It wasn’t great, being sent packing down the fast-flowing Ene river in the dark, in a boat without a light, by the Asháninka community you thought you were going to be staying the night with.
But, it made sense. Let me explain. In the company of the Asháninka organization CARE and a couple of French journalists, I’d been heading for Pakitzapango, a dramatic canyon on the Ene river, deep in the Peruvian Amazon.
We had been travelling for several hours, five of them by boat, and were almost at Pakitzapango – the planned site for the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam. We were to stay with the community that lives by the river in a bend just before the canyon. The visit had not been easy to organize, but the paperwork was intact and all seemed to be in order.
We were keen to get to the canyon to take photos in the late afternoon light. But to do that, the NGO workers, Lucas and Leonel, said they would need to get permission from the community first.
So, we drew up to the bank and the two climbed up the hill to the community, telling us to stay in the boat.
We waited. And waited. We watched a few cows. We spoke to a couple of boys who came down the bank on an impossibly tiny bicycle. We were aware of a woman watching us from above. The community had gathered and were meeting to discuss us. It seemed to be taking them forever. More than an hour later and with the sun setting fast, Lucas and Leonel came rushing down the bank and jumped back into the boat.
‘We’ve got to go! Back down the river!’
They were soaking wet.
They’d been ritualistically castigated with a drenching, they explained. ‘The women were the worst!’ they said. They’d wanted to drench us, the journalists, too, and paint our faces with stuff that remains for two weeks, Lucas said. But he managed to discourage them.
‘They don’t want journalists. They had journalists here before and it never helped them. They didn’t even get to see the articles or films the journalists made. They want nothing to do with journalists.’
And there were other worries. How could they know we were journalists and not people from the company that wanted to build the dam? Or people from the government that had signed an accord with Brazil to build dams and provide hydroelectricity for export without even consulting the communities that would be flooded and destroyed as a result?
Good questions. Reasonable concerns. A shame we could not speak to them to try and address those worries. Even as we were careening down the dark river at a hell of pace, dodging eddies and whirlpools, I was thinking that this lack of trust was a good sign.
Fortunately for us, a community an hour or so back down the river was prepared to let us land – and stay. The fact that the elected chief was Lucas’s brother probably helped – but not necessarily. Asháninka communal democracy is quite rich, as I was later to discover.
In the next few days we were able to talk with more communities. But only if they were happy with the long and careful explanations we gave as to why we were there and what we would do with the information we were gathering.
This is a community that has been cheated and exploited more cruelly than most over the years. Thousands were killed, starved and forced into slavery during the years of violence, suffering from both the activities of the army and Maoist guerillas of Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) during the 1980s and 1990s. The communities had to flee en mass, taking refuge in jungle towns such as Porto Ocopa. Only in 2000 or so were they able to return and resettle their territories.
The Asháninka people have time and again been cheated out of their wood by lumberers paying derisory prices and invaded by ‘colonos’ – Peruvians from the mountain areas, often themselves escaping violence and poverty – who over-fish the rivers and see the forest as a source of profit rather than sustainable existence.
And now the Asháninka are facing the most profound threat yet. At least two massive dam projects are on their way – Pakitzapango on the Ene river and Tambo 40 on the adjoining Tambo river. They will totally inundate many communities while reducing or redirecting the flow of water in the rivers on which they depend for survival.
‘They want to kill us, they want kill our children. We don’t want violence. We want peace. But we have to defend our territory in whatever way we can,’ one man in the community of Union Puerta Asháninka told me.
There will be a full report on this and on other ‘defenders of nature’ in the forthcoming October issue of New Internationalist. You can subscribe here.