Ashaninka-Ene River Documentary Photography Project - More coming soon.
Purpose of the Project
The Brazilian utilities corporation Electorbras is in the approval stages of a large-scale dam project in the Peruvian Amazon intended to export electricity to Brazil. The crux of the project is a series of 6 dams that will flood the Ene River Valley, with an additional 15 dams in preliminary development stages. The Ene River valley is in a remote region of pristine rainforest of extreme, yet mostly undstudied, biological diversity.
The valley also happens to be the ancestral home of the Ashaninka people. Should the dams be built, it will be with the consent of the Peruvian government but will have catastrophic effects on the culture and wellbeing of the Ashaninka, as well as other indigenous peoples living further down stream. Feasibility studies by Electrobras have neglected to approach, inform, or gain the consent of the Ashaninka people.
Should the dams be built, the people’s homes and villages be flooded, fertile farming land will be lost, as well as fishing and hunting areas the Ashaninka depend on for sustenance. As is characteristic of dam projects in the jungle, there will likely be a rise in the incidence of infectious diseases such as malaria. These projects also have inevitable but often unforeseen effects on climate patterns in the surrounding landscape.
Without an intensive publicity campaign construction of the dam is considered likely and the Ashaninka will be forced out of their land. In the past few decades organized indigenous groups have had success in blocking dam projects, particularly when publicity campaigns are able to attract the attention of international press, who shame the governments involved.
This week (April 20) elders from the different Ashaninka communities will convene to formalize their opposition to the dam, and have been aided so far by the nonprofit CARE, essentially the Ashaninka’s liaison with outsiders. Without CARE as a lifeline, the Ashaninka would be oblivious to their impending plight. I will be visiting the Ashaninka with the permission of CARE on behalf of International Rivers, a group that campaigns against dam projects throughout the world. The purpose will be to document the beginning of the campaign, the areas that would be flooded, and how the Ashaninka depend on the river for their livelihood. I will be accompanied by British anthropologist Emily Caruso of Kent University, who has been conducting fieldwork in the Ene River Valley for the past two years.
The Ashaninka are one of the largest indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon, numbering between 25 and 40 thousand. They have also experienced one of the longest periods of contact with the outside world of any Amazonian tribe, beginning with the Spanish is the 1600’s. Despite this history of contact the Ashaninka have stubbornly maintained their ethnic identity, even as they have suffered loss of territory and appalling reductions in their population under colonialist practices such as slavery in the rubber trade. They are reputed for their bravery, resilience, and distrust of outsiders.
Like so many indigenous tribes, the Ashaninka now stand at a crossroads. In the past 50 years an influx of outsiders has increased at an alarming rate. Ashaninka territory lies in a shadowy region of Peru, largely beyond the control of the Peruvian government and military, where dense Andean cloud forests sweep down to the Amazonian jungle plains. Colonists from the overpopulated Quechuan highlands, with the encouragement of the government, continue to settle and "develop" the area, razing the rainforest for cashcrop profits. Timber, rubber and oil companies are all making inroads into virgin Amazonian forest, and much of the activity is illegal.
Worse for the indigenous communities, coca cultivation and cocaine production is rampant and spiking, now at a 10 year high, making Peru the world’s second largest cocaine producer. Much of the drug trafficking is through the Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), remnants of the Maoist insurgent group that terrorized the country in the 80’s and early 90’s and killed tens of thousands of civilians, including many in the Ashaninka community. While the Sendero’s activities halted colonization and industry in the Ashaninka territory, the people were left terrorized and scarred. Today, with the Sendero Luminoso largely marginalized but reforming as a drug cartel, they are just one of many groups again making inroads into the region.
In short, the Ashaninka face a host of threats, but none will be more immediately and thoroughly devastating than the dam project. Should the dams be built, they will literally wipe out entire villages and force the people to retreat further into the jungle, a cycle that seems to be without end but for now can certainly be stopped with the help of organization such as International Rivers.