This year I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in my life. The sounds of nature and faint sun rays welcomed me to Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the department of Madre de Dios, in southeastern Peru.
The Amazonian sunset invited me not only to admire its majestic biodiversity but to reflect on what is behind that beautiful sunset, a hidden history marked by decades of cruelty against the indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, or our “isolated brothers “as Julio Cusurichi, indigenous Shipibo and President of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries (FENAMAD) refers to them. The quiet sunset seems symbolic of their muffled voices and of their stolen freedom because the Peruvian government does not want to guarantee them their ancestral territories and natural resources.
History reminds us of the real reason for the voluntary isolation of indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon. The “rubber era” began in 1885 and led to many raids of indigenous communities, where men, women, and children were forced to work on rubber plantations as slaves. The rubber plantation owners’ objective was to have cheap labor and avoid attacks from the indigenous (Townsley, 1994). The increase in raids and captures caused several indigenous communities to flee and take refuge in remote areas in search of isolation, such as the Mashco Piro tribe (Valdez, 1994). Many died due to illnesses and epidemics, violence, and internal conflicts. Many tribes were whiped from the face of the planet, including the Iñapari, Sapiteru, Huachipaeri, Toyoeri, Kisambaeri and Arasaeri peoples, among others (Wahl, 1994).
After decades of violence and exploitation of their territories, many indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon preferred to remain in conditions of isolation as a way to survive. However, despite the passage of time, their lives have not changed, they are still hanging in the balance of life and death. They are still not officially recognized by the government and their rights are not guaranteed.
During my visit to Puerto Maldonado, I spoke with Eusebio Ríos Iviche, indigenous leader and vice-president of FENAMAD, who emphasized that despite the Peruvian government’s knowledge of the situation of extreme vulnerability that isolated brothers have historically suffered, it still does not fully recognize their rights.
In defense of their ancestral territories, indigenous defenders are forced to face off with the Peruvian government because of infrastructure projects (roads), extractive projects (mining and hydrocarbons), hydroelectric projects and logging. They also face the connected consequences of these harmful projects, including pollution, spread of diseases, forced contact because of tourism, religious missionaries, and others.
Despite the cruel history experienced by the communities living in voluntary isolation during the rubber era, the Peruvian government is not taking urgent and efficient measures to protect and guarantee their full right to live in peace, in accordance with their culture.
“They say that history repeats itself, the truth is that we don’t take advantage of its lessons.” -Camille Sée
At EarthRights International we support, through legal actions, training and advocacy projects, the work of FENAMAD, which is one of the local indigenous organizations that works hard to support the rights of the indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation surrounding Puerto Maldonado. By joining them and supporting their daily struggle, we can build strategies together that support the tireless fight to protect our brothers in voluntary isolation.
Today we commemorate the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. We must reflect and learn from the past that stole the freedom of our isolated brothers and sisters, and continue in the struggle for their rights.