The following guest blog was written by Daniel Pappas. All photos in this blog were taken by Daniel as well. Follow Daniel's journey at backpackingpappas.blogspot.com.
Palm fronds drifted past the boat as our ferryman, known only as El Gato to me, guided us gently around mini-whirlpools in the brown river. El Gato hummed to himself, the only noise audible over the water’s rush. We drifted down the winding river, advancing deeper into the Amazon Rainforest. The morning fog dissipated to reveal the small Peruvian pueblo where three leaders had recently been charged for kidnapping an expat. When the boat docked on the sand bar it sank in: I was in way over my head.
Whenever I told my friends I was going to travel deep into the Peruvian Amazon to help native tribes gain collective land deeds to prevent oil, mining, and agriculture companies from taking their tribal lands and deforesting the area, I imagined a year of office work. The morning I found myself drifting along the Amazon, in a flat-bottomed wooden boat, alongside a civil rights attorney, Ruben, and his assistant, July, I realized just how wrong I was about my year of volunteering in Moyobamba.
Technically it wasn’t the Amazon River; not really. Rather, we boated down the Rio Huallaga, a tributary of the Alto Mayo Rio, which is itself a tributary of the Amazon. My work with the national NGO, Paz y Esperanza, included photographing tribal lands, recording video interviews with the tribal leaders about their court cases, and gathering evidence for said cases. In no way did I feel qualified to do this work, but the villagers’ wide smiles shook me out of my abject terror. I doubted my efficacy as I gawked at the jungle-covered mountains to either side of me and prepared for the day ahead.
We were headed to the middle of nowhere because a private corporation had pressed kidnapping charges against three leaders of the Ankash Yaku tribe of Achinamiza after they invited a surveyor to attend their town hall meeting. Day turned to night and the surveyor ended up having to stay overnight in the village. When he returned to the office the next day the company used his stay in the village to detain the pueblo leaders. For years they attempted to gain land rights so they could mine the territory, but the pueblo leadership consistently stood in their way.
The land of the Ankash Yaku skirts out from the edge of the jungle-encrusted mountains. A few wooden posts stand where the raised sand bar meets the water, offering a place for boats to tie off. The tribe lives over the ridge on a single stretch of earth sloping gradually up the cliff-side. A lone concrete road trailed down the center, off of which small huts of clay with tin roofs boasted different attractions: one cafeteria-like restaurant, one dockyard for several canoes, one bar with the ten commandments of drinking posted on the wall. More huts (some even two stories) filled the space behind these structures; these were the homes for the tribe. A few lamp posts dotted the landscape, power cords running from their solar-powered generator.
Our interviews lasted several hours and filled up the afternoon. The tribal leaders expressed disdain, outlining the most pertinent details of the case. I filmed one of the abuelitas of the village singing a mournful dirge over the river. Yaku, by the way, in Kichwa means ‘water.’ The tribe lives off the fish in the river and the yucca they grow. The elder woman wiped the tears from her eyes after shooting while Ruben soothed her with balms, telling her not to cry.
“Everything will be alright”, he said.
The sun set over the pueblo and our group stayed the night at the bungalow at the top of the village. Over the creamy orange, red, and violet hues of the sunset I filmed scenes of everyday life in the village. A man sipped his bottle of beer. A woman shepherded her grandchildren inside for dinner. A lone donkey munched on one patch of grass before shying over to another. Bird calls punctuated the air, occasionally meriting an answer from the cows.
The Ankash Yaku’s trial continues to this day. Only one other time did I work on the case. Ruben asked me to pose as an American journalist to intimidate a corrupt judge from blocking their case. Turns out corrupt Peruvian judges don’t like even fake American journalists ‘snooping around.’ They reset the court case.
The tribal leaders continue to work with Paz y Esperanza as they take on more cases. I never witnessed the outcome of my work. A sense of justice eludes me, even to this day. There’s no way for me to know if I really effected a change, no matter how often I toss and turn, searching for some resolution. But the more I think about it, the more I realize my visit wasn’t so much about changing their lives as it was about changing mine. I’ll never forget the Ankash Yaku of Achinamiza; they taught me that good work isn’t about fighting back the darkness in our lives, but introducing light to the world. And trust me, there is plenty of light down the twisting Amazon River tributaries. It lies in a small chunk of land known as Achinamiza and it belongs to the Ankash Yaku for as long as they can hold on to it.
Learn more about the Ankash Yaku Court Case:
Please note the following videos and documents are in the native language and have not been translated into English.
Interview with local tribe leader (#1)
Interview with local tribe member (#2)
Native Tribal Testimony
A History of the Court Case
About the Author:
Texas born-and-raised Daniel is a film and video professional in the Dallas/Ft. Worth region. Shortly after graduating from college he spent a year serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in northern Peru, putting his film degree to work. Daniel enjoys the tacos and margaritas of his homeland, gorging on classic films, and playing Ultimate Frisbee. He reviews movies on irishFilmcritic.com and shares his own essays on backpackingpappas.blogspot.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @DG_Pappas as well as see his photography on Instagram: @DG_Pappas.