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Peru wipes 'uncontacted' tribes off the map

All the hullabaloo over Peru’s presidential election a fortnight ago rather obscured the significance of the date it was held: 5 June. Over the last four years, this day has become a flashpoint of conflict between the state and the Andean country's indigenous peoples. 

On 5 June 2009, Peruvian police opened fire on indigenous protesters at Bagua, in the north of the country, leaving more than 30 people dead and over 200 wounded.

Bagua, Peru, June 2009. Photo by Ben Powless under a CC licence.

One year earlier, government officials found themselves in the eye of an international press storm over uncontrolled illegal logging which affects ‘uncontacted’ tribes (no contactados or aislados) in the remote Peruvian Amazon.

The year before that, on 5 June 2007, the government’s indigenous affairs department, INDEPA, had first acknowledged the existence of aislados elsewhere in Peru, in the oil-rich region between the Napo and Tigre rivers. INDEPA wrote that two reports by Peru’s national indigenous peoples’ organization AIDESEP had ‘proven that aislados live in this zone.’

This step was significant. But since then, INDEPA, stung by criticism by international NGOs and indigenous organizations about oil companies operating in the Napo-Tigre region, has performed a canny U-turn and now claims there aren’t any aislados there after all.

At a recent public meeting about the aislados in Iquitos, the biggest town in Peru’s northern Amazon, a map was briefly displayed on an overhead projector showing all the areas in Peru where aislados live. No mention of the Napo-Tigre. That meeting was partly convened by INDEPA,  not that any INDEPA personnel bothered to show up.

In fact, INDEPA has even gone as far as dropping a proposal for a reserve for the aislados that was originally planned in the Napo-Tigre region. Survival International has only recently accused INDEPA of planning to shelve another reserve created over 10 years ago in south-east Peru, which once again threw INDEPA back into an unwelcome media spotlight.

Obviously, none of Peru’s aislados voted on 5 June this year, but the actions of victorious candidate Ollanta Humala will have a huge impact on their lives. Humala’s duty is clear: prohibit any oil company, loggers or mines from operating in the aislados’ territory, and recognize its residents as its true and legal owners - not deny their existence.

David Hill is a freelance journalist.

See more: Peru’s uncontacted tribes (Survival International), Safe from ConocoPhillips... but what about the missionaries? (New Internationalist).

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