Ucayali Loggers Using Indigenous Communities in the Alto Purús to Launder Mahogany

July 2012:

In February, Peru’s agency in charge of forestry and wildlife supervision, OSINFOR, sanctioned and fined two Alto Purús indigenous communities over $50,000 (US) each for logging infractions. In both cases the logging companies used the community permits to “clean” and transport illegal wood cut elsewhere. Mahogany laundering is common practice in southeastern Peru where the last remaining stands of mature trees are found only in very remote regions like the Alto Purús. Rather than work legally with communities, and pay high transportation costs (there are no roads, all wood is flown out) and comply with efficiency and reforestation requirements, loggers often choose to work illegally in protected areas and indigenous lands. However in order to transport and sell the illegal wood, they need to secure permits to show it was cut legally. This is where the communities come in.

Indigenous Community, Alto Purús River

Community leaders are persuaded to sign contracts that give total control to the loggers. This includes developing the operating plans, which provide a list of the geo-referenced trees to be cut. Unfortunately for the communities, when they sign these contracts they remain ultimately responsible for compliance with the operating plans, even though they are entirely removed from logging operations. In the case of these two communities, OSINFOR field auditors were unable to find evidence that all the trees identified in the operating plan had been cut. Instead, the loggers used the permits to transport 600 m3 or 254,000 board feet of mahogany, approximately 50 mature trees, that they had cut elsewhere. The infractions occurred between 2006 to 2008.

The loggers have not been punished. On the contrary, they have repeated the scheme in other communities. OSINFOR has detailed serious infractions in six other communities in the Alto Purús. Incredibly, every mahogany logging operation in the Alto Purús is facing fines and sanctions, in addition to the two that have already received them. One investigation of a 2011 operation found that the logger had burned several mature mahogany trees and claimed that the wood was harvested rather than pay the high transport costs of flying the wood to Pucallpa. Instead he hoped to increase profits by filling his permits with wood cut elsewhere.

OSINFOR’s field audits show improved efforts by Peru to control illegal logging spurred on by the strict environmental and forestry obligations of its free trade agreement with the United States. However this case also highlights Peru’s uphill battle to control illegal logging, particularly of mahogany. Current challenges include preventing the continued exploitation and manipulation of indigenous tribes, protecting conservation areas and indigenous lands, and effectively documenting the chain of custody of wood. UAC continues to document illegal mahogany logging in the Alto Purús region, most recently in August 2011 in the Murunahua Reserve for Indigenous People in Voluntary Isolation.

Mahogany logging, Alto Purús

This case sheds serious doubt on Peru’s ability to ensure the legality of its mahogany exports. This has major implications for not only the US – Peru free trade agreement, but also for the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) under which mahogany is protected. Because much of Peru’s mahogany ends up in the US, it also calls into question US wood importers’ compliance with the Lacey Act which is meant to ensure that all timber imports are of legal origins.

The social implications of this case are equally distressing. The Alto Purús communities involved are among the poorest in the entire country. (According to the United Nations Development Program, the Alto Purús has a human development index among the lowest 10% of the country.) The two communities fined $50,000 are made up of approximately 10 families each that survive on traditional subsistence activities such as hunting, fishing, collecting forest resources and tending small garden plots. Neither has electricity, functioning schools, bathrooms or running water. Drinking water is taken from the sediment-filled Alto Purús River.

While a certain amount of responsibility lies with the community chiefs for signing contracts with the loggers, which most likely occurred without permission from the rest of the community, it is important to emphasize the considerable pressure these people face from unscrupulous loggers. Often the loggers fly the chiefs to Pucallpa where they are bribed with gifts and alcohol in exchange for signing over their trees. The loggers involved in this case made massive profits off of this wood, while the impoverished community is left with fines and sanctions that will hinder the development of future income opportunities through sustainable timber or non-timber forest products.

In related news, the proposed Puerto Esperanza-Iñapari Highway would bring truckloads of loggers to the Alto Purús, exacerbating pressure on its indigenous inhabitants to cut some of the world’s last mahogany trees.

