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Indigenous Rights

PERU: Stepping Up Protection for Native Groups in Voluntary Isolation

Women and children from a Nanti community in initial contact with Western culture in the Peruvian region of Madre de Dios. Credit: INDEPA

LIMA, Mar 26 2013 (IPS) - In the dense Amazon rainforest of Peru, there are five reserves inhabited by indigenous groups who have chosen to remain totally or partially isolated from the rest of society. But these areas are not officially demarcated as indigenous lands, and only one is protected with a control post.

The authorities responsible for them are now attempting to reinforce protection of these vulnerable populations, ignored for years by the state.

“A reserve is an instrument to protect the rights of these communities, who have found themselves obliged to live in isolation due to a series of violations they have suffered, particularly during the rubber boom. We owe them a historical debt,” Paulo Vilca, the general director of intercultural affairs and peoples’ rights at the Vice Ministry of Intercultural Affairs, told Tierramérica*.

Throughout the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the expansion of rubber tapping in the Amazon brought disease, death and virtual extermination to the rainforest’s indigenous peoples, who were forced into slave labour.

Groups living in “voluntary isolation” have chosen to avoid all contact with the rest of society in the countries where they live, for historical reasons such as the extermination described above. Other groups are categorised as living in “initial contact”: while they remain largely isolated, they engage in contact with the outside world for certain concrete reasons, such as health care.

After many years of waiting, a multi-sectoral commission in Peru recognised five reserves in August 2012. Three of them – Isconahua, Murunahua and Mashco-Piro – are in the eastern region of Ucayali. The Madre de Dios reserve is in the southeastern region of the same name, while the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti reserve is in the southern region of Cusco.

The latter is additionally home to the Matsiguenga and Yora peoples, but it also overlaps with the natural gas fields in Lot 88, an area under lease to the Camisea gas consortium.

All five are currently classified as “territorial reserves” but are slated to be designated as “indigenous reserves”, a category created in 2007 by Law 28.736 to provide greater protection for people living in isolation or initial contact.

In order for this reclassification to be official, the executive branch must issue a supreme decree. The Vice Ministry of Intercultural Affairs submitted the proposal in the first week of March, and it is now under study by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.

The categorisation of these lands as indigenous reserves would mean the official demarcation of the territory needed to provide greater guarantees for these populations who face permanent ongoing threats, said Vilca.

Julio Ibáñez, an attorney with the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), stressed the need for indigenous organisations to form part of the commission responsible for evaluating these requests, in order for the native peoples themselves to have a say in the decision.

“This would guarantee that the rights of indigenous peoples in isolation or initial contact are represented and protected by genuinely representative organisations,” Ibáñez told Tierramérica.

This commission is currently made up by representatives of the national government, regional governments and universities, but includes no indigenous delegates.

Vilca reported that his department is drafting a proposal for the inclusion of indigenous organisations in the commission.

Since becoming active again in mid-2012, the commission has had to deal with a number of pending issues, such as the evaluation of requests for the recognition of another five reserves, which date back 10 to 14 years.

Vilca is preparing a report on this matter, after receiving the files for these requests in December from the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (INDEPA).

He acknowledged that the state has not paid sufficient attention to these populations, but is now trying to rectify that situation.

Of the five territorial reserves that have been recognised, only the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti reserve is protected with a control post.

The vice ministry has announced the signing of agreements with local governments and the National Natural Protected Areas Service to guarantee the protection of the other reserves.

In the meantime, a whole range of threats loom over them, from illegal logging to oil and gas operations.

Argentine-based Pluspetrol, which heads up the Camisea gas consortium, is seeking to expand its activities in Lot 88 into a section of the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti reserve – which encompasses three communities in initial contact: Santa Rosa de Serjali, Montetoni and Marankeato – and the buffer zone around Manu National Park.

In 2010, the government agency that promotes oil and gas industry investment accepted the request from Pluspetrol, which presented the terms of reference and a citizen participation plan to modify its environmental impact assessment in order to include the new activities.

In May 2012, technicians from INDEPA and Vilca’s department stated that gas exploration activities would pose a risk to the populations living in isolation.

As a result, the public participation mechanisms should only apply to the three communities in initial contact mentioned above.

Pluspetrol then asked Vilca’s agency if it should present a citizen participation plan to inform these three settlements of its activities.

The response, which came in late August, was that this would not be necessary unless the communities themselves demanded it, and that it should be carried out in coordination with the Vice Ministry, since it would be an ad hoc procedure.

The non-profit organisation Law, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR) questioned this response, since it opens up the possibility of information-sharing workshops in territories that are supposed to be protected.

Vilca replied that the mission of the Vice Ministry of Intercultural Affairs is not to promote investment, but rather “to enforce respect for the rights of the peoples.”

In addition, his team must still evaluate the modification of the environmental impact assessment for the expansion of activities in Lot 88, and in this case, its evaluation will be binding.

After Pluspetrol activities were reported in the Manu National Park buffer zone, the company stated that it would not continue with its plans in the area. But DAR and indigenous organisations believe that the matter is far from settled.

Tierramérica contacted Pluspetrol and the Department of Energy-Related Environmental Affairs for their input on the subject, but neither had responded by press time.

In the meantime, a million dollars in funding from the Inter-American Development Bank will be used this year to step up protection of indigenous reserves, reported Vilca.

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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