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OPINION: It's time for a law change to save Peru's threatened forest people

Friday, 7 August 2020 18:00 GMT

A view of an uncontacted tribe's village along a riverbank in Peru. Photo Credit: Archivos del Centro de documentación de AIDESEP

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Peru's Congress has an opportunity now to protect little-known indigenous communities from COVID-19 and extractive industries

Lizardo Cauper is president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), and Jorge Pérez is president of the Regional Association of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO).

In the Peruvian Amazon there are more than 20 groups of incredibly rare indigenous peoples living in conditions of voluntary, total or partial isolation - groups known in Peru as PIACI. 

They are living encyclopedias with in-depth knowledge of the natural, and unseen worlds. They are self-reliant and depend on intact forests and lands and healthy rivers that have supported generations of their peoples. 

Yet, despite the amazing cultural uniqueness of these groups, their future survival is at extreme risk given the never-ending march of extractive industries and the dangers of COVID-19. 

There is an opportunity right now for Peruvian officials in Congress to pass a law that will afford these vulnerable populations the protections that they need in order to survive. 

Leaders in Congress can close a 15-year-old loophole in the law that should have already provided these peoples the protections from extractive industries and outside contact that they deserve. The stark dangers of  COVID-19 have put the need to close this loophole on the agenda - but it could be derailed under pressure from the oil industry.

Indigenous communities around the globe deserve a right to life and not be constantly on the forefront of the dangerous impacts of large-scale industrial operations - like oil drilling, toxic mining, and big agriculture that cause widespread deforestation. 

The recent oil spill in Ecuador, ongoing oil spills in Peru, a toxic legacy of activities by Texaco and Chevron,, and mercury poisoning from mining activities  paint a devastatingly real picture of what is at stake.

In the Peruvian Amazon, COVID-19 also represents another huge threat to uncontacted peoples who have already lost tremendous numbers to common viruses that they have no immunity to. 

In Peru, for example, more than 50% of the previously-uncontacted Nahua tribe were wiped out following oil exploration on their land in the early 1980s. This is a tragic lesson that must not be repeated.  

To these uncontacted peoples, Article 2 of the Peruvian Constitution remains an unfulfilled promise.  The right to life, wellbeing, and the inviolability of their homes - guaranteed under it - has often been trespassed by the need of the Peruvian state to generate more income through extraction of resources.

This is why, 15 years ago, Peru’s Congress approved a law to protect these tribes. The current text of the law, however, has allowed the extractive sectors to enter PIACI territories without restrictions, and has prevented the Peruvian state from prioritizing the law or assigning resources to comply with it.

Because of the growing death toll among indigenous peoples in the Amazon, the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP) in April filed a formal complaint before the United Nations and Organization of American States, against the government of Peru and 11 governors of the Amazonian departments. 

In an attempt to respond, a Peruvian congressional commission unanimously approved an urgent modification of the PIACI law so that the PIACI territories are guaranteed to be off-limits from extractive activities and outside contact. Passing this law modification is a critical decision in front of the Peruvian Congress.

It is no surprise that the oil and gas industry campaigned to stop the vote,  making false claims and trying to detract attention away from the critical matter at hand. Fortunately, there is still time for Congress to get this right as it recently went into recess without a decision on this crucial amendment. 

Far from the Amazon rainforest, 130 congressmen in Lima will soon decide the fate of the PIACI. This is not just another vote. It is a historic opportunity for Peru to repair a history of inequity, exclusion, and omission for the PIACI and all Indigenous peoples in our country. 

A vote in support of modifying the PIACI law is the first step to respond to  the growing cry of the Amazon to stop ethnocide in Peru. A vote in favor of protecting human rights and territories of these critically endangered people and cultures would show true leadership and create a living legacy. 

It is a vote for humanity and a vote that will make our country and future generations proud.