More information on illegal logging and timber laundering in Peru is detailed in the recent report from the Environmental Investigative Agency (EIA), “ The Laundering Machine: How Fraud and Corruption in Peru’s Concession System are Destroying the Future of its Forests.”

Peru’s Ministries Declare Purús Highway Unconstitutional

June 2012:

Alto Purús River

Three of Peru’s ministries have declared their opposition to the Puerto Esperanza – Iñapari Highway. In separate letters to Congress, the ministry of the EnvironmentCulture and Transportation announced their unequivocal opposition to the proposal due to various concerns including the highway’s potential impact on isolated indigenous tribes. The highway is supported by a handful of mestizo living in the region but vehemently opposed by the indigenous majority. Congress is expected to vote on the proposal in August.

Peru’s Politicians Ignore Indigenous Rights and Push for “Highway of the Dead”

May 2012:Members of Peru’s Congress have submitted a bill which would declare a controversial highway project “a public necessity and a national interest priority.” The bill was signed by 23 members and sent to Congress in April despite adamant opposition from the indigenous tribes whose ancestral lands the road would cross. (See bill sent to Congress.)

Pro-Road Propaganda, Puerto Esperanza, Purús. “A highway is progress in all directions”

The highway is planned for the Alto Purús region, a remote and  roadless area of world-class biological and cultural diversity. It is among the least disturbed parts of the entire Amazon Basin. Proponents are pushing for a 300 kilometer road to connect the small town of Puerto Esperanza, in Ucayali department, to the InterOceanic Highway in the town of Iñapari in Madre de Dios department. The highway would cross the Alto Purús National Park, the Purús Communal Reserve and the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve for Indigenous People in Voluntary Isolation. All three protected areas are home to some of the last isolated indigenous tribes left anywhere in the world.

The Alto Purús indigenous federation, FECONAPU, argues that the highway would have devastating effects on the traditional way of life of settled communities while threatening the survival of the isolated tribes. They have thus named the project, “la carretera de la muerte,” or highway of the dead.

Indigenous people of the Alto Purús have a long history of suffering exploitation at the hands of outsiders, beginning with the rubber barons at the turn of the 19th century and continuing with missionaries, animal skin traders and now loggers. A new road would offer uncontrolled access to the largest stands of mahogany left in South America. Local people see the road as just the latest example of outsiders trying to exploit their resources and lands.

The project is the idea of the Italian priest, Miguel Piovesán. For over ten years he has been trying to persuade local people and politicians to support his dreams for a highway to bring development to the region. His plan is supported by a handful of mestizo landowners and storeowners, also outsiders, who believe they would profit from improved access to the region and increased logging and other extractive activities.

To generate support from the indigenous communities who make up 80% of the population, the priest has waged an aggressive and slanderous publicity campaign against FECONAPU, Peru’s protected areas agency, SERNANP, and conservationists. He sees the Alto Purús National Park as the primary obstacle to the highway.

FECONAPU has repeatedly denounced the Priest for trying to “insult, mock and humiliate” them because they refuse to pledge their support for his highway. In March, the Federation signed a letter once again rejecting the highway proposal and asking for the immediate removal of Piovesán from the region.

Shelters made by isolated indigenous people near the proposed highway.

The Alto Purús indigenous conservation organization, EcoPurús, has also repeatedly denounced the highway project (2007, 2012).

In May, indigenous and mestizo authorities in neighboring Madre de Dios repeated their unequivocal rejection of the project due the inevitable social, cultural and environmental impacts. (See statement pdf.)

Despite lacking support from the indigenous peoples living along the highway route, Piovesán has managed to attract some political allies, led by Ucayali representative Carlos Tubino who co-authored the bill.  If passed, the bill would facilitate the process of removing Peru’s protected areas and indigenous rights laws.

Of particular interest to the United States is how the road would impact Peru’s strict environmental obligations under the US – Peru free trade agreement.

