Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Asháninka, who are members of the Arawak linguistic group, inhabit the Peruvian Amazonian rainforests. The total number of indigenous Peruvians living in the Amazon basin is estimated at 350,000. The approximately 50,000 Asháninka constitute the largest ethnic group in the region.
Asháninka communities have had a longstanding and difficult relationship with missionaries and other external actors. In the early twentieth century they were colonized by rubber tappers; in the 1970s and 1980s, their lands were usurped for the production of sugar and palm oil, for cattle ranching and forestry, by gold prospectors and a new wave of colonists. In addition, almost 700,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed to provide extra coca-growing areas and for the construction of airstrips for its illegal transportation. From the 1970s, emergent Asháninka leaders formed their own local ethnic federations to deal with such problems.
Violence intensified in the late twentieth century due to the combined pressures of drug traffickers, terrorists and colonists. In 1989 Sendero Luminoso invaded Asháninka territory, seeking control of the lucrative drug trade. Following massacres in six Asháninka villages in August 1993, a delegation of Asháninka travelled to Lima to ask for economic aid and arms. By attempting to organize their own defence groups, Asháninka leaders became more deeply involved in the conflict. Those who tried to defend their communities during a further attack by Sendero in September 1993 were arrested on charges of terrorism.
Government efforts to retake the area and Asháninka self-defence strategies resulted in the expulsion of most Sendero Luminoso activists from the area, but they also resulted in large displacements of Asháninka people. In addition, many official documents and censuses of Asháninka lands and communities were destroyed or lost during the conflict; this has led to serious problems as regards land tenure in the region.
The exhumation of large-scale mass graves in Asháninka territory has recently highlighted the heavy toll which the conflict with Sendero Luminoso had on local communities. In 2014, the remains of 800 people, believed to belong mainly to the Asháninka and Matsigenka peoples, were exhumed at the site of the largest mass grave so far discovered in Peru.
In 1988 Asociación Inter-étnica para el Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP) initiated the Intercultural Bilingual Education Teacher Training Programme (FORMBIAP). This encourages alternative methods of teaching, recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights and promoting Peru’s ethnic diversity. Such programmes have focused on local, cultural and ancestral knowledge. Asháninka community elders are included in the bilingual education teams, alongside teachers and expert technicians.
As a consequence of the Peruvian government’s neoliberal policies, there has been a significant rise in oil activities in the Amazon rainforest. Other contentious issues include the Camisea Natural Gas Project and the increased number of concessions granted by the state for wood extraction in areas belonging to indigenous communities. This situation, combined with the lack of indigenous land titles, has led to many conflicts between Asháninka communities, colonists, international corporations and state authorities, as well as irreversible ecological damage. However, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become involved in the Asháninkas’ protest campaign, reflecting the relatively recent convergence of indigenous peoples’ rights activism and global environmentalism. They have secured several important advances, such as the establishment of a large new protected area, the Otishi National Park. This has been officially designated between the Ene, Tambo and Urubamba rivers, along with two indigenous communal reserves.
In September 2014, four members of the Asháninka community were murdered by a group of illegal loggers. One of those murdered was Edwin Chota, an Asháninka leader who was active in protesting the logging industry.