Binational pitch for nature, semi-nomads

Peru and Brazil

A maloca, or longhouse, used by isolated people of the Igarapé São José in the Jandiatuba watershed of Brazil’s Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory. (Photo by Peetsaa/Acervo CTI)

Indigenous and environmental organizations in Peru and Brazil are proposing a binational conservation corridor to protect biodiversity and safeguard territories that are home to what is believed to be the world’s largest concentration of semi-nomadic, isolated peoples.

The Yavarí-Tapiche Territorial Corridor of Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact and Continuous Forests would cover nearly 16 million hectares (61,776 square miles), an area more than twice the size of Panama. It is named for two rivers in the region —one called the Javari in Portuguese and the Yavarí in Spanish, and the other the Tapiche. About 11 million hectares (42,471 sq. miles) would be on the Brazilian side of the border, including the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory, the second-largest indigenous reserve in Brazil. The proposed corridor also would include adjoining national parks, Peru’s Sierra del Divisor and Brazil’s Serra do Divisor.

On the Peruvian side, the corridor would encompass a patchwork of environmental-conservation areas managed by national, regional and indigenous-community authorities, as well as existing and proposed reserves intended to safeguard isolated peoples.

Despite the current protected status of many of these areas, illegal logging and mining, excessive hunting of wild game, drug trafficking and oil concessions pose a constant threat, especially to the isolated groups, backers of the proposal say.

The corridor would “establish a system of control in the region to address these threats,” said Jorge Pérez, president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (Aidesep), during a Dec. 9 presentation of the plan. “Protecting this territory will also protect the knowledge and the lives” of the semi-nomadic people, he added.

Three regional organizations representing indigenous federations helped prepare the proposal—Orpio, in Peru’s Loreto region; Orau, in Peru’s Ucayali region; and Univaja, which represents the groups in Brazil’s Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory. Also collaborating were the nonprofits Rainforest Foundation Norway and Centro de Trabalho Indigenista. The three organizations defend the welfare of isolated groups whose ancestors are believed to have fled the atrocities of the rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and continue living along tributaries of major Amazonian rivers.

Some of the groups move back and forth between Peru and Brazil. Organizations advocating for them warn that contact with outsiders can expose them to diseases to which they have no resistance, and that incursions by loggers and others will force them into ever-smaller, environmentally degraded areas of forest, threatening their health.

With their proposal, the three indigenous organizations are calling on their respective national governments to ramp up environmental protection of the region, and to specifically safeguard the semi-nomadic people along with the forests and the ecosystems on which they depend.

In Peru, indigenous leaders hope the plan will open the door to dialogue with government officials about better protection of the area’s forests and its inhabitants.

In an email to EcoAméricas, Rocilda Nunta, vice minister of intercultural affairs in the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, said the ministry is “open to ongoing dialogue with the indigenous organizations, especially if it means hearing proposals that come from the [indigenous] communities.” She added that the ministry plans to establish and staff new guard posts in order to stop outsiders from entering reserves and will continue conducting studies required for the creation of three pending reserves.

On the Brazilian side of the border, Univaja has presented the proposal to local officials of Funai, the government’s indigenous affairs agency. Observers do not expect it to be embraced by the administration of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, whose policies have undermined indigenous land rights and environmental protection of indigenous reserves. That state of affairs could change, however, as the deeply unpopular president faces reelection in October.

Much of the Brazilian land in the proposed corridor is already designated as indigenous territories with ostensibly strong protected status. In Peru, however, the forests along the border are a patchwork of native communities and national or regional protected areas with widely varying degrees of protection.

In Peru, what little that is known about how isolated groups live and the threats they face has been gleaned piecemeal from satellite images, aerial photos and interviews with residents of indigenous communities, loggers and even drug traffickers.

Accounts of encounters or near-encounters with isolated groups “are numerous and recent throughout the corridor,” says Beatriz Huertas, a Peruvian anthropologist who has studied the groups and worked on plans to protect them over the past several decades. “We’ve been able to see how the presence of outsiders affects the isolated groups.”

Both the threats and isolated groups’ responses vary in different portions of the proposed corridor. In the northwestern area, where there are timber concessions as well as illegal loggers, the isolated groups “are more confrontational,” Huertas says. “They pursue loggers or hunters and drive them off,” banging on the trunks of trees to make noise.

That contrasts with the behavior of groups farther south in the corridor. In one area inhabited by both settled Matsés communities and semi-nomadic people, the two groups tend to avoid each other, adjusting their routes to stay away if there are chance encounters, Huertas says.

In yet another area, however, aerial photos show multi-family dwellings called malocas in the forest with no cleared area around them for gardens.

“When the isolated people don’t open clearings to build their houses, but instead build them under the trees, it’s because there’s a lot of insecurity,” Huertas says. “And it is understandable, because there have been loggers and timber concessions there for years.”

Loggers, hunters and workers who have laid seismic lines for oil exploration report seeing footprints and finding handmade clay pots hidden among tree roots, possibly left behind when people fled.

This is not the first time indigenous organizations have proposed binational corridors to protect the dense forests along the border and the indigenous groups that inhabit them.

A project begun in the 1990s resulted in the formal proposal in 2015 of a corridor in southern Peru and an adjacent area of Brazil. The corridor encompassed lands inhabited by semi-nomadic people, by indigenous groups considered to be in “initial contact” with outsiders and by older settled indigenous communities.

