The Ashaninka are one of the largest indigenous groups in South America, their ancestral homelands ranging from Brazil to Peru. Since colonial times, their existence has been difficult -- they have been enslaved, had their lands taken away or destroyed, and were caught up in the bloody internal conflict in Peru during the late 20th century. Today, a large communal reserve set aside for the Ashaninka is under threat by the proposed Pakitzapango dam, which would displace some 10,000 Ashaninka. The dam is part of a large set of hydroelectric projects planned between the Brazilian and Peruvian governments - without any original consultation with the Ashaninka. Bowing to recent pressure from indigenous groups, development one other dam in the project, the Tambo-40, has already been halted. The Pakitzapango dam on Peru's Ene River is currently on hold, though the project has not been withdrawn yet. Survival International has collected these images of the Ashaninka and their threatened homeland, and provided the text below, written by Jo Eede. [17 photos]
The Ashaninka are one of South America's largest tribes. Their homeland covers a vast region, from the Upper Juruá river in Brazil to the watersheds of the Peruvian Andes. For over a century, however, colonists, rubber tappers, loggers, oil companies, and Maoist guerillas have invaded their lands. "Their story of oppression and land theft is echoed in the lives of tribal peoples across the world," says Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International.
It is thought that the traditionally semi-nomadic Ashaninka have lived for thousands of years in the Peruvian Selva Central, where the Andean foothills flatten out into the Amazonian rainforest. During the late nineteenth century, some fled across the border into Brazil's Acre state when Peru conceded vast tracts of rainforest to foreign companies for rubber tapping and coffee plantations. This resulted in the displacement of thousands of Ashaninka from their homes. "The vulcanization of latex and the 'rubber boom' that swept through this part of the Amazon wiped out 90 percent of the Indian population in a horrific wave of enslavement, disease, and appalling brutality," says Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International. Today, the Ashaninka of Brazil number around 1,000, living mostly along the Amônia, Breu, and Envira Rivers. The majority still live in Peru. The total Ashaninka population is estimated at approximately 70,000.
The Ashaninka in Brazil avoided the horrors experienced by the Peruvian Ashaninka during the 1980 and 90s, when thousands were caught up in the internal conflict between the Maoist Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and counter-insurgency forces. The state of war brought disastrous consequences for the Ashaninka of Peru: assassination of leaders, torture, forced indoctrination of children, and executions. It is thought that thousands of Ashaninka were displaced, and many killed or taken captive from their forest communities, by the Sendero Luminoso. Dozens of Ashaninka communities disappeared altogether. "Our history is one of constant abuse: we were enslaved during the rubber boom, forcibly removed from our territory, and subjected to cruel atrocities during the civil war that has unfolded in our territory since the 1980s," said the Ashaninka in a 2009 statement.
The geographically distinct Ashaninka communities are united by shared ways of life, language, and beliefs. Like many Amazonian tribes, their lives are profoundly connected to their rainforest homelands. Ashaninka men spend much of their time hunting in the forest for tapir, boar, and monkey. The game supplements crops such as yam, sweet potatoes, peppers, pumpkins, bananas, and pineapples that are grown by women in swidden gardens. The Ashaninka periodically migrate to different areas, thus allowing the rainforest to regenerate. "This way of farming is good for the rainforest because that is the way the rainforest is," says an Ashaninka man. "We live in the forest and we respect it."
Ashaninka children learn skills for self-sufficiency -- such as hunting and fishing -- at an early age. In Acre state, however, the illegal logging of mahogany and cedar trees in the 1980s decimated the Brazilian Ashaninka's forest home. They remember this period as the "time of Logging," when they experienced hardship and poverty not known before contact with the loggers (brancos). Many Ashaninka died from exposure to diseases to which they had no immunity -- an experience shared by other isolated tribes. Following first contact, it is common for more than 50 percent of a tribe to die. The more Ashaninka lands are encroached on by loggers, the more the danger grows that their children will no longer learn skills that have been passed down the generations, and their ancestral knowledge will eventually disappear.
