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Story Publication logo May 25, 2024

Loggers Encroach on an Uncontacted Tribe, and the Government Shrugs


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This project will take a critical look at a controversial forest carbon project in the Madre de Dios...

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Enrique Añez Dosantos, a former chief of and current spokesman for the remote village of Nueva Oceania, Peru, uses his hands to make sounds as part of his protocol for communicating with a neighboring tribe that lives in voluntary isolation. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post.

Advocates say Canales Tahuamanu is violating laws that protect Indigenous peoples who choose to live in isolation. The company says it complies with all Peruvian legislation.

NUEVA OCEANIA, Peru — Sometimes, they imitate the low rumble of the howler monkey or the shrill squawk of the curassow. Often, they block a jungle path with two branches in the shape of an X.

The Mashco Piro, believed to be the planet’s largest Indigenous group still living in voluntary isolation from the outside world, have ways of registering their displeasure at — and fear of — intruders. When they’ve felt threatened in their remote Amazonian territory, the hunter-gatherers, whose number is estimated at 750, have launched six-foot arrows from the bush. They have, on occasion, killed strangers.

Now a logging company is encroaching on their solitude. Canales Tahuamanu, or Catahua, has a timber concession spanning some 50,000 hectares here — and a record of clashing with Indigenous groups.

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Since 2010, its workers have been penetrating deeper into this dense wilderness, methodically felling the biggest trees. Indigenous people and their advocates say this violates national and international law aimed at protecting the unique rights of highly vulnerable peoples who have chosen to live in isolation. But authorities here, who have often been hostile to Indigenous territorial claims, are doing nothing to stop it.

The U.N. special rapporteur on Indigenous rights last year asked Catahua to halt logging and respond to allegations of “possible forced contact” with the Mashco Piro. The government in Lima, meanwhile, has declined to intervene.

Nueva Oceania lies on the Tahuamanu River in the Peruvian Amazon. Members of the community see themselves as advocates for the Mashco Piro. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post.

In 2007, then-President Alan García accused environmentalists of inventing “unknown but presumed” tribes to keep the country from benefiting from the Amazon’s riches. In December, Peru’s conservative congress allowed the legalization of land deforested without permits — including on territory used by Indigenous people. To formalize their ownership, deforesters, who are often seeking to settle on the land, simply have to sow crops on it.

Catahua, meanwhile, has filed criminal and civil complaints against Indigenous villagers who have been advocating for the Mashco Piro. The American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights reviewed the resulting proceedings and found them to be flawed.

Nueva Oceania chief Luz Mery Añez Silva. The logging company Canales Tahuamanu has sued the village, accusing members of being land invaders. In 2022, they lost their recognition as an Indigenous community. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

Nayeli Inuma Añez, Silva's daughter, watches the river rise. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

Yony Picchotito, the lawyer representing Catahua, told The Washington Post that the company’s workers have never reported any sightings of the Mashco Piro and that the company has complied with all Peruvian legislation.

“Forest concessionaires are not just concessionaires to exploit the forests,” she said. “They are also custodians of the forest patrimony, and they have many obligations.” She said she was unaware of the ABA report and the special rapporteur’s letter; she did not respond to a follow-up message that included links to both.

Yet the mere presence of trucks, rumbling down dirt paths carved into the rainforest, or the orange-clad, chainsaw-wielding workers, has terrorized the Mashco Piro, advocates say, and placed them in mortal danger from the possibility of infection and violent confrontations.

The conflict took a tragic turn in August 2022. Two Catahua workers were fishing near the tiny village of Nueva Oceania when members of the tribe struck them with arrows. One was killed.

“The Mashco Piro are desperate. Those arrows are the proof,” says Julio Cusurichi, an Indigenous leader and activist recognized internationally for his efforts to safeguard the Amazon. “They would not have acted that way unless they were forced to.”

A 6-foot arrow of wood and bamboo fired by isolated people demanding food. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

Peru is home to as many as 20 tribes living in voluntary isolation, second only to Brazil. Since the arrival of Europeans, they have fled from often lethal pressures, including enslavement during the rubber boom, ranchers turning their ancestral forests into pasture, illegal loggers and drug traffickers, amid official indifference.

The government has granted logging concessions even in areas known to be inhabited by tribes in isolation. Catahua’s concession dates to 2002. The same year, authorities declared a reserve for the Mashco Piro right next to it.

But evidence mounted over time that members of the tribe, who have occasionally been photographed, usually from a distance, were present far outside the reserve. The government here says the Mashco Piro number around 750 spread across the central Peruvian Amazon and spilling into Brazil.

Bananas, a staple food of the river community, are demanded by groups in voluntary isolation. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

Cassava is also popular. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

In 2016, a panel from the culture ministry, which oversees Indigenous issues, concluded that the Mashco Piro used forest in 14 different logging concessions. The panel proposed extending the reserve and suggested compensation for the affected businesses, including Catahua.

Successive governments have declined to implement those recommendations. Favio Rios, a director general at Serfor, Peru’s national forestry agency, said it would follow whatever protocols the culture ministry created to protect the Mashco Piro.

Many Peruvians deeply distrust the government, historically rife with corruption and guilty of rights abuses, including the shooting deaths of scores of largely Indigenous anti-government protesters in 2022 and 2023.

