Indigenous federations and other Peruvians have responded fiercely to a proposed law promoting the construction of highways in some of the remotest parts of the Peruvian Amazon near the border with Brazil. A series of “protected natural areas”, including four national parks, and five reserves for indigenous peoples living in “isolation” could ultimately be impacted.
Local, regional and national federations – together with NGOs, relevant state entities and congresspeople – have spoken out against or expressed concern about the proposed law. The main claims: it poses serious threats to the forests, biodiversity and indigenous peoples living in “isolation” and “initial contact”, and it contravenes Peruvian and international laws, trade agreements with the US and European Union, Peru’s international climate change commitments, and recommendations by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In addition, it is argued that it has been pushed through Congress with many relevant state entities not formally involved, or ignored, or both. These include the Environment Ministry, the Foreign Relations Ministry, the Culture Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Justice and Human Rights Ministry, the “protected natural areas” agency SERNANP, the ombudsman Defensoría del Pueblo, and the Congress’s Commission on the Environment, Ecology and Andean, Amazonian and AfroPeruvian Peoples.
The law was proposed in April this year by congressman Glider Ushñahua Huasanga from the Fuerza Popular party, led by Keiko Fujimori. The aim is to declare “the construction of highways and the maintenance of tracks in the frontier zone of the Ucayali region to be a national priority and in the national interest.” The main stated reason is to make it easier for people living in remote areas to transport their agricultural products to market, thereby boosting trade and economic development.
But Julio Cusurichi Palacios, president of indigenous federation FENAMAD and a former winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, believes that highways in remote Ucayali would be catastrophic for indigenous peoples in “isolation.” At an interview at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn last month Cusurichi said they would cause a “genocide.” In a video address published by Peruvian media outlet La Mula, he said that a “genocidal extermination” is possible.
Cusurichi told the Guardian that although the proposed law doesn’t specify particular highway routes, it must be read in conjunction with those approved by the Transport and Communications Ministry last year. They include one running right through the Alto Purus national park and Madre de Dios reserve, both inhabited by indigenous peoples in “isolation.”
“That means a highway would bring their deaths,” says Cusurichi, a Shipibo man. “It’s a severe danger.”
Other opponents of the highways use similarly alarming language. At a meeting in Congress in October, another FENAMAD representative and congresswoman Tania Pariona Tarqui, from the Movimiento Nuevo Peru party, were both reported saying the highways could cause “ethnocide.”
“It is not an exaggeration to talk of ethnocide,” Pariona told the Guardian. “Contact would not only expose the [indigenous peoples in “isolation”] to epidemics and illnesses which their immunological systems can’t cope with, but to dependency. Experience has shown that projects like these end up most benefitting illegal economies like narco-trafficking, timber and mining.”
In a statement last month, national indigenous federation AIDESEP, which represents communities throughout the Peruvian Amazon, effectively warned that the highways could bring “extinction.” They argued that the proposed law is a “flagrant violation” of indigenous peoples’ rights and poses a “serious threat to the lives, health, subsistence, integrity and territories” of those in “isolation.”
A similar warning was issued this week by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. She released a statement saying that road construction in the past had led to “physical and cultural extermination”, and that the proposed law in Peru now threatens the “very survival” of indigenous peoples in the remote Amazon.
Several civil society organisations wrote to congressman Ushñahua in October urging him to “reconsider” the proposed law. ORAU, an indigenous federation representing communities in Ucayali, together with FENAMAD and other groups, informed Ushñahua that the bill violates Peruvian and international law, and that highways can’t be built in national parks or reserves or other areas inhabited by indigenous peoples in “isolation.”
Many opponents believe the real motive of some people behind the proposed law is not to encourage economic development in remote areas, but open up otherwise inaccessible indigenous territories to be logged for valuable timber species such as mahogany and cedar, or mined for gold, cleared for oil palm or other monoculture crops, hunted for game and settled. At the same time, it is argued that new highways would facilitate narco-trafficking and other illegal operations.
Congressman Alberto de Belaunde, from the Peruanos Por el Kambio party, described the proposed law to the Guardian as “a dangerous incentive putting at risk areas rich in biodiversity and the home of many Peruvian citizens, hiding behind the noble objective of developing the border.”
De Belaunde, president of the Congress’s Commission on Justice, says the relevant state entities haven’t been consulted and therefore no “serious analysis” of its impacts has been done.
“According to the information I’ve received, the relevant experts, organisations and authorities agree in emphasising the particular importance of most of these border zones,” de Belaunde says. “The experience of the Inter-Oceanica Sur highway should serve as an example that we need to evaluate the impacts of these kinds of measures. I understand from the Culture Ministry that it will request that the Executive Power does not approve the law. I hope that this is what happens, and then parliament can properly analyse the consequences.”
Several relevant state entities have expressed concern about the proposed law too. In August, before it was voted on in Congress, the Justice and Human Rights Ministry wrote to Congress’s president, Luis Galarreta Velarde, stating that 10 years ago the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended that Peru’s government “adopt all the necessary measures” to protect the “lives and integrity” of indigenous peoples in “isolation” in one particular region of south-east Peru. Since new highways in Ucayali could affect that region, the Ministry stated it was “necessary” to consider the opinions of the Inter-American Commission before moving forward with the law, as well as that of the Culture Ministry, SERNANP and the Congress’s Commission on the Environment.
In early December the Culture Minister sent a report to Galarreta calling the proposed law “not viable” and emphasising the potential impacts on the indigenous peoples in “isolation.” After it was approved in Congress on 7 December, the president of the Congress’s Commission on the Environment, Marco Arana Zegarra, issued a statement saying the Culture Ministry’s opinion had been ignored and the Commission itself “totally rejects” the proposed law.
