Two countries, one people

Ruth Buendia in the Ene River Valley, Peru

Ruth Buendia in the Ene River Valley, Peru. Photo: Goldman Prize

Ruth Buendía Mestoquiari was born in an Ashaninka Indigenous community on the Ene River banks in the Peruvian forest. She presides the Central Ashaninka do Rio Ene (CARE) that struggles for Indigenous rights in the Peruvian Amazonia. She is also a member of the Indigenous Peoples Legal Defense Program of CASA Socio-Environmental Fund.

Ruth won the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the environmental area. This was an important international recognition that projected her role on the world stage and ensured visibility for thousands of anonymous Indigenous people who only wanted the right to live on their land, to follow their traditions, and to have their basic rights respected.

Povo Ashaninka. Foto: Ashaninka-Apiwtxa

Ashaninka people. Photo: Ashaninka-Apiwtxa


A warrior’s path


Ruth Buendia’s personal story blends into the stories of thousands of American Indigenous people facing up to governments and economic powers that see other uses for forests, rivers, and mountains.

Ruth’s father was murdered during the years of armed struggle that split Peru in the 1980s and 1990s. She lived with her mother and five siblings in a kind of concentration camp run by guerrilla fighters. She managed to flee, enduring the forest, hunger, fear, and disease until she got to the city of Satipo. There she encountered underemployment and prejudice, but her inner strength was greater than the burden of reality. She began to change her own fate, she resumed her studies, and she met CARE. The young fighter volunteers to help in improving the condition of her people and returns to her territory to work with the Ene River communities.

Rio Ene. Foto: Jonathan McLeod

Ene River. Photo: Jonathan McLeod

She got the news of the construction of the Pakitzapango dam through a radio report in 2008.This dam would affect around 10,000 Indigenous people and was intended to generate electricity for export to Brazil. At that time, the communities already faced timber exploitation and oil drilling, through concessions the Peruvian government granted to companies – without prior consultations with local communities.

Thus, Ruth decided to seek information and allies to prevent yet another disaster. In this process, she met Monti Aguirre and Glenn Switkes (from International Rivers), both long-time CASA Advisory Board members and partners.


Key Partnerships


This is how Monti defines her role as CASA’s Advisory Board member: “More than an institutional relation, it’s a personal relation of friendship and trust. All the projects I recommend are for groups that I have known for a long time, or that I’ve come to know through my work to protect rivers, human rights, and Indigenous rights. It’s the story of a life.

Jovem Ashaninka. Foto: Blog Ashaninka-Apiwtxa

Young Ashaninka. Photo: Blog Ashaninka-Apiwtxa

“That’s how I met Ruth and got to know the case of the Ene River Ashaninka. We visited the area and began a relation with people from CARE. We noticed the Ashaninka people in Peru needed capacity building on the issue of the dams. We noted the urgency of supporting their interaction with other groups facing the same challenge, especially groups in Brazil, a country also interested in infrastructure and energy projects in Peru.”


Strategic approach


Based on an analysis of the context and the local situation, we concluded the Ene River communities hadn’t been consulted about the dam. There was a legal issue to explore – the possibility of initiating the struggle using the ILO Convention 169 that regulates a number of Indigenous peoples’ rights.

Ashaninka fiscaliza a fronteira. Acervo CPI-AC

Ashaninka patrols reservation borders. Foto: Acervo CPI-AC

“With some support from the CASA, we contacted a lawyer to prepare the legal case. With a legal study that argued the company’s malfeasance, we managed to stop the construction of the Pakitzapango dam. Later on, the contractor in charge of building the hydroelectric power plant (Odebrecht) gave up the project.”

Ruth also visited European countries, the United States, and Brazil to denounce arbitrary measures and threats. Other Indigenous leaders from Brazil also joined the struggles, as these damages to the forests and rivers crossed the borders.

CASA supported several actions in Acre state, along the border with Peru and Bolivia, and also in other countries, under the South America Support Program geared to communities affected by large infrastructure and energy projects, with Mott Foundation funding, as well as support from CASA’s Indigenous Peoples Legal Defense Program.

Um grande grupo de Ashaninkas viaja rio acima de barco para visitar tribos vizinhas. Foto: Mike Goldwater

A large group of Ashaninka travels up river by boat to visit neighboring tribes. Photo: Mike Goldwater


Joint and complementary response


Expansion of the CASA’s support beyond our own borders takes place to address in a joint, articulated, and complementary fashion issues that are pervasive throughout the region. We helped especially in capacity building with people under threat, supporting combined strategies, such as the use of ILO Convention 169 for Indigenous peoples in several countries, and providing funds so they could travel and participate in hearings of UN, OAS, and ILO human rights committees.

The Acre Pro-Indian Commission (CPI) is an important partner of the CASA for action strategies in this sensitive region where forests, rivers, and Indigenous groups existed well before today’s states were formed and established borders, always at the cost of much conflict and war.

Banner de um dos projetos da Comissão Pró-Índio do Acre, realizado com apoio do Fundo Socioambiental CASA.

Project banner of Pro-Indian Commission of Acre, done with support from CASA Socio-Environmental Fund.


Knowledge sharing


Maria Luiza P. Ochoa, also known as Malu, coordinates the Acre CPI’s Public Policies and Regional Networking Program. She has been involved in this issue for over twenty years – and she notes the importance of CASA support.

“In 2005, we had the first binational gathering of Indigenous populations, pulling together dozens of representatives from Indigenous organizations from both sides of the Brazil-Peru border. It was quite an experience for the CPI to understand what was happening on the Peruvian side. This meeting provided information that made it possible to put forward strategies for threatened areas.

