Peru moves to create huge new indigenous reserves in Amazon

Major step taken by government Multi-Sector Commission following 15 year process

David Hill

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.

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