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Peruvian jungle: History

 The natives don't harm the rain forest - the white "Christian" colonization terror is limited - upheavals - the colonos and the white industry of "civilization" with corrupt presidents are destroying the jungle heavily - natives today assimilated or fighting for the own culture

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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from: Dilwyn Jenkins: The rough guide to Peru; Rough Guides, New York, London, Delhi; 6th edition September 2006; www.roughguides.com

Independent natives in the jungle - "Christian" colonization terror hardly possible in the jungle

Many archaeologists think that the initial spark for the evolution of Peru's high cultures came from the jungle. Archaeological evidence from Chavín, Chachapoyas and Tantamayo cultures seems to back up such a theory - they certainly had continuous contact with the jungle areas - and the Incas were unable to dominate the tribes, their main contact being peaceful trade in treasured items such as plumes, gold, medicinal plants and the sacred coca leaf.

At the time of the Spanish Conquest, fairly permanent settlements seem to have existed along all the major jungle rivers, the people living in large groups to farm the rich alluvial soils, but the arrival of the Europeans began the irreversible process of breaking these up into smaller and scattered groups (a process exacerbated by the nineteenth-century rubber boom, see later).

Yet the Peruvian jungle still resisted major colonization. Although Alonso de Alvarado had led the first Spanish expedition, cutting a trail through from Chachapoyas to Moyobamba in 1537, most incursions ended in utter disaster, defeated by the ferocity of the tribes, the danger of the rivers, climate and wild (p.499)

animals - and perhaps by the inherent alien character of the forest. Ultimately, apart from the white man's epidemics (which spread faster than the men themselves), the early Conquistadors hat relatively little impact on the population of the Peruvian Amazon. Only Orellana, one of the first Spaniards to lead exploratory expeditions into the Peruvian Amazon, managed to glimpse the reality of the rainforest, though even he seemed to misunderstand it when he was attacked by a tribe of blond women, one of whom managed to hit him in the eye with a blow-gun dart. These "women" are nowadays considered to be men of the Yagua tribe (from near Iquitos), who wear straw-coloured, grass-like skirts and headdresses.

More "Christian" terror in the jungle - uprising against church terror in 1742 - "Christian" free central jungle

By the early eighteenth century the Catholic Church had made serious but still vulnerable inroads into the region. Resistance to this culminated in 1742 with an indigenous uprising in the central forest region led by an enigmatic character from the Andes calling himself Juan Santos Atahualpa. Many missions were burnt, missionaries and colonists killed, and Spanish military expeditions defeated. The result was that the central rainforest remained under the control of the indigenous population for the next ninety years or so; in fact, as recently as 1919 the Ashaninka Indians were blockading rivers and ejecting missionaries and foreigners from their ancestral lands.

Rubber boom destroying native cultures since 1830 - white slavery since the 1880s - end of the rubber boom in 1891

As "white-man's" technology advanced, so too did the possibilities of conquering Amazonia. the 1830s saw the beginning of a century of massive and painful exploitation of the forest and its population by rubber barons. Many of these wealthy men were European, eager to gain control of the raw material, desperately needed following the discovery of the vulcanization process, and during this era the jungle regions of Peru were better connected to Brazil, Bolivia, the Atlantic, and ultimately Europe, than they were to Lima or the Pacific coast. The peak of the boom, from the 1880s to just before World War I, had a prolonged effect. Treating the natives as little more than slaves, men like the notorious Fitzcarrald made overnight fortunes, and large sections of the forests were explored and subdued.

In 1891, for example, the British-owned Peruvian Corporation was granted the 500,000-hectare "Perene Colony" in the central rainforest in payment of debts owed by the Peruvian state. That the granted land was indigenous territory was ignored - the Ashaninka who lived in the area were considered a captive labour force that was part of the concession. The process only fell into decline when the British explorer Markham brought Peruvian rubber plants to Malaysia, where the plants grew equally well but were far easier to harvest (p.500).

Agricultural expansion and the strategic colonos in the jungle - large deforestation in the 1950s and 1960s and since 1980 under the stupid president Belaunde - and oil and timber industry

Nineteenth-century colonialism also saw the progression of the extractive frontier along the navigable rivers, which involved short-term economic exploitation based on the extraction of other natural materials, such as timber and animal skins; coupled to this was the advance of the agricultural frontier down from the Andes.