Ashaninka apply daily face-paint in designs that reflect their moods. The paint is made from the rose-colored seeds of the achiote tree, which, when crushed, produce a pigment commonly known as urucum. South American Indians have used urucum for centuries, yet it is only in recent years that it has arguably become one the world's most important natural food colorants. "Annatto is one of the many gifts that tribal people have given humanity, and is testament to their encyclopedic knowledge of their ecosystems," says Stephen Corry of Survival International.
In 2011, 15 Ashaninka communities from Peru and Brazil teamed up to investigate the illegal activities of loggers on the Brazilian side of the border. The five-day trip uncovered widespread evidence that loggers were active in the area, with trees marked for felling in Brazilian Ashaninka territory, which is protected by law. The spread of illegal logging in Brazil also threatens several other Indian groups who live nearby. The expedition's findings were recorded on GPS systems and presented to Brazilian authorities. The team is calling for a more efficient monitoring system, to be aided by the full participation of local Indians.
In 2003, the Ashaninka of the Ene River valley in Peru were granted Communal Reserve rights to a portion of their ancestral lands, in the form of Otishi National Park. In June 2010, however, the Brazilian and Peruvian governments signed an energy agreement that allows Brazilian companies to build a series of large dams in the Brazilian, Peruvian, and Bolivian Amazon. The 2,000-megawatt Pakitzapango Dam proposed for the heart of Peru's Ene valley could displace as many as 10,000 Ashaninka. The dam will require the burning of thousands of acres of forest, will drown the Ashaninka villages situated upstream, and will open up other areas to logging, cattle ranching, mining, and plantations. "We contributed with our blood and our lives to the pacification of this country, and yet the government still imposes new threats upon us: the concession of our territories to petrol companies and to the construction of the Pakitzapango Dam," say the Ashaninka.
"The Ene river is the soul of our territories: it feeds our forests, animals, plants, seeds, and most importantly, our children," says an Ashaninka man. According to Ashaninka legend, the sacred canyon of Pakitzapango, which translates as "eagle's house," was once home to a giant eagle that was building a giant wall of stones across the Ene River in order to abduct the tribe. The Pakitzapango tale may yet be prophetic: the current plans for the eponymous dam include a 165-meter concrete wall stretching across the valley. That the mythical eagle was ultimately killed by the Ashaninka could yet be auspicious. "We are the Ashaninka from the Ene River of Peru and we will defend our right to live in peace. We see these abuses to our territory as direct attacks on our existence as a people. Our struggle is to prevent the destruction of our forest."
The Ashaninka were not initially consulted about the Pakitzapango Dam. This contravenes the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which states that no development can be carried out on indigenous lands without "the free, prior, and informed consent" of the indigenous owners. "Not only were they not consulted, they only heard about the dam project on the Peruvian radio," says Stephen Corry of Survival International. "It's a staggering abuse of their rights." The project is currently on hold after the approval of a new law by Peru's new president recognizing the UN Declaration. Signs that the Ashaninka resistance is gathering momentum were further strengthened recently after the developer of Peru's planned Tambo-40 Hydroelectric Dam, Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, withdrew from the project, in part due to strong opposition from the Ashaninka. The company's subsequent withdrawal could save an estimated 14,000 Ashaninka from displacement due to the flooding of their territories.
"We ask the Peruvian Government to stop granting concessions in our territory," said Ruth Buendia Mestoquiar, President of Centro Ashaninka del Rio Ene, (CARE) the representative indigenous Ashaninka organization of the Ene River. Repeated encroachments on their lands have long threatened the survival of the Ashaninka as a people. Yet theirs is a history of resistance, and despite their suffering, this recent victory demonstrates that they are still opposing the many external forces that threaten them. Their need is for others to join them in their struggle for land rights and self-determination. "We realize that we can't take care of the forest and protect it without help from the rest of the World," says Moises Piyanko, an Ashaninka leader, " ...because the invasions are coming from the outside."