Peruvian fights for ‘uncontacted’ Indian groups


Julio Cusurichi grew up in a Shipibo indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon department of Madre de Dios, a region of sinuous rivers and thick tropical forest bordering Brazil and Bolivia.

Thanks to his work on behalf of the environment and “uncontacted” native peoples living in isolation in Madre de Dios, he has received the Goldman Environmental Prize—the prestigious green award that every year goes to a leading environmental activist in each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions.

Because of its diversity of wildlife and ecosystems, southeastern Peru’s Madre de Dios draws researchers and tourists to such natural gems as Manú National Park. For more than a century the region also has attracted fortune seekers eager to profit from its natural bounty—first rubber, then timber, oil, gas and gold.

As outsiders have pushed deeper into the jungle, they have introduced diseases to which indigenous people have no resistance. Some anthropologists say over half the Nahua people, a nomadic group that shunned contact with the outside world, died in the 1980s when loggers moved in along paths that Royal Dutch Shell had opened up as part of a natural gas project.

Countering such incursions has become a mission for Cusurichi, president of the Federation of Natives of Madre de Dios and its Tributaries (Fenamad). His group and the Interethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Jungle (Aidesep) have worked against illegal logging and advocated for nomadic groups whose traditional lands contain hydrocarbon reserves and mahogany stands.

On April 22, he received the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for Central and South America in recognition for his efforts. Those efforts produced a breakthrough in 2002, after a series of conflicts pitting loggers against indigenous people and environmentalists. Fenamad and other groups pressed successfully for the creation of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve for the Harakmbut, Yine and Matsiguenga communities and the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve to protect nomadic peoples. The latter covers 2,968 square miles (7,688 sq kms), an area larger than Delaware.

“This award vindicates the tremendous work that Julio Cusurichi and Fenamad have done for nearly a decade to protect indigenous communities, and especially the indigenous people living in voluntary isolation,” says Ari Hershowitz of the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which nominated Cusurichi for the award.

Initially, reserves ‘on paper’

The battle, however, is far from over. Cusurichi says that after they were established, the reserves “only existed on paper.” He adds: “That wasn’t enough. Loggers kept going in.”

Peru’s mahogany exports since 1996 have more than doubled to over 21,000 cubic meters, or 8.9 million board feet. Many of the remaining mahogany stands are found in river-headwaters areas of Madre de Dios frequented by nomadic peoples. Environmentalists say much of the timber is felled illegally, then “laundered” by creating bogus paperwork that makes the contraband wood appear legal.

Peruvian President Alan García recently insisted all timber Peru exports is legal, but U.S. diplomats acknowledge contraband mahogany is a stumbling block for Peru’s free-trade agreement with the United States, which has yet to come up for a vote in the U.S. Congress.

Fenamad and NRDC were plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last year in the U.S. Court of International Trade to crack down on the importation into the United States of illegal mahogany from Peru. The court dismissed the suit on April 16 on jurisdictional grounds. NRDC is weighing whether to refile the suit in U.S. District Court.

Estimates of the number of people living in voluntary isolation in Madre de Dios range from a few hundred to several thousand. When the reserve was established, some local politicians and businesspeople protested, claiming no indigenous people lived there. “It was clear they wanted that area because there was still mahogany there,” Cusurichi says.

Still, such claims persist. Daniel Saba, president of PeruPetro, Peru’s state-owned oil and gas company, recently asserted that if uncontacted people are, in fact, uncontacted, nobody can be sure they exist.

Communities help monitor

With government guard posts along the reserve’s rivers understaffed, Fenamad has helped set up a community-based monitoring system that alerts officials to illegal logging.

In the past, cutting in the area has led to clashes. Cusurichi says that since 2003 in Madre de Dios, four loggers have been killed—and one paralyzed—by arrows. Several indigenous people are believed to have been shot, he says, but the death toll is unknown.

While logging has been a frequent flashpoint, placer gold mining exerts another form of pressure on Madre de Dios’s indigenous people, Cusurichi notes. Miners using high-pressure hoses and backhoes have caused erosion, and researchers report that mercury used to process the gold has fouled waterways and made its way into the region’s food chain.

Indigenous communities in the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve won a government decree in 2001 suspending new mining claims on their lands, but concessions granted before that date remain in effect.

The reserve also must contend with nearby oil concessions. On two concessions bordering the reserve, Chinese-owned Sapet Development Peru has exploratory operations. After lobbying by indigenous and green groups, the company agreed to have one concession redrawn to exclude a portion overlapping the reserve. Still, Peru’s aggressive push for oil has Cusurichi and other indigenous advocates concerned. (See “Peru opens door wide to Amazon drilling projects”—EcoAméricas, Feb. ’07.)

“These companies’ activities pose a danger to indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation,” he says. “Hydrocarbon activity in the Amazon has led to serious problems—pollution, spills and health problems. We’re not opposed to investment, but we want it to be done in a way that respects human rights.”

- Barbara Fraser

Julio Cusurichi Palacios
Puerto Maldonado, Peru
Tel: +(51 82) 972-4854
Ari Hershowitz
BioGems Program, Latin America
Natural Resources Defense Council
Washington, D.C., United States
Tel: (202) 289-2388