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After struggling for more than a decade to remove the U.S. oil company Hunt Oil from the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve (ACR) in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, the Harakbut, Machiguenga and Yine Peoples are cautiously optimistic.

Fermin Chimatani (Chima), president of Eca Amarakaeri (ECA) recently received word that Hunt Oil has finally decided to pull out of indigenous territory otherwise known as “Lot 76”.

“For the moment it is a celebration,” Chima tells IC. “We’ve heard unconfirmed reports that Hunt Oil will simply pass the concession to another operator. We remain vigilant.”

MAP: Light green/yellow areas: Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. Green areas: indigenous communities. Orange: Manu National ParkPhoto: Kimlee Wong

Just four years after the Peruvian government granted protection to the Harakbut, Machiguenga, Yine and Mashco Piro by creating the ACR, 90% of the land was ceded to Hunt Oil without the knowledge or consent of the region’s Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous groups responded by filing a lawsuit demanding immediate suspension of Hunt’s operations and an inquiry into how exploration rights to the ACR were granted in the first place. The case was hung up in the legal system for years.

Hunt Oil cited the high costs of logistics for their departure. With no roads into the ACR, equipment and workers must be flown in by helicopter. Additionally, initial drilling by the company did not meet expectations making the venture less economically attractive than hoped.

Peruvian law prohibits road building for oil exploration. However, the governor of Madre de Dios, Luis Otsuka, started building an illegal road along the Madre de Dios River to connect state capital, Puerto Maldonado with gold mining and forestry operations deep in the jungle. Another planned illegal road will run straight through the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve.

The Madre de Dios (Mother of God) region is the largest watershed in the southeast Peruvian Amazon, bordering Bolivia, Brazil and the Peruvian regions of Cusco, Puno and Ucayali. Consisting of 85 300.54 km2 of primarily low lying rainforest with a population of only 109 555 (2005 stats) is home to one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Photo: Kimlee Wong

The Madre de Dios region is the largest watershed in the southeast Peruvian Amazon, bordering Bolivia, Brazil and the Peruvian regions of Cusco, Puno and Ucayali. Consisting of 85 300.54 km2 of Andean highland, cloud and lowland rainforests and a population of only 109 555 (2005 stats) the region has long been held as one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

It is also the traditional lands of the Harakbut, Machiguenga, Yine and Mashco Piro Peoples.

Recent breakthroughs in mapping technology shows the Peruvian Amazon is even more biodiverse than imagined. Scientists with the Carnegie Institution for Science developed a laser system that creates a 3-D image of the jungle forest’s canopy while a spectrometer measures the plant’s release of gases, turning them into colours to show the diversity of species.

Carnegie Airborne Observatory. Photo: Youtube

Able to distinguish more subtle diversity in the landscape, researchers identified 36 types of forest rather than the handful of classifications used before. Areas that look uniform have been found to contain unique or rare species needing more protection.

Underlying its biological importance and need for protection, the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve is also home to a new found species of poison dart frog. Discovered in 2013 by Peruvian scientist, Shirley Jennifer Serrano Roja, she named it Ameerega shihuemoy in honour of the local indigenous inhabitants. Shihuemoy is Harakbut for poison frog.

ECA is the indigenous body that co-manages the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve with the Peruvian government. Eca-Amarakaeri (ECA) board members (R-L): Fermin Chimatani, President; Juan Carlos, Secretary; Walter Kertehuari Dariqueve, Vice-president. Photo: Kimlee Wong

Chima, a Harakbut from Puerto Luz, has served as the president of ECA (El Ejecutor del Contrato de Administración de la Reserva Comunal Amarakaeri) for the past eight years. ECA is the indigenous organization that co-manages the ACR with the Peruvian National Service of Natural Protected Reserves (SERNANP).

During a recent trip to Peru, Intercontinental Cry was invited to join ECA’s president and his team on a visit a few local indigenous communities. None of the communities have road access; like their ancestors, we would travel by boat unsure of who or what we would find along the way.

Without road access, rivers are still the primary transportation routes as they were for their ancestors before them. Photo: Kimlee Wong

ECA includes a total of eight indigenous communities that gained official recognition and protection of their ancestral lands after decades of lobbying.

