World Rainforest Movement

Peru/Brazil: The right to self-determination of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation

In late May, aerial photos taken during a fly-over piloted by the coordinator of the Ethno-Environmental Front of FUNAI (the National Indigenous Foundation of Brazil) confirmed the existence of indigenous people living in voluntary isolation on the border between the Brazilian state of Acre and Peru. They are members of one of four indigenous ethnic groups living in isolation in this area.

Newspapers around the world published images of the indigenous warriors painted red with the natural pigment annatto, produced from the fruit of the achiote tree, aiming their bows and arrows at the plane. Other members of the group are standing back, unarmed, their bodies painted black with genipap fruit juice, while women and children can be glimpsed hiding in the forest. The pictures give the impression that they have had bad experiences in the past associated with airplanes, and their reaction leaves no room for doubt: they want the intruders to go away.

The photographs also captured two large thatched huts built on wide areas cleared in the rainforest to grow bananas, cassava, corn and other crops.


Anthropologist Beatriz Huertas of the International Committee for the Protection of Peoples in Isolation makes a distinction between groups living in “isolation” and those living in a situation considered of “initial contact”. The former are reluctant to establish sustained interaction with members of the enveloping society while the latter have mainly been forced to abandon isolation by external factors or agents, and are more vulnerable to contagion of external diseases against for which they have developed no immunological defences.

Both groups share one problem in common, however: the invasion of their territories by oil companies, logging companies, and more recently, soybean farming operations on the Brazilian side of the border.

It is known that in many cases some predecessors of these groups had “extremely traumatic” experiences when coming into contact with outsiders, and as a result they have chosen to remain in isolation.

In the case of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest region, Huertas says there are 14 ethnic groups or segments of ethnic groups living in isolation, with the majority concentrated along the border with Brazil. She also pointed out that with few exceptions, virtually all the Land Reserves created and proposed to favour those peoples living in isolation are encroached by hundreds of loggers, many of whom have harassed or murdered isolated indigenous people who have come across them. Certain firms that have been granted logging concessions in neighbouring areas to those that are home to indigenous communities are also logging in reserves and launder the timber through their concessions and licenses.

In an interview with Terra Magazine (1), Huertas stressed that there have been countless denunciations of problems provoked by illegal logging on the Brazilian-Peruvian border since 1998. “Since then both countries have set up commissions to deal with the problem but they never reached any clear agreements, nor did they undertake any firm actions to remedy the situation,” she noted.

Despite the abundance of evidence and complaints regarding this situation, some of the companies involved are even able to market their wood with the added advantage of certification. This is supposed to ensure consumers that the products they purchase are made from wood produced through “sustainable” logging practices, which would imply respect for the rights of the aboriginal peoples living in the area.

The International Indigenous Committee for the Protection of Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact of the Amazon, the Chaco Basin and the Eastern Region of Paraguay (CIPIACI) declared in a press statement: “The movement of isolated tribes into Brazil seems to be the result of the constant aggression and threats they have been facing on their land in Peru. Effectively, this kind of displacement has been going on for the last few years because of the invasion of their territories, mainly by loggers or missionaries who follow them and want to contact and evangelize them.” (2)

The photographic evidence of the “invisible” indigenous peoples created a certain level of awareness that has made it possible for the International Indigenous Committee for the Protection of Peoples in Isolation to highlight the situation. This month, after visiting the region on the Brazilian-Peruvian border, accompanied by a FENAMAD (Federación Nativa del Río Madre de Dios y Afluentes) leader and Ashaninka indigenous people from the village of Apiwtxa, Huertas announced: “We are going to prepare a report on this issue and present it to the governments of Brazil and Peru and to international human rights organizations. To the greatest extent possible, we are going to do everything within our reach to ensure that this problem is addressed.”

The dissemination of the photographs of the indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation on the Brazilian-Peruvian border had positive repercussions, but as Huertas pointed out, “Nevertheless, we have to be cautious about certain journalists who expressed a great deal of interest in travelling to the region to establish contact in order to capture images of the uncontacted Indians. This could be catastrophic and could result in the death of the entire group, because of contagious diseases or even a confrontation that could possibly erupt.”

“We have always advocated the right to self-determination, and this means the right of these peoples to decide freely and voluntarily about the ways of life they want to have, without the forced imposition of contact or actions that threaten this right, and this desire. They are living in isolation and it is necessary to respect this isolation. At the same time, if they seek contact, we will have to respect the decision they have made, but we cannot in any way force contact upon them,” she concluded.


(1) “Comisión hará informe sobre indios aislados entre Brasil y Perú”, 12 June 2008,,OI2944081-EI8865,00.html

(2) “South American Indians demand ‘respect’ for uncontacted tribes”, 4 June 2008; and personal comments of Beatriz Huertas.