LIMA – Pope Francis began on Friday a pastoral visit to Peru that includes an excursion to Amazonia to meet with leaders of the some of the Andean nation’s 4 million indigenous people.
Fifty-one of Peru’s 55 indigenous groups dwell in the Amazon region, according to the most recent census, dating from 2007.
Some 5,000 of the Amazonian indigenous inhabitants are members of communities that the Peruvian government classifies as Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact.
The term Initial Contact describes population groups who have been exposed to the wider society and “decided of their own volition to distance themselves and they now live in large territories in Amazonia,” Angela Acevedo, head of the Culture Ministry’s Department of Indigenous Peoples, told EFE.
Given the vulnerability of those groups, the government has established five reservations where they can enjoy at least a degree of protection from unwanted intrusions, Acevedo said.
Most of the progress in protecting the interests of indigenous peoples has come over the past 25 years, since Peru signed the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, which establishes the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.
In addition to the individual rights enjoyed by all Peruvian citizens, the indigenous peoples now have collective rights to their land and natural resources and to be consulted on development decisions that affect them.
They are also entitled to maintain a kind of parallel judicial system to settle disputes among members.
Even so, Peru’s indigenous people continue to contend with a serious degradation of their territories through deforestation, illegal mining and other encroachments.
Julio Cusurichi, leader of Shipibo community of Madre de Dios and a 2007 recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, said that Amazonia is suffering from the Peruvian government’s failure to comply with Convention 169 and other international agreements.
Acevedo acknowledged the many difficulties facing the indigenous peoples.
The most recent surveys show that 60.4 percent of indigenous communities live in poverty, while around 20 percent are virtually destitute.
Indigenous peoples also “have less access to education, health care and the justice system, due to their being geographically far from social centers and capitals,” Acevedo said.