PUCALLPA, Peru (Reuters) - Delia Pacaya grew up in Peru’s Amazon in a nomadic tribe that shunned contact with outsiders, but when loggers invaded the land she fled the virgin rain forest and settled in a tiny village.
Like many others born in the jungle, Pacaya says she felt threatened by loggers, who often cut beyond the reach of police. The result, environmental and human rights groups say, is the destruction of the Amazon and ancient tribal life.
“There were a lot of loggers and we were afraid,” said Pacaya, now in her 20s, speaking Chitonawa and sitting in a three-sided hut, made from palm leaves, where her young son played and chickens pecked at the dirt floor.
Pacaya left her jungle tribe a decade ago and now farms a small plot on the Murunahua nature reserve in Peru’s northeastern region of Ucayali. Most trappings of modern life escape her but some others, like nail polish and T-shirts, do not.
Although experts do not know for sure how many indigenous people have abandoned the rain forest and wound up in towns in recent years, they say former tribe members struggle to adapt and often fall to illnesses that their people had never before been exposed to.
“Uncontacted communities are in a very difficult situation. Most of them are being encroached on by loggers, among others, and their lives are in danger,” said Beatriz Huertas, an anthropologist who often works with AIDESEP, a rights group.
Of more than 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide, more than half are thought to live along the Brazil-Peru border. In May, photographs taken near the border showed two Indian men covered in bright red pigment poised to fire arrows at an aircraft, apparently feeling threatened.
The photos reignited a debate between rights organizations and the government at a time when Peru is encouraging companies to explore for oil and gas in the jungle.
Peru’s state-run energy agency Perupetro recently said it would exclude areas where isolated communities live from an auction of oil and gas lots. It was a sharp turnaround for Perupetro, which had previously cast doubt on the existence of remote jungle tribes.
Rights advocates applaud the move but said Peru must do more to prevent encroachment that threatens to expose tribes to deadly diseases. They say the government’s plans fall short as nomadic tribes travel in and out of protected parks and enforcement is lax.
Contact with outsiders has historically been disastrous for Peru’s Indians. More than half of the Murunahua tribe died of colds and other illnesses after they were contacted by development workers for the first time in 1996.
An aerial shot of the Murunahua nature reserve shows circular spots of downed trees that scar an otherwise lush, green canopy.
Corruption, inadequate policing, poor local cooperation and rampant rural poverty all encourage illegal logging, said INRENA, the agency charged with protecting Peru’s resources.
The government insists it is doing its best.
“People say Peru isn’t interested in taking care of the tribes ... but we are,” said Ronald Ibarra, director of indigenous affairs at the ministry for social development.
Huertas spoke of the dangers to indigenous groups as she stood next to a river that loggers use to move fallen trunks from the jungle to a plant where they are collected, processed and shipped.
Once trees arrive at the yard, it is tough to know where they came from, hindering efforts to combat illegal logging.
A policeman patrolling a processing plant near Pucallpa said both kinds of wood move through the yard, a sprawling complex piled high with cut lumber and mud-covered tractors.
“Some of it’s legal, some of it’s illegal,” he said, declining to give his name.
Writing by Dana Ford; Editing by Terry Wade and Kieran Murray