Learning from the Ashaninka: conflict and community-based forest monitoring


Rob Newton and Annie Cooper

Remembering the murders of four indigenous leaders, activists and monitors

On a September morning in 2014, 16 Ashaninka (spelled Asháninka or Ashéninka in Peru) set out from the Brazilian village of Apiwtxa. They walked into the forest to search for the bodies of four Peruvian Ashaninka leaders, murdered ten days earlier while travelling to Apiwtxa from Saweto, a village across the nearby border in Peru's Ucayali Region. Before this grim excursion, widows and children of the victims underwent a three-day journey downriver from Saweto to the nearest town, to report the murders and appeal to the authorities for help in retrieving the bodies. But the governmental response was sluggish and, frustrated, the Ashaninka decided to carry out the expedition themselves. Soon after crossing into Peru the search party found the dismembered remains of one of the leaders, but little of the other three. They reported all that they found, and called on the authorities for action. The rest of the remains may have ended up in the Wadi Putaya river, whether dragged there by their assailants or swept by flooding. Down the same river floated illegally harvested logs, bound for sawmills and the international timber market.

The murdered men were prominent figures in the Ashaninka resistance to the illegal loggers pillaging their land. For years, they lobbied the Peruvian government for land rights and patrolled their forest, pinpointing illegally deforested areas with GPS coordinates and tracking shipments of logs. Their activism was met with death threats, particularly after a $100 000 load of timber was impounded after an Ashaninka tip-off. Despite reporting these threats a key national indigeneous assocation, (AIDESEP) said the men received no protection from the authorities. Their deaths attracted extensive coverage by the international media, and sent a grim but important message to governments and NGOs seeking to implement conservation agendas. Forest monitoring projects should learn from this incident and adapt their methodologies to mitigate risk and fit the lawless conditions that can predominate in some forest regions.

Community-based forest monitoring and risk

While tracking and denouncing illegal resource extraction can put communities at risk of violent reprisals, forest monitoring programmes can also be designed to improve such situations. Communities trained in mapping and monitoring techniques can collect evidence of crimes, potentially enabling them to lobby the authorities to act. Of course, some forest communities are located in remote areas in which government influence is limited and real power is wielded by factions such as drug traffickers or illegal loggers. Where this is the case, technologies are adapting to help reduce the inevitable risks of monitoring work.

The homeland of the Ashaninka spreads from the watersheds of the Peruvian Andes to the Upper Juruá River in Brazil. On the Brazilian side of the border, the Ashaninka of Apiwtxa are currently developing a forest monitoring programme - our case study of their work has been updated today. One of their main concerns has been how to address risks and avoid putting themselves in even greater danger as they search out illegal activities. A key question has been, “What are the risks of collecting this information, and how can we avoid or mitigate them?”

Eliminating these risks is impossible, but the monitoring programme takes deliberate steps to avoid aggravating them, by stressing the importance of protecting the identity of monitors, avoiding confrontation, and educating the surrounding communities about laws on indigenous land. The local monitors use smart phones and the Sapelli app, which is designed for forest communities and includes a function that allows the user to conceal sensitive data if intercepted.

The Brazilian Ashaninka’s monitoring is supported by the ExCiteS research group of University College London. The monitoring feeds into their efforts to strengthen their culture as well as their land rights, which include a series of bi-national meetings and a joint journey to visit sacred sites in both Peru and Brazil planned for 2016 (shown in this video). Monitoring has received a substantial boost from a major grant from the Amazon Fund (a national initiative to prevent deforestation and forest degradation in Brazil), which will finance the construction of three surveillance points and equip these with a boat and radio system. This grant could send a strong message that the Brazilian Ashaninka have state support for the protection of their territories.

A history of rights violations

Regrettably, the Ashaninka on the Peruvian side of the border continue to face the greatest risks. The history and land rights of the Ashaninka are instructive in this issue. The Brazilian Ashaninka have organised and secured rights to five indigenous lands, including around Apiwtxa in 1992. These are contiguous with other protected areas, such as the Alto Juruá Extractive Reserve, adjacent to the Apiwtxa communities. In contrast, the majority of the Peruvian Ashaninka live in 353 titled territories, many of which are small and scattered, though in January 2015, after international pressure following the murders, the Ashaninka communities in Saweto received title for 78 611 ha across the border from Apiwtxa.

Title or no title, communities continue to suffer the effects of their recent histories. In Peru in the 1980s, many Ashaninka were caught up in the internal conflict between the state and left-wing guerrillas, with around 6 000 killed and 10 000 displaced. Weak law enforcement, the rising value of hardwood, and the development of mechanised logging ensured that even in regions untouched by warfare, the Ashaninka were threatened. In Peru and Brazil in the same period, illegal loggers intensively extracted timber from Ashaninka land, exploited Ashaninka labour, undermined their culture, sexually abused local women and spread diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis, decimating children in particular. The Ashaninka on both sides of the border are now struggling to salvage their spiritual connections to sacred sites, in areas now outside their control.

Monitoring to protect people and forests

If social and ecological conditions are to change for the better, governments must recognise the rights of their own citizens, and ensure that even the most remote forest communities feel the benefits of international agreements on human rights and sustainable resource management. The authorities should be ready to enforce the hard-won land rights obtained by indigenous communities. Community-based forest monitoring can be one piece of this puzzle. Collaboratively managed partnerships between communities and public bodies can find ways to use real-time data collected and shared by communities to support law enforcement, while minimising risks to local people. In this way, community rights and environmental stability could be safeguarded.

Research has shown that forests managed by indigenous communities are the healthiest and most biodiverse. Illegal mining, logging, fishing and hunting undermine global water systems and food security, and accelerate climate change. The violence afflicting forest communities threatens all of us.

Click here to read our updated case study of the monitoring work by the Ashaninka of Apiwtxa.

International Forest Agendas/s 
Monitoring Themes