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Nahua´s quest for territory
Barbara J. Fraser
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Walking a fine line between two worlds, a recently settled indigenous group seeks title to its ancestral lands.

It took José Dispupidiwa Wasi a week to travel from his community to Lima, the nation’s capital. Dispupidiwa Wasi is the curaca or traditional chief of the Nahua community of Serjali, deep in the jungle of southeastern Peru. With four other community authorities, he made the grueling journey — about five days by river and two over the Andes on a bus — to seek title to his people’s ancestral lands.

The trip follows up letters that the Nahua leaders sent to government officials earlier this year. “We waited and waited for a reply, but it never came,” said Jader Flore Gómez, president of the community of Serjali.

While the Nahua and other semi-nomadic groups are often referred to as being “uncontacted,” the word is a misnomer. Most have had some contact with the outside world, particularly with loggers or oil company workers. Abused or ill from diseases to which they had no resistance, they have fled deeper into the forest, their lives ever more precarious.

Because they shun contact with outsiders, there are no completely reliable statistics about these groups. But based on reports by anthropologists and health workers, as well as information from loggers and others who have had encounters with them, there are an estimated 10 to 15 groups in several parts of the Peruvian rainforest.

Even the “isolation” is relative, however. During the rubber boom of the early 1900s, many indigenous people in the Amazon were virtually enslaved by adventurers and rubber barons. Later in the century, logging took its toll. When the oil giant Shell began working in Camisea, near the Urubamba River, in the 1980s, its workers reported contact with nomadic indigenous people. Roads and paths built by the company also allowed loggers and settlers to enter the area, bringing diseases — some as simple as the flu or a cold — to which the Nahua people, also known as the Yora, had no resistance.

The result, according to Vladimir Pinto of the Pro Human Rights Association of Lima, was “practically a genocide.” Experts estimate that between 40 percent and 70 percent of the Nahua died.

In an effort to avoid similar disasters, in 1990 the government established the Kugapakori-Nahua Reserve to protect nomadic people living in isolation and those who were in the initial stages of contact. With their family groups decimated, many of the surviving Nahua settled down, establishing the community of Serjali on the river of the same name in Ucayali Department in central-eastern Peru.

The reserve, which is administered by the government, was meant to be transitory, providing protection until the indigenous groups living within its boundaries established settlements and claimed title to their own territories. The 260 families living in Serjali are the first to do so. During their visit to Lima in mid-November, the community leaders asked for title to 180,000 hectares, almost 40 percent of the 457,435-hectare reserve.

That in itself creates a dilemma.

“What worries us is that this means dissolving the reserve at a very critical moment, when there various types of pressure are being brought to bear on the indigenous people living there,” Pinto said.

Several other groups – including other Nahua, some Nanti and possibly a group of Machiguenga families – still live a nomadic life within the reserve. It is not clear whether their wanderings take them into the land that the residents of Serjali are claiming, Pinto said. If they do, titling the land could constitute an infringement of their rights.

“The Nahuas’ situation is very unusual and comes after a traumatic process of contact. We can’t forget that and simply say they’re a community that wants a land title. That’s their right…but it needs to be done in such a way that the rest of the peoples in the reserve are not affected,” Pinto says.

Peru has set aside five reserves for nomadic indigenous people. Because they are protected, they often contain the last stands of valuable mahogany. As a result, they are attractive to loggers who enter the areas illegally. As of August 2001, 16 groups of illegal loggers were reported to be working inside the land the Nahua are claiming as their territory. By June 2002, they had cut 600,000 cubic feet of mahogany and cedar, according to Shinai Serjali, a non-governmental organization that works with the Nahua of Serjali.

During their visit to Lima, the community leaders also asked the Peruvian Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA) to control illegal logging in the reserve and give them the right to sell illegally harvested timber that has been seized by INRENA officials. They did not receive an immediate answer.

A thornier issue was their request to be allowed to selectively cut trees inside the reserve on the land they claim as their territory. Except for Camisea, commercial use of natural resources in the reserve is currently prohibited. Some observers worry that if the Nahua are allowed to cut and sell timber, it could set a precedent for depredation of resources in other protected areas.

The Nahua argue that since disease and decimation forced them to settle in Serjali, contact with the outside world has created a series of new needs that can only be met with cash.

“My community needs everything — there are no notebooks or pencils for the children, no machetes, axes, pots or pans,” Dispupidiwa Wasi says.

Logging is not the only threat. Three of the wells in the Camisea gas field lie inside the Nahua-Kugapakori Reserve and the petroleum concession known as Lot 57, which is currently open for bids, overlaps the protected area. The indigenous leaders who visited Lima won a promise from the government to exclude the reserve from Lot 57. If the community gains its title, that would mean it would no longer fall within the reserve. In that case, Pinto said, the territory may once again fall within the lot.

“They’d be the owners of their territory, and they could negotiate with the company that takes over Lot 57, but we know how that has gone in other parts of the Peruvian and Ecuadoran Amazon,” Pinto says.


Nahua chief José Dispupidiwa W
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