INDIGENOUS PEOPLES LIVING IN VOLUNTARY ISOLATION
THE EXISTENCE OF ISOLATED INDIGENOUS GROUPS,
voluntarily living in deep in the most remote regions of the Amazon away from contact with modern civilization, has increasingly come to the international public’s attention in recent years. Media coverage in the united States has included a cover article in National Geographic and stories on mainstream TV programs such as Good Morning America.
The term “voluntary isolation” reflects the fact that these groups have made a conscious decision to avoid forced contact, given the violence, decimation by disease, and cultural devastation implied therein. The act of isolating one’s ethnic group is an expression of the inherent rights afforded to these groups, most lately via the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People: the right to self-determination, to life and health, the right to their culture, etc.
Current pushes to build road networks into the farthest reaches of the Amazon and extract valuable natural resources wherever they are found mean that indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation have few sanctuaries left to which they can flee. We are approaching a situation that will be resolved in one of two ways: either decision makers at different levels will exercise the political will to create and enforce “no go” zones where isolated groups live, or expansion for economic ends will be forced upon them and the centuries-old process of population decimation and cultural assimilation will play itself out.
Simultaneously, the ecologically sensitive areas in which they live will be threatened. isolated peoples’ high vulnerability to forced contact In recent decades, forced contact of isolated groups in Peru has resulted in widespread deaths In 1984, the Yora de Kugapakori, found in the south-eastern province of Madre de Dios, were forcibly contacted by illegal loggers utilizing roads created for Shell Oil’s operations. As a direct result, an estimated 42% of the Yora population died from respiratory diseases for which they had no immunological defenses. Beyond death by diseases otherwise common to most humans,
isolated peoples are also vulnerable to violence that often ensues when outsiders enter their territory to extract resources.
This drama has become a significant political issue in Peru. High-level government officials have denied that such groups exist. In President Garcia’s guest opinion piece published in
October of 2007, titled “The Orchard Dog Syndrome”, he claimed that, “Against oil, they have created the figure of the “un-contacted” jungle native; that is to say, unseen but assumed, and for which millions of hectares should not be explored.” According to Peru’s La República newspaper, Daniel Saba, Peru’s Minister of Energy and Mines, “questioned the existence of indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation, considering it absurd to say there are un-contacted groups ‘when no one has seen them. Therefore, of which un-contacted groups are they speaking?’”
These postures are contradicted by other governmental agencies that have recognized, implicitly or explicitly, that un-contacted groups exist. Government action, prompted by requests from Peruvian civil society, has led to the creation of five “territorial reserves” in southern Peru. Most recently, during a meeting in Iquitos, the government’s National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazonian, and Afroperuvian People (INDEPA), committed itself to study the possibility of another five proposed territorial reserves in northern Peru.
It is into this polemic that ConocoPhillips has jumped by holding minority control (35%) of Block 39, run by Spain’s Repsol YPF, and Block 104. These two blocks overlap the proposed Napo Tigre Territorial Reserve, a designation AIDESEP and anthropologists have been advocating for given evidence of four groups living in voluntary isolation in the area: the Taromenane (Waorani linguistic family), and the Arabela, Pananujuri and Taushiri (Zaparo linguistic family). Strong evidence for the existence of these un-contacted groups was originally presented in two anthropological reports—completed in 2003 and 2005, respectively—by AIDESEP and a group of Polish anthropologists. The 2005 report was actually part of an official request to the Peruvian government for the creation of the Napo Tigre Territorial Reserve, a protected area designed for the protection of the territory of the four isolated groups.
These two reports contain 58 articles of evidence, including numerous eye-witness testimonies, regarding the presence of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation in the area covered by Blocks 39 and 67 (i.e., mid and upper Curaray, Arabela, Aushiri, upper Napo, Pucacuro, Tangarana, Baratillo and upper Tigre rivers). Several of the described incidents occurred within just the past decade.