The bill also calls into question Peru’s “La ley de Consulta Previa,” the law which guarantees the rights of indigenous people to be consulted about development decisions that affect them. The law was signed in 2010 by newly elected president Humala in the aftermath of the Bagua uprisings, which were caused by the government opening up huge areas of the Amazon to oil and gas exploration without the consent of its local people.

If approved, the Purús-Iñapari highway bill will be yet another example of Peru putting the development of the Amazon ahead of the rights of its indigenous inhabitants.

Map of proposed highway

Mongabay.com Indigenous groups oppose priest pushing for road through uncontacted tribes’ land

Survival International: Amazon road could cut uncontacted tribes’ land in half


Indigenous Leaders Write Letters Rejecting the Purús-Iñapari Highway and Demanding Expulsion of Controversial Priest

April 2012:

In separate letters to authorities, the Alto Purús indigenous federation, FECONAPU, and community chiefs have reiterated their rejection of a proposed highway and demanded the immediate expulsion of the Italian priest behind the proposal.

The first letter was addressed to Peru’s congressional commission on foreign relations.  In it the indigenous leaders request government support to improve living conditions in the region. Specifically the letter asks for improved health care, education, transportation, environmental protection and other support needed to confront problems affecting the region’s inhabitants.

The Alto Purús has a population of roughly 4,500 inhabitants, 80% of whom are indigenous. Divided among 47 communities, the indigenous people practice traditional subsistence activities such as hunting, fishing, gathering forest resources and tending small gardens. However, government support projects are limited in this remote region, and the region has a human development index (HDI) among the lowest 10% of the country according to the United Nations Development Program.

In addition to requesting government assistance, the letter also repeated their opposition to a proposed highway to connect the region’s capital town, Puerto Esperanza, with the town of Iñapari and the InterOceanic Highway in Madre de Dios. Instead, they want more consistent subsidized air travel to the city of Pucallpa.

“We reiterate our position AGAINST CONSTRUCTION of the Puerto Esperanza to Iñapari highway due to the negative effects it would generate, which include:

  • loss of our food supply,
  • invasions into our lands,
  • violation of the rights of the indigenous people in voluntary isolation and initial contact, 
  • increased drug trafficking, and
  • loss of our ancestral cultural diversity.

See the full letter here.

Main Street, Puerto Esperanza


The second letter is addressed to the Secretary General of Peru’s Episcopal Conference to demand the immediate removal and replacement of the region’s controversial Italian priest, Miguel Piovesan. Piovesan began promoting the highway idea as soon as he arrived in Puerto Esperanza 10 years ago. However, he has managed to secure support from only a handful of citizens, primarily mestizos who have arrived in recent years. Many have bought land along the proposed route, speculating that they will be able to profit from the influx of landless settlers the road will bring.

The Federation has asked for the priest’s expulsion before but to no avail. This latest demand is in response to Piovesan’s increasingly aggressive and slanderous publicity campaign to discredit the Federation because they refuse to pledge support for the road. According to the letter,

“ . . . we (the Federation) feel very offended and humiliated by father Miguel Piovesan, who through his radio station and mestizo followers who are not from the region promotes the creation of a highway from Iñapari to Puerto Esperanza that would pass through our ancestral lands  . . .  in addition he uses his newsletter La Palabra Viva (The Living Word) to insult we indigenous . . . using photos of us in the newsletter to insult and generate social conflict amongst our brothers  . . .  we have agreed in many meetings to expel father Miguel Piovesan from the Purús  . . .  we want a Catholic representative that preaches peace and respect to the indigenous people. We are very tired of his discriminatory and insulting attitude toward the communities of the Purús . . . 

Schoolchildren, Alto Purús

See the full letter from FECONAPU demanding expulsion of Piovesan.

See pro-highway / anti-conservation educational materials integrated into local schools by the Catholic church.

See Piovesan’s website and newsletter La Palabra Viva.

