The government in Peru has announced the creation of a new 1.1 million hectare reserve for “uncontacted peoples”, following a nearly two-decades long struggle by Indigenous Peoples to have their rights recognized over those of oil companies and others looking to exploit the country’s vast and biodiverse forestlands.
The soon-to-be-formed Yavari Tapiche Indigenous Reserve in the Loreto region, close to the Brazil border, is home to the Matses, Remo, and Marubo Peoples, who are identified as in isolation and initial contact (PIACI), meaning they have little or no contact with the outside world, and continue to live according to traditional values, in close harmony with nature.
Under current PIACI legislation, 10 territories in Peru have been identified for uncontacted peoples, although only four of these, including Yavari Tapiche, are recognised as reserves by the state, with four more still awaiting the formal process to begin. In theory, reserve status prevents any activities that could threaten or disrupt the isolation of the communities living there.
The creation of Yavari Tapiche was first proposed by indigenous groups as early as 2004, but a new PIACI law enacted in 2011 placed additional conditionality on reserves, whilst objections from oil operators in the region further slowed the process. Activists, including the Tenure Facility’s partners in the country, the Regional Organisation of the Indigenous Peoples of the East (Orpio) and the Peruvian Environmental Law Society (SPDA), continued to push the government. A significant advance was achieved in 2018 when the Supreme Court found in favour of creating the reserve, opening the way for a categorisation process which has finally been completed in April 2021.
“The creation of the Yavari Tapiche Indigenous Reserve has been a great achievement for the indigenous organisations that have been promoting its establishment since 2004,” said Silvana Baldovino, Biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples Program Director at SPDA.
“It is also a very positive sign of the interest of the current administration to protect Indigenous People in voluntary isolation and initial contact. In this way, Peru distances itself from the current policy that exists in Brazil, which has seen reduced levels of protection for indigenous people in isolation. ”
This is the latest significant victory in the strengthening of protections for isolated peoples, estimated to number around 7,000, after a parliamentary committee in 2020 unanimously backed bolstering the integrity of PIACI reserves.
Proper monitoring and enforcement of these reserves is crucial to ensuring that their inhabitants remain undisturbed however, and the next step involves the approval of a comprehensive protection plan for Yavari Tapiche. An upcoming change of government in Peru should not derail progress, according to Baldovino.
“We consider that the actions for the protection of indigenous reserves that the Ministry of Culture is working on – with the support of the SPDA which is in turn backed by the Tenure Facility – will help ensure that there are no setbacks in this regard. ”
Recent successes come after decades in which indigenous voices, and particularly those advocating for isolated peoples, were largely drowned out in the clamour to exploit Peru’s vast natural riches.
It is hoped that the creation of Yavari Tapiche will clear the path for more PIACI reserves to be formally categorised. Nonetheless, these remain deeply challenging times for the region’s Indigenous Peoples: the COVID-19 pandemic poses a particular risk to communities with limited resistance to the spread of new diseases, and little or no access to healthcare.
Meanwhile, the retreat of states in recent months has seen incursions into indigenous territories surge, and experts warn that the expected post-pandemic economic bounce could see further pressure to roll back environmental and indigenous rights.