Human Journey


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

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
  • Ethan

    In order to eliminate illegal logging operations along the Peruvian and Brazilian borderlands, local and indigenous popluations must be actively involved. According to your article, allowing the indigenous leaders to have access to GPS technology has greatly increased their ability to protect their lands from illegal loggers. This spatial data will make it easier for indigenous leaders to inform local governments, national governments, and international organizations of where the injustices are occuring. It is a promising sign that Brazilian authorities have agreed to bolster their presence in the area. Hopefully, increased enforcement from the Brazilians will help to counteract the lack of enforecement from the Peruvian government on matters pertaining to illegal logging in these isolated areas. The Peruvian government has largely ignored the issue of illegal logging for too long, which has helped exacerbate widespread corruption among logging companies, local government officials, and even international NGOs. The following link provides another good example of the corruption from 2007, once again at the expense of the Ashaninka people (

  • […] Loggers And Natives Face Off In The Borderlands, National Geographic […]

  • Grace Leonard

    The government is making important steps forward through collaborating with the Asháninka and Ashéninka communities. It is key moving forward for communities and governments to view illegal loggers as part of a system created by the timber industry.

    The impact of the timber industry in Peru is analogous to the impact coal mining has had on Appalachia. An economic system brought to an impoverished community from the outside is incorporated by necessity into the community’s daily life. Over time, economic industry becomes a matter of heritage, and thus, identity. Could illegal loggers value their social role as much as their paycheck? Enforcement must be not only react to the system timber has created, but question the industry’s social implications. As the United States demand for mahogany expands production in the Amazon, it is evident that the global economy is expanding, and will effect cultural norms. The prevalence of illegal logging shows that the benefits of participating in the economy may outweigh the ramifications of breaking the law.

  • Dillon V

    There is no doubt that the use of GPS devices from indigenous leaders and increased surveillance on camps will help eliminate some of the illegal logging occurring in the Alto Tamaya River Region of Peru. Will this type of system work for all of the illegal logging occurring throughout Peru, or the entire Amazon for that matter? With the massive size and complexity of the Amazon, it seems nearly impossible to regulate all logging activities within the forest. Even if illegal camps can be located, the costs and difficulties of following illegal loggers across the vast Amazon are infinite. Illegal loggers will continue to destroy reserved lands, use violence towards indigenous tribes, and do anything for the prized-market commodity: mahogany. With over 80% of all harvested mahogany from Peru ending up in the US, perhaps another approach is to set the enforcements and regulations higher on the market side of Amazonian forestry as well ( If there is no longer a market for mahogany, illegal loggers will have no incentive to continue their practices in indigenous lands. By putting the stress on consumers, the issue of controlling illegal mahogany logging moves outside of the vast, complex Amazonian forest and into a more easily regulated area. Enforcement and penalties for importing and buying mahogany must be thoroughly increased in the United States.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media