Ashaninka of the Ene River Peru’s wave of development crashes down on an Amazonian tribe
The Ashaninka people of the Ene River survived centuries of colonial exploitation and a recent and brutal civil war, but a dam project being coordinated by the Peruvian and Brazilian governments will literally take away the ground beneath their feet.
The Ene cuts a dramatic swath in Peru’s selva central, or central jungle, where Andean foothills east of Lima flatten out into Amazonian rainforest. The Ashaninka, who lead a subsistence lifestyle in the Ene Valley, depend on the river for fishing and trade and its shores for farming and hunting. Tens of thousands of Ashaninka will lose their homes, farms, and sacred ancestral lands under a new dam’s floodwaters.
Peru has signed off rights to Electrobrás, a Brazilian electric company (and the continent’s largest,) to build several hydroelectric dams in the Peruvian Amazon. The electricity will be exported to help power Brazil’s burgeoning urban centers. The centerpiece of the project is Pakitzapango Dam, named after the narrow gorge that for the Ashaninka is the mythological birthplace of the Amazonian tribes. At least 5 more dams will follow on other rivers in the region.
The Peruvian government failed to consult or even inform the Ashaninka about the Pakitzapango project, which will effectively end their way of life in the Ene Valley. Not surprisingly the valley’s peoples are enraged.
Tribal leaders heard about the project over Peruvian radio, and are now desperately trying to mobilize a campaign to stop the dam. Last week at their annual congress, CARE, or Central Ashaninka of the River Ene, drafted a formal declaration of their opposition after three days of emotional condemnations by community representatives.
CARE acts as the Ashaninka’s governing body, helping the people negotiate a daunting flow of outsiders that includes few allies. Loggers and petrol companies are aggressively making in-roads to the valley, and the region is a hotspot for Peru’s flourishing cocaine trade.
In 2003 the government, again without consulting the Ashaninka, gave rights to oil company Pluspetrol to explore and drill in the valley. So far the Ashaninka have repelled Pluspetrol boats with gunfire, indicating that construction of the dam will lead to armed conflict. CARE’s declaration against Pakitzapango states “The Ashaninka of the Ene Valley will NOT permit entry of any institution carrying out any of the mentioned activities related to the building of the dam.]” However Palitzapango has been declared a national security interest for President Alan Garcia’s administration, making military intervention likely and leaving little hope for the Ashaninka.
Since colonial times the Ashaninka have endured a harsh relationship with the outside world. In the 1800’s tens of thousands were enslaved by rubber tappers. It is estimated as much as 80% of Ashaninka died as a result of the rubber trade.
More recently at least 6,000 Ashaninka were killed in Peru’s war with Sendero Luminoso, a Marxist group that terrorized Peru during the 80’s and 90’s. The Ashaninka are still heavily scarred by their experience from the war, in which tribal leaders were shot, hung and, in one case, even crucified in front of their communities. Remnants of Sendero, re-mobilizing as a sophisticated drug cartel, are still a shadowy presence in the lands surrounding the Ene. Reports of Ashaninka still enslaved by Sendero guerillas haunt the valley's residents.
Yet today, chief among the Ashaninka’s concerns are Andean colonists, who for decades have been encouraged by the government to settle and industrialize the region. “Development” is the buzzword in Peru now, easily falling off the lips of Peruvians from desert coast to Andean peaks to no longer impenetrable reaches of the Amazon in this largely impoverished nation. The country’s rapid economic growth gives some credence to Garcia’s ubiquitous slogan of el Peru Avanza or “Peru Forward,” even as it comes at the expense of indigenous peoples.
“I support the dam; anything that advances my country,” said a schoolteacher who lives in one of the colonial settlements along the Ene. He expressed his sympathies for the Ashaninka, but decided against giving his name. Most Peruvians see indigenous tribes such as the Ashaninka as a harmful impediment to the country’s progress.
The Ashaninka are determined to get their own message of development across. “We want access to health, better schools, potable water. We want development that benefits us rather than destroys us,” said Maria Domingas, age 59, an Ashaninka woman who lives in Pamaquiari. After her husband was killed in the war with Sendero, Domingas fled to the city of Satipo with her three daughters. Her eldest daughter, Ruth Buendia, is the charismatic and powerful president of CARE. After a 20 year absence, Domingas recently returned to live in Pamaquiari, now only to face the prospect of her village being flooded. Asked if she also wants to see electricity and roads in her village, her face clouds over in uncertainty. "I don't know, I can't say, I can't say."
Even among other Ashaninka the Ene's tribes have earned a reputation for particular fierceness, independence, and traditionalism. “Whatever ‘development’ means for the Ashaninka, it’s going to happen for them on their own terms,” says Emily Caruso, a British Anthropologist who has been living in Pamaquiari and working with CARE over the past year. And if the Pakitzapango dam gets built? “I don’t want to imagine that. I can’t even think about it.”