Near the Piraña oil field of Blocks 39 and 67 are the un-contacted Arabela peoples. The anthropological reports contain the details of two separate sightings in this area of “naked” indigenous peoples in the forest. Since the eye-witnesses were villagers from the only community in the area, Buena Vista, it is assured that the spotted individuals were not locals but indeed isolated peoples. Members of the community have also found numerous footprints of their un-contacted relatives as well.
Another sighting occurred at a nearby logging camp, where a naked male with long hair and large, bare feet was spotted. In another incident, one day upon returning to the camp the loggers found two crossed spears sticking out of the ground on the trail, a clear warning signal. At this logging camp there are also reports of missing items (such as used batteries), sounds of indigenous people imitating diurnal animal noises at night (such as monkeys and macaws), and loud noises from the banging of tree trunks, all of which have been attributed to indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.
Between the Dorado y Piraña oil fields are believed to be the Pananujuri. In this area, there are reports from local fisherman and hunters of footprints, trails, and sounds that could not be from anyone in the local community and are attributed to indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation... Further north, near the Paiche oil field, is the territory of the Taromenane. There have been at least four sightings in this area. A soldier from the Vencedores military post saw a naked man with long hair. In a separate incident, two other soldiers saw three naked women. In addition, a man from Buena Vista saw some naked people bathing in a small stream, and a fisherman’s wife saw two naked men. There is an interesting story from 2002, that two Ecuadorian soldiers got lost in the forest for 13 days after fleeing from an encounter with two naked indigenous men. Another soldier reportedly found a camp of the un-contacted indigenous peoples. In addition, there are numerous accounts of trails, sounds, and gardens that could only be from the isolated peoples of the forest.
The 2005 report concluded that “the zone made up of the river basins of the mid and upper Curaray, Arabela, Aushiri, upper Napo, Pucacuro, Tangarana, Baratillo and upper Tigre rivers, in the districts of Napo and Tigre, provinces of Maynas and Loreto, within the Loreto Region, constitute an area traditionally occupied by indigenous peoples found in a situation of voluntary isolation, which use the existing natural resources in these spaces through subsistence practices such as hunting, fishing, gathering, and cultivation.”
In 2009, a separate group of anthropologists issued a report stating the methods and conclusions of the 2005 report were valid from a scientific point of view. Moreover, the anthropologists exposed and severely criticized the industry-backed efforts to undermine the report. Adding to the evidence is the identification, within an EIA for Block 39, of three sites with ethno-archeological remains such as ceramics and hatchets, “which correspond to current native populations found in areas and sites previously occupied where we saw indicators or evidence of archeological nature.”
In a separate EIA, this one for Block 67, it actually says that there will “probably” be an encounter between the seismic crews and the un-contacted indigenous peoples. This same
EIA goes on to say that, due to this high probability of an encounter with the isolated peoples, the seismic teams need to have indigenous translators present in the field. Indeed, this clash between seismic workers and un-contacted peoples may have happened in May 2008. There are unconfirmed reports that, on two separate occasions, a member of the seismic crew cutting lines in Block 39 witnessed a naked indigenous person in the forest.
Based on all of this evidence of the existence of un-contacted indigenous peoples in the middle of Blocks 39 and 67, in June 2007 AIDESEP launched national and international legal actions. For the latter, AIDESEP petitioned the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington D. C., for a protective measure known as “Precautionary Measures.” Such measures were previously granted in Ecuador, pressuring the government there to adopt policies that prohibit the entrance of outsiders, including oil companies, into un-contacted Taromenane territory. The domestic legal action was presented by AIDESEP in the Superior Court of Loreto, soliciting the judge to halt all oil activities within the proposed Napo Tigre Territorial Reserve.
In summary, there is abundant evidence that indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation inhabit the Block 39 area. The evidence is sufficiently strong that the situation has been elevated to the level of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In addition, numerous anthropologists have spoken out against more oil activity in this area. By continuing to partner with Repsol in this concession, ConocoPhillips is running the risk of being directly implicated in a series of foreseeable deadly events.