A calling to return to Peru
Five years ago I travelled to Peru for the wedding of one of my dearest childhood friends. While visiting the Amazon I began a conversation with a group of Indigenous women artisans from the Shipibo- Conibo tribe. A woman from Sweden arrived to buy 20 pieces of their traditional weavings and embroidery to send to Europe for a friend. She bargained hard, forcing the women down from the asking prices for their handicrafts, a unique and beautiful textile embroidered with traditional designs called ‘kene’. Each of the pieces can take from two weeks to one month to make. She later boasted to me in English that she would make 1000 Euro from her effort of purchasing the items from the women and putting them in the post.
The strained looks on the women’s faces when they accepted these reduced prices told a tale that has become an entrenched part of their reality. With a lack of access to international markets and a reliance on the unpredictable flow of tourists into their township, they would take what they could now for their work rather than wait for a fair price and have their children go hungry next week.
This anecdote reflects the systemic discrimination and unequal power relations that characterise so much of the relations between Amazon tribes and the outside world. It is this reality that motivated me to return to the Amazon supported by my Rotary Peace Fellowship to undertake my Applied Field Experience (AFE).
About the Shipibo-Conibo people
The Shipibo-Conibo people are an Indigenous people whose territories are along the Ucayali River, a major tributary of the Amazon River in the Amazon of Peru. Some urban communities live around Pucallpa in the Yarinacocha suburbs, an extensive indigenous zone set around an oxbow lagoon and the primary location of my field work. The vast majority live in scattered villages over a large area of jungle forest extending to the Brazilian border. The Shipibo-Conibo have a rich and complex cosmology that ties directly to the art and artifacts they produce and a deep knowledge of and relations with the jungle’s medicinal plants. Like many other Indigenous people around the world they are on the frontlines of growing global consumption of forest hardwoods, minerals and other products that threaten their livelihoods, cultures and territories. Significant tracts of Peru’s Amazon rainforest, the earth’s most expansive buffer against extreme climate change, fall within Shipibo-Conibo territories, while ironically and sadly, many of the villages are now heavily impacted by climate change as longer lasting and increasingly more intensive annual floods inundate villages for two or more months each year. During this time villages suffer extreme food and fresh water shortages as well as health and hygiene problems. (Peace Fellow Linda Low’s recent AFE blog explored this subject, and specifically links between climate change and deforestation in Brazil and growing global demand for soy products.
While rich in resources, the dynamics of their relations with the outside world are often exploitative and do not recognise or fairly value the technology, skill and energy inherent in the traditional knowledge of the Shipibo that range from their incredible natural medicine, environmental and botanical knowledge to their unique textiles and designs. Language barriers (many Shipibo are not fluent in Spanish), poor educational opportunities in the villages, racism, government corruption and the proliferation of illegal logging, narco-trafficking, oil and mining speculation all play their part to entrench many Shipibo people in extreme poverty and decrease the natural resources they have traditionally relied upon for their needs.
While relatively peaceful on the surface, the threat of violence is an ongoing reality for the Shipibo as it is for other Indigenous Amazonian tribes, in particular those seeking to enforce their rights against outside developers. The leaders of the community of Santa Clara de Uchana, who successfully took the regional government and an oil palm company to court in 2016 for illegally cutting down 5,000 hectares of their forests, continue to face death threats. Protests over other extractive projects that are damaging Indigenous livelihoods and lands across Peru have ended in the death or extrajudicial killings of protesters.
It is informed by this context that I chose to work for two small grassroots organisations for my Applied Field Experience. Rather than position myself with a large international organisation, I wanted to donate my labour and skills, and apply the generosity of the Rotarians who funded my fellowship where I felt it was most needed. I also wanted to experience firsthand the work and realities of those on the ground in the Amazon, both the Indigenous women seeking to survive and support their families from their traditional crafts, as well as the organisations that work with them. It is my view that international development practitioners are often far removed and out of touch with the realities of intended beneficiaries and I feel strongly that the deeper our relations and more direct our contact is to those we seek to work with, the better placed we are to be able to be friends and equal partners in assisting them meet their needs and aspirations.
With this in mind, the aim of my applied field research is to contribute in a small way to improving the opportunities of the Shipibo people to live peaceful and prosperous lives while protecting their forests, livelihoods and culture, and to improve the capacity of the organisations that are here in the long term to do their work.
For the last three weeks I have been working with two organisations in Pucallpa, Peru. Pucallpa is a frontier town that is the main link between the territories where an estimated 32,000 Shipibo-Conibo (making up around 8% of Peru’s Indigenous population) live in the vast stretches of the Ucayali River and its tributaries and the regional and national government. The city of Pucallpa was developed as a camp for rubber gatherers at the beginning of the twentieth century and in 1930 it was connected to Lima by road (850km of it), and since then its expansion has been intense and unstoppable. Sawmills surround the city and spread up the main highway towards both Lima and the mountains.
