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Dark Edge of the Frontier

Natives face retaliation when they stand up to those who loot the forest

While on assignment for National Geographic in Peru this summer, I had the privilege of visiting the Ashéninka indigenous community of Saweto, at the headwaters of the Alto Tamaya River near the border of Brazil. It can take up to eight grueling days of  boat travel from the city of Pucallpa to reach Saweto, a quiet village of plank-and-thatch huts set atop the banks of the twisting Tamaya River. But we – photographer Alex Webb, University of Richmond geography professor David Salisbury, and myself – had the luck and luxury to arrive by helicopter, which delivered us as if by magic onto Saweto’s soccer field in the village clearing, a mere 40 minutes after lift-off from Pucallpa.

Such are the contradictions of modern life. Forty minutes in the air and you drop in on another reality, people so removed from the outside world that they can scarcely remember the last time they were visited by a government official, other than the school teacher who packed up and left weeks before the end of the academic year with no promise to return.

That doesn’t mean Saweto’s neglected residents have been left entirely to themselves. The law might be absent, but the seamy side of the global economy is very much in evidence. Drug smugglers ply the Indians’ age-old footpaths on their way to Brazil. Poachers kill their animals. llegal loggers pillage their forests with impunity.

Ashéninka Indian, Mashansho Creek, Peru 2011 Credit: Scott Wallace

 

The Ashéninka could easily play the victim, mope around their sun-scorched village, throw their hands up in despair. But the people of Saweto have retained a fighting spirit. Perhaps that was why gales of laughter and hoots of delight so often filled the days and nights as we accompanied them first by canoe and then by foot deep into their upland forest. It’s still a bountiful forest crisscrossed by emerald green streams of astonishing beauty. Catfish dart about the eddies; tadpoles waggle in the sandy shallows. Fresh jaguar and tapir tracks mottle the beaches along the shore.

With Salisbury’s help, the community has spent the better part of the past decade struggling to gain legal ownership to these natural riches. Only with legal title can the Ashéninka hope to throw out the loggers for good and seek more rational ways to develop their woodlands. We did witness a confrontation deep in the backwoods between the Indians and a crew of lumberjacks who had ignored their pleas to stay out. Standing up to those who routinely mock their claims marked a big step forward for the people of Saweto.

Author Scott Wallace with Ashéninka leader Pishiro whose property was vandalized by loggers. Credit: David Salisbury

 

But grim tidings have reached us in recent days. The loggers returned to exact revenge, sabotaging the outboard motors of three tribespeople who took us upriver. The small, long-shafted motors – called “peck-pecks” – and the money it takes to buy them represent a small fortune for indigenous people struggling to hold their own against far more powerful forces. It will be very difficult to replace them. The loggers know this. Filling their gas tanks with sand was a calling card, a way to say: “Watch out!” Next time it could be far worse. Especially if the culprits believe that no one is watching.

We will be watching.

Scott Wallace writes about the environment and indigenous affairs for National Geographic and other publications. His forthcoming book, The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, will be published by Crown in October 2011. For more information, please visit www.scottwallace.com


Comments

  1. Juan Boettner
    Asuncion, Paraguay
    September 27, 2011, 11:25 pm

    It is truly unfair how indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon are being invaded by dangerous criminals such as drug smugglers and illegal loggers. It is important to remember that many of these native communities in the borderlands between Brazil and Peru chose to remain isolated from the globalized world, meaning they are extremely vulnerable to outside world diseases. A common flu brought by one of these unwanted visitors could potentially wipe out an entire indigenous community. As if this were not grave enough, poachers in the area now pose a threat to the natural regeneration of animal populations that have always been an essential component of indigenous peoples’ diet. A study at the Alto Purus Indigenous Reserve shows that some species – like the white fronted spider monkey, the white lipped peccary, the collared peccary, and the red howler monkey – are being over hunted and populations are dwindling (http://web.duke.edu/~mrpl/cps001/alto_purus/Purus146-269.pdf) (pg. 197) Even though the situation for the Ashaninka, Asheninka and other indigenous groups does not look good, there are some good developments. The law of previous consultation, or “ley de consulta previa”, was finally passed a few weeks ago. (http://servindi.org/pdf/Peru_LeyConsulta_aprobada.pdf) This law will help indigenous communities have a voice when it comes to government decisions regarding changes in land use and administrative programs that may affect their livelihoods. This is not enough to address the problems indigenous communities face in Amazonian Peru, but hey, its a start.

  2. James
    Boston, MA
    September 27, 2011, 1:05 pm

    Scott,

    I agree that the solution to the problem seems to originate with the lack of empowerment among the Asheninka, but I’m wondering how much of the problem may be economic. One of the issues seems to be that illegal logging operations maintain a near monopsony over the labor market in the rain forest. It is difficult for laborers to find elsewhere and escape the systems of debt-peonage/debt-merchandising imposed on them when there is only one source of employment in the area. From the looks of it, this monopsony can only be broken by introducing new demanders for labor into the labor market. If Lima gave indigenous loggers the rights to their own land while simultaneously providing tax incentives on things such as capital equipment, providing free logging permits, etc. the Asheninka may have the ability to compete against illegal logging operations. This would also be benificial for the environmental sustainability of the rainforest, as the people who would be harvesting its resources would also own it. People tend to take better care of land that they own versus land they don’t. Of course this would not solve the problem of illegal logging, but I do believe that the problem lies with the monopsony illegal logging maintains over the local labor market. This kind of market approach to the problem would at least provide a positive challenge to illegal logging operations and more of a negative feedback loop in terms of environmental sustainability.

