By Ellen Zhang
2018 Summer Intern at Alianza Arkana and Harvard undergraduate student
From July 30 to August 2, Alianza Arkana helped facilitate a youth cultural exchange program so that youth from the native community of Santa Clara could travel to Nuevo Saposoa. This community consists of roughly 150-200 members and is rural. The trip, lasting 6 hours by boat on the Ucayali River, was a wonderful opportunity for youth to better connect with their heritage, understand the impacts of globalization and climate change, and explore a new environment.
In total, there were twelve youth roughly evenly divided in gender. They were all eager to learn. One conversation sticks with me: one boy relayed that he hoped that this experience would be helpful for him in university, which he was attending next year in Lima. Specifically, he was interested in entering the field of social justice for indigenous people’s rights. I believe that this exchange will impact the work that he hopes to do.
The next morning began with presentations by community leaders regarding the Amazon, its history, and how its relationship with the Nuevo Saposoa community. In fact, Nuevo Saposoa is located in the buffer zone of the Sierra del Divisor National Park. In the past, the community was sustained by illegal logging, yet today they are the guardians of the forest. To start off, Pablo, the community leader of Santa Clara detailed the differences between the two communities: when one wakes up in Santa Clara, one hears the sounds of motorcars and traffic, but in Nuevo Saposoa, one hears the parrots calling to each other and the howling of monkeys. Even upon first arriving in Nuevo Saposoa, it was clear that there were differences between the Shipibo communities: the houses were on high silts due to January floods resulting in travel via boat, there was no internet and only one public phone for use, and there were trees for yards around since the community was not as heavily impacted by deforestation. Despite these differences, language, culture, and customs tied the communities together as did the concept of globalization.
With maps of the forest hanging up, the community leaders of Nuevo Saposoa delved into the history of their land. They talked about foreigners coming into their space and threatening them despite their ownership of the land. A particularly strong sentiment was that the community often felt uninformed: conversations about their home were happening without them being present. It is interesting how before the foreigners, the community did not know about conservation, yet it is now central to their aims. Due to their ongoing advocacy efforts, they are known world-wide for their efforts to preserve the rainforest. In August 2015, the authority of the community decided to confront threats to their community. The community now partners with The National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) to protect their homes. I could feel their frustration as the community leaders recounted their battle against deforestation and efforts for conservation. Additionally, there was frustration in getting their voices heard and access to technologies that foreigners had, such as drones. There was a call to the youth for them to come back to their communities after their studies and professions, in that way they can bring their knowledge back to where it is needed.
In the afternoon of the same day, Nuevo Saposoa community leaders showed the youth their GPS systems which were utilized to monitor forest activity, such as if deforestation, illegal coca plantation growth, or invasions occurred. Eagerly, the youth gathered around to watch. Globalization and modernization has deeply impacted how the Shipibo’s view their world and go about their daily lives.
The next day after dawn, everyone put on their rainboots, grabbed their bottled water, and entered the Amazon. Fortunately, we had a park ranger from the Nuevo Saposoa community who led us around and pointed out interesting sites. I was as blown away entering the primary and secondary layers of the Amazon as the Santa Clara youth were. There were tree that had wood which were used to treat diabetes, red berries that were utilized for jewelry making which fell easily from trees, and branches that contained water in them waiting to be sipped. Our destination, finally reached after a couple hours of hiking, was a Shihuahuaco which reached over 60 feet in height. This tree, a threatened species, is one of the few surviving species in the face of illegal logging. It’s uses are numerous from their delicious seeds, sturdy wood, medicinal bark, and strong dye from the bark. For over 500 years, the tree has stood the test of time, been home to a plethora of insects and animals, witnessed history ranging from struggles against capitalism to current capitalism, and stood over us as we gazed at it in all. This tree was a true symbol of how important conservation was for individuals, the Shipibo community, and all.
Staring from the afternoon, there was also a focus on Shipibo culture and heritage, which is a vital component of the program. The truth is, many young Shipibos no longer feel connected to their roots, especially as they move to big cities. I spoke to a group of boys around 18 years of age, and they joked of the stigma against them – the conversation, although light in tone, showcases the struggles with ethnic identity. One thing I noticed was their fluency of Spanish and Shipibo; while Spanish opens multiple doorways for them, it can also allow them to sever ties with their own culture. In the afternoon, Pablo gave a history of the Shipibo population, ending right as the sun began to set. In the evening, Pablo and youth gave a performance filled with singing and dancing. Browed furrowed in concentration, illuminated by the candlelight, they put their heart and soul into what they were doing. While I cannot understand Shipibo, their artistry, roots, and tradition humbled me.
As the mosquitoes settled away, Alianza Arkana facilitated the showing of videos. The first one discussed the environment and plastic bag usage in Guatemala. The next one was a documentary on Mexico and political duty for all, young and old alike. A much longer video talked about the losing of customs such as ceramics, embroidery, and painting from the indigenous population. These videos, along with the diverse activities that occurred this day, gave way to discussion, reflection, and conversation. The youth all echoed the sentiment that the air in the jungle was fresh and crisp, they enjoyed their trip into the Amazon of Nuevo Saposoa which was so different from their hometowns, and the tree was utterly magnificent. Overall, the sentiment was that this cultural exchange has changed how they viewed both the past and future. It is the hope that they can act in the present to enhance the future.
The next morning, it was finally time to go home. We rose at the crack of dawn to begin our 6 hour journey back along the river. Despite the rocking motion of the boat, my thoughts were churning with all the new knowledge I contained and things I had experiences. I, similar to the youth, felt invigorated. The dialogue initiated in Nuevo Saposoa regarding conversation of the Amazon will continue in Santa Clara and beyond. Moreover, there is certainty that the conversation continue beyond the three days of the exchange.