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Latest death by Indigenous tribe highlights rising tensions in Peru

The death of a logger who was shot with arrows has cast a spotlight on the growing conflict around an Indigenous reserve occupied by an Indigenous tribe that has long lived in voluntary isolation on Peru’s south-eastern Amazon border with Brazil.

The body of Gean del Aguila, 21, was recovered on Thursday after a four-day hunt by a search party of police, Indigenous guides and company workers.

He disappeared last Sunday after an encounter with members of the Mashco-Piro tribe while fishing with Genis Huayaban, 54, who was injured by an arrow in the attack.

The two men were on the Tahuamanu River, in an area known as the extension of the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve which borders a timber concession operated by a logging company Maderera Canales Tahuamanu.

The killing comes amid rising tensions between the logging company and the local Indigenous federation Fenamad which accuses the firm of putting the Mashco-Piro at risk by illegally entering the native reserve to log tropical hardwoods, a claim the company denies.

“We informed the authorities that these events could occur at any moment,” said Julio Cusurichi, the president of Fenamad, which represents 39 Indigenous communities in the Cusco and Madre de Dios regions.

“There cannot be economic activities in isolated Indigenous territory, because of the high risks for both [sides] and because it goes against the principle of no contact … they are highly vulnerable humans.”

The logging company has sued Fenamad for defamation over its allegations and a court ordered the federation to rectify its claim and pay a fine of 20,000 Peruvian Soles (£4,450). Fenamad is appealing the decision.

The logging firm disputes a 2016 extension of the isolated Indigenous people’s reserve as it has overlapping forestry concessions.

Despite concerns for the health of the isolated people who have little or no immunity to common illnesses such as influenza or the common cold, in 2020 Peru’s health ministry allowed the company to continue operating in the area.

“The dangers of contact are the transmission of diseases as well as the confrontations that can occur with other people,” said Luis Felipe Torres, a Peruvian anthropologist specialising in isolated Indigenous people.

The Americas are home to the largest number of Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation and initial contact in the world and Peru, along with Brazil and Paraguay, is one of a handful of countries with existing populations.

Around 15 “uncontacted” tribes with up to 15,000 members are believed to live in the dense forests of the Peruvian Amazon. They are increasingly threatened by roads encroaching into the Amazon rainforest bringing drug-trafficking, illegal gold mining and illegal logging. Increased contact has led to several such deadly encounters in recent years.

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