The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are often characterised as helpless victims of 21st century expansion and development. Patrick de Flufy argues that this characterisation is inaccurate and ignores the complex reality on the ground.
From the isolated tribes that get contacted by the outside modent world, to cultures destroyed by resource exploitation and a seemingly inexorable acculturation, virtually all indigenous peoples of the Amazon are being enormously affected by the vast forces of modernity, over which they often have little control.
But this is just one side of the story. The peoples of the Rio Corrientes are an example of the other. Forty years ago, the Achuar, Urarina and Kichwa communities living on the Corrientes had very little contact with the outside world. That was when the first petrol companies struck oil there, quickly erecting large installations and pipelines, but building them in a slovenly manner with no respect for the local environment.
There have been regular oil spills ever since. For Pucacuro, the village nearest to one of the earliest and largest installations, two large spills into their fishing lake, in 1978 and 1980, have meant a slow poisoning by the lead and cadmium that accumulated in the fish. As a result, many of the young people of Pucacuro are experiening a range of health problems including brain damage and thyroid problems. Even today eating local fish can result in illness. So far the victim narrative has played out. But the people of the Rio Corrientes have fought back. In 2006, after years of being fobbed off by the petrol companies and the Peruvian government alike, all 36 communities of the Rio Corrientes got together, blockaded the river and shut down the oil installations, costing Pluspetrol an enormous amount of profit. This resulted in the Act of Dorissa, an agreement that Pluspetrol would start to clean up its operations, and signalled the start of a gradual shift in attitudes. Today the Federation of Native Communities of the Rio Corrientes (FECONACO) employs a network of highly trained environmental monitors and regularly goes to court over oil spills. They recently had a meeting with ministers and congressmen in Lima, resulting in a multi-sectoral commission examining the extent of pollution in the river basin and considering strengthening the environmental laws.
The Nahua tribe from southeastern Peru are usually held up as a classic example of the horrors of first contact. They story is that they were contacted by loggers in 1984, and very quickly over half of the group died, apparently losing their indigenous culture almost entirely and can be seen pitifully poor in the streets of Sepahua, a nearby town.
But the Nahua tell a different story; not least that it was them who actively made contact. They say that they ‘fell out of the forest’ because of their enormous desire for metal objects such as machetes. Those first contactors appeared superficially acculturated in about five minutes; the first thing they did was to demand the clothes of the Yaminahua loggers they had met and on their first visit to town, while getting his hair cut, a Nahua man said: ‘I want to become a Peruvian like you’. The Nahua are clear that this man was not saying that he wanted to leave his own culture behind and live in town. Indeed, part of the Nahua culture is a belief that the way to understand something foreign to themselves – be it an animal they hunt, the spirit world or the world of outsiders – is to imitate it, or ‘become’ it for a brief period, and thus learn about it.
While the Nahua do go to Sepahua to acquire desired goods, they also have a territorial reserve to live in unmolested. This helps protect nearby tribes who are choosing their own futures by voluntarily remaining in isolation. For example, the Mashco-Piro – a nomadic isolated group who live for part of the year near the Nahua – actually break anything metal they find and anthropologists believe they have even given up agriculture in order to remain in isolation.
Then there are very acculturated groups who are reclaiming their indigenous cultures: Curuinsi is an association of indigenous students in Iquitos, the capital of Loreto, who are doing just that. Started by poor Huitoto students who could not speak their own language, they now have a traditional maloca – communal building – in Iquitos, where they are learning from some of the last sabios, or knowledgeable elders, of their tribe, at the same time as studying at university. The students share a powerful vision for the maloca. Indigenous students of all tribes will learn and share the wisdom of their different cultures. They will adapt their traditional cultures to the modern reality, combining western and traditional medicine, writing down their sabiduria – loosely translated, their cultural wisdom – putting it on the internet, inviting foreigners to come and learn with them. The aim is for the maloca to eventually become a training ground for the next generation of leaders.
These are just a few of the many examples of indigenous peoples carving their own futures out of the clash of the Amazonian and modern worlds in which they are living. Currently they are doing so with very little help indeed. Pluspetrol is making huge profits from Rio Corrientes and still causing untold damage to the environment, but gives very little back. Ruben, the president of Curuinsi, occasionally has press interviews in Lima, but more often than not he must go to bed hungry. And the Matses, a large group on the border of Peru and Brazil, receive inadequate medical provisions and almost nothing else; neither their leaders nor the few Matses at university in Iquitos get any help when they enter the world in which money is a necessity.
Perhaps most unfortunately of all, when help is given, projects are generally designed by the funders and NGO’s, rather than the indigenous people themselves being facilitated in creating projects suited to their cultures. Perhaps we should stop making assumptions about ‘primitive’ cultures, and instead start listening to their aspirations and allowing them the means to achieve them. That way, we might learn something valuable from them too.
Patrick Le Flufy is working with FECONACO, Curuinsi and IIAP and will shortly be spending two months living in a remote Matses community. Visit Patrick's blog.