purús region as part of its campaign to raise awareness of the threats to the forests of southern Peru and the isolated tribes who live there–some of the last indigenous people living in isolation on earth. Over the past several years, there has been a dramatic increase in sightings of the tribes near remote villages and protected area control posts as well as violence. While the causes for this change of behavior are undoubtedly complex, the sightings coincide with more illegal logging and drug smuggling. It is possible that the tribes are being forced from their territories into more populated areas.

UAC is working with various government and indigenous partners to document how Peru’s aggressive policies to open up the Amazon to logging, oil and gas exploration, and road construction are impacting some of the last isolated tribes on earth. Community Vigilance Committees made up of local men and women play a key role in monitoring and documenting illegal activities in these remote and difficult to access areas. Accurate information on threats is necessary to develop appropriate strategies to protect the isolated tribes and the forests they depend on. Equally important, we need to ensure that when the tribes decide to leave isolation, they are provided with adequate support for healthy and ethical integration into modern society.



Land Title Secured for the Asháninka Community of Tomajao on the Tamaya River

March 2017

After more than a decade of field and legal work by community leaders and Ucayali’s titling agency, the Tomajao Indigenous Community has finally received title to their ancestral lands. The process began 2006 and UAC and ProPurús joined the struggle over the last few years when we successfully raised funding for and led the fieldwork.

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Congressional Commission Rules Against Purús Highway

March 2017

Peru’s Congressional Commission of Andean, Amazonian, and Afro-Peruvians on Environment & Ecology has ruled against the proposed Puerto Esperanza—Iñapari Highway. While the Commission agreed that sustainable development in the Purús region should be “of national interest'”, it  outright rejected the proposal to construct a highway to connect the region with the rest of Peru, citing the need to respect the rights of indigenous peoples living in isolation as well as the importance of protecting the Alto Purús National Park. The highway would have crossed the Park and a protected reserve for Mashco-Piro tribespeople living in isolation.

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