For them, creating the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve is crucial to conserving their sacred areas, preserving clean water and protecting access to the jungle and its resources in order to continue their traditional ways of living.

Peru’s communal reserves, such as ACR, have been internationally recognized as a model for protected areas in line with the 2003 World Conservation Union (IUCN) recommendations.

In June, 2016, ECA was awarded the Innovative Experiences in Latin America Prize by Canopy Bridge, “for its Brazil nut initiative that also promotes sustainable timber and is creating employment opportunities and empowering local communities, particularly women.”

The leaders of ECA know their survival is based on having decision making authority over themselves and their ancestral lands. While current government representatives have been good to work with, the situation is tenuous.

“We want to show the government that native people have the capacity to administer our own affairs,” says Walter Kertehuari Dariqueve, a Harakbut from Queros and ECA’s Vice President. “It’s a big challenge for authorities to understand our way of administration. Many government authorities still don’t get it. There are frequent changes in government personal and the government leaders often don’t act appropriately. One year the government representative was changed six times. When that happens many processes stall.”

Today, the biggest threat to Harakbut homelands is gold mining. It causes significant deforestation and introduces mercury into the ecosystem. According to the Carnegie Institution for Science, deforestation from gold-mining increased by 400% between 1999 and 2012 in the region.

In May 2016, a 60-day “State of Emergency” was declared across Madre de Dios due to mercury contamination.

Land activist and educator Victor Zambrano called the government response “absurd”. He singled out a number of shortcomings to the The Guardian including the fact that it covered “too short a time period, too little budget [and] too big an area.” He also said that the response, which made no attempt to stop mining activity, arrived at a “totally inopportune moment” just as the government was being voted out of office.

In 2016, Victor won the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation, however, his work has not been without risk. Opposing gold mining in the region has garnered him numerous death threats along with his awards.

In the mid-80’s Victor bought land that was compacted and offered little vegetation due to cattle ranching. For the next three decades he worked tirelessly to replenish the soil and revive the jungle landscape, focusing on planting fruit and traditional Peruvian medicines. Today his property is a thriving rainforest education center that blends with the jungle surrounding it. Photo: Kimlee Wong

In January 2015, Environmental Science published an article noting that children in central Mardre de Dios were at risk from consuming any amount of carnivorous fish because mercury concentrations exceeded World Health Organization guidelines.

This follows a 2013 study—further down the Madre de Dios—that found river fish were a danger to human health with more than double the mercury considered safe by the U.S. EPA.

A yine mom and her child. Photo: Kimlee Wong

Chima’s home community of Puerto Luz is one of those affected. A study found 40% of their communal lands contaminated by mercury.

“We’re feeling it on people’s health,” he says.

Various media reports indicate that the Ministry of Environment is fully aware of the situation. In 2011, for instance, the government called the situation a “time-bomb”; and when the state of emergency was declared in 2016, the government publicly acknowledged that Madre de Dios was suffering from toxic mercury levels. However, the government has never directly informed the indigenous residents about the health risks they face.

Those health risks include skin discoloration; swelling; shedding or peeling of skin; hypertension; peripheral neuropathy; loss of hair, teeth, and nails; hypotonia and other serious problems.

Chima offers a plausible explanation for the government’s silence. He tells IC that “High ranking politicians, even previous presidents, in Lima have held mining concessions in the area.”

Whatever the reason, the government does not appear to be in any rush to slow down or regulate the ongoing illegal mining activity.

Fermin Chimatani and Luis Tayori. Photo: Kimlee Wong

Luis Tayori is the former president of the indigenous organization COHARYIMA (Harakbut, Yine, Matsiguenka Council). Like Chima, Luis is Harakbut from Puerto Luz. He told IC how the Swedish mathematician and biologist Dr. Sven Ericsson, was working with the Peruvian government in the early 1960’s when he discovered gold in Madre de Dios. The road to Shintuya (a Harakbut community along the ACR) was the initiative of Ericsson—for whom a statue now stands in Manú National Park. “That’s when the government started to pay attention to the southeast Peruvian Amazonian area, Manú in particular,” says Luis.

“To clear a trail for government excursions, Ericsson proposed bombing Harakbut territory with tear gas from the air. Though never carried out, government expeditions used the military and Dominican priests instead to attempt to eradicate indigenous peoples in the region.”