Ashaninka people. Photo: Acervo CPI - Acre.

Ashaninka from Brazil and Peru strategize to protect their territory. Photo: Acervo CPI – Acre.

This region has a mosaic of cultures, with predominance of Indigenous peoples and isolated populations. It’s a very vulnerable region, especially along the border with Peru, where the government signs concession agreements for the exploitation of timber, oil, and gas even in Indigenous and park areas. The presence of drug traffickers aggravates the conflicts.”

There is the geopolitical framework through which South American governments are increasing the region’s infrastructural integration, with the construction of roads, railways, waterways, gas pipelines, hydroelectric power plants, and other large projects. The objective of all these projects is the economic and physical integration of South American countries and they will not hesitate to transgress protected areas. In addition, there are bilateral agreements to exploit minerals, oil, and timber, as well as to build routes to move all these products to ports on the Pacific coast for export to China.

With CASA’s support, the CPI has worked to mobilize Indigenous communities, creating spaces to gather and share information, and giving voice to those actors.

Equipe da Comissão Pró-Índio do Acre. De camiseta rosa, no meio, Maria Luiza P. Ochoa. Projeto: Monitoramento, vigilância e proteção dos territórios indígenas e índios isolados na região de fronteira Acre (Brasil) e Madre de Dios (Peru).

Team of Pro-Indian Commission of Acre. Wearing pink shirt, Maria Luiza P. Ochoa. Project: Monitoring and protection of indigenous and isolated indigenous territories in Acre border region (Brazil) and Madre de Dios (Peru).

“The first project supported by CASA in partnership with the CPI was a 2012 workshop on the ILO Convention 169. This UN Convention guarantees to traditional peoples who are potentially threatened by proposed projects on their lands the right to free, prior and informed consent. Thus, we managed to get together a large number of Indigenous people from different ethnic backgrounds to learn about the legislation and the possibility of using that Convention to safeguard their rights,” added Malu.



Young leaders conquer new spaces


Lucas Manchineri and Isaac Ashaninka are two Indigenous young men with a history of leadership and activism in their communities and with partners. Their work helps Indigenous peoples to increasingly have their own voice, their own strategies, and actions to protect the physical and cultural integrity of their territories, so the people in the Indigenous villages can enjoy health and respect, and resist threats.

“Before information came from the top down,” Lucas Manchineri explained. “We are changing this scenario. We organized five workshops with teachers on Indigenous Land about the ILO Convention 169. We discussed how the process takes place and what was impacting our lands. The law says that to develop any project you must first listen to the community. There must be a study of the impact and consultations with the community to clarify issues and provide information. This is the international law, but it’s also in our Federal Constitution. To face this reality, we must know our duties and rights. Today, our peoples know how to talk to authorities; it was hard educational work, but it was worth it.”

Fotos acervo CPI - Acre 5

Lucas Manchineri. Photo: Acervo CPI – Acre

Isaac Ashaninka is member of a family who pioneered the work to defend rights and build a new reality for their people, who live along the Amônia River, in Acre state. He is a teacher and community leader; and he comments on the situation of his people divided between two countries. These countries have different laws for Indigenous peoples, but both implement actions that have the same negative impact.

“In 2014, four Ashaninka were killed on the border between our territory and Peru. But, this violence is nothing new, it’s been happening for centuries. Since I was a kid, I’ve heard these stories of violence. Loggers invading our lands, cutting down the forest, and threatening the Indigenous people; companies that come to exploit oil, gas, and minerals; the action of drug traffickers. These people are now called narco-loggers because they work together.

Ao fundo, de camiseta vermelha, Isaac Ashaninka. Foto: acervo CPI - Acre.

In the background, wearing red shirt, Isaac Ashaninka. Photo: Acervo CPI – Acre.

“Our leaders receive death threats because they resist and denounce the invasion and violence, because we are now using our knowledge and technology to defend ourselves. But how can we change this situation? Only with positive actions, with sustainable social, cultural, and economic alternatives, with knowledge production and exchange, with diplomacy and dialogue will we be able to stop the other side. A well-organized community, feeling that they are valued, with increased self-esteem can act on their own behalf; and they can intermediate conflicts with the Peruvian side. We have achieved all this with our own organization and support from and partnership with people such as those in the Pro-Indian Commission and the CASA.”


We want to live well


Today, Ruth Buendia and other Indigenous leaders from Peru continue their struggle, winning some battles but always keeping alert, and seeking joint strategies with leaders in Brazil and other South American countries. They know they can rely on the key support from partners such as the CASA. Her agenda is very busy and she has little time to be with her five children. This personal sacrifice is rewarded by the union of the Ashaninka people and the protection of a territory that belongs to future generations. That is how she describes her wish:

Benki Piyako Ashaninka - Liderança Apiwtxa. Foto: Acervo CPI - Acre.

Benki Piyako Ashaninka – Apiwtxa lider. Photo: Fundo CASA.

“Our past of warfare and terrorism marks us. We suffered the armed struggle and we don’t want to suffer another kind of terrorism, the economic terrorism imposed by the hydroelectric power plants. The Sendero history is still alive, and because of this we demand that the state show us some respect. The Ashaninka people do not want conflict; we want to live well. For the Ashaninka, the territory is our reason to live. If the dams flood the valley, where should we go? It would be as if we had disappeared.”

e-147x147 Text by: Angela Pappiani – Journalist, cultural producer at Ikore and CASA’s advisor since its foundation.

 English translation by Jones de Freitas.