- Isolated and recently contacted Indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon have had their existence officially recognized after a 19-year process and are one step closer to being protected through the creation of the Napo-Tigre Indigenous Reserve.
- The reserve would prevent outsiders and extractive industries, including logging and oil companies, from entering the territory. This will prevent the spread of diseases and deforestation in the region.
- A petroleum company, Perenco, and a group of businessmen and government officials oppose the creation of the reserve. According to the group, the reserve will be an obstacle to ongoing and future development in the oil-rich region.
- Some Indigenous leaders are also against the creation of the isolated Indigenous reserve. The leaders and their communities receive infrastructure projects, transportation, health services and employment from Perenco.
After a 19-year process, uncontacted and recently contacted Indigenous peoples living in the Napo-Tigre region of the Peruvian Amazon have had their existence officially recognized. With an extensive anthropological study and a presidential decree supporting evidence of their presence in the area, the communities are now one step closer to being protected through the creation of the Napo-Tigre Indigenous reserve in the Loreto department.
“We are claiming the rights of those who cannot speak,” said Apu Pablo Chota, executive council secretary of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO). The organization has been pushing for the creation of the reserve since 2003. “[What’s] important for us is to defend life more than anything else.”
The Indigenous reserve would protect the five isolated communities confirmed in the region by preventing entrance from outsiders, thus limiting the possibility of spreading diseases. The reserve would mean no settlements could be created in the area nor any natural resources extracted, whether lumber or petroleum – unless it’s declared a national priority.
Nevertheless, a group of businessmen, regional government officials and a petroleum company, Perenco, are opposing the creation of the reserve and taking action to halt its creation. According to the group, it will be an obstacle to ongoing and future development in the oil-rich region.
“Perenco takes pride in having played its part in successfully developing [oil] block 67, a project declared of national importance by the Peruvian government and which forms part of the country’s strategic goal of achieving energy independence,” Mark Antelme, communications representative for Perenco, told Mongabay.
Peru has seven established reserves for Indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact (PIACI), also commonly referred to as uncontacted or recently contacted people. The country is home to 25 groups of Indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact covering over four million hectares (9.8 million acres) in the departments of Madre de Dios, Loreto, Huánuco and Ucayali. In addition to the Napo-Tigre reserve, there are another four reserves in the process of being created, three of which are also in Loreto.
These areas contain some of the best-preserved rainforests in the country. Ecologists see the creation of the Napo-Tigre reserve as crucial to helping Peru meet its international climate commitments, as deforestation, mainly due to agriculture-driven land use change, is the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The creation of an Indigenous reserve
“Indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact have certain very special needs,” said Guisela Loayza, legal advisor at Amazon Sacred Headwaters. “You protect them by protecting their territory.”
Amazon Sacred Headwaters partnered with two large Indigenous organizations, ORPIO and AIDESEP, to support the creation of the reserve. AIDESEP represents nine regional organizations, 109 federations and more than 2,400 Indigenous communities.
Loayza told Mongabay that creating a PIACI reserve in Peru requires two main steps: to first recognize the existence of isolated peoples and then to demarcate the reserve. The first step has been completed.
The recognition of the existence of isolated peoples is part of a lengthy process. To begin, an application must be submitted to create a reserve. This was led by ORPIO and AIDESEP in 2003 in line with Peru’s PIACI law, Law No. 28736.
This was followed by a ten-year process where the two organizations and the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazonian, and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (INDEPA) carried out studies to prove that there were isolated people living in the area. This includes evidence of traditional houses, such as malocas or longhouses.
Based on this, the ministry of culture issued a favourable qualification in 2013, which meant the process could proceed.
However, Perupetro, Peru’s state-owned oil company, later appealed the decision. According to the company, the reserve would overlap with two petroleum blocks, block 67 and 39, which were operated from 2014 by the Anglo-French petroleum company, Perenco. Although Indigenous organizations disputed this appeal, the courts annulled the ministry’s green light.
In another round, complementary studies were again performed in 2015 with renewed approval by the ministry of culture. After passing through this process, the application was reviewed by a Multisectoral Commission—comprised of 15 representatives from Peru’s national, regional and local governments, national and local Indigenous organizations, and academics.
The commission put out an offer for an independent third party to perform a rigorous anthropological study, known as a Preliminary Recognition Study (EPR). This study obtains scientific evidence confirming the existence of isolated or recently contacted peoples.
In July 2022, the commission approved the study based on 292 pieces of evidence which demonstrated the existence of the five PIACI in the region: the Aewa (formerly known as Abijira or Aushiri), the Zaparo, the Taushiro, the Tagaeri and the Taromenane. The last two peoples also live in Ecuador and are going through a court battle against the government for violations of oil projects in their territories.
On 1 September 2022, Peru’s president signed off on the Supreme Decree of Recognition, creating a law which formally recognizes the isolated people in the area.
The final stage of the process to establish the Napo-Tigre can take place after the demarcation process is carried out. There is no set timeframe for this, however in the case of the Yavarí Tapiche Indigenous reserve in Loreto, it took three years for the demarcation lines to be formalized.
A battle of interests, agendas and money
Peru’s economy is slowing down, mainly due to high inflation, increased oil prices, the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns and less demand from China, Peru’s main trade partner. Political crises continue to rock President Pedro Castillo’s government in the form of several corruption scandals and continuous cabinet reshuffles.
In this context, boosting oil production is beginning to look more appealing to the government. The country only produces about 40,000 barrels of oil per day, making it one of the smallest oil producers in Latin America. This is largely because of how expensive it is to extract from the oil-rich remote locations in the Amazonian forest and the extensive history of oil spills and fines levied against the industry.