Enrique Añez Dosantos, former chief of the Nueva Oceania community and current spokesman, stands before 30-meter long timber logs left abandoned by the Canales Tahuamanu logging company since the violent encounter between its workers and the uncontacted Indigenous people in 2022. Among them stands a Shihuahuaco (ironwood) tree trunk, at least 50 cm in diameter — the minimum size permitted for logging. However, the Shihuahuaco, revered as the most crucial tree in the Amazon, grows only 1mm per year. Hence, this specimen would have been 500 years old. Faced with these figures, the Indigenous people question the sustainability of Shihuahuaco logging. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

The culture ministry declined to be interviewed. In a statement to The Post, ministry officials said they would coordinate with Serfor and others to draw up a “road map to advance in the process of categorization” of the Mashco Piro’s territories, but did not provide a time frame. It insisted that logging concessions were the responsibility of Serfor.

Carola Galarreta, who heads Serfor’s office in the Madre de Dios region, said it made unannounced visits to Catahua’s concession and found that the company had suspended logging in the area where the worker was killed but continued to operate elsewhere in the concession.

The decision of Peruvian authorities to allow Catahua to continue operating on the concession is typical, advocates say, of the way the rights of Indigenous communities — especially those in voluntary isolation and initial contact, who are among the most vulnerable people on Earth — are ignored or violated in remote frontier regions from Papua New Guinea to Paraguay.

Those concerns have been voiced by five independent human rights experts at the United Nations. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous PeoplesInternational Labor Organization Convention 169 on Indigenous and tribal rights and guidance from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recognize the right of Indigenous peoples to the lands they have traditionally used.

The United Nations’ Protection Guidelines for Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and in Initial Contact in the Amazon Region, the Gran Chaco and the Eastern Region of Paraguay bars outsiders from initiating contact with the dwindling number of tribes worldwide that live in voluntary isolation.

Candelaria Añez Dosantos and her family in their wooden house. Nueva Oceania burned down in 2015 when members were absent. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

“Contacting them, affecting their land or the natural resources that they use is contrary to the international obligations of Peru, which are also binding for companies operating in Peruvian territory,” warns Juanita Goebertus, Human Rights Watch’s Americas director.

Diana Murcia, a professor who specializes in Indigenous law at Colombia’s El Bosque University, describes logging as “the tip of the spear.”

“When you provoke contact without consent,” she said, “you’re risking [the Mashco Piro] reacting in the wrong ways.”

A kitchen in Nueva Oceania. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

Elsa Rodriguez Lopez is a fisher. Some of her family fled the community after the fire and now live in the town of Iberia. Elsa decided to stay. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

Nueva Oceania, a village of 100 or so Indigenous people living in simple wooden huts along the Tahuamanu river near Bolivia and Brazil, appears on few maps. Most people here are related ethnically to the Mashco Piro; their ancestors spoke a similar dialect of Yine, an Arawak language. They view their elusive neighbors as distant, if unpredictable, cousins.

As the only human settlement for miles, Nueva Oceania gets sporadic visits from what villagers call “the naked ones.” The Mashco Piro typically emerge on the opposite river bank, demanding bananas or cassava. The villagers share what they have and retreat into their homes, a protocol to avoid contact and potential danger.

“When we see their tracks, we leave,” says village elder José Añez, 74. “We know what to do, to avoid contact. We’re their friends.”

Heavy machinery, used for logging, lies idle at the edge of the Tahuamanu river. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

In this way, the villagers have become the Mashco Piro’s representatives to the outside world. But they say it’s also made them targets of Catahua — they accuse the company of waging a legal campaign aimed at silencing their advocacy.

In 2018, the company filed a lawsuit accusing villagers of fraud, criminal organization and illegal deforestation. It questioned their Indigenous identity, court filings show, noted that some have “freezers, DirecTV and generators,” and claimed they had conned the education ministry into establishing a primary school to serve a “nonexistent student population.”

A court suspended Nueva Oceania’s native community status, which gives villagers collective land rights to its ancestral territory. When the local Indigenous federation said allowing Catahua to resume logging during the covid-19 pandemic endangered the Mashco Piro, the company sought and won a defamation judgment against it.

Shipibo leader Julio Cusurichi, a former head of the local Indigenous federation and treasurer of the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian jungle, was sued by Catahua for alleged defamation. Image by Florence Goupil/The Washington Post. Peru.

Basilio Caymachi Dosantos carries arrows the community says belong to the Mashco Piro. Basilio says he saw Indigenous people living in voluntary isolation attack Catahua workers in 2022 and found the body of a logging worker who had been hit by arrows.

It was that case that drew the special rapporteurs. The American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights found that the trial was plagued by “due process violations,” judicial “hostility” and decisions that lacked “proper justification.” The federation has made similar arguments in an appeal before Peru’s supreme court.

Such lawfare by logging and ranching interests is typical across Latin America, says ABA legal adviser Naomi Glassman-Majara.

“These companies generally will use a defamation lawsuit, or a criminalization case, or sort of any abuse of the legal process to harass Indigenous communities and human rights defenders,” she says.

Villagers describe feeling besieged themselves by the sounds of distant chain saws and the legal campaign. They fear for their uncontacted brethren.

“There’s less and less virgin jungle,” says Nueva Oceania president Luz Mery Añez, 38, a niece of José. “More and more of the forest is being plundered. Where will the Mashco Piro go? What will they do?”


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Extractive Industries

Extractive Industries
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Indigenous Rights

Indigenous Rights
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Rainforest Reporting

Rainforest Reporting

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