- A bill proposing to strip lands and protections of Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact was rejected by three congressional commissions at the end of June — permanently shelving it before it could reach Congress.
- The bill, which was proposed by a congressman from Peru’s oil-rich Loreto region and supported by the regional government and businessmen, aimed to shift responsibility for the creation of Indigenous reserves from the national government to the regional governments and re-evaluate whether to keep existing Indigenous reserves.
- Indigenous organizations, civil society and Peru’s Ministry of Culture, responsible for creating Indigenous reserves, say the proposed bill was illegal and would have endangered the lives of isolated communities.
A bill eyeing to strip uncontacted Indigenous people in Peru of lands and protections was officially scrapped at the end of June.
This legislative proposal, called a “step backward” by critical Indigenous and conservation organizations, garnered widespread attention and sought to alter the current Law for the Protection of Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact Situations (known as PIACI in Spanish).
Put forward by Jorge Morante Figari, a right-wing congressman from the oil-rich Loreto region in Peru’s Amazon, the bill, known as known as PL 3518/2022, planned to shift responsibility for the creation of Indigenous reserves from the national government to the regional governments. It also proposed to re-evaluate the existence of every Indigenous reserve for isolated peoples to determine whether to keep them or scrap them completely.
Indigenous reserves often take many years to establish and aim to protect isolated peoples from diseases and the destruction of ecosystems they rely on, in part by prohibiting the entrance of outsiders and extractive industries like oil drilling and logging.
“I’m very happy because we’ve worked hard to stop this draft bill, which violates the rights of uncontacted tribes and those in initial contact,” said Tabea Casique, national council leader of Peru’s Indigenous Amazonian association (AIDESEP), one of the Indigenous organizations that lobbied to stop the bill.
“The scrapping of the draft bill protects our uncontacted relatives, their rights and their lives and avoids the genocide and ecocide that it would have unleashed,” said Casique.
Loreto’s regional government supported the bill as well as the Committee for the Development of Loreto (CDL), a private consortium led by business owners who work closely with the regional government.
Despite evidence saying otherwise, supporters of the bill maintain that isolated peoples do not exist and that the creation of Indigenous reserves hampers economic opportunities and is part of an agenda to give the Peruvian Amazon away to NGOs and foreign interests.
Mongabay reached out to Congressman Figari, his adviser and the CDL president for comment but received no response at the time of publishing.
“The most significant implications are that you leave in the regional governments’ hands the possibility of deciding whether or not they exist,” said Silvana Baldovino, who works as a program director at the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA).
Baldovino told Mongabay that people in voluntary isolation and initial contact need a high level of protection, which only the national government has the capacity to provide. In a context where many Peruvians in areas like Loreto live from paycheck to paycheck, she said those behind the bill are pushing a narrative that Indigenous reserves prevent poor Peruvians from getting jobs and being able to feed their families.
Those interested in the region’s natural resources will also stop profiting if you close that area off to them in order to protect Indigenous people, she explained in an interview last year.
The country is home to 25 groups of Indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact living in seven reserves covering more than 4 million hectares (9.8 million acres) of Amazonian forests in the departments of Madre de Dios, Loreto, Huánuco and Ucayali, according to Rocilda Nunta Guimaraes, Peru’s vice-minister of Interculturality. There are another five reserves in the process of being created, three of which are in Loreto. These reserves contain some of the best-preserved rainforests in Peru in a context where forest conservation efforts across the country are failing.
According to Baldovino, ever since the self-coup attempt by former left-wing President Pedro Castillo who was ousted in December 2022, there’s been a series of legislative proposals favoring extractive schemes coming out of Congress and the new executive. Baldovino said if the bill had reached Congress, despite it being illegal, there would have been a high chance that it would have been approved.
“The campaigns that are being led are heavily based on economic interests, rather than systems for safeguarding rights,” said Baldovino.
Before a bill can be voted on in Congress, it is referred to a relevant congressional commission, which reviews the bill’s content, holds public hearings and may request inputs from experts and stakeholders.
PL 3518/2022 was sent to three commissions and on June 23, the decentralization commission was the last to reject the bill, meaning the bill will be shelved and not be sent to Congress. However, Baldovino said it’s highly likely a similar bill could return, with slight amendments and a different name.
“It’s an achievement, and I see it as a small step, but I do not see it as a win and a definitive triumph,” she said.
The Ministry of Culture, which supported the advocacy of Indigenous organizations, also provided technical and legal opinions to the commissions responsible for evaluating the bill. In response to written questions from Mongabay, the ministry said it pointed out the illegality of the proposed bill.
“If this bill had been approved, it would have opened the possibility of eliminating the reserves created and would have violated the principle of non-regressivity of the law, since it would have gone backward in those measures that protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact Situations,” responded the ministry via WhatsApp.
The ministry said it would work with all levels of government to improve access to public services and the implementation of sustainable development projects for populations around the Indigenous reserves.
According to Baldovino, the significant international attention the bill received also played an important role. This included calls from the United Nations for Peru to respect the country’s international and constitutional commitments, as well as from activist Greta Thunberg, actor Mark Ruffalo and a petition that received more than half a million signatures.
“[The decision] highlights the participation of those people with a conscience, in order to look out for our [uncontacted] brothers and sisters,” said Roberto Tafur, from ORPIO, another Indigenous organization that lobbied against the bill.
“Life comes before money,” he said. “It’s been a hard-fought vote to get here. And to continue fighting for our brothers and sisters in the jungle, who don’t know that we’re fighting for them.”
Banner image: The Javari river forms the border between Brazil and Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We speak with Scott Wallace, a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut, National Geographic writer, and author of a New York Times best-selling book on the importance of protecting uncontacted Indigenous groups in the Amazon. Listen here: