Sowing Buen Vivir in the Peruvian Amazon

Marcos Urquia, an agronomist specialised in permaculture, has led diverse projects in indigenous Amazonian communities and currently collaborates with Alianza Arkana. In the following interview, which took place on 12 February 2016, Marcos shares with us his experiences of the many problems stemming from the dispossession and degradation of indigenous peoples’ territories, as well as the challenges which he has faced working with communities in Peruvian Amazonia.

The destruction and injustices experienced by Amazonian indigenous peoples have been heard by various organisations and NGOs which carry out projects from behind desks; their objectives consist in seeing that national and international statutes are observed along with other matters, frequently without the participation of affected communities. For this reason, these projects very often lack the political support of the communities. Projects should be designed and carried out so that the community-members themselves can coordinate and propose their own ideas. Projects cannot simply be carried out in offices without listening to local communities; the communities must be respected.

Marcos tells us about a reforestation project in which the community of San Francisco participated. Mamey trees were planted but these were subsequently dug up by the community-members themselves because this type of tree generated a lot of waste for them, for which reason they preferred coconut trees, for example.

“Very often, one thinks they are doing good but one has to consult with the community beforehand, speak with the authorities and communal assembly to find out what they think.”

The idea that one helps the communities or that one teaches them is mistaken; in reality, one may orientate the community but the community itself must devise its own administrative, technical and educational policies.

However, in a few communities, one encounters ignorance and a lack of interest in the issues which trouble them. Marcos comments that educating children to generate critical consciousness is fundamental:

In Amazonian communities, one may still see traces of abundance, hence the perversity of not paying attention to this. Combining traditional beliefs, for example, traditional agriculture, with modern practices is essential.”

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Marcos showing visitors and Alianza Arkana volunteers around the permaculture project which he leads in the indigenous community of Santa Clara.

When it comes to adults, awareness-raising is difficult. Education begins at home, and one must consider that we act as an example for our children:

“Personally, I don’t see that adults change from one moment to the next, but all the same one can guide and educate them, through processes with clear examples, although sometimes provoking them to change may run up against their own principles. I can tell you that in my case, when I was a student and I went to do field-work in Arequipa, looking at the ice-cream cart, at the ice-cream cones, I ate the ice-cream and threw away the wrapper. Then the park-keeper blew on his whistle, tapped me on the shoulder and said that that was what the bins were for. From that time, I saw my behaviour in a different way.”

There are grave problems linked to the maintenance of indigenous peoples’ economies. For example, whereas the artisans can create and sell, which covers their daily needs, farmers find that they must wait for long periods of time to receive the benefits of their economic activities. For this reason, many prefer to direct their efforts toward other types of activities which nonetheless do not permit them a solid economic base. Given the urgent need to find ways to survive from day to day, the dynamics affecting the resolution of communal issues become ever more difficult to address.

“In communities such as Santa Rosa, Nuevo Egipto, San Francisco, Puerto Firmeza and Bena Jema there was a lack of awareness and commitments were only met because the project led by my colleague Brian had an incentive, whereby the cleanest community would receive a prize. For me, it was like an incentive which showed that all of the work you were doing was paying off; sacks of rice and other bonuses were donated to be shared amongst the entire community.  When the incentive ended, people ceased to clean their communities. People take advantage for a moment, by trying to be the cleanest community, but with all of the rubbish hidden away. All of this is difficult because critical consciousness is lacking. But there are also communities in which they continue working with rubbish and the use of resources. I have seen a successful case in which a community close to Iquitos managed to be very clean: one didn’t come across waste plastic; there were hunting and fishing programs; the government hadn’t arrived there, it was really inspiring. There are communities which have awareness because the parents had fled from the petroleum companies. Given that around here you don’t see that level of contamination and the deaths which result, people believe that  they don’t have to become involved in this work of awareness-raising. Both mestizos as well as indigenous people don’t understand that they are also part of the destruction, until they come to feel regret over some problem and become aware in this way. If the community does not become directly involved in the projects, it is unlikely that these projects will work out, no matter how good they are.”

