The limits of eden

Peru’s Manu National Park is a biodiversity success story. But its management has left its ancestral peoples without voice and agency. Could that be about to change? asks Jack Lo Lau.

Machiguenga children at play in Manu’s spectacular wilderness, while their pet spider monkey explores a tree. CHARLIE JAMES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC/ALAMY
Machiguenga children at play in Manu’s spectacular wilderness, while their pet spider monkey explores a tree. CHARLIE JAMES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC/ALAMY

After two hours’ travel through driving rain, Lucio arrived in the village with his two wives and children aboard a raft, all soaked to the skin. Four weeks earlier, they had decided to leave their nomadic life in the high reaches of the River Comerjali, where hundreds of Machiguenga and Mashco-Piro indigenous people live in voluntary isolation, and begin the journey to join the small settled community of Sarigeminiki, located slap in the middle of Peru’s Manu National Park.

Having lived without any contact with other people, they spoke no Spanish and had no idea of their dates of birth. Such details were of no importance in the life they had come from. But life as hunter-gatherers had been becoming increasingly hard, which is why they decided to try their luck in a settlement that for them held the promise of a better quality of life – a school, medical station and neighbours.

Manu National Park was created in 1973. It covers more than 1,700,000 hectares, ranging between 300 and 3,800 metres above sealevel, going from low-lying rainforest to elevated grasslands. Situated in the south of Peru, its territory stretches over the departments of Cusco and Madre de Dios.

It is one of the most biodiverse areas of the world. Some 160 species of mammals, 1,000 birds, more than 140 amphibians, 210 fish and over half a million species of insects have been registered there.

It has been recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. Apart from the isolated communities in the deep forest, four small settled communities of semi-nomadic Machiguengas have existed for over 50 years, brought about through the intervention of evangelizing Dominican Catholic missionaries. These settlements sometimes draw out of isolation people like Lucio and his family, who previously had no fixed abode – just the vast forest whose limits were unknown to them.

Manu is managed by the National Service of Protected Areas of Peru (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas del Perú, or SERNANP), which is charged with its conservation and protection. ‘Ninety-nine per cent of it is in a good condition. We have reduced to zero all the threats we had, like illegal logging and mining,’ says John Florez Leiva, head of Manu National Park.

They are oppressed in the name of conservation, when the people who live in Manu are the ones who have cared for this forest for thousands of years

Oppressed by conservation

But the major complaint of the indigenous communities has been that park management has focused exclusively on biodiversity conservation upon their ancestral lands, without any true attempt at partnership with them. The Manu National Park Master Plan does not consider them in its management protocols and schemes. The small settled communities bristle under the restrictions placed on them, forbidding them to raise animals or farm, only allowing them to use the forest for bare survival.

‘They don’t need money,’ counters Florez Leiva. ‘The Park has everything [they need] for survival.’ He also refers to Machiguenga House, a tourist lodge whose income serves to cover the communities’ expenses – currently non-functional due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Julio Cusurichi, president of FENAMAD, which represents all the indigenous communities of Madre de Dios, does not see it this way.

‘How will they buy oil and sugar? What about those who want to study at university? Will they write on palm leaves?’ he asks. ‘This case is emblematic of the confrontation between nature and the special needs of indigenous peoples. Our kin are condemned to hunting and fishing for their subsistence, without the means to engage in productive economic activities that permit them to live with dignity. Without access to multicultural education, integrated healthcare, or basic social rights.

‘This is ancestral Machiguenga territory. The creation of the Park came later. For this reason, we want this area to be administered by indigenous people, as it was for thousands of years. As things are now, the communities are not as free as people say.’