New Conservation Concession Approved in the Alto Purús

May 2012:

The Ucayali regional government has approved the first conservation concession for the Purús province. The concession covers 6,700 hectares of lowland forest that borders the Purús Communal Reserve and titled indigenous lands. It will be managed by the local organization, MABOSINFRON, which plans to develop research and other projects that promote the conservation of vulnerable flora and fauna species. MABOSINFRON is comprised of mestizo leaders from nearby Puerto Esperanza who have pledged to work with guards from the Reserve as well as neighboring indigenous communities to protect the area from continued illegal mahogany logging.

Mahogany seeds: one of the endangered species to be protected by the concession.

According to the director of Purús Communal Reserve, Rafael Pino: “For us, it is extremely important that MABOSINFRON implement activities that help recover threatened timber species such as mahogany, cedar and lagarto caspi, as well the black spider monkey, harpy eagle and other locally endangered fauna. 

Years ago, this area was heavily impacted by illegal logging and hunters who used the resources without proper management. Today we have a great opportunity to restore biodiversity and ensure the integrity of the neighboring Purús Communal Reserve, while providing resources for the all inhabitants of the Purús Province.”

Mr. Pino’s optimism must be tempered, however, as the new concession will be cut in half by the proposed Purús-Iñapari Highway. MABOSINFRON’s mestizo members have joined together with the local indigenous communities to reject the Highway proposal and work towards the long-term protection of the forests and people of the Alto Purús.

See map and photos of new concession

New Photos of Isolated Tribe Raises Concerns About Their Future

February 2, 2012:
New photos of “uncontacted” people in southeastern Peru raise serious concerns about Peru’s ability to ensure the safety of some of the world’s last indigenous tribes living in voluntary isolation. The striking photos, released by Survival International, show several members of the Mashco Piro tribe sitting on a river bank outside Manu National Park.

Members of the Mashco Piro isolated tribe. D. Cortijo / Survival International.

The Mashco Piro inhabit the extremely remote forests of Manu and Alto Purús National Park, which together comprise one of the least disturbed regions in the entire Amazon Basin if not the world. Using small streams to criss-cross the dense forest on their seasonal migrations, the Mashco Piro have chosen to live in isolation, avoiding human settlements and larger waterways. Their recent appearance on the riverbank, and violence towards local villagers, is highly unusual and has experts searching for explanations.

What we do know is that the amount of undisturbed forest in southeastern Peru where the Mashco Piro live is rapidly shrinking. Illegal logging–particularly for mahogany, gold mining, oil and gas exploration, road construction and illegal missionary work are bringing outsiders into their territories and displacing the tribes from their homelands. The invasions have forced the tribes into adjacent lands causing conflicts with settled villagers and other isolated tribes. For years the Mashco Piro have avoided any conflict, but since 2000 there has been an increase in violence toward outsiders, as if the Mashco Piro have been forced to draw a line in the sand and defend what is left of their territory.

Local people living on the border of the Alto Purús Park blame the change in the Mashco Piro’s behavior on the arrival of mahogany loggers, believing that there has been a marked change in behavior in recent years, from one of avoidance to one of aggression. As one villager told UAC staff in 2005:

“When we worked on the Alto Purús River in the 1970’s and 80’s collecting animal skins, occasionally we would see the Mashco and they would always avoid us and run away. There were never any problems. Now it is different. They shoot arrows at us and try to kill us.”


Shelters made by isolated people inside Alto Purús National Park. C Fagan, UAC

Incredibly, instead bolstering protection of these forests, members of the Peru government are arguing in favor of  constructing a highway through the Alto Purús National Park and Madre de Dios Reserve for Isolated People–two strictly protected areas created specifically to protect the Mashco Piro. The road, which would connect the Alto Purús with the recently paved Interoceanic Highway, is being promoted by congressman Carlos Tubino, despite the  disastrous impacts it would have on the Park’s isolated inhabitants. See UAC’s January report on the highway.

Meanwhile, to the north along the Brazil border, another protected area for isolated people, the Murunahua Territorial Reserve, has been overrun by loggers utilizing tractors and a vast network of illegal roads. The Reserve is home to the Murunahua tribe, a smaller group that has chosen isolation after 50% of their people were killed by disease after forced contact with loggers in the 1990’s.