My main roles during my AFE and my work so far…
After three weeks I have acclimatised to the jungle heat (thankfully with a very relaxed dress code here in Pucallpa that takes account for the general absence of air conditioning). My basic Spanish is rapidly improving, and I have a busy schedule that includes work for two organisations; Alianza Arkana, a non-governmental organisation, and the Maroti Shobo cooperative (translated from the Shipibo language as ‘the house of mothers’ ), an artisanal cooperative of Indigenous women artisans from the Shipibo-Conibo tribe.
My principal host organisation, Alianza Arkana, is an intercultural organisation that has arisen out of unique collaborations between Shipibo people and a team of international volunteers and researchers to address the issues facing Amazonian communities. Its programs are diverse and responsive to specific requests, mostly from the surrounding Shipibo-Conibo, such as the community of Santa Clara de Uchunya whose lands were illegally sold to an oil palm company by the regional government, leading to destruction of over 5,000 hectares of their forest, and the community of Pouyan who are increasingly inundated with floodwaters for months of the year as an impact of climate change. Taking a holistic approach based on reciprocity and relationships rather than hand outs and paternalism, their work supports diverse needs articulated by those in the communities, that includes mentoring youth leadership, enhancing the role of women and engaging young girls in health and sexual education to reduce high instances of teen pregnancies, providing researchers to investigate issue or problems, supporting effective bilingual and intercultural education through the production of educational resources in the Shipibo language, and forest regeneration. One of their major successes is the development of eco-latrines that can continue to operate during flood periods, a project adopted by UNICEF and the Peruvian government that addresses one of the major hygiene and health issues facing the Shipibo and other Amazonian communities, and that they are now seeking to roll out across Shipibo territory. By leveraging researchers such as myself who come for between three months to one year they create intercultural solutions that both respect and engage Indigenous knowledge and technologies and can effectively interface with the modern world.
The people I have the opportunity to work with at Alianza Arkana epitomise the Rotarian values of service over self. One of its founders and the Director of Organisational Development, Dr. Paul Roberts ‘retired’ to full time work here, voluntarily taking on various tasks including building the capacity of the organisation and its Shipibo staff to meet its mission. International volunteers often spend a year or more here donating their skills to the organisation. Shipibo-Conibo people themselves make up the core paid staff in this dynamic tri-lingual work environment. Any given conversation can alternate between Shipibo, Spanish and English.
My role with Alianza Arkana is to conduct an organisational assessment and help design and implement a strategic planning process within the organisation. Organisational development has been one of my favourite professional tasks since I was tasked with building capacity of a not-for-profit environmental organisation in Papua New Guinea more than ten years ago. I enjoy being able to support individuals and organisations to evaluate and strengthen their work and love the opening it provides into the workings of inspired and passionate people. This particular assignment allows me to apply learnings of my last semester in monitoring and evaluation while drawing on my existing experience and gaining insight into the unique context of NGOs working with indigenous people in the Amazon. The conversations not only assist me in helping the organisation do the work it does even better, but opens my eyes to the unique challenges and complexities of life in this part of the Peruvian Amazon and the work of a deeply multicultural organisation.
The other organisation I am working with is “Maroti Shobo” (house of mothers in the Shipibo language), a cooperative of Indigenous women artisans. They are the same group of women I had the conversation with five years ago, at which time they had asked for help to set up a website to sell their goods. I promised in my heart to find a way to support them to shift the exploitative practices that confronted me at our first meeting.
Determined to have a meaningful impact and make the most of the opportunity this AFE presents, I came to Peru during semester break last December to set the groundwork for my summer’s work. From the direction and ideas I received during this visit I was able to conduct research that would better enable me to have impact while here over the summer. This included investigating some of the artistic knowledge and practices that are dying out and exploring opportunities for distribution of their products within fair trade and other international markets. I was also able to integrate the issues into my actual coursework in the semester in the lead up to my field experience. This research has enabled me to hit the ground running and come best prepared for a productive summer. In July I will be presenting outcomes of an independent research project I conducted over my last semester at Duke University that explores options to protect the tribe’s traditional designs and symbols, as well as their extensive medicinal plant knowledge using intellectual property and other legal regimes. Presented as an options paper for the Shipibo-Conibo Representative Council, COSHICOX, women artisans association representatives and other indigenous rights bodies who had identified this priority for research during my visit here in December, it will help the leaders decide upon the best way of protecting their culture from outside appropriation. This will be my first formal presentation (ever!) in the Spanish language and a great opportunity to gain confidence in engaging professionally with Spanish speakers.