The studies that began in that area in the late 1990s prompted the creation in 2002 of Peru’s Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve. The proposal for a binational corridor in southern Peru and adjacent areas of Brazil, however, is still pending, Huertas says, noting that it aims to benefit isolated groups which move seasonally down rivers that lead from headwaters on the Peruvian side into the Brazilian state of Acre.

Those studies also highlighted the relationship between the rich biodiversity in the intact forests of Peru’s Madre de Dios region—home to the iconic Manú National Park and Biosphere Reserve—and the well-being of the forest dwellers.

The same relationship is believed to hold true in the newly proposed corridor to the north, where rapid environmental assessments have identified hundreds of mammal, bird and fish species, including some that are new to western science.

Although the northern region’s deforestation rate is still relatively low, degradation of the forest has been increasing, especially because of the unauthorized construction of roads, legal and illegal selective logging, and the clearing of small fields to plant coca, the raw material used to make cocaine. There is also the latent threat of construction of a highway connecting the Brazilian town of Cruzeiro do Sul with Pucallpa in Peru’s Ucayali region, although Peruvian officials have said the project is too expensive to be feasible.

Efforts by Aidesep and its regional affiliates to protect the areas inhabited by isolated groups date back more than a decade.

When government officials and oil company executives questioned the existence of semi-nomadic groups, the indigenous organizations gathered evidence to prove such people do inhabit the upper reaches of several watersheds in Peru’s Loreto and Ucayali regions. The evidence included reports of encounters and near-encounters with members of these groups, photos of abandoned camps and aerial photos of thatch-roofed dwellings deep in the forest.

Reserves under pressure
Indigenous reserves and territorial reserves are protected areas specifically intended to safeguard lands inhabited by isolated groups and those in recent contact with outsiders. Peru currently has seven such reserves, the earliest dating from the 1990s. Two of them—Yavarí-Tapiche and Isconahua—currently exist on the Peruvian side of the proposed corridor, and two others are awaiting approval in Peru.

Nevertheless, unauthorized roads used by loggers and drug traffickers are encroaching on those areas and more than 100 timber concessions overlap the region that would be encompassed by the corridor, including at least one of the proposed indigenous reserves.

Because of a lack of government control posts, regional indigenous organizations have worked with communities near reserves to ensure local patrolling of the access points of areas known to be used by isolated groups, which migrate seasonally along the rivers.

To ensure these communities serve as a protective buffer, Aidesep’s Pérez says the government must provide them better health care, education and work opportunities. They also must have the means to fend off drug traffickers who invade their territories to plant coca or recruit young people to carry drugs across the border into Brazil.

Those incursions have increased since 2020, largely due to a pandemic-induced reduction in the presence of law enforcement. Satellite images show dozens of clandestine airstrips, used by drug traffickers, in the Ucayali region, and at least seven community leaders have been murdered in the past year for standing up to drug traffickers, according to indigenous organizations in Ucayali.

On the Brazilian side of the border, access to the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory is controlled by Funai, but funding cuts have caused the agency to reduce patrols. In 2017, there were reports that illegal miners had killed members of an isolated group in the territory, and in 2019, government forces destroyed 60 gold dredges on a remote river frequented by isolated groups.

Poachers, missionaries and more
At the Dec. 9 presentation, Varney Thoda Kanamary of Univaja said the Javarí River, which marks the Peruvian-Brazilian border, has become a “no-man’s land” where illegal loggers, poachers and drug traffickers cross from Peru into the indigenous reserve. He also said missionaries intent on contacting and converting isolated groups continue posing a threat to semi-nomadic peoples despite court rulings—one stemming from a complaint filed by Univaja—ordering a halt to missionary activities.

With their corridor plan, the indigenous organizations are calling on Brazilian and Peruvian authorities to improve protection of the forest and its inhabitants in coordination with the native groups, and to guarantee funding for those actions. They also are asking their governments to do more to safeguard the health of isolated groups; to stop illegal logging, mining and hunting; and to keep missionaries from attempting to contact isolated groups.

The Peruvian organizations have asked their country’s government to expressly designate the pending reserves for isolated indigenous people and to cancel or relocate timber concessions overlapping these reserves.

For its part, Univaja called on the Brazilian government to draw up contingency plans for handling cases of contact between isolated and settled groups in the Vale do Javari reserve, where a violent encounter in 2015 led to an unknown number of deaths.

The indigenous organizations also have demanded protection for community leaders whose opposition to illegal activity on their lands has made them the focus of death threats.

- Barbara Fraser

In the index: Signs of encroachment: Coca plants in deforested area of the buffer zone of Peru’s Sierra del Divisor National Park. (Photo by Barbara Fraser)

Berlín Diques Ríos
Pucallpa, Peru
Tel: +(516) 157-3469
Paulo Kenampa Marubo
Atalaia do Norte, Brazil
Tel: +(55 979) 8402-2137
Jorge Pérez
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 471-7118
Manuel Ramírez Santana
Iquitos, Peru
Tel: +(516) 522-7345
Documents & Resources
  1. A summary of the plan for the Yavarí-Tapiche corridor and the indigenous organizations’ demands can be found here: link