Created in 1990, the Kugapakori Nahua reserve was the first of its kind in Peru. The reserve aims to protect the territories and resource bases of its indigenous inhabitants, who mainly come from four groups – the Nahua, Nanti, Mashco Piro and Machiguenga. There are now a total of five such reserves in Peru and five more have been proposed, while in June 2007, almost 81% of the land area of the Peruvian Amazon was under hydrocarbon concessions.

It’s estimated that first “face-to-face” contacts with isolated peoples cause the death of between a third and one half of the population within the first five years, following the introduction of new diseases. Indigenous rights organizations throughout Latin America now take the approach that isolated peoples’ position not to seek contact with outsiders should be respected by protecting their land from potential threats such as resource extraction by third parties.

Dora Napolitano and Aliya Ryan of Shinai looked at four examples of how the oil and gas industry in the Urubamba Valley has directly threatened the isolated peoples of the Kugapakori Nahua Reserve or tried to strengthen national legislation in its favour. “These examples illustrate the role that the oil/gas industry plays at all levels – on the ground, in the preparation of national legislation and in the international arena – to undermine the promotion of safeguards for indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation,” they say. “If this trend in the quest for oil and gas (and other extractive industries, particularly timber) is not reversed soon, the violation of rights and the eventual death of hundreds of indigenous peoples seems inevitable.”

Napolitano and Ryan also worked together with the Nahua people to map their territory and that of other indigenous peoples in the area, analysed their land tenure, and collected personal testimonies about the Nahua and other peoples in the region who have chosen to avoid contact with outsiders.

“This research, through collecting life histories of recently contacted peoples shows the diverse pressures upon them, and reasons they had for entering into or rejecting contact – from fears over health, desire to access metal tools, forced contacts (e.g. by loggers or missionaries) – and it documents some of the changes that occur in the years following contact, highlighting both the impacts on health and wellbeing more broadly,” Dora Napolitano of Shinai told environmentalresearchweb.

The pair used their findings to influence policy, working together with AIDESEP, the national indigenous federation. “We raised awareness in the public sphere, generated press interest and got legislative changes made as a result, for example the modification of Block 57 [an oil/gas concession] to exclude the Kugapakori Nahua Reserve, the supreme decree strengthening the legislative status of the reserve, and the Law for isolated peoples,” said Napolitano.

The team’s current priority is to encourage the Peruvian State to “take its responsibilities towards isolated peoples seriously, in relation to the exploitation of all natural resources, most notably timber, oil and gas”. The Peruvian government has been taken to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for inaction in three separate incidents: logging in the Territorial Reserve in Madre de Dios, the Camisea Project in the Kugapakori Nahua Territorial Reserve, and the overlap of Block 67 (oil) on the proposed Napo Tigre Territorial Reserve.

The researchers reported their work in a focus issue of Environmental Research Letters on Environmental Health and Justice Internationally.