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Peru Indigenous Against Proposed Road

The main indigenous federation in Peru’s southeastern Amazon region has demanded that the government shelve a bill in Congress that would pave the way for a highway through pristine forest, a national park and indigenous lands.

The bill, approved by one congressional commission and awaiting discussion by another, would make a road or railway link to a remote Amazonian community near the Brazilian border a “priority” issue of “national interest.”

Opponents, including indigenous organizations, say it would violate native communities’ land rights and endanger nomadic people who shun contact with the outside world, because the only possible route would cut across a reserve set aside to protect those people.

In a statement issued June 8, the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries (Federación Nativa del Río Madre de Dios y Afluentes, FENAMAD) called for the government to shelve the bill and take stronger measures to protect isolated indigenous groups. The largest concentration of such groups in the world is found along the border between Peru and Brazil, where both countries have set aside reserves to protect them.

“It’s a matter of great concern, because (any road) would cross the Alto Purús National Park and the reserves for people in voluntary isolation,” Julio Cusurichi told Indian Country Today Media Network.

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Cusurichi, a Shipibo who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2007 for his efforts to that reserve, is now a council member in the Madre de Dios Regional Government. He said the regional government opposes road construction in that area and is implementing an ordinance to strengthen defense of indigenous territories.

A road “would increase illegal logging, and contact with indigenous people in isolation would be a concern,” Cusurichi said. Besides increasing deforestation, a road would also open the area to illegal gold mining and drug trafficking, he said.

The legislators who introduced the measure in Congress argued that people in the remote town of Puerto Esperanza, in the Ucayali region, which is accessible only by river or air, should have closer ties to the rest of the country.

Any land route between Puerto Esperanza and Iñapari, the closest town, which is on the Interoceanic Highway linking Peru and Brazil in the Madre de Dios region, would cross the 6.2 million-acre Alto Purús National Park. Established in 2004 to protect both isolated indigenous people and the area’s biological diversity, including some of the country’s last stands of mahogany, Alto Purús is Peru’s largest national park.

Under Peru’s Protected Areas Law, a national park is considered “untouchable.” Because that law prohibits the extraction of natural resources, modification of infrastructure or any activity affecting ecosystems in a park, the bill opening the way to road construction is illegal, according to lawyer César Ipenza of the Peruvian Environmental Law Society (Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental, SPDA).

Ipenza said any proposal for a road in that area would also require the approval of the environment and transportation ministries and the Ministry of Culture, which is handles matters related to indigenous people. None of those agencies has approved the congressional bill, he said.