FENAMAD is working on a territorial vision strategy with the Machiguenga communities within Manu, which encompasses managing their territory to access better health and education services, conserving ancestral knowledge and protecting forest biodiversity. ‘All the plans carried out so far in the Park are not adequate to the reality of the populations,’ says Cusurichi. ‘The government has imposed rules in their own home, without consulting them. The school classes are given in Spanish, the health centres do not promote ancestral medicine, they cannot cut wood or hunt to earn money. They are being taught the value of money and the supposed benefits of Western life, yet they are not given options to earn money. They are oppressed in the name of conservation, when the people who live in Manu are the ones who have cared for this forest for thousands of years.’

Life changing

While life goes on much as it has always done for the larger group of indigenous people in Manu, who shun contact with other people and remain remote from all external influence, it has changed dramatically for the settled communities.1 At the end of the 19th century Dominican missionaries began to evangelize the indigenous peoples of Manu. Apart from providing clothes and food, they eventually convinced them to live in settled communities, on the understanding that they would have a better life with a school and health post.

Before, these people would have stayed in a place for a while, hunted and fished in their environment and then moved on. However, once installed in just one place, they eventually exhausted the food resources of the surrounding area. The fruits and foods of the forest which they used to be able to gather are now found far away from their dwellings and it’s simpler to eat crackers and food in tins which the government sends as part of its social programmes. According to health officials, 70 per cent of children under five are malnourished.

The health service prefers to provide aspirin and antibiotics instead of traditional plants to deal with ailments. Yomibato, a traditional healer and shaman, says that people only refer to him now when occidental medicine does not cure their ills. School lessons are in Spanish, with teachers who do not speak or understand the indigenous language. With Park rules restricting their economic activity, their lives have become circumscribed.

Looking for solutions

Some organizations are working with SERNANP to ameliorate this situation and seeking to improve the lives of the communities. The Amazon Centre for Scientific Innovation (CINCIA) is leading a project with the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and San Diego Zoo Global, working in tandem with the indigenous organization FENAMAD, to train women leaders in the communities, diversify their diet, and learn how to live a settled life.

Claudia Vega of CINCIA says: ‘They have been inculcated in occidental concepts. They are being turned into addicts of mobile phones and sugary foods, when they are not prepared for it. For this reason, we have organized workshops on basic gastronomy and indigenous wisdom. Options that respect their culture and values, without imposing things from outside.’ Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has halted this work, but it is hoped that it will be started again soon.

The Frankfurt Zoological Society is focusing on helping in terms of education. ‘We have been working since 2008 in helping the management of the Park by strengthening education. We are improving and creating educational centres, training leaders and helping children to get better opportunities,’ says Juvenal Silva, co-ordinator of FZS’s Pro Manu programme, which is about to sponsor the first batch of Machiguenga university students. ‘They are 16 youngsters, who are going to university,’ says Ingrid Chalán, communications co-ordinator of FZS. ‘The idea is that they will come back to carry on contributing to the development of their communities as intercultural bilingual teachers.’

Last year marked a decade since the agreement between San Diego Zoo Global and SERNANP to co-administer the renowned Biological Station at Cocha Cashu, located in the heart of Manu. The station is dedicated principally to scientific investigations, but in recent years has been reaching out to indigenous communities.

‘Our relationship with the indigenous populations today is stronger on themes of intercultural environmental education. One of the principal activities is school visits from communities in the interior of the Park and in the buffer zone,’ says Roxana Arauco, Joint Director of the Biological Station at Cocha Cashu.

‘From our corner we stimulate the academic thinking on integrating the communities in the management of the Park,’ says Arauco, who has among her plans a publication that compiles all the traditions of the communities to help keep them alive.

Ever since Manu National Park was created, many people have made decisions for the people who live there. They told them how to live in their own home and restricted their rights, making them ask permission for everything and wait for help. Now, at long last, some organizations are asking them: ‘And you? How do you want to live?’

1 Estimates for the population of indigenous peoples in isolation are not reliable. The best guess is 7,000 for the entire region of which Manu National Park is a part.

Jack Lo Lau is a Peruvian journalist focused on indigenous communities’ rights, socio-environmental conflicts, and natural territories and wildlife.