They are the people who turned their back on the industrialised world, having decided long ago to live in isolation or else having never made direct contact with outsiders.
But campaigners say that in the jungles of southern Peru, these so-called "uncontacted tribes" face an unprecedented threat from illegal loggers who are increasingly moving into remote areas in search of rare mahogany trees. They say the price of luxury furniture - mostly sold in the US - is a death sentence for these vulnerable people whose environment is being destroyed and who are being killed by disease and in clashes with loggers.
"Tens of thousands of tons of Peruvian mahogany are imported into the US for luxury dining room tables, household trimmings and automobile dashboards," Ari Hershowitz, of the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), said. "But Americans have no idea that buying mahogany contributes to the destruction of the rainforest and threatens the people who live there. People are dying - it is a crisis right now."
A mahogany tree is felled in the Amazon. The mahogany timber trade generates over US$100 million a year in export sales, making it one of the world’s most valuable forest products. (Photo courtesy CITES)
Experts say much of the logging takes place in the Tahuamanu rainforest, in areas specifically set aside for indigenous Indians and uncontacted peoples. Here, mahogany trees can reach up to 120 feet in height. Each can be worth $100,000 (£55,000) by the time their timber is sold in the US.
Situated near the border with Brazil and Bolivia, this rainforest area is home to at least four indigenous tribes, including the Yaminahua and the Amahuaca.
"There are two types [of isolated tribes]," Peter Kostishack, co-director of the non-profit group, Amazon Alliance, said. "There are small, scattered groups who have come into contact with outsiders but have decided that is not for them."
He said that there were also more literally "uncontacted" groups, who were known of only because of evidence seen by other indigenous groups and by these tribes now coming into contact with loggers. "It's devastating in terms of their culture. But also, people living in isolation tend to be very vulnerable to illness and disease," he said.
The NRDC and two Peruvian indigenous rights groups are suing three US timber importers, the Department of Homeland Security and two other federal agencies, accusing them of importing or permitting the import of illegal timber. The lawsuit says that their actions breach the US Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
One of the Peruvian groups is the Native Federation of Madre de Dios, a coalition of indigenous communities, which has accused loggers of plundering "the territories of our indigenous brothers". Its spokesman, Julio Cusurichi, said the issue was partly one of racism. "In the last four years it has been getting worse," he said.
The US timber importers say trade in Peruvian timber is legal if the wood is accompanied with the documents provided by the country's government. The manager of one of the US companies, Bozovich Timber Products in Alabama, told the Mobile Register: "We can't figure out what [the NRDC] think they've got."
But campaigners say the network of forged documents and the widespread corruption means that all of the mahogany imports from Peru must be considered questionable.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited