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Feeling the heat.

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Peru pressured to protect refugees fleeing to Brazil

By Rick Kearns -- Today correspondent

LIMA, Peru - The stunning recent photos of indigenous men aiming their arrows at the helicopter above them have made international headlines; but advocates are saying, again, that these families are running for their lives and that this time the Peruvian government - which has recently backed off from certain development plans - must take action to save them or their future will be grim.

According to statistics from Survival International and other sources, there are approximately 15 tribes, with about 500 uncontacted or isolated people, in Peru. Researchers have also shown that after contact at least 50 percent of previously uncontacted people die; and in some cases, the whole tribe perishes, often from Western diseases to which they are extremely vulnerable.

Other countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Chile also have thousands of uncontacted persons within their borders. Since 2000, international laws have mandated that uncontacted peoples have the right to inhabit their lands and to not be forced into accepting any type of business or exploration.

Meanwhile, advocates from around the world, including the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, have been documenting incidents similar to the one facing the Native families in the photos.

The first step in this latest effort, however, was demonstrating that a problem existed (despite several reports and testimony presented in the last few years).

On May 28, Jose Carlos dos Reis Meirelles Junior, an expert on uncontacted people from Brazil, flew over various parts of the Amazon forest near the Brazil-Peru border to take pictures of the fleeing peoples.

''We did the over-flight to show their houses, to show they are there, to show they exist,'' Meirelles stated. He also asserted that this time it's illegal logging operations in Peru that are pushing uncontacted tribes out of their home regions, forcing them to flee to the somewhat safer area across the border in Brazil. (In other instances, big ranchers, drug lords, military conflicts, oil operations or miners have caused the evacuations.)

''This is very important because there are some who doubt their existence,'' he added, such as Peruvian President Alan Garcia, who had voiced skepticism over whether there was a problem. Spokesmen for Peru's largest oil company, Perupetro, had also suggested that uncontacted people did not exist and that exploration in their area would be permitted. However, upon publication of the photos (which were sent all over the world by SI) and the resulting news coverage, Peruvian authorities promised to investigate.

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A few days later, the Peruvian government announced that they had dropped plans for further oil exploration in certain areas inhabited by uncontacted people. Perupetro issued a press statement that said none of their new areas involved ''reserves for uncontacted tribes to avoid confrontation with local communities and environmental organizations.''

This declaration, however, does not apply to the French oil and gas company Perenco, which recently bought the rights to work in the northern Peruvian Amazon - an area inhabited by at least two uncontacted tribes and which includes the presence of the Spanish/Argentine company Repsol YPF, Petrolifera and various smaller enterprises.

Even though Perenco is being sued by the Peruvian Amazon indigenous group AIDESEP, it is going ahead with its exploration plans. (Perenco had recently taken over the project after buying the U.S. company Barrett Resources, which had been infamous in Native communities for its stated plans of ''communicating'' via megaphones with indigenous communities that were trying to block drilling.)

This continued problem, along with others facing all indigenous people in Peru, has not escaped the attention of the region's largest advocacy group, the International Indigenous Committee for the Protection of Indigenous People in Isolation and Initial Contact of the Amazon, the Chaco Basin and the Eastern Region of Paraguay, known as CIPIACI in Spanish. The multinational, multiethnic CIPIACI includes indigenous activists from Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Paraguay.

In response to this most recent incident, CIPIACI issued a six-point press statement that outlined new information as well as allegations it has been making for several years.

The statement starts with the locations of most of the uncontacted people, which are the areas of Loreto, Huanuco, Ucayali, Madre de Dios and the ancient Inca capital of Cusco.

''The displacement of the indigenous populations in voluntary isolation from the south of Ucayali to Brazilian territory is the result of aggressions and constant threats they have been suffering within their native lands in Peru,'' the statement continued. ''Effectively, this type of displacement has been happening in the last few years due to the invasion ... principally by loggers and evangelical groups which pursue them for the purpose of contacting and converting them.''

The activists point out that most of these facts were spelled out to Peruvian authorities more than 10 years ago, both by indigenous groups such as CIPIACI and the Ucayali Communication Network, as well as FUNAI from Brazil and other governmental and human rights agencies.

''The promises by the Peruvian government, made in 2001, to attend to these problems have not been fulfilled,'' the statement asserted. ''... And this is reflected in the persistent invasion by loggers in this part of the country, and the grave consequences this is causing to the people in isolation and the other local communities.''

''Once again ... we demand that the Peruvian government complies with its duty to guarantee the respect of the rights of the indigenous people in isolation, through the legal consolidation of their ancestral territories, the removal of and imposing sanctions against the outside agents who have invaded and threatened their lives,'' the CIPIACI statement stated in point six.

While Peruvian authorities have not made any further concessions as of press time, SI reported that Garcia has received at least 1,300 letters of protest from around the globe.