Alto Purús

Report By
Megan Stacy
Chris Fagan and James Leslie for reviewing this report.
December 15, 2008
July 26, 2010

Deep in the remote upper reaches of the Peruvian Amazon, the region known as the Alto Purús has a history of natural-resource extraction and exploitation, starting with the rubber boom of the 19th century, that has brought death and displacement to its indigenous communities, including “uncontacted” groups living in voluntary isolation from modern society. Today, the extraction of “red gold” — the highly valuable bigleaf mahogany tree — is imperiling the region’s ecosystem, impacting the culture and way of life of its indigenous communities, and even threatening the survival of uncontacted groups. In 2004 the Peruvian government placed part of this region under formal protection with the creation of the Alto Purús National Park and the Purús Communal Reserve, which it co-manages with indigenous communities. This model of participatory conservation aims to use the skills and knowledge of those who have the highest stake in the land’s preservation to provide effective stewardship while at the same time ceding political power to the indigenous communities. Nevertheless, the current administration of President Alan García, in the name of progress, is seeking to make the Amazon region more accessible to foreign investment and exploitation. “We respect the Mother of the forest, the Mother of the rivers, the Mother through whose wisdom we receive knowledge about healing,” Antonio Iviche Quique, president of the Native Federation of Madre De Dios, said in a 2009 interview in the Guardian Weekly. “Through that knowledge, our people have survived for thousands of years. This might be difficult to see with mercantile eyes, but for us the land is the fountain of life and survival.”

The Land and Its People

Peru is one of the eight South American nations that share the Amazon, the earth’s largest and most diverse tropical rainforest ecosystem, often called the “lungs of the planet.” The Alto Purús region is named for the Purús River, a major tributary of the Amazon River. Located in far southeastern Peru in the Madre de Dios and Ucayali departments, it is bound on one side by Brazil’s 2,600-square-mile Chandless State Park. It is a remote and sparsely populated region, accessible only by boat or airplane, with an abundant forest and aquatic ecosystem characterized by lowland tropical forests, bamboo forests and flat, palm-tree studded savannas. The Purús and other rivers meander through the forests and plains, flooding in the wet season and slowing to a nearly impassible flow in the dry season. Approximately 30 percent of the known vertebrate species in the Amazon are found here, including the jaguar, giant river otter and the black spider monkey. There are 510 documented bird species living in the Alto Purús, such as the harpy eagle and the scarlet macaw. The region is also home to the bigleaf mahogany tree (Sweitenia macrophylla), a tropical hardwood species found only in South America that is used to produce valuable and expensive furniture, lumber and musical instruments.

While the jungles and forests of this region have likely been inhabited for thousands of years, the population remained relatively undisturbed by outside influences until the rubber boom of the mid-19th century brought deadly diseases, enslavement and displacement. Many of the indigenous inhabitants of the Alto Purús today are descendants of the few survivors of the rubber boom. As recently as 50 years ago, the majority of the indigenous groups of the region lived in voluntary isolation, most likely to ensure their survival after the trauma of the rubber boom.

Today two such “uncontacted” groups are known to exist. One group is the Mashco-Piro, who have indicated their desire to remain undisturbed through both defensive and evasive behavior. Little is known about this community, whose population is estimated to range from 200 to 800; they are a migratory people who camp along the river banks in the dry season to collect turtle eggs and return to the forests in the wet season. Another, much smaller indigenous group known as the Curanjeños also lives here in voluntary isolation.

There are eight linguistically and culturally distinct indigenous groups that have left the forests and established permanent villages on titled lands located north of the Purús Communal Reserve: the Cashinahuas, Amahuacas, Sharanahuas, Chaninahuas, Mastinahuas, Yine, Ashaninkas and Culinas. These groups account for approximately 2,800 people living in 42 small villages clustered along the Purús and Curanja rivers. These communities subsist primarily on small-scale agriculture, hunting, fishing and artisan activities.

The groups living in the Peruvian Amazon are small in population, but they are part of one of the most culturally diverse regions in Peru. While their traditions differ, these indigenous tribes share a common heritage of animism that mingles with the Christian belief systems most have adopted. This spiritual heritage is one of interconnectedness and interdependence on the Amazon forests, its animals, waterways and invisible spirits. This heritage also includes an oral tradition of knowledge about medicinal plants and local ecology. The indigenous identity is inextricably linked to the Amazon and this translates into a custodial relationship to the land and its resources.

Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts

Although the Alto Purús’ isolated location has prevented intensive development and minimized extraction of one of the world’s last stands of bigleaf mahogany, this “red gold” of the jungle is now the focus of illegal logging activity that penetrates farther into the forest each year. Neighboring Brazil and Bolivia have implemented forestry laws that have reduced or prohibited legal exports of mahogany, and this has intensified pressure on Peru’s mahogany resources in the Alto Purús.

Logging is a lucrative industry, and the profit motive creates a chain reaction of crime, corruption and forest destruction. A single mahogany log can be worth tens of thousands of dollars and can be used to manufacture multiple items that, in total, can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. While deforestation in Peru is relatively low compared with other nations in the Amazon, reports show that 50 percent of the mahogany range in Peru has vanished, and within the next decade a further 28 percent will have been logged. Since 2002, the United States has been the top importer of Peruvian mahogany, the vast majority of which is logged illegally.