Marcos demonstrating swales
Marcos demonstrating a swale for managing water.

Communities are directly affected by the destruction caused by mining, oil and gas extraction, logging and the drug-trade. However, this destruction may also be felt in the changes to the climate and to the seasons of the year throughout the Amazonian territories, where local people report there has been a sharp temperature increase over the past decade.

Nowadays, you can only recognise if we are in summer or winter. The floods used to be gradual: every five to ten years the rising of the waters changed, so that the elders and the wise ones knew it through calendars, and they made the most of this to cultivate over long periods of time, knowing the flowering periods and when it was possible to harvest. At that time, there was no need to cultivate during short periods of time, but now the floods are always really big, so rural river-dwelling farmers can no longer observe those calendars when every year they must turn to crops which grow in a short time. The floods are due to the fact that there are no longer big trees, 300 to 400 years old; the logging companies are devouring everything. For example, the high lands around the headwaters of the Urubamba and Tambo rivers have been stripped – the trees in that area previously bore the brunt of the rainwater. Now that there is no longer any such barrier, wall or dyke, the smaller trees cannot absorb that amount of water.

“In spite of the conventions and international treaties such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 169, the government and transnational companies continue to operate  and make agreements without consulting local communities, only informing them of their extractive activities afterwards. Despite the existence of these big businesses, the people experience more of the same or become worse off; there is no development.

“The drugs-trade not only contaminates rivers and lakes, but it also harms adolescents and violates their rights. Where the law of the bullet dominates, money has a great influence, giving rise to prostitution, which allows venereal diseases to spread. Where these types of illegal activities are occurring, there have also been workshops focussing especially on women’s rights; sadly, some women have even lost their lives owing to these activities.”

The Amazonian region has always faced threats due to its riches and diversity. A special case concerns medicinal plants, the knowledge and use of which have been much persecuted. As a result, this ancestral indigenous knowledge is being lost, in great measure due to the use and imposition of western medicine.

A range of works have been produced which give an appreciation of how this information has been produced, but not how to apply it. What is lacking is a learning centre for medicinal plants, to apply and make known the knowledge of the wise elders. With respect to plant medicine, there are difficulties involved in gathering together traditional medical practices because there is a certain guardedness, for fear that this knowledge will be exploited and stolen through patenting.”

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The intercultural bilingual school in Santa Clara, whose kitchen is supplied with food which the students cultivate together with Marcos in the permaculture project. 

Last of all, Marcos sums up what for him are the pillars through which communities can assume control of their territories and enjoy the buen vivir (an Andean-Amazonian philosophy of the good life based on nurturing and sustaining mutually-enriching relationships with the Earth and all of its beings), guiding them to develop a sustainable economy where people may see for themselves how these projects can form part of the solution to their problems.

Indigenous peoples’ territories must be secured, so that the communities themselves may make the most of their resources, since agriculture is the fundamental base of all development. The blend of crops should be sustainable, so that one can expect to be able to consume and sell. The rearing of small birds should be strengthened, both for eating and generating extra resources; these generate lesser impacts than cattle. Furthermore, we should encourage fish farming which mixes fish, ducks and tortoises to oxygenate water. All of this should be complemented by education for critical consciousness and the use of traditional medicine, which is fundamental.”

We hope that the content of this interview serves as an example of practice, struggle and perseverance in the community-based work which organisations like Alianza Arkana and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are carrying forward, and that it may serve as a source of inspiration for all of the brothers and sisters across the world who are defending their territories in search of buen vivir in balance with their needs, in the hope that their voices may be heard more and more in those other worlds, where destruction and poverty is neither seen nor lived. To all of the governments, private political interests and large corporations which destroy the lungs of the planet, such as the Amazon, this stands as a reminder that it is not worth it. We must think of ways ahead which do not lead to climate change, but to system change.

Interview with Marcos Urquia by Denise Hernández Villalva and Elena Maryka Maiolo. 

Translation by Tom Younger.

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