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Ashaninka: the Rebirth of a Nation

Photo: Alejandro Balaguer



Photo: Alejandro Balaguer



Photo: Alejandro Balaguer

For more than a decade, in a forgotten jungle world in the center of Peru, in a valley called the Ene, a vicious war raged between the Shining Path guerrilla movement and the Peruvian armed forces.

It was 1987, and the Shining Path had begun recruiting Ashaninka youths by force. Natives were snatched from their communities and many families were divided at gunpoint to form part of these guerrilla troops.

The Ashaninka nation lived a time of terrible hardship in the 1980s, until the army began to push the rebels out of the area at the beginning of this decade.

What followed was, perhaps, even harder still: the task of rescuing the natives, who were stricken by malnutrition, sicknesses and fear. But gradually they came down out of the mountains that loomed over the valley, leaving behind many years of bewildered wandering through the impenetrable jungle, surviving by a miracle, never knowing from where their next mouthful was coming.

One community, in particular, at the Cutivireni mission was saved by US priest Mariano Gagnon (see interview), who spent decades protecting the Ashaninkas from the encroaching modern world.

Although there is still scattered violence in the region, today the sun shines once more on the Ene Valley as peace returns to the area. Families have reunited, fields have been replanted with the yucca root and festivals are livened up with masato, a fermented mash. Children fish once more for the Carachama fish and hunters set out with bow and arrow for wild boar and a mammal called the sachavaca.

The women build roofs for their homes with interlaced palm tree leaves, using the wisdom handed down since time immemorial, a knowledge that has kept a careful balance with nature. Still deeper within the forest, natives pick the "uña del gato", or uncaria tomentosa, a plant with medicinal qualities that has been proved to boost immunity.

When evening draws in, communities like the Cutivireni, Kempiri or Kamantabishi come alive. The campfires send out showers of sparks as the women cook yucca plants and knit the tunics known as cushmas. They also at times, mash the thick, red turmeric paste which will be used to paint their faces in all their splendor.

The Ashaninka, whose name means literally, "a brother to all", is one of the Amazon jungle's largest ethnic groups. The nation has survived a time of trial, and thanks to their Tasorentsi, or Creator, their age-old customs are returning to this remote jungle land, far from the ravages of modernity and change.

The Ashaninka, or Campa as they are also called, belong to the Pre-Andean Arahuaca language family. The tribe is mainly scattered throughout the 228 communities dotted around the jungle valleys of the rivers Apurimac, Ene, Perené, Tambo and Urubamba.

In fact, this nation is made up of seven groups who live scattered around the central jungle. They understand not only each other's dialects and also those of the neighboring Machuiguenga tribe.

These include the Cutivireni community, made up of the Ashaninkas, the Asheninga of the Upper Perené Valley, the Atsiri of the Pichis area, the Asheninga of the Gran Pajonal region, who call themselves Nomatsiguenga, and the Caquinteo of Puyenisati.

The Machiguenga nation spills over into Brazil along the Yurua River in the state of Acre, where they were originally enslaved by rubber tappers and taken to work the rubber plantations. There are some 300 Ashaninkas in Brazil, called Campas. There is still a high percentage of Ashaninkas who do not speak Spanish, some 83%.

The natives are organized in nuclear family units and live in their mother's region. However, they trace their family tree through their fathers. Apart from the traditional knitted cotton cushma (few wear western clothing), the natives often adorn themselves with necklaces, bracelets, crowns or dyed cotton headbands, as well as the use of face paint on special occasions.

One of the reasons why the Ashaninkas were unable to resist the invasion of settlers, guerrillas and drug traffickers was because they were so out-gunned. Apart from a handful of shotguns given to a few military-trained rural militia units, the natives basically use bows and arrows or spears, the kinds of weapons they have used for hunting since time immemorial.

It is a nation dependent on subsistence agriculture. The Ashaninkas use a slash-and-burn method to clear lands and plant yucca root, bananas, corn, sweet potato, rice, coffee, cacao and sugar cane.

Although contact with the outside world has suppressed local customs in certain areas, such as the Perené Valley, these people still live off hunting and fishing, as well as the fruit and vegetables grown in the jungle.

Nowadays, as part of the process of adapting to the modern world, more and more natives are beginning to breed poultry as a substitute to the meat from wild boar and wildfowl that used to be hunted in the jungle.

One threat, however, that the natives will be unable to do anything about, is the risk of pollution from exploration activity by the multinational oil companies Chevron and Elf. Both are now operating in Ashaninka territory.

Volume I/Issue 2, Page 32
Edited 2003

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