Logging, along with oil exploration, poses a particular threat to the uncontacted tribes of the region. Because they live in isolation, they are vulnerable to diseases brought by outsiders, as their ancestors were during the rubber boom. In the 1990s, contact by loggers wiped out more than 50 percent of a tribe in a neighboring region. The president of Peru’s state-run oil company defended exploration in the Amazon by claiming that uncontacted tribes did not exist; however, in 2007, video footage taken from an airplane confirmed the presence of a Mashco-Piro encampment. Recent reports by Survival International suggest that illegal logging and oil exploration are forcing these uncontacted peoples to flee into Brazil.

The move to conserve the core of the Alto Purús began in 2000, when the Peruvian government declared a large part of the region the Alto Purús Reserved Zone, a provisional conservation category. Two years later, with funding from the World Bank, Peru’s National Institute of Natural Resources began the process of bringing the protected area under proper management, which led to the establishment of the Alto Purús Park and Communal Reserve in 2004, with support from WWF. The park and reserve cover 6.7 million acres—an area the size of the state of Massachusetts. The 494,000-acre reserve is co-managed by indigenous communities and the state, and there is also a territorial reserve for the Mashco-Piro. The park and reserve now link other protected areas in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, creating one of the largest networks of strictly protected areas in the Amazon Basin.

Indigenous communities were involved in the development of the park and reserve from its inception, participating in training and collaborative sessions with the national government to define land-use strategies. These groups also contributed to the development of the park and reserve’s master plans, which included long-range goals for community policing, sustainable natural-resource management, and active monitoring of illegal logging.

As of 2007, there were approximately 50 indigenous community members who worked as voluntary park guards. In addition, multiple security posts had been built and regular forest patrols established. Indigenous community members also partnered with park staff in a successful project to relocate endangered turtle eggs. There are ongoing management committee meetings and community workshops between park staff, government officials and indigenous community members to discuss natural-resource needs and management decisions; these meetings include workshops conducted in native languages. This collaborative management process recognizes both the environmental needs and the human needs in Alto Purús, with the goal of implementing sustainable practices that will both preserve the land and generate income for its people.

Nevertheless, illegal logging in the Alto Purús persists, despite national and international laws that protect bigleaf mahogany and require permits for its export, dependent on government verification of legal harvest. Loggers are able to obtain false permits, and they circumvent understaffed and underfunded park control posts by entering the protected areas via rivers that flow from bordering forest concessions where legal, managed logging is permitted. Trees are then floated downriver or flown out of Puerto Esperanza, the region’s only city, for sale or export. Once a log reaches market it is impossible to tell where it was harvested. With the United States receiving more than 80 percent of Peru’s mahogany exports, the 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act — which outlaws the import, possession and sale of illegally sourced wood — is almost certainly being violated.

As pressure increases to extract timber from deeper inside the protected areas, instances of violence between loggers and members of uncontacted tribes are on the rise. Indigenous groups in the permanent settlements also feel pressure from loggers. There are few health clinics in these villages and limited access to material goods such as tools. In order to raise cash for their families or to access manufactured items, most village leaders barter with loggers to allow timber extraction on their own titled lands. Reports indicate this trade is grossly unequal as loggers exploit the peoples’ low literacy skills and other disparities in information access, resulting in poor wages and treatment for these communities. The WWF has piloted several programs to provide logging permits and timber management plans to the village members themselves in order to encourage sustainable logging and allow the full profits to remain within the community.

There are differing opinions, however, within the indigenous communities as to the benefits of the national park. The people of Alto Purús are collectively represented by the Federation of Purús Native Communities. In 2006, the federation called for the cancellation of the national park due, in part, to the perception that its establishment had done little to protect against illegal logging and actually made the area more dangerous. Because of this conflict, only 26 of the 42 indigenous communities in Alto Purús are currently represented in the contract the Peruvian government signed in 2007 for joint management of the reserve. The 26 communities who are part of the existing contract are represented by the organization ECOPURUS, which currently oversees several projects, including a seedling-replanting project on the indigenous communities’ titled lands to allow for long-term timber supplies while providing a livelihood for the people who call the region home.

Although participatory conservation in the case of Alto Purús has been an imperfect, sometimes contentious process and the establishment of the national park and communal reserve has not been a cure-all for the region’s problems, it represents an important step forward in protecting biodiversity along with the rights of indigenous peoples. Confronting the active and powerful threats to the region will take ongoing, committed action by both the state and indigenous communities.

Most recently, those threat manifested as a series of decrees signed by President García in 2008 as part of a package of legislation to facilitate implementation of a free-trade agreement with the United States. These decrees opened large areas of the Amazon to foreign investment and made it easier for companies to obtain permits for logging, oil drilling, mining, agricultural and hydroelectric projects; they were passed without consultation with indigenous groups, in violation of international standards. After months of nationwide protests that climaxed in a deadly police raid on a roadblock in the department of Amazonas, Peru’s Congress voted on June 18, 2009 to repeal the decrees.

What You Can Do


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