Ericsson developed the model for massive gold extraction in southeastern Peru as early as 1936. The destruction to the land caused by gold mining is still visible in the southern part of Madre de Dios today.

A few hours into our trip we pull up to a timber operation and settlement along the Madre de Dios river. It is an illegal logging settlement in the buffer zone of the ACR.

Illegal logging camp in the buffer zone of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. Photo: Kimlee Wong

Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAPP) reported that deforestation for gold mining is expanding in the buffer zones of the ACR and since 2013 has been expanding in the Reserve itself.

Our first night is spent at the Harakbut community of Shipetiari. A few months earlier, a community member was killed by the Mashco Piro, an isolated jungle people in the region. The Mashco Piro have been increasingly invading indigenous communities and timber camps for steel tools and pots. This was the second time they killed someone from another community.

Monkey teeth necklace made by the Mashco Piro, a people considered one of the last of the “uncontacted” groups of peoples on earth. They made headlines in 2011 after killing a local indigenous man who tried to befriend them. In May 2015 they killed a Machiguenga man from the community of Shipetiari. Fear in the community remains high. Photo: Kimlee Wong

Shipetiari is only accessible via the river and has no phone or internet service. After the death of their friend and family member, the community has become concerned about more attacks. Now they travel in groups of two or more and have walkie-talkies for those who have to travel further from the community. They would like to have more eco-tourism opportunities, however, their isolation, lack of infrastructure and the recent death all prove challenging.

The second day of the trip, our boat pulls up to a small camp on the riverbank. There we find ECA rangers speaking to some residents. The “invaders”—as they’re called locally—are engaged in illegal logging. The rangers tell them that they must stop.

Amarakaeri Communal Reserve rangers confronting an illegal logging operation. Photo: Kimlee Wong

Unfortunately, ECA rangers have no legal authority or weapons to stop the illegal activity. All they can do is record the incident, report it to SERNANP, and hope that the government counterpart follows up.

There is little incentive for the “invaders” to stop of their own volition. Many of the “invaders” travel from the highlands of Peru in search of land and better income. Once they arrive, they are legally allowed to occupy any uninhabited land of their choosing. After a few years—with ‘improvement’ to the land (including deforestation)—they can claim it as their own. Illegal logging and gold mining simply offers more income than what they can get anywhere else.

Ecotourism is not as profitable but it is an emerging industry in Madre de Dios. Indigenous leaders understand that they need to be economically as well as ecologically sustainable in order to maintain their homelands. The growth of tourism in Peru offers an opportunity to practice and protect their culture by sharing it with others.

After wading through streams and fishing for our meal, Vicky and Alberto serve a traditional Harakbut style lunch. Photo: Kimlee Wong

“We’re focused on restoring relationships with communities and as part of that we’re engaging in activities that ensure more sustainable use of the jungle around the reserve,” Chima tells us. “For example, the harvesting of brazil nuts, training workshops in jungle crafts and eco-tourism.”

Victoria Corisepa and her partner Alberto Kiramo, along with ayahuasquera Jessica*, operate Parign Hak, an alternative healing retreat near Harakbut community, Shintuya. Integral to programs at Parign Hak is introducing clients to Harakbut culture. ‘Vicky’, Alberto and family members share stories and knowledge while partaking in traditional activities.

“There’s an advantage that the Amarakaeri has not only nature, forest and conservation but culture as well,” says Walter.

Herman (Harakbut from Shintuya) showing how the Harakbut traditionally fish. He painted his body (using plant dyes) as a jaguar for ceremony the evening before. Photo: Kimlee Wong

Along with the environmental health impacts and homeland destruction, Indigenous Peoples in the ACR increasingly feel the adverse social impacts of western “civilization”. Family violence and break down, alcoholism, the rejection of traditional ways and foods and most recently, suicide, have appeared in communities. Luis tells us that suicides have shaken the Harakbut.

“Suicide is unheard of in our culture. When you stop farming and eating traditional foods then you have to buy everything. There’s been a big difference in the past 10-15 years. Money is becoming more important in people’s lives. For example, in theory, under Peruvian law, education is free but it’s not really because you have to pay for uniforms and supplies. Parents can’t afford those things with bananas.”

Editor’s Note

Jessica was the translator and guide for the journey and is a personal friend of the writer.