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Evidence of ‘isolated’ indigenous people found in Peru where priest is pushing highway

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Evidence of indigenous people living in “voluntary isolation” in a remote part of the Amazon has been found where an Italian Catholic priest is campaigning for Peru’s government to build a highway. The discovery is controversial because the priest has questioned the existence of the isolated people, sometimes referred to as uncontacted, who live without regular contact with anyone else.

The indigenous organization Federacion Nativa del Rio Madre de Dios y Afluentes (FENAMAD) and Peru’s Protected Areas Office (SERNANP) found the evidence during an expedition in the Madre de Dios region in July.

“We found considerable evidence that conclusively demonstrates the existence of indigenous people in voluntary isolation,” reads a FENAMAD statement released on July 30. “The area where the evidence was found coincides with the route proposed by Bill 1035 to build a highway between Puerto Esperanza and Inapari.”

According to FENAMAD’s statement, the first evidence was found in a logging concession adjacent to a reserve which was established for the isolated people in 2002. This was approximately 13 kilometers from the reserve’s eastern boundary, just six kilometers from a camp used by the loggers.

More evidence was found as the expedition moved closer to the reserve, mainly “signs of paths used by the indigenous people in voluntary isolation.” The last evidence, just six kilometers from the reserve, was a three meter-long plant stem blocking a pathway.

“That is a typical way of the isolated people saying ‘No Entry’,” says FENAMAD.

FENAMAD’s statement emphasizes the danger to the isolated groups posed not only by the highway, but the loggers operating so close to them.

“This evidence shows that their traditional territories extend beyond the boundaries of their reserve and into areas opened up to logging,” says Jorge Payaba, director of FENAMAD’s Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation Program. “We demand that forestry activities in regions adjacent to the reserve are abandoned, and that the reserve itself is enlarged to reflect the isolated peoples’ real territories.”

SERNANP, part of Peru’s Environment Ministry, published a statement on August 3 saying the expedition proved the existence of the isolated people, but the priest, F. Miguel Piovesan, who has questioned their existence, could not be reached for his reaction. Piovesan, based in Puerto Esperanza in Peru’s Purus region, has been promoting the highway in his parish magazine, on the internet, on the radio and during mass in the local church.

“FENAMAD is saying the sort of things only people who haven’t visited Purus say,” said a spokesman for Piovesan when asked about the recent findings. “The efforts to protect the uncontacted people are negatively affecting those of us who are already contacted.”

Puerto Esperanza is so remote from the rest of the country it is only accessible by plane. According to Piovesan, who is supported by some local people, the highway would significantly improve Purus’s economy.

The highway is also supported by some members of Peru’s Congress and a bill has been presented declaring it in the “national interest,” but several government ministries, including the Ministry of Transport, have come out against it.

If built, the highway would cut through Peru’s biggest national park, which is supported by the WWF, and the isolated peoples reserve, as well as indigenous communities and a communal reserve used by them.

“The evidence for the existence of isolated indigenous people in the region where there are plans to build the Purus-Inapari highway has been extensively documented,” says Jorge Herrera, from the WWF’s Peru office. “What SERNANP and FENAMAD found corroborates that.”

FENAMAD and other indigenous organizations in Peru including the Asociacion Interetnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP) and the Federacion de Comunidades Nativas de la Provincia de Purus (FECONAPU), as well as international organizations such as Survival International and the Upper Amazon Conservancy, have all spoken out against the highway.

In addition to the potential impact on the isolated people, it would devastate the rainforest and encourage illegal resource extraction, including logging, mining, poaching and drug trafficking, they argue.

Piovesan has ridiculed and insulted some of his opponents, and FECONAPU wants him removed from his post.

At least two isolated groups would be affected by the highway, one known as the Mashco-Piro. It would violate their rights under international law, the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, and could lead to contact between them and other people which could decimate them because of their lack of immunological defenses.

In total, there are at least 15 isolated indigenous groups in Peru, all of them living in the most remote areas of the rainforest.

The evidence for them is abundant and has been collected over many years by indigenous organizations, international organizations, anthropologists and others.

It includes physical evidence such as food remains, gardens, abandoned fires and camps, arrows, paths and plant stems or spears blocking the way, and occasional sightings of them or encounters with them, some of which have been recorded on still or video camera.

Some media outlets and NGOs dub them “uncontacted,” however most, if not all, are believed to be the survivors of previous contact when many of them were killed or decimated by disease, but have now chosen “voluntary isolation.”

Aerial view of the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Aerial view of the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

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