Lumberjack invasion spurs cross-border contact between native villages

In a sign of growing indigenous activism and impatience with ineffectual bureaucrats, communities in Peru and Brazil have joined forces in recent days to patrol a volatile border region rife with illegal loggers and heavily armed gangs of drug-runners.

Earlier this month, a joint patrol of Ashéninka natives from the Alto Tamaya River in Peru and Asháninka tribesmen from across the border in Brazil encountered multiple sites inside Peru where loggers appeared to be operating outside legally recognized concessions. The Indians also discovered a logging camp just 200 yards from the border, prompting suspicions that the lumberjacks are poised to snatch valuable timber from Brazilian national territory.

An illegal logging camp deep in the Peruvian Amazon Photo by Scott Wallace


“It’s a known strategy,” Asháninka leader Isaac Piyãko told the Pro-Indian Commission of Acre, the Amazonian border state in far western Brazil that includes the native lands of the Asháninka. “They set up a camp close on the border to take away wood from Brazil.” Piyãko said the patrol found trunks of recently felled mahogany and cedar — both endangered hardwoods protected by law — as well as standing trees on the Brazil side marked with blazes by loggers for imminent harvest.

Equipped with hand-held GPS units, indigenous leaders presented the geo-referenced information to Brazilian authorities in a meeting last week in the frontier city of Cruzeiro do Sul. Officials promised to look into the matter and indicated they were willing to undertake aerial surveillance and to bolster their presence in the restive border area.

The Brazilian Asháninka have evolved into a well-organized and influential force in recent years, emerging as a role model for other less fortunate tribes. Their territory has been legally recognized, and tribal members enjoy a relatively high level of educational and public health services. The same cannot be said for their brethren in Peru. They have petitioned for legal title to their land for the past ten years. The government has yet to act, leaving the Peruvian Ashéninka exposed to ongoing invasions from illegal loggers and a cascade of threats that keep everyone on edge when nighttime comes to the forest, and the last cooking fires wink out.

Just last month, members of the Ashéninka community of Saweto found three outboard motors sabotaged after they sustained a confrontation with loggers in the backwoods.

The Asháninka and Ashéninka are closely related indigenous groups, sharing a common language and similar customs.

Scott Wallace writes about the environment and indigenous affairs for National Geographic and other publications. His forthcoming book, The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, will be published by Crown in October 2011. For more information, please visit www.scottwallace.com

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Scott Wallace writes about the environment and indigenous affairs for National Geographic and other publications. He is the author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes (Crown, 2011). For more information about the book and his work, please visit www.scottwallace.com.