Both kinds of expansion assumed that Amazonia was a limitless source of natural reserves and an empty wilderness - misapprehensions that still exist today. The agricultural colonization tended to be by poor, landless peasants from the Andes and was concentrated in the Selva Alta, on the eastern slopes of that range. From the 1950s, these colonos became a massive threat to the area's eco-system when, supported by successive government land grants, credit and road building, subsistence farmers and cattle ranchers inflicted large-scale deforestation (p.500).

In the 1960s, President Fernando Belaunde put the colonization of Amazonia central to his political agenda - believing it to be a verdant, limitless and "unpopulated" frontier that was ripe for development, offering land to the landless masses. New waves of colonos ["strategic colonos"] arrived and, once again, indigenous inhabitants were dispossessed and yet more rainforest cleared.

Things quieted down between 1968 and 1980, during the military regime, but when Belaunde returned to power in 1980, peasant colonization continued, by and large along tenuous penetration roads built by the government, but also with further state sponsorship and funding by international banks.

Over the last few decades, the intrusion of oil and timber companies has seen repeated exploitation of the rainforest. Even worse, vast tracts of forest have disappeared as successive waves of colonos have cleared trees to grow cash crops (p.501)

(especially coca); this large-scale, haphazard [arbitrary] slash-and-burn agriculture has been shown by conservationists to be unsustainable.

Economic crises after 1985: White colonialist coca barons install their regime in the jungle: deforestation by coca production and terrorism in the jungle

When the Peruvian economy began to suffer in the mid-1980s, foreign credit ended, and those with substantial private capital fled, mainly to the US. The government, then led by the young Alan García, was forced to abandon the jungle region, and both its colonist and indigenous inhabitants were left to survive by themselves.

This effectively opened the doors for the coca barons, who had already established themselves during the 1970s in the Huallaga Valley, and they moved into the gap left by government aid in the other valleys of the ceja de selva - notably the Pichis-Palcazu and the Apurimac-Ene. During the next ten years, illicit coca production was responsible for some ten percent of the deforestation that occurred in the Peruvian Amazon during the entire twentieth century; furthermore, trade of this lucrative crop led to significant corruption and, more importantly, supported the rise of terrorism. Strategic alliances between coca growers (the colonists), smugglers (Peruvians and Colombians) and the terrorists (mainly, but not exclusively, Sendero Luminoso) led to a large area of the Peruvian Amazon becoming utterly lawless.

Each party to this alliance gained strength and resources whilst the indigenous peoples of the region suffered, stuck seemingly powerless in the middle.

Over the last fifteen years the Peruvian authorities have persecuted the colonos for their illegal crops, and their greatest successes in this area have come largely from among the indigenous groups themselves, like the Ashaninka tribe. Armed by the authorities, these tribespeople were among the vanguard of resistance to the narco-terrorists, whose movement, once rooted in politics and agriculture, had become bloodthirsty, power-hungry and highly unpopular.

In the aftermath of the civil war, which began to fizzle out with the capture of Sendero's leader in 1992, the international financial institutions, whose earlier loans had helped fund the disastrous colonization, started to partly determine development policy in the Peruvian Amazon so that those same loans could be repaid; resources such as fossil fuels, lumber and land were privatized and sold to the highest bidder.

New exploitation and destruction of Peruvian jungle under dictator Fujimori

President Fujimori's neo-liberal agenda led to new investment in this legitimate exploitation, which was unfortunately mirrored by a huge increase in illegal mining. Hordes of landless peasants from the Cusco region also flocked into the Madre de Dios to make their fortune from gold mining. In itself this was neither illegal nor an environmental threat, but the introduction of front-loader machines and trucks - which supplanted [eliminated] child labour in the mines in the early 1990s - increased the environmental damage and rate of territorial consumption by this unregulated industry.

By 1999, a massive desert had appeared around Huaypetue, previously a small-time, frontier mining town, and the neighbouring communities of Amarakeiri Indians (who have been panning for gold in a small-scale, sustainable fashion for some thirty years) are in serious danger of losing their land and natural resources. Attempts  by NGOs and pro-Indian lawyers to maintain the boundaries of Indian reserves and communities are constantly thwarted [inhibited by intrigues] by colonists who are supported by local governments.

