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The fight’s not over yet, say Peru’s dam busters

Indigenous Peoples
Human Rights

The Asháninka communities rely on the river.
Photo: Pedro França/MinC, reproduced under a CC license from Ministério da Cultura.

Brazil and Peru have jumped on the bandwagon of hydroelectricity, signing energy agreements to construct 15 plants in the Peruvian rainforests. These include Pakitzapango and Tambo 40, situated along the river Ene in the Central Rainforest. Renewable sources they may be, but with the devastation they would bring, the energy would by no means be ‘clean’.

On the Ene live 17 Asháninka communities, an indigenous group still recovering from decades of  terrorization. The dams would flood the river, killing the fish, the plants, and the animals and destroying the homes. Around 10,000 Asháninka people could be left without food or shelter and as a result forced out of their communities. From the word go, Central Asháninka del Río Ene (CARE ) the legal voice of the Asháninka, have campaigned and protested ruthlessly and to their great credit in October 2011, the dams were announced ‘retired’.

I am a British girl volunteering with CARE on my gap year, and it’s clear that, in their eyes, this is not the end. ‘We are just waiting, it is just a matter of time before MINEM [the government agency dealing with energy] and [Brazilian dam-builder] Obedrecht1 reintroduce Pakitzapango.’ claimed Ruth Buendía, president of CARE.

Between 1989 and 1996 the Asháninka living along the river Ene were kidnapped, tortured, and sent to concentration camps in the mountains by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorists. Olinda García López tells a harrowing tale: ‘we were going to the river and they grabbed us…they killed my mum... they took us to the mountains without food or clothes…my brothers and sisters died there.’

I can see the lasting effects of these invasions. The underlying purpose of all of CAREs projects is to rebuild the lives of Asháninka people, allowing them to live once again as their ancestors did.

Given that this siege ended only 16 years ago, the majority of Asháninkas are living victims – their wounds are fresh and deep. ‘The Asháninkas hate the Andeans,’ Leo Almoacid, survivor of the massacre passionately proclaimed. They were terrorized by Sendero and betrayed by the soldiers, and for this, there is a complete mistrust of outsiders. ‘Each community does their rounds, with weapons, watching out for anyone…the majority changed their names.’ Antonio Sancho Ferrer, CARE employee,  mentioned casually.

So what is the government doing, rubbing salt in the wound? If it wants a better relationship with its indigenous citizens, proposing to displace 10,000 Asháninka people just won’t cut it. ‘They didn’t consult us; they didn’t think about us as people, as Peruvians. The don’t have any respect for us. Because of this we cannot trust them.’ Buendía confided, bitterly.

Around the town of Satipo you can easily encounter feelings of hostility towards Asháninka people. I was talking to a girl, about 12-years-old whose mother owns the café where I usually enjoy a tortilla sandwich. Her parents are Andeans now living in the rainforest. I asked her whether she preferred the mountains or the rainforest. ‘Mountains’, she replied. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I don’t like the Asháninkas,’ she came back at me.

‘People think the dam will bring money and Asháninka people are stopping this from happening,’ explained Ferrer. I am not claiming that resentment of many Satipo town-dwellers is a result of the dams, but as long as the government keeps such development projects going, albeit on a backburner, the cold war between the town and the country will remain.

According to Ruth Buendía, experts have located many unpopulated areas along the coast that are suitable for development. So, why not consider these alternatives and give the Asháninka people a break and a reason to drop their arms and mistrust?

New Internationalist co-editor Vanessa Baird won an Amnesty Human Rights Media Award for her magazine ‘Nature’s defenders’ published in October 2011 where she reported on how indigenous peoples in Peru are resisting dams and mining companies.

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