Fears for Brazil’s and Peru’s most isolated tribes if illegal road isn’t stopped
NGOs take legal action against an almost 100 km route cleared through the Amazon
The first time I visited Colonia Angamos, a border-post-turned-tiny-town in the far western Amazon, was in a hydroplane that put down on the River Yaquerana. On one side of the water stood Angamos and Peru, on the other Brazil. Rio de Janeiro was some 3,750 kms away.
Travelling by hydroplane wasn’t my usual style, but the alternatives were limited. Flights in conventional planes from Iquitos, the Loreto region’s largest town, were supposedly regular, but vulnerable to all kinds of complications and delays - not least because Angamos’s runway was still grass and therefore if it rained too much it was considered dangerous and flights would be postponed. The only other ways in were by boat via an extraordinarily round-about route involving going down the main trunk of the River Amazon towards Brazil and then tacking back up the River Yaquerana, or by boat from Iquitos to a town called Jenaro Herrera on the River Ucayali and then a tough, however-many-days hike along a decades-old track through the forest.
All this may now be changing, though. A long-talked-about road that would effectively follow the old track and connect Angamos to Jenaro Herrera rather more easily has become much more of a possibility this year after the route was chainsawed and cleared, apparently overseen by a Ministry of Transport agency, ProVías Descentralizado, and Loreto's regional government. In addition to a pre-existing 14 kms, the clearing was reported to extend by 40 kms more by May, and then another 60 kms by mid-August, with teams working at both ends in order to meet in the middle.
Concerned about the potential social and environmental impacts, various Peruvian NGOs have fiercely denounced what has been happening, highlighting how the required permits haven’t been obtained and calling for all work to be stopped. Potential impacts include rapidly increasing deforestation along the road, encouraging migration, colonisation and the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and boosting both the illegal logging and cocaine trade - in particular by enabling timber to be transported out of the region by lorry rather than by river, and by facilitating the production or movement of drugs in the other direction towards Brazil.
In addition, there is concern that the road would pose a threat to some of Peru’s “protected natural areas” - including the Matsés National Reserve (MNR) - as well as to indigenous communities and indigenous people in “isolation” reportedly living within the proposed Yavari-Mirím Reserve (YMR), not far to the north. The government confirmed the existence of the indigenous people in “isolation” in the proposed YMR via Supreme Decree in 2018, and the state’s Cross-Sector Commission responsible for establishing the reserve acknowledged the previous year that evidence for them had been found beyond the proposed reserve’s boundaries along the route of the road. The Ministry of Culture (MINCU) has confirmed that too, including in July this year.
One of the NGOs speaking out is the Lima-based Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL) which earlier this month, together with two other organisations, Kené and Pachamama Alliance Peru, took legal action against ProVías and the regional government. According to an IDL statement based on “official information” from ProVías itself and agencies within both the Ministry of Environment (MINAM) and Ministry of Agriculture, “the road doesn’t have a completed technical file nor the relevant detailed environmental study, nor even an approved environmental certification nor a deforestation permit, as projects of that size require.”
In other words, utterly illegal.
IDL’s Maritza Quispe Mamani tells me that her NGO chartered an overflight of the road in July. Presented to the Superior Court of Lima, their lawsuit focuses on the potential impacts on the indigenous people in “isolation” whose rights are being violated, it claims, and whom are “in danger of extinction.” It requests the judge to order ProVías - which is planning to make the road six metres wide and surface it with a “basic pavement” - and the regional government to stop doing any further work.
“Indigenous peoples in isolation live in and migrate around huge areas of the Amazon forest, and they depend on the forest and the natural resources there,” IDL’s lawsuit states. “The fact that the road crosses the area used by these peoples constitutes a certain and imminent threat violating their rights to life. This situation is made even worse in the time of a pandemic, given that chance encounters between them and road workers could happen, which would mean these peoples not only run the risk of catching Covid-19 or other diseases, but that these diseases could kill them.”
There is also concern about the potential impacts across the border in Brazil in the Javari Valley Indigenous Reserve, a 21 million acre area believed to be inhabited by more groups of indigenous people in “isolation” than anywhere else in the world. Such concern has not only been expressed by Peruvian NGOs, but by Brazilian organisations too, including the Centro de Trabalho Indigenista (CTI) and the indigenous federation Unión de Pueblos Indígenas del Valle del Javarí (UNIVAJA).
CTI’s Hilton Nascimento tells me that, among other things, the road would encourage settlement in the region and create “tremendous pressure” on the surrounding forest and natural resources, particularly the game and fish, possibly leading to violence.
“But who lives in that area?” Nascimento asks rhetorically. “Indigenous peoples in isolation! There are already lots of invasions of the Javari Reserve, more now than I can ever remember.”
The Peruvian NGOs accuse the state of effectively being “absent”, with the most concrete actions to date being a visit in July by the MINAM agency responsible for the MNR and the Ministry’s in-house prosecutor, Julio Guzman Mendoza, presenting a criminal complaint to public prosecutors specialising in environmental issues (FEMA). FEMA personnel have been in the region over the last few days, and Guzman says that his office is extremely concerned about what has been happening.
“We’ve now provided [to FEMA] the most important means of proof to support our argument that the deforestation was illegal,” Guzman tells me.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many local people are in favour of the road. Each time I’ve been in Angamos I’ve heard how it would generate employment, reduce the prices of the goods sold there, stimulate commerce and other forms of business, and make it much easier, faster and cheaper to travel in and out of the region. Among its chief supporters is the Yaquerana District Municipality, based in Angamos, which in July via Facebook accused “environmental NGOs” of being anti-development and lying about the indigenous people in “isolation.”
“Some bad NGOs and pseudo leaders living in the name of suffering indigenous peoples are trying to stop, by lying, the construction of a dream - the road from Jenaro Herrera to Colonia Angamos,” that Facebook post read. “We’re not going to allow those NGOs and pseudo leaders from stopping our development. They want to live well while the people here suffer the whole time from a lack of development - and our only form of development is the road.”
“When has anyone seen an indigenous person who is uncontacted or in initial contact along the Jenaro Herrera-Angamos route?” the post continued. “That route is used all the time by indigenous people and mestizos going to Iquitos for all kinds of reasons, and no one has ever had any kind of contact with them. There are no indigenous people in isolation or initial contact along the route.”
Local mayor Daniel Jiménez, an indigenous Matsés man, tells me that the road would make it much cheaper for people to travel to and from the region, and to transport their products, such as manioc and plantains, to sell in Jenaro Herrera and Iquitos. He also says it would save lives by enabling people to receive hospital care much more quickly, and that the claims by civil society organisations, including indigenous federations, about indigenous people in “isolation” are unfounded. When I mention that the Peruvian state too, including MINCU, has acknowledged their presence along the road route, he says the Ministry has never visited Angamos to explain that.
“I’m 51 years old and I’ve walked between Jenaro Herrera and Angamos for years - I’ve got a plot of land along the way - and I’ve never seen any uncontacted people,” he says. “They don’t exist.”
According to Pachamama Alliance Peru, the Ministry of Transport agreed, in a meeting with NGOs, to visit the affected region but has never done so. When I mention the municipality’s Facebook post, Pachamama’s Eduardo Pichilingue emphasises that there are “other solutions” to Angamos’s isolation, including improving the flights between Iquitos, and that it isn’t just civil society expressing concern about indigenous people in “isolation.”
“The evidence doesn’t only come from NGOs or independent researchers,” Pichilingue says. “It’s official evidence. It’s evidence that has been acknowledged by the state. This isn’t something we’ve invented.”