Peru

Asháninka

Proposed hydroelectric dam in Peru threatens existence of 90,000 hectares of Amazonian rainforest, as well as traditional existence of up to 10,000 indigenous people

New energy contracts signed by Brazilian and Peruvian governments  have authorised the building of up to 15 new dams within Peru, mostly to provide energy to be bought by Brazilian government and private investment funds for export into neighbouring Brazil. The first project involves the construction of the 165m high Pakitzapango Dam to be constructed across the Ene River in Peru. This will be the first of up to 60 proposed dams to be built in the Brazilian, Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon in the next 20 years, in which large areas of rainforest will be flooded, and remote areas will be opened up to loggers, ranchers, and miners, threatening the way of life of various indigenous communities living in the region.

Asháninka traditional face-painting, © Mike Goldwater

This dam will effectively destroy the sacred site of the Asháninka people (the name of the Pakitzapango canyon translates as the ‘Eagle’s House’), as well as the homes of 10 different Asháninka communities along the riverbank- as many as 10,000 people in total. These communities depend upon the river for their supplies of fish, clean water, and the surrounding fertile soils which allow them to grow manioc, yam, banana, peanuts, and pineapples, amongst other crops. If the dam goes ahead, 734 km2 of land, which, according to laws from 2003 was legally granted to the Asháninka in the form of the Otishi Reserve, will be flooded.

Despite the land legally belonging to the Asháninka, the energy contracts were signed between Brazilian and Peruvian governments in 2010-2011 without consulting the tribe (who in fact only heard about it accidentally on Peruvian radio after the event), clearly contravening the UN declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People in the process. Ongoing campaigning and protesting by the Central Asháninka del Río Ene (CARE) has led to a temporary hold on proposals for construction of the dam, but recently, anger amongst other urban populations nearby in Peru at the consequent loss of money if the dam is abandoned has resparked the old fight, and once again, the indigenous peoples are being seen as a mere inconvenience barring potential profit.

This is by no means the first conflict the Asháninka people have undergone. Although they were never conquered by the Spanish (the conquistadors knew them as the brave and independent Indians), at least 50% of the ethnic group died after first contact with other peoples. It is thought that for thousands of years, the group was semi-nomadic, moving around the entire region between the Andean

Asháninka boat party, © Mike Goldwater

foothills and Amazonian rainforest, spreading as far as Acre in North Brazil, but after the colonisation of the Americas, the groups were eventually forced to settle in more specific regions. The Asháninka then went on to suffer considerably during the rubber boom of the 19th century. Large numbers were enslaved, up to 80% were killed, and to this day, their territories are encroached upon more and more by rubber tappers, drug traffickers moving heir goods between South American countries, loggers, oil companies and missionaries (primarily from China). The internal conflicts within Peru in the 1980s and 90s further damaged their societies; amidst mass displacements and mass disappearances, survivors fled yet further into the forest to escape terrorists parties roaming the country. It is now estimated that as many as 10,000 were displaced, 6,000 died, and up to 5,000 were taken captive. All in all, between 30-40 communities disappeared from the region forever.

For some of the remaining communities in this region of Peru, the construction of the new dam may put an end to a chapter of struggle which has been ongoing for the past 500 years. After years of resistance against profit-making companies looking to harness the resources of the area, the Asháninka (which translates as ‘kinsmen’) communities may finally be divided and displaced if the dam goes ahead, and their entire way of life which depends upon the forest and river of their territories may be destroyed. In the words of one tribe elder, “we realize that we can’t take care of the forest and protect it without help from the rest of the world,…because the invasions are coming from the outside”.

For more information and news about the dam project and petitions, see http://www.rainforestfoundationuk.org/stopthedam

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