The Purús/Manu region in the Peruvian Amazon is one of the most remote, inaccessible areas in the world. Comprised of specially protected areas, titled indigenous lands, and forestry concessions, it includes some of the most biodiverse and least disturbed forests in the entire Amazon basin—and perhaps the highest concentration of isolated tribes anywhere on the planet. While still largely intact, this 10-million hectare complex is threatened by a number of familiar deforestation drivers including illegal logging and mining, oil and gas development, illegal coca plantations, agricultural expansion, and most concerning, the precursor to all these: Road construction through the heart of this unique landscape.
In the past several years, there has been a dramatic increase in sightings of isolated tribes near remote villages and control posts as well as outright violence initiated by the tribes. While the causes for this change in behavior are still unknown, one group that recently initiated contact explained that they sought contact because men with guns had hunted them down, presumably illegal loggers or drug traffickers in the Alto Purús Park. Climate change is also forcing these nomadic communities to migrate. Regardless of why some tribespeople have become less reclusive, any kind of contact, even of the peaceful nature, often proves disastrous to the tribes who have no natural defenses to common illnesses. Recent history is full of examples of Amazonian tribes being decimated by epidemics shortly after contact with missionaries, oil and gas workers, and loggers. In response to this crisis, the indigenous rights organization, Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, is proposing designation of this entire region as the “Corridor for Indigenous Tribes in Isolation and Initial Contact”.
I have been working in this region of the Amazon on issues of protected areas and human rights since 2015. My first introduction was through a cover story for Science Magazine on issues of isolated tribes and indigenous communities impacted by illegal extractive industries. I have since returned on six related projects, most of them working with Chris Fagan, Executive Director of Upper Amazon Conservancy, on issues such as road construction or documenting the social and environmental impact of and need for new protected areas. As a fellow in Wake Forest University's Center for Energy, Sustainability, and the Environment, I have also worked with the CINCIA program on their work with mercury contamination in the Madre de Dios region and in restricted areas of Manu National Park.