Lorena Prieto, from the Culture Ministry, told the Guardian that highways are particularly dangerous for indigenous peoples in “isolation” or “initial contact” because of their lack of immunological defences, making disease transmission easy and any kind of contact with outsiders potentially fatal. Over the last few 100 years in the Amazon, indigenous peoples entering into sustained contact have been repeatedly decimated by diseases.
“Highways could bring epidemics, illnesses and colonisation in areas where there are people in isolation or initial contact, or other indigenous peoples,” Prieto says. “They could also encourage illegal activities and interrupt subsistence livelihoods, making it difficult for the people in isolation to obtain food.”
Peru’s iconic Manu national park and the recently-established Sierra del Divisor national park are among the areas considered potentially threatened by the proposed law, but arguably the most immediately vulnerable are the Alto Purus national park and the Madre de Dios reserve, as FENAMAD’s Cusurichi has emphasised. Purus is the biggest national park in Peru, extending for more than 2.5 million hectares and including the headwaters of major Amazon tributaries. It is “one of the most important and best conserved refuges for different species of endemic and threatened animal and plant species among tropical forests on the South American continent,” according to the 2004 law establishing the park. It is also home to indigenous peoples in “isolation”, including the “Mashco-Piro”, who have attracted increasing media attention in recent years.
The province of Purus is effectively cut off from the rest of Peru by different kinds of protected areas: the national park, the Purus communal reserve, and the Murunahua, Mashco-Piro and Madre de Dios reserves for indigenous peoples in “isolation.” The only way in is by small, irregular, expensive planes, or, from Brazil, upriver by boat.
A highway would change all that, running from Purus’s capital, Puerto Esperanza, to a town on the border with Brazil, Iñapari. That would connect Purus to the Inter-Oceanica Sur highway and a continent-wide road network spanning Peru’s Pacific Ocean coast to the west and Brazil’s Atlantic Ocean coast to the east. It would also mean cutting right through the Purus park and the Madre de Dios reserve.
For years, the most visible local promoter of the Purus highway has been the Catholic priest based in Puerto Esperanza, Miguel Piovesan. In the November 2017 edition of the Journal of Latin American Geography, academic researchers accused the priest of “exploiting his power” by issuing “pro-highway propaganda” in the parish magazine, on the parish website, on local radio, and on banners and placards, and by conflating such propaganda with the Catholic religion. “Jesus Christ, take pity on this town and give us a highway,” reads a message behind the altar in the Puerto Esperanza church reportedly photographed this year.
Since 2005 several attempts have been made – and foiled – to legally declare that a Purus highway should be built. Ushnahua’s proposed law is the latest effort. “Purus province (the furthest from the regional capital). . . is only accessible by air or river,” it reads. “This has meant Brazilian influence on culture and education is deep-rooted. The population is mostly indigenous. . . Cashinahuas or Huni-kuy, Sharanahuas, Culinas, Mastanahuas, Ashaninkas, Amahuacas and Yines. . . At the local level, regular transport of both people and goods is done by river, although in many of the low population density areas, like Purus, connection is by air, which raises transport costs. Consequently, infrastructure for transport and basic services is a necessity and can’t be delayed.”
Despite such attempts, it has been reported for years that only a minority of Purus’s population is in favour of a highway. Rafael Pino, from SERNANP, director of the Purus communal reserve, told the Guardian the “large majority” of local people don’t think a highway would solve the province’s problems, and only a “small group” – “above all, non-indigenous” – appear to think otherwise.
“The majority are in favour of better connection and that’s why Ucayali’s regional government has a project to build a road to connect to Brazil,” Pino says. “But most people understand that a highway to Iñapari isn’t going to solve the basic problems we have in Purus, such as malnutrition or lack of drinking water. Drinking water won’t arrive with the highway. People see that there are better, more viable alternatives to that. There’s just a small group who say “Yes, there should be a highway to Iñapari”, but they only say that because they want to exploit the timber.”
Arsenio Calle, also from SERNANP, director of the Alto Purus national park, agrees with Pino. He told the Guardian that FECONAPU, a Purus-based indigenous federation, and most indigenous communities in the region are against the highway.
“For Peruvians in general or just a small group of businesspeople?” Calle asks, querying the claim that highways in remote Ucayali would be in the “national interest.” “This isn’t really about national interest. The majority of the local population is against a highway. [Ushñahua’s bill] shouldn’t advance like this. I see no consultation with the relevant authorities. I hope that the Executive Power does not approve it.”
AIDESEP, FENAMAD, congresswoman Pariona, the UN Special Rapporteur and others are now urging Peru’s president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, and cabinet to block the proposed law. Kuczynski survived a vote in Congress yesterday to impeach him, following accusations connected to a major Latin American corruption scandal.
“Together with the indigenous organisations we are requesting that the Executive Power does not approve the bill and sends it back to Congress for wider debate,” Pariona told the Guardian.
Opponents of highways connecting to regions like Purus often emphasise that there are alternatives, if bringing sustainable development to remote parts of the Amazon really is the aim. As Emilio Montes, FECONAPU’s president, reportedly said at the meeting in Congress in October, “development for indigenous peoples doesn’t mean physical connection by road.” Montes, a Huni Kuin or Cashinahua man, was reported to say that there are other ways to connect Purus, either through a river and road network via neighbouring Brazil or subsidised flights. Congressmen like Ushñahua, Montes said, are more interested in promoting “dangerous highways” through indigenous territories than providing “essential basic services.”
In a recent interview on Ucayali TV station, UTV, Montes emphasised that alternatives exist and the highway is mainly being promoted by certain congressmen. “We’ve been opposing this kind of development for a long time because of the negative impacts it would bring,” he said.
Glider Ushñahua and Miguel Piovesan could not be reached for comment.