by Jose Murilo Junior

The Ashaninkas are the largest indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon and differently from the majority of the South American original dwellers, their cultural identity is greatly preserved. Apart from being among the native nations of the continent connected with the traditional use of Ayahuasca, the Ashaninkas are specially known for their use of beautiful cotton robes, or cushmas, which are woven by the Ashaninka women for the men of their tribe. Cushmas are an Ashaninka’s most prized possession and there is a very long tradition of giving and exchanging cushmas and cloth with nyomparis (or trading partners) which linked distant Ashaninka villages into cycles of meetings, collaboration and resource sharing.

Accounts from the beginning of the last century tells about some Ashaninka groups that escaped from the Peruvian “caucheiros” [rubber tappers], and today a few hundred of them live on the Brazilian side of the border. There are stories about the braveness of the skilled warriors who expulsed the wild Amahuakas from the area around the Amonia River in the Upper Juruá. These few groups achieved the ownership of their land in the 90s, after many decades of struggle against the successive waves of colonization, and nowadays they strive to engage in activities that can help them to communicate with the world, and better defend their land and their culture from their current enemies.

It’s been a month since the blog of the Ashaninka Society of the Rio Amônia (Apiwtxa), has been decrying that workers from the Peruvian company Venao Forestal had illegally crossed into Brazil, and were now logging mahogany and cedar there. On a recent expedition to supervise the border, the Brazilian Ashaninkas were received with death threats from a task leader of the Peruvian company, which raised some worries about the possibility of violent clashes in the region. The power of the Internet and the blogs for outreach and networking have recently been discovered by some of the young leaders of these communities, and this fact is surely making a difference in the present struggles faced by their people.

“I have a friend who I see as a kind of Guardian, a Guardian of the border. He lives at the Upper Juruá, in the Apiwtxa community, and he is from the Ashaninka people. His name is Benki Piyãko. Some days ago I received an email from him reporting about a case not detailed, but which has troubled him. To those who are not following the recent events at the Brazilian-Peruvian border, Peruvian logging companies continue to invade our forests. An encirclement is advancing. Benki’s indigenous territory and its people have been victimized for years, and the sad new is that the invasion has reached the Upper Juruá Reserve on its West and South borders (see post “Encirclement on the Border). Well, there was an Ibama’s [Ministry of Environment] action along with the Army on the border, and some persons were imprisoned. All the dirty work from the Peruvian companies involves suspect alliances (on which terms?) with indigenous people living on the region. There are things like logging companies backing handling plans of indigenous communities, who will in the end sell them the wood. One of the Army’s tenants told Benki that a resident from the reserve who had guided that expedition was receiving death threats from “Peruvian Indians”, who might have been looking for him at his house. The case has not unfolded into a more serious situation, but it has alerted the Guardian. “As a leader of the Apiwtxa community, I see it as a dirty strategy of the company Venao to manipulate our indigenous relatives to generate conflict with our Brazilian country, threatening persons and communities”.

Guardião – A Flora

What makes this case notable, however, is that Venao Forestal has been FSC certified by SmartWood, which awarded the certificate in April 2007 after an evaluation in September-October 2006. According to OlyEcology, “Forestal Venao is infamous in Ucayali, Peru for their indifference to laws, indigenous people, and the rainforest environment. They have built an illegal, non-state sanctioned logging road from the banks of the Ucayali to the Juruá basin on the Brazilian border. This is no small skid trail, but a network of roads whose main trunk extends over 120 kilometers”.

The blog from the Ashaninka Society of the Rio Amônia (Apiwtxa) has been the instrument for announcing that the group would “take immediate action to stop the advance of this exploitation”, and the intention to “appeal to international courts to protect Brazilian sovereignty, their territory, the preservation area, and the still existent biodiversity of the region.” It is important to follow what will be done in a certification system which certifies a company deserving the blacklist.

“From our side, we demand to be consulted this time, which is something that did not happen before the SmartWood / Rainforest Alliance certified Forestal Venao in April of this year. We hope that as long as we obtain the confirmation of its illegal activities on Brazilian territory, as well as in Peru, the certification will be immediately canceled, according to a commitment by the Alliance.”

Forestal Venao investigada no Peru e no Brasil – Apiwtxa

The Ashaninka are so intimate with the forest that they see their own clothing as akin to the plants covering of the earth. The young Ashaninka leader Benki Piyãko actively uses the latest Internet tools to reach out to the world, giving a global voice to the forest and the wisdom of his people, as the following eloquent message testifies.