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For decades, only a footpath led through the dense Peruvian jungle to Jivaro Indian territory. And only the Jivaro knew the way.

Then came oil development, and white society laid a pipeline over the path. The barefooted Indians now had to walk atop the cold black metal as though negotiating the back of a giant snake.But, although the pipeline traced the path, it led the Jivaro nowhere because they had no claim to the oil on their land. In fact, they had no claim to anything because they had no legal recognition in the nation of their birth.

Like many indigenous people in the world, the Jivaro have no more legal status than a tapir or a termite. Without legal status, they have no land titles. And without land titles recognized by white society, the Jivaro cannot defend their land.

The Jivaro Achuara of Peru are among the most beautiful people I have known, though they have had a reputation for being fierce.

They endured Spanish domination until 1599, when they attacked several gold mining settlements and poured molten gold down the throat of the Spanish governor. Then the Jivaro retreated under the cloak of dense jungle, not to be heard from again for three centuries. But when roads, missionaries and mineral hunters penetrated the jungle, modern society came to the Jivaro.

We have no reliable estimates of how many Indians dwelled in the jungles of the Americas when the Europeans arrived. Some say four million, others five. Estimates place today's number at several hundred thousand.

But estimates often fall wildly short. In New Guinea in 1930, two miners walked into a valley and discovered a civilization of one million people never before known to the outside world. We cannot, therefore, count on the counts.

My guide among the Jivaro was Kukus, a chief.

To lead his people, he had to maneuver between two worlds, just as he had to learn to walk the slippery pipe. Eminently civilized and proud, Kukus exuded his tribal and cultural identity _ his real identity. But his legal identity did not exist.

His people were not given identity papers. To obtain them, men had to go to a police station on the river to have their hair cut short and register for the army. Only after agreeing to perform military service would the Jivaro get their papers.

But for Jivaro men, having hair cut is akin to being castrated. In addition, many felt they should not fight in the white man's army _ even if it meant getting an identity card.

The white man made war over petroleum. For example, Ecuador and Peru have had border skirmishes over the oil-rich jungle deposits. And with oil fever on Jivaro land, white society brought in disease and fear and satellite economies that preyed on Indian powerlessness.

I myself saw mestizos, local residents of mixed Indian and Spanish blood, walk onto Indian land and cut down beautiful trees, while simply announcing to the Indians that "This is not your tree, it is my tree." When the Jivaro protested, the mestizos said, "Who are you? Can you prove this is your land? You have no papers, so it is my tree."

In this lawless way, the region and the Jivaro lost much precious hardwood. Without title, their only defense for their land was force. As a result, "upstart" Indians were put in jail, subjected to our Western legal system. But this was an awkward situation, for how can you put "nobody" in jail? And without identity papers, the Jivaro were nobody.

I became so concerned about the predicament facing the Jivaro Achuara that I arranged a visit between Kukus and the then president of Peru. The president listened, and seemed sympathetic to the plight of the Jivaro. But he remained non-committal. Land claims were an issue to be thrashed out between Occidental Petroleum and PetroPeru, the national oil enterprise.

As far as I know, the Jivaro never received rights to the oil on their land, all because they had no title to the land in the first place.

In the census of the world, how do we account for the uncounted, like Kukus? In the jungle, where simple grass paths are no more, where is the path to justice?