“The disease wiped out my family”

Juan and his tribe was contacted by loggers in the shelter of the rainforest. Within months, half of the tribe was dead.

Just before dawn on May 3rd 1984, four young men – naked except monkey-teeth jewelry and straps around their waists – were attacked by loggers as they slept on the riverbank. They hid in the forest to nurse their bullet wounds as the loggers hunted for them. After a while one of the young men decided to come out of hiding. But he should never have done that.

"We could not believe they had gone so far, all the way to the mouth of the Sepahua River, and nothing had happened to them"  - Juan

Three decades later, it all remains fresh in the memory of several of the Nahua. “They explained that they had been downriver, at the end of the world", Juan Tonade Didawa, the brother of one of the four men taken, says. The loggers took the four to the town of Sepahua, where they were hauled around and shown off. One of the townsmen took the Nahua under his wing and introduced them to a new world, which was full of surprises. For the first time, the Nahua tasted salt and sugar. Their hosts also gave them a sample of the local brew.

"We could not believe they had gone so far, all the way to the mouth of the Sepahua River, and nothing had happened to them", Juan continues. The Nahua were there a few days before being sent home with large bags of knives and machetes, which they enthusiastically handed out to their fellow tribe members. "That’s when the disease took us – the disease that wiped out my people", Juan says.

"The disease wiped out my family"

Raya remembers the day the disease took many of his family members and friends. They'd never seen a disease like it. What they saw, they can never forget. 

Poisonous contact

This episode represents the first moment of contact between the Nahua people and an alien new world – a world inhabited by tall white people who spoke a strange language. Who used firearms and machetes. Who travelled around in motorboats and airplanes. Isolated indigenous people are extremely vulnerable to unfamiliar infectious diseases. Relatively common and curable ones, such as influenza and the common cold, cause very high mortality in isolated and newly contacted indigenous groups whose immune systems have not evolved to fight these infectious diseases.

Many isolated tribes, live in small, extended family groups in the rainforest. Because they have no interaction with the world outside the rainforest, they are not immune to common diseases. 

Many other indigenous peoples in the rainforest have had similar experiences upon first contact with the world outside the Amazon. While indigenous groups like the Nahua are now integrated to some extent in wider national society, some of the groups continue to keep the world at arm’s length. 

Some people argue loudly that we have to contact the isolated indigenous groups to save them from a life without God, or to give them the benefits of modern life, while others deny that they even exist. In the meantime, modern life creeps ever closer to their territories. Commercial interest in their land and resources is the most powerful incentive to make contact with them. Logging has caused widespread damage. But the greatest threat to the isolated indigenous peoples in Peru today is the oil and gas industry.

The vulnerability of isolated indigenous peoples coupled with the interest in their land and resources has led to a commitment by Peru to protect their lives and territories by establishing reserves – areas that may not be exploited commercially in any way. But over the years the Peruvian authorities have given priority to the industrial interests, and have been quick to allocate oil and gas exploration rights – while the creation of legally protected areas for isolated indigenous peoples has been delayed again and again.

Made their own protection

The attack that took place on 3 May 1984 remains a starkly symbolic event for the surviving members of the Nahua tribe, and they are still living with the consequences. Even after their people stopped dying of diseases, illegal loggers continued to intrude into their land. It took a long and fierce battle for the Nahua to evict the loggers and establish their own control post to make sure the loggers never return.

Control posts and reserves notwithstanding: In June 2014, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture green-lighted a massive expansion of the controversial Camisea gas project. The concession overlaps three quarters of the protected Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve, which includes the territory of the Nahua people. This happened even though a United Nations human rights agency in March 2013 urged the Peruvian government to ‘immediately suspend’ the plans as they could ‘threaten the physical and cultural survival of the indigenous peoples living there’.

Nahua man after hunting

The uncontacted indigenous groups hunt and eat a variety of meat, fish, berries, roots and fruit. 

Peru's government has failed

Peru established the first indigenous reserve in 1990. Since then, four more have been set up, extending over two million hectares. In 2006, a law was introduced to strengthen the reserves further by carrying out enforcement measures and affirming that the reserves were not to be touched or exploited commercially under any circumstances. But there are several loopholes in the law, leaving room for the oil and gas companies to continue their activities.

Where Peru’s government has failed, the indigenous peoples’ support organisations have taken matters into their own hands. Since 2005, the indigenous organisations have set up their own control posts to protect the reserves, with the support of Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Two men with bow and arrow in the rainforest

Almost all the uncontacted tribes are nomads. They move across the rainforest according to the seasons in search for water and food. 

“This is a civil society measure that works,” says Anders Krogh, head of Rainforest Foundation Norway’s Amazon department.

“It is a case of Indians protecting Indians. The indigenous organisations are just waiting for the Peruvian authorities to support and help them in this work – to step up and take responsibility, as they have committed to do, and prevent these people from being exterminated. These are the last free societies, and a global duty exists to make sure they can live in peace. But the authorities in Peru have largely abandoned their duty, and the indigenous organisations in Peru have been alone in protecting these people and their right to live in peace.”

The Camisea project have major consequences – not only for the Nahua, but for other indigenous groups in the reserve, including some that remain uncontacted. Already planned are drilling projects entailing a further 21 exploration wells, a 10-km pipeline and the deployment of 1,200 workers to detonate several thousand seismic explosions inside the reserve.

"All we want
to live in peace" 
- Jose

“Such violations will make it impossible for the isolated tribes to continue their life”, says Krogh. “They will either lead to enforced contact between the petroleum workers and the isolated tribes, which most likely will result in uncontrollable epidemics and mass deaths; or they will force the tribes out of the traditional land they depend on for their survival”.

Enforced displacement of this nature contravenes international law, and has especially tragic consequences for uncontacted indigenous groups – to which the Nahua people are a living testament.

But Jose Dixpopidiba Waxe, leader of the Nahua people, is not ready to give up: “They have a lot of money and they are educated, but I have my voice and belong to the indigenous people. All we want is to live in peace.”

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