Peru moves to create huge new indigenous reserves in Amazon

Houses believed to belong to indigenous people living in “isolation” in Peru’s Amazon. This is just south of the proposed Yavari-Tapiche reserve in the Sierra del Divisor National Park. Photograph: ORPIO

Two “naked” people spotted hunting armadillo. One “naked” family on a river-bank. About five other “naked” people – plus houses, settlements and crops – seen from small planes. Fresh footprints on a path, on a tree trunk, and along a Canadian oil company’s seismic lines. Noises in the night. Whistling and birdsong imitation. A loosed arrow. Fishing utensils, abandoned fires, and food stolen from inhabitants in the surrounding areas.

This is just some of the vital evidence currently being used to promote the establishment of two new reserves for indigenous peoples living in “isolation” that together could extend for more than 2.5 million hectares across one of the remotest parts of Peru’s Amazon, along the border with Brazil. If created, they could become the biggest indigenous reserves in the country.

The reserves, dubbed Yavari-Mirin and Yavari-Tapiche for short, were formally proposed 15 years ago in Peru’s vast Loreto region but have never been established. Yet a major advance has recently been made. In December 2017 a government Multi-Sector Commission voted to “recognise the existence of the indigenous peoples in isolation” in both the proposed reserves, and recommended that the Culture Ministry take the necessary administrative steps to ensure that a Supreme Decree law doing the same is promulgated.

The Commission’s decision was based on two studies by Peruvian NGO CEDIA, contracted by the Culture Ministry, which presides over the Commission. Both drew on extensive previous research about the people in “isolation” by indigenous federations and others, CEDIA’s own fieldwork – reportedly conducted following United Nations guidelines – and overflights.

Some testimonies go back more than 60 years, according to Commission reports seen by the Guardian. In the Yavari-Mirin study 39% are of direct sightings of the people in “isolation.” In the Yavari-Tapiche study 14% of the testimonies are of direct sightings.

The Yavari-Tapiche study also includes information provided anonymously by local inhabitants who in 2012 and 2013 were contracted as workers during seismic exploration in the proposed reserve, 81% of which is overlapped by an oil concession, Lot 135. This evidence mostly consists of bare footprints – it was photographed, geo-referenced, mapped and recorded in detail, and then passed to CEDIA. At the time, Lot 135 was run by Pacific Stratus Energy, a subsidiary of Canada-based company Pacific Rubiales Energy, which later changed its name to Pacific Exploration and Production and pulled out of the concession in 2017, before changing its name to Frontera Energy. 

“It is known that there were a great number of incidents involving indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact [during the seismic tests] that have remained confidential because of the implications this would have for exploration,” states CEDIA’s Yavari-Tapiche study.

Both reserves were initially proposed by ORAI, a now-defunct Loreto-based affiliate of national indigenous federation AIDESEP. AIDESEP, along with ORAI’s successor ORPIO, has played a leading role in fighting for the reserves and in 2016 took legal action against the Culture Ministry in an attempt to force it to take action.

AIDESEP’s Beatriz Huertas told the Guardian that the Commission’s decision had generated “great satisfaction.” She says indigenous peoples in “isolation” refuse sustained, direct contact with “outsiders” and are extremely vulnerable to the invasion of their territories because of their total reliance on the forest for their lives and livelihoods, and because of their lack of immunological defences which can decimate them if contact is made.

“Recognition of their existence binds the state to protect their fundamental rights,” Huertas says. “15 years had to pass for this to happen. During that time, AIDESEP and ORPIO had to make huge efforts, permanently updating the information about them, informing authorities, political lobbying, and even taking legal action at both national and international levels.”

CEDIA’s David Rivera, who participated in the fieldwork and presented the studies to the Commission, says that the evidence is “unquestionable” and proves a “continuous territorial occupation” over many years. He cites CEDIA’s own fieldwork together with previous research conducted by state entities, indigenous federations and other civil society organisations in Peru, as well as others in Brazil such as the NGO Centro de Trabalho Indigenista and the state’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI).

“The fieldwork was difficult but it was made easier for us because we already know those areas and therefore the local population trusts us, especially in the Yavari-Tapiche case,” Rivera told the Guardian. “On the other hand, in Yavari-Mirin, whether because of the logging concessions, informal logging or interest in land-titling connected to the [proposed] highway between [the settlements of] Genaro Herrera and Angamos, people were more reticent to provide information. Despite this, the testimonies and evidence are extremely convincing”.

Both the Commission’s decision and a Supreme Decree recognising the existence of the people in “isolation” are essential steps towards establishing the reserves, and must now be followed by a further study and another Supreme Decree, according to Peruvian law. Meanwhile, the Commission – like AIDESEP, ORPIO, CEDIA and others – is urging the Culture Ministry to take the necessary steps to protect the people in “isolation”, as is also required by law.

“[The Culture Ministry and Commission] must immediately continue with the process of establishing the reserves,” says AIDESEP’s Huertas. “At the same time, as the law stipulates, these areas must be effectively protected, even if the reserves haven’t yet been established. We’re talking about highly vulnerable people suffering from their territories being invaded.”

CEDIA’s Rivera feels similarly, arguing that the Commission’s recent decision provides the Culture Ministry with a stronger legal argument to protect the people in “isolation”, even if the reserves don’t yet exist. “The important thing in the first instance is to be able to start implementing all the necessary protection measures while the process to establish the reserves continues,” he says.

In a statement sent to the Guardian the Culture Ministry says it is preparing the relevant documents for a Supreme Decree recognising the existence of the people in “isolation”, and that it intends to send them to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers next week. It also says it has held high-level meetings with regional and provincial authorities involved in protecting their lands and rights, and has been coordinating with the regional government’s Indigenous Affairs Department about creating a “cross-sector space” regarding them. In addition, the Ministry says it has been providing information to – and doing capacity-building with – neighbouring indigenous communities about the people in “isolation.”

Both proposed reserves have been under immense pressure for many years. Yavari-Tapiche is overlapped by oil concessions Lot 135 and Lot 137, numerous logging concessions, and a new national park, Sierra del Divisor, which has led ORPIO to file a lawsuit in an attempt to force the Environment Ministry agency running the park, SERNANP, to rewrite the management plan so the territories of the people in “isolation” are protected. Yavari-Mirin is also threatened by logging concessions as well as other logging operations, drugs traffickers, and, immediately to its west, the proposed Genaro Herrera-Angamos highway.

According to the official Act of the Commission’s meeting in December, the only two members which abstained from voting in favour of recognising the existence of the people in “isolation” were the Environment Ministry and Agriculture Ministry, the latter ultimately responsible for deciding which areas can be commercially logged.

“It was disappointing that they abstained,” AIDESEP’s Huertas told the Guardian. “It should be noted that these are precisely the same sectors responsible for promoting the forestry concessions and for creating and zoning the national park overlapping the proposed reserves.”

Based on CEDIA’s studies, the Commission reports state there are at least seven distinct indigenous peoples or groups in “isolation” across Yavari-Tapiche and Yavari-Mirin, in addition to “others whose ethnic identity it hasn’t been possible to identify.” The seven are Matsés, “remo” or Isconahua, Marubo, “flecheiros” or “tavakinas”, Matís, Korubo and Kulina-pano. It is acknowledged that some move across the border into Brazil, and all are believed to speak languages from the Pano linguistic family.




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