LIMA, Peru - Hundreds of members of some of the world's last indigenous tribes
still living cut off from the outside world have emerged from their isolation
to confront illegal mahogany loggers in Peru's southeastern jungle that are invading
their land, activists and officials said on Saturday.
Four loggers have already been reported injured by arrows in the tense stand-off, which began a few days ago on a river deep in the Peruvian Amazon near the border with Brazil.
The head of a native peoples' federation in the region told Reuters he feared "genocide" could ensue after his group intercepted radio communications in which the loggers were appealing for reinforcements and weapons to return attacks.
The Native Federation of Madre de Dios River and Tributaries said it had received reports from loggers returning from the area to the town of Puerto Maldonado that around 400 native people were massed on the banks of the Piedras river, a route used by loggers.
Lily La Torre, a federation official, said one logger had reported the natives were "naked" but had no other information on what they looked like. At this time of year, the indigenous people head to the river banks to collect the eggs of the caricaya turtles, considered a great delicacy, she said.
"If the state does not send in police in the next few days, there could be deaths," the federation's president, Victor Pesha, told Reuters. "Our fear is that genocide could happen."
About a tenth of the 80,000 residents of the Madre de Dios department are Amazonian Indians. Experts say the uncontacted peoples live in voluntary isolation in small groups, supporting themselves as hunter-gatherers and from fishing.
Peru established a reserve in Madre de Dios for uncontacted peoples in April, which should be off-limits to the loggers.
But activists say hundreds of loggers are in the area near the reserve, working on commission for big timber companies, at least one of which they say in based in the United States.
The area is the largest remaining mahogany stand in Peru and it is illegal to cut down mahogany there. The hard, reddish-brown wood is highly prized and fetches big prices on international markets.
Nature groups say more than 4 million cubic feet of mahogany from Latin America reach global markets every year, mostly from Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, and that much of that is illegal logged.
TRIBES SLING VINES ACROSS RIVER
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said he had no immediate information on how many police could be sent in to eject the illegal loggers from the area, or when, but Interior Minister Gino Costa said earlier in the week the government would set up two police posts, one on the Piedras river.
La Torre said the federation had heard the loggers' radio conversations via its own broad-band radio, which it uses to contact its officials. According to their reports, she said, the native people had strung vines along the river to prevent the passage of loggers upstream.
Clashes between loggers and uncontacted tribes are not new -- Pesha said around 20 people had been killed in confrontations in recent months and some native people have reportedly been shot dead in some clashes.
But La Torre said there had never been reports of so many uncontacted tribes-people emerging to challenge the loggers.
She said the four injured loggers had reportedly been treated at a medical
post in a small Indian community, but she had no details of their condition. The
reports could not be independently confirmed.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Ltd