Recently, Peru’s legislative branch passed a law allowing the construction of highways through the border zones of the Peruvian Amazon. The largely untouched land is home to indigenous peoples living in “voluntary isolation.” Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation have seen their livelihoods and ancestral lands threatened by a shrinking world in which unwanted contact is forced upon them by illegal loggers, drug traffickers, and other illegal third party actors. By approving the construction of highways through the Peruvian Amazon, Peru is violating indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, life, and ancestral lands. Peru has an obligation to protect and ensure those rights under the American Convention on Human Rights (“American Convention”) and the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (“ILO No. 169”) of the International Labour Organization (“ILO”).


Approved by Peru’s Congress in December, the legislation passed into law in January. This law approves the construction of a network of highways of a total length of 172 miles on the Peruvian-Brazilian border. Opposition to the proposed highway plan argue that around 680,000 acres of forest are at risk of destruction if the highway is constructed. The construction of the highway is damaging to the indigenous peoples who call that forest home in two main ways. First, the environmental impact of the deforestation directly threatens the lives of the indigenous peoples. Second, by mere virtue of construction, there will be forced contact with peoples who live in voluntary isolation. The forced contact carries the risk of acts of violence against indigenous peoples, the transmission of deadly diseases to vulnerable populations, and the destruction of ancestral lands.


After ratifying the American Convention on July 12, 1978, Peru must fulfill its obligations to the indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation living within its territory. The Inter-American Court has interpreted Article 21, the right to territorial property, and Article 4, the right to life, of the American Convention as indigenous peoples’ collective right to ancestral land. In Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous Community v. Paraguay, the Court stated indigenous communities have a special relationship with their traditional lands that constitute their main means of survival and “form part of their worldview, of their religiousness, and consequently, of their cultural identity.” The Court has consistently found that indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and survival is closely tied to the physical integrity of their ancestral lands.


In Peru, the indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation have clear ties with the land. In fact, the proposed highway plan would encroach on at least three designated indigenous reserves and protected areas. Given that deforestation is an inherent part of creating a highway through this area, the environmental destruction will directly impact indigenous peoples’ use of the land. Their ability to use the land for survival, religious purposes, and as a natural barrier in furtherance of their voluntary isolation will be severely hindered.


Under the ILO No. 169, which Peru ratified on February 2, 1994, indigenous peoples have a right to self-determination. Specifically, the Preamble recognizes, “the aspirations of these peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and economic development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages, and religions, within the framework of the state in which they live.” Furthermore, Article 5 states, “the social, cultural, religious and spiritual values and practices of these peoples shall be recognized and protected.”


By forcing contact, Peru is violating the indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation purposely limit contact with the outside community. Construction would necessarily bring outside workers and technology that the indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation have rejected. Additionally, outside contact puts peoples in voluntary isolation at great risk of contracting a disease for which they do not have the immunological defenses, leading to outbreaks of epidemics within the community and a high mortality rate.


In moving forward, Peru should look to its own steps in protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. On the international stage, Peru introduced the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”). Although a non-binding document, in ratifying the document, Peru is recognizing the “fundamental importance of the right to self-determination of all peoples, by virtue of which they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.” Considering that the proposed plan of highways will negatively affect a large area of the Amazon, bringing environmental destruction and a high threat to the lives of the indigenous peoples living in that area, Peru should take time to fully evaluate the risk to life and consult with civic society groups to limit the potentiality of infringing on the voluntary isolation.