Perenco, which has been operating in the country since 2008, is among the strongest advocates against the reserve in order to boost oil production in the region.
The company operates in 15 countries and has an international track record of multiple oil spills—sparking almost universal opposition by Indigenous and environmental organizations. In Colombia, the oil producer was fined for 27 spills between 2011 and 2021— making it one of the most fined companies in the Amazon in the last ten years. The company is currently facing an allegation of polluting ten sites near its oil fields in Etimboué, Gabon.
However, the biggest opposition to the creation of the Napo-Tigre reserve comes in the form of the Coordinator for the Development of Loreto (CDL), a private consortium led by business owners who work closely with the regional government. The consortium rejects all processes to create Indigenous reserves.
According to the CDL, the creation of Indigenous reserves is part of an agenda to give the Peruvian Amazon away to NGOs and foreign interests.
The consortium has been lobbying to delegitimize PIACI legislation and organizations such as AIDESEP and ORPIO by holding radio discussions, publishing reports and visiting congress members in Lima to deny the existence of isolated people in the area. The Loreto regional government is also openly against the PIACI law.
“It’s an economic issue,” said Silvana Baldovino, who works as a program director at the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA). “They’re going to stop profiting if you close that area off to them in order to protect Indigenous people.”
Similar interests over oil and resources in isolated communities have been advanced by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro whose time in office has seen deforestation and attacks on Indigenous populations soar.
Baldovino, an Indigenous and environmental lawyer working for over 17 years, told Mongabay that the creation of the Indigenous reserve would be the highest form of protection as no exploitation within the area can take place.
The only exception is if gas is found and by law its extraction is declared a national priority, she said.
Since 2015, the Loreto government granted 47 forestry concessions to logging companies, many of which have been convicted of illegal logging activities, on territories belonging to isolated peoples. The ministry of culture filed to annul the concessions and the case is still ongoing. On one of these lands, the regional government has illegally built a road.
The CDL president, who is being investigated on accusations of collusion, refused several attempts from Mongabay for comment.
According to Baldovino, all this turmoil over the creation of the reserve started with debates over the ratification of the Escazú Agreement.
The Escazú Agreement is a binding treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean for environmental justice, information and compliance that stipulates protections for environmental defenders. Baldavino explained that the CDL has continued to lobby the government for it not to pass as it would hamper the region’s industrial development.
The agreement has so far been presented twice to congress and was shelved each time. Colombia and Brazil, two other countries with the highest portion of the Amazon, have also not yet ratified the treaty. This past year, Peru has experienced an increase in violence against Indigenous and environmental defenders. Global Witness noted that nearly three quarters of recorded attacks took place in the Amazon region.
“It’s an absurd issue,” said Julio Cusurichi, member of AIDESP’s executive council responsible for PIACI issues. “It’s against international agreements as well as the life of a people who should be taken care of because they are highly vulnerable.”
According to Cusurichi, the CDL is creating an environment that is dangerous for Indigenous leaders and anyone who seeks to protect their territory and is against their vision of development.
However, unanimous Indigenous opposition to Perenco and the CDL does not exist. A group of Indigenous leaders are not completely in favor of creating the isolated Indigenous reserve.
On 5 September 2022, the Federation of Native Communities of Curaray and Arabela (FECONACA), grouping three communities, brought a case against the minister of culture to stop of the creation of the Napo Tigre reserve. In an email to Mongabay, the president of FECONACA, Pilar Abigail Cabrera Caballero, said that the organization is not against the creation of the PIACI reserve, but rather seeks to defend their rights and territory in the region that may be impacted by the reserve’s demarcation lines. She says that the Peruvian State has not complied with guaranteeing the right to consult and inform their peoples about PIACI procedures, while they have been prevented from having their lands titled.
According to Perenco and CDL, leaders from FECONACA, whose communities are based next Perenco oil blocks, support their position. These communities receive support from the company through infrastructure projects, transportation, health services and employment.
This has led to tensions with AIDESEP which said in a public statement that the real interests of some FECONACA members may lay in gaining access to isolated peoples’ territories while putting their own lives, health, and integrity at serious risk.
The organization’s previous president is on the run from the Public Prosecutor’s Office for illegal timber trafficking and allegations of being a member of the criminal organisation “Los duros del Amazonas” (The Tough Ones of the Amazon).
Rocilda Nunta Guimaraes, Peru’s vice-minister of Interculturality, told Mongabay that the ministry of culture takes disinformation from businesspeople and the regional government of Loreto seriously. For this reason, in October, the ministry will be launching a massive communications strategy through social media, radio and on the ground advocacy in Loreto.
With support from Indigenous organizations and civil society, communication will be in Spanish and Indigenous languages. It will focus on the importance of recognizing the existence of isolated peoples as well as the implementation of the policy in favor of these groups. The strategy will also be replicated in other regions with Indigenous reserves.
“Our Indigenous brothers and sisters are highly vulnerable and therefore need all of us to be committed to the cause of their existence, their territory, and their integrity,” said Rocilda Nunta Guimaraes.
Perenco is again challenging the process to create the reserve, appealing the ministry’s 2015 positive qualification. The appeal will be heard in court in November. Guimaraes’ office will be providing technical assistance to the ministry of culture and the attorney general’s office.
“For the Ministry of Culture and the Peruvian State, this recognition is a historical milestone,” said Guimaraes. “For us as a state sector, we are going to be always vigilant, so that no company can extract these natural resources in these territories.”
Banner image: A recently contacted Machiguenga girl on the outskirts of Manu National Park in Cusco. Image by Ronald Reategui.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We speak with Scott Wallace, a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut, National Geographic writer, and author of a New York Times best-selling book on the importance of protecting uncontacted Indigenous groups in the Amazon. Listen here: