November 2021 Field Report: Monitoring and Protecting Matses Ancestral Lands
By Christopher Herndon and William Park | Co-Founders
Guard post on Upper Yaquerana River
Background: To reach the Matsés territory requires either a weeklong boat trip passing through Brazil; a flight on a small plane; or a multi-day walk through the jungle. This inaccessibility and the Matsés fierce reputation have been the major factors protecting this area historically. The Matsés communal territory is the key to a binational area that includes the Matsés National Reserve, the Sierra del Divisidor National Park, the Javari Tapiche Indigenous Reserve and the Vale do Javari Reserve in Brazil (alone the size of Austria). Together this area is one of the largest and wildest areas left on our planet and the home of the highest number of people still living in voluntary isolation or uncontacted people. These people are at extreme risk of disease should they be contacted by adventure seekers; fanatical missionaries; or illegal resource extractors. The Matsés have had encounters with the uncontacted in their ancestral hunting grounds and there is the potential for conflict. South of the Matsés territory there have been deadly conflicts when uncontacted bands raid isolated villages seeking metal tools and food stores. The movement patterns of the uncontacted groups that enter the Matsés Ancestral Territory are not understood but are likely linked to land use changes to the southeast in Brazil and to normal seasonal movements for hunting. The potential for conflict remains if one of these bands should raid a Matsés camp looking for axes or other metal implements. The Yaquerana River (headwaters of the Javari) is the international border between Peru and Brazil through part of Matsés territory. As such, it is not legal for the Matsés to close the river to boat traffic from the settler communities downriver in both Peru and Brazil. Poachers take advantage of this to enter the territory for commercial fishing, endangered turtle egg collecting, and timber cutting. The construction of a road from the Ucayali to the Javari makes this work even more urgent. The road will bring a wave of settlers looking for new land to exploit along with the timber mafias who will use the road to exploit previously inaccessible highly valuable timber species like Spanish Cedar and Mahogany.
Riverine turtles play a vital role in the ecology and their eggs are an important indigenous traditional food throughout Amazon region. They are now threatened with extinction due to over collecting of eggs from their nesting beaches and the hunting of adult turtles. The largest turtle in the Amazon, known locally as Charapas (Podocnemis expansa), which can weigh up to 200 pounds, is facing extinction in Peru because the large adults are easily hunted and the eggs are large and highly sought after. For the Matsés the eggs from both the Charapa and the smaller Taricaya (Podocnemis unifilis) are a important source of protein and calories. Unfortunately, there are now stretches of the Yaquerana river where the turtle nests are no longer found due to commercial egg poaching. It is important to emphasize that the lack of controls on the egg trade will eventually lead the poachers further up river. Egg collecting can not be seen in isolation as the poachers will also hunt for bush meat and potentially cut timbers. Without an intervention these activities will spread up river further endangering those in voluntary isolation.
The objectives of this project were to provide protection both for the Matsés Ancestral Territory and peoples living in voluntary isolation. This was accomplished as follows below:
During the same General Assembly Meeting the Matsés agreed to set aside a portion of the Yaquerana River beaches as a turtle conservation area. This is very important as in general conservation projects fail due to the lack of engagement with the local communities. In this case the Matsés took the initiative to learn how to successfully hatch turtle eggs and gained the cooperation of the other Matsés communities who do not have nesting beaches near their own communities. Additional Matsés villages including two in Brazil want to participate in the project and have a vision of restoring the precontact turtle populations.
A team of 12 Matsés was equipped to patrol the upper Yaquerana in shifts and deploy camera traps looking for evidence of uncontacted peoples entering the Matsés Ancestral Territory.
Construction of a guard post downriver from the Matsés community of Puerto Alegre. The poachers stay away from the Matsés villages and the sounds of their motors can’t be heard from the villages. This guard post allows the Matsés to monitor a key area of the Yaquerana as a base of operations for the patrols. The presence of the post also discourages poachers.
We supplied the Matsés with two boat-motors to use for the patrols.
We purchased a short-wave radio that will allow for communication of the guard post with all the other Matsés communities and government agencies if necessary.
We supplied the 30 patrol members with project uniforms, flashlights, and boots.
We supplied fuel and food supplies so they can reach distant areas and remain on extended patrols.
We supplied equipment for the collection of turtle eggs and for the construction of a turtle egg hatchery. The hatchlings were returned to their nesting areas for release. When the patrols reach the turtle eggs before the poachers it discourages poaching as the poachers come back empty handed.
7000 turtle eggs were collected and we are especially pleased that the rare giant river turtle eggs were also collected bringing hope for the restoration of these turtles in the area.
The patrols are also removing turtle traps and freeing the turtles they find trapped.
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