  3. Will
    Richmond, VA
    September 18, 2011, 6:22 pm

    This article examines a major issue facing indigenous peoples in the Amazon. While I agree that legal ownership is critical, what benefits does this provide? The government currently is not enforcing the laws in place. Is it not the government’s responsibility to ensure that concessions are being followed and enforce punishments when laws are broken? I grant that the forest is very large and requires a lot of work to patrol, but this makes me question what legal ownership will actually solve. Will the Ashéninka take illegal loggers to court? I imagine since they are already breaking the law that loggers will not mind breaking one more. The Ashéninka can respond with violence, but that is heading down a slippery slope. To me the solution lies with the consumers. It is our responsibility to buy environmentally friendly products and ensure that those products are being obtained through sustainable practices. As long as there is a demand for illegally logged tress, there will be someone to supply it.

  4. James
    Richmond, VA
    September 15, 2011, 12:08 pm

    Scott,

    I agree that the solution to the problem seems to originate with the lack of empowerment among the Asheninka, but I’m wondering how much of this problem may be economic. One of the issues seems to be that illegal logging operations maintain a near monopsony over the labor market in the rainforest. It is difficult for laborers to find employment elsewhere and escape the systems of debt-peonage or debt-merchandising imposed on them when there is only one source of employment in the area. From the looks of it, this monopsony can only be broken by introducing new demanders for labor into the labor market. If Lima gave indigenous loggers the rights to their own land while simultaneously providing tax incentives on things such as capital equipment, providing free logging permits, etc. the Asheninka may have the ability to compete against illegal logging operations. This would also be beneficial for the environmental sustainability of the rainforest, as the people who would be harvesting its resources, would also own it. People tend to take better care of land that they own versus land that they do not own. Of course this would not solve the issue of illegal logging, but I do believe that the problem lies with the monopsony that illegal logging maintains over the local labor markets. This kind of market approach to this problem would at least provide a positive challenge to illegal logging operations and more of a negative feedback loop in terms of environmental sustainability.

  5. Juan B
    VA
    September 13, 2011, 7:53 pm

    It is truly unfair how indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon are being invaded by dangerous criminals such as drug smugglers and illegal loggers. It is important to remember that many of these native communities in the borderlands between Brazil and Peru chose to remain isolated from the globalized world, meaning they are extremely vulnerable to outside world diseases. A common flu brought by one of these unwanted visitors could potentially wipe out an entire indigenous community. As if this were not grave enough, poachers in the area now pose a threat to the natural regeneration of animal populations that have always been an essential component of indigenous peoples’ diet. A study at the Alto Purus Indigenous Reserve shows that some species – like the white fronted spider monkey, the white lipped peccary, the collared peccary, and the red howler monkey – are being over hunted and populations are dwindling (http://web.duke.edu/~mrpl/cps001/alto_purus/Purus146-269.pdf) (pg. 197) Even though the situation for the Ashaninka, Asheninka and other indigenous groups does not look good, there are some good developments. The law of previous consultation, or “ley de consulta previa”, was finally passed a few weeks ago. (http://servindi.org/pdf/Peru_LeyConsulta_aprobada.pdf) This law will help indigenous communities have a voice when it comes to government decisions regarding changes in land use and administrative programs that may affect their livelihoods. This is not enough to address the problems indigenous communities face in Amazonian Peru, but hey, its a start.

  6. Vera
    VA
    August 28, 2011, 4:14 pm

    Scott, your article is well written, the images are aesthethically convyed, and there is a central and important theme to this article. It also has an element of drama – of the human tragedy even in the most remote regions of the globe.
    The article would have benefitted from a summary map of the locations you portrayed. Also, the second time you mention Salisbury I was briefly lost until I realized you were referring to Prof. Salisbury and might have mentioned his Prof. title again so the reader would more easily follow the discussion. But that is picking a tiny nit.
    A much more significant question is the issue of property rights and claims. Of course the corollary is the issue of environmental protection and access to natural resources. I believe it was the “grey-area – micro-economics” theorist Hernando DeSoto who argued that this issue was similarly critical for urban favelas (or their Spanish equivalent) when their residents could claim title to their hovels – everything
    improved including the care of property, security, and the sale and resale of homes while controlling encroachment. So are these communal rights? village rights? local or state laws? or national laws? affecting the ownership and title to property? Is there a Federal ownership of all lands not clearly identified? Is there a process for gaining control at
    any of these levels and demarcking owned versus Federal lands? From this one case study there are implications for weatlh and protection of vast areas of underdeveloped properties throughout Central and South America. As a paralllel to state or local ownership – if lands are Federal or State owned, does not the State have a responsibility to protect its interests and its citizens?