Reviving old traditions while creating opportunities for the future:
On my way to the jungle I had arranged a meeting in Peru’s capital, Lima, with Dr. James Vreeland, an anthropologist turned social entrepreneur who, after discovering that ancient Peruvian coloured textiles were not dyed, but rather were natural cotton colours, started a company to create markets that would enable the revival of a 4,500 lineage of almost extinct native cottons species whose natural colours range from greens and browns to purples. After twenty years of dedication, he has successfully created sustainable fair trade and organic markets for these products, ensuring the motivation of local people to continue to cultivate them. He has created a vibrant industry that supports the maintenance of previously declining cultural traditions. I came out of this meeting with both inspiration for the work ahead and the perfect materials for the women to work with.
As I write, the women of Maroti Shobo have begun to design products from these better quality and fair trade fabrics that can be sold for higher amounts than their current products and can now meet stringent requirements of international fair trade markets (using the 100% Peruvian grown organic and fair trade cotton mentioned above rather than the cheap Chinese fabrics and threads they otherwise find in local stores). Using the fabrics inspired discussions on the native cottons that Shipibo grow and traditional techniques for weaving and dying fabrics that are being lost as cheaper manufactured and synthetic goods flood the market. Many women have also stopped making traditional loom work that involves weaving cloth out of native cotton and then painting and embroidering on this handmade fabric because most tourists don’t value the product, and with some initial inquiries we have already found three galleries keen to buy these more traditional items at a fair price. Seeing firsthand the effort involved reinforces how important it is to find fair trade markets for their work both to provide decent livelihioods and to help keep traditional knowledge alive.
Another task with the women for the summer is to explore different ways to cut out the middle wo/men who often take the majority of the profits from the women’s labour. This requires accessing international markets directly. Some of the steps towards this are small, but still significant in breaking barriers and setting a precedent amongst the women themselves. Over the coming two months we are working with the support of the NGO Allianza Arkana to help the Maroti Shobo cooperative to establish their own online shop on ‘Etsy’ a global online marketplace for handmade and artisanal goods. While there are existing Etsy shops selling Shipibo crafts, none of these are owned by Shipbo people, so the main profits are going outside the community that makes them. An ongoing program of training and mentoring for both the artisans and a number of their adult children who have computers, Spanish and English skills are essential to help the ‘mothers’ manage the online shop. This includes classes in quality control, marketing and social media, smart phone photography, online sales and marketing, posting and shipping that will enable them to manage the Etsy shop on their own in the future.
At the same time we are linking this and other Shipibo artisanal associations to potential wholesale clients in the fair trade industry, and exploring raising funds so that one Association of artisans can attend the Santa Fe Fair Trade Market where they have the opportunity to raise significant funds for their group and gain ongoing international customers.
There is so much more I could say about this work, and I wake each morning with passion and excitement for the tasks ahead of me. I am so deeply grateful to the Rotary community for making it possible for me to take these significant advances towards realising a vision dreamed up with the Maroti Shobo women five years ago. I invite anyone interested in staying abreast of its development or with ideas or contacts that may assist going forward to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And a little of my life in the Amazon:
Pucallpa as a town is a sprawling urban environment with an abundance of three wheeled motorcars, which reminds me of the toktoks that define my experience of urban India, where my mother was born. The distinct sounds of their horns and engines is the backdrop to much of my day.
While these projects make for a busy summer, I have found time to begin my exploration of life in the jungle. Being surrounded by one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet is an opportunity for constant learning and wonder.
The joys are diverse and including sampling exotic fruits, making friends with monkeys, cooling off in waterfalls, adopting a street kitten (and, bittersweetly, finding it a good home due to my inevitable departure). I am still hoping for an encounter with a pink river dolphin, a species of toothed whale found in the rivers around Pucallpa, but I have included a picture for animal lovers reading this post.
I will be visiting and sharing my work with the local Rotary Club here in Pucallpa (Yarinacocha) whom I first made contact with last December, and will catch up with the wonderful Elohim Monard, Pucallpa’s own Rotary Peace Fellow (Class 13 at Duke University) who lives in Lima but visits his family here from time to time. It’s inspiring to see how the Rotary and peace fellow network both extend here and have provided me opportunities for connection and local knowledge.
I am also deeply grateful to my partner Leeroy Mills who has previously volunteered and travelled in the Amazon and shares my passion for this place and its people. He has taken time off work in Australia to be here with me and is self-funding in order to work on these projects with me. The use of ‘we’ in the blog above reflects his presence in enhancing the work I am undertaking here.
You can find out more about the Shipibo people and the work of NGOs in this area at the website of one of my host organisations, Alianza Arkana, at http://alianzaarkana.org/.
 The Shipibo-Conibo, sometimes simply referred to as the Shipbo people are part of the Pan ethno-linguistic group. Formerly two groups, the Shipibo (apemen) and the Conibo (fishmen), they eventually became one distinct tribe through intermarriage and communal ritual and are currently known as the Shipibo-Conibo people. Eakin, Lucile; Erwin Laurialy; Harry Boonstra (1986). “People of the Ucayali: The Shipibo and Conibo of Peru”. International Museum of Cultures Publication: 62