As the danger from terrorism faded in the mid-1990s, oil and gas exploration by multinational companies began in earnest [by new Fujimori laws which gave the foreign industry more rights as to the Peruvians]. Initially the Peruvian government appeared to be bending over backwards to assist them, and the (p.502)

reserves discovered - mainly in the Madre de Dios and the Camisea - were believed to be of world-shattering importance, with only the Amazonian indigenous organizations and environmental conservationists active in opposition. Momentum has slowed down for the moment; the decision to drill in the Río de las Piedras ["Stone river"] has been reversed, but work on the Camisea gas pipeline is well underway.

End of 1990s: new products for alternative crops

In the late 1990s, the price of coca continued to drop in Peru as production shifted to Colombia, and many peasants and jungle Indians alike were seriously looking for alternative cash crops, such as the traditional chocolate and coffee products or newer options like uña de gato (a newly rediscovered medicinal herb) and barbasco (a natural pesticide).

Mining and petroleum and gas exploitation continues apace, but with improvements to the jungle road infrastructure and the attention of the global timber markets turning from Southeast Asia back to the Amazon in recent years, it seems that the illegal, and sometimes legal but unsustainable, loggers are the major threat to the remaining Indian cultures and their lush tropical rainforest environment. The way things are going it's hard to see how much longer the indigenous peoples can maintain their traditional territories. Without the forest the present forest-dwellers' children will be without a means of surviving or earning a living. The present Peruvian government, lead by President Toledo, has continued with Fujimori's approach of privatization and engagement with multinational companies for the exploitation of Peru's resources, particularly those hidden beneath the rainforest canopy [roof] (p.503).

Indigenous jungle tribes

Some tribes are assimilating and working for the western money system - other tribes fight for their origin culture and identity

Outside the few main towns, there are hardly any sizeable settlements, and the jungle population remains dominated by between 35 and 62 indigenous tribes - the exact number depends on how you classify tribal identity - each with its own distinct language, customs and dress. After centuries of external influence (missionaries, gold seekers, rubber barons, soldiers, oil companies, anthropologists, and now tourists), many jungle Indians speak Spanish and live pretty conventional, westernized lives, preferring jeans, football shirts and fizzy bottled drinks to their more traditional clothing and manioc beer (the tasty, filling and nutritious masato).

But while many are being sucked into the money-based labour market, others, increasingly under threat, have been forced to struggle for their cultural identities and territorial rights, or to retreat as far as they are presently able beyond the new frontiers of so-called civilization. In 1996, for instance, oil workers encountered some previously uncontacted groups while clearing tracts of forest for seismic testing in the upper Río de las Piedras area of Madre de Dios, northwest of Puerto Maldonado. In this region it appears that some of the last few uncontacted tribal communities in the Amazon - Yaminahua, Mashco Piro and Amahuaca Indians - are keeping their distance from outside influences.

In 2002 these same remote groups came out of the forest en masse to prevent further intrusion by aggressive illegal loggers in their last remaining territory at the headwaters of the Río de las Piedras. In August of that year some four hundred Indians appeared on the riverbanks as a flotilla of illegal logging launches made its way upstream from Puerto Maldonado. Shaking and rattling their bows and arrows, the Indians raised long vines as a barrier across the river and then attacked the boats, badly injuring several loggers. In the last few years there's been little information forthcoming from this area; reports suggest that the loggers have moved on through here to work closer to the Brazilian border and the Indians have retreated further into the few remaining areas of even more isolated forest, including Manu.

For most tribes, the jungle offers a semi-nomadic existence, and in terms of material possessions, they have, need and want very little. Communities are scattered, with groups of between ten and two hundred people, and their sites shift every few years. For subsistence they depend on small, cultivated plots, fish from the rivers and game from the forest, including wild pigs, deer, monkeys and a great range of edible birds. The main species of edible jungle fish are sabalo (a kind of oversized catfish), carachama (an armoured walking catfish), the feisty piranha (generally not quite as dangerous as Hollywood depicts), and the giant zungaro and paiche - the latter, at up to 200kg, being the world's largest freshwater fish. In fact, food is so abundant that jungle dwellers generally spend no more than three to four days a week engaged in subsistence activities (p.501).

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