To read more about the impacts of loggers on the isolated tribes in the region, see our 2005 and 2007 reports on illegal logging and 2005 video on a peaceful encounter with the Mashco Piro. 


Traditional Indigenous Way of Life Threatened by Proposed Road in Purús


PUERTO ESPERANZA, Perú — Local indigenous communities and their federation, FECONAPU, are fighting construction of a proposed road through the Purús region that would threaten their traditional way of life.

The proposed road would connect the Purús, the very headwaters of the Amazon and one of the world’s most remote, most intact

The proposed road would connect remote villages in the Purús, many of which depend on a healthy, sustainable forest for their livelihoods, with increasing pressures of illegal logging, drug trafficking and mining in distant regions.

and most culturally important natural areas, with the newly paved Interoceanic Highway in Madre de Dios. Roads in the Peruvian Amazon are well documented highways not just for people, but for exponential increases in ilicit resource extraction, from illegal mining, poaching and logging to drug trafficking. Even the best laid plans have gone astray in recent years, as the agencies charged with protecting natural resources in Peru are chronically underfunded and understaffed. These issues are well documented by local and national media and academic research.

“There are only a handful of places left in the world as biologically and culturally important as Peru’s Alto Purús,” says Upper Amazon Conservancy Director Chris Fagan. “To cut it with a road would compromise the integrity of the entire Basin and trigger the swift demise of some of the last isolated hunting and gathering tribes on earth.”

The Alto Purús region is a treasure trove of world biodiversity and home to the world’s last remaining voluntarily isolated indigenous tribes – people who have had little or no contact with the outside world.


The road controversy first emerged as an obscure proposal with little public support by a recently-arrived Italian priest, Miguel Piovesan, shortly after the creation of the Alto Purús National Park and the Purús Communal Reserve in 2004 (see map, below.) Piovesan claimed the newly-minted parks and indigenous reserves, despite their wide support in local communities, had effectively shut off overland access to the Purús, limiting local development opportunities.

After intense political maneuvering, Piovesan succeeded in bringing his case to the legislature, which promptly shelved the project, citing a lack of public support in the region. Instead, local and national leaders drafted and approved a comprehensive ‘Action Plan for the Development of Purús‘ in 2008, calling for improved air service, intercultural, economic and social exchanges with neighboring Brazil, and thoughtful consideration of long-term alternative routes for a road.

Voluntarily-isolated indigenous tribes – among the last remaining on Earth – would come under unprecedented threats were the proposed road to become reality.

Local indigenous group FECONAPU, together with other regional indigenous groups and local and national non-governmental groups, including ProPurús, the Upper Amazon Conservancy and others, are fighting the proposal and Piovesan’s campaign of misinformation. Despite a lack of public support for the proposed road, Piovezan has reemerged, and continues to push his road plan with the Peruvian media.


The Purús region’s population is small – just 3,500 according to the last census conducted by Peru’s Census Bureau in 2007. Nearly 80% of its inhabitants are members of indigenous groups, the majority of which have organized against the proposal. The road’s supporters, meanwhile, are largely minority mestizo settlers in the provincial capital of Puerto Esperanza, relative newcomers to the region and many former loggers who would benefit improved access and increased opportunities for resource extraction, albeit at the expense of traditonal indigenous ways of life.

The voluntarily isolated tribes of the region have no voice in the debate but would undoubtably be severely impacted by the road, which would pass directly through the Park and the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve which is intended to protect their lands.

“We applaud the local indigenous communities and their federation, FECONAPU, for fighting to protect their sustainable, forest-based way of life by unequivocally opposing a road through traditional lands,” says Fagan.

See a Jan 19th article by the Ecologist on the road


To read more about the Upper Amazon Conservancy and its work in Peru, see our FACT SHEET (PDF 412K) or visit our website at www.upperamazon.org.  For more information, contact Chris Fagan at email hidden; JavaScript is required or Francisco Estremadoyro at email hidden; JavaScript is required.


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