The largest indigenous group in Peru's Amazon is the Ashaninka (also known as the Campa or Kampa, but this is considered pejorative). Demographic estimates put their numbers at roughly 55,000, living in 200 scattered and mainly remote communities in the Departments of Junin, Pasco, Huanuco and Ucayali. A smaller number live across the border in the Brazilian state of Acre.
Their history since the Spanish Conquest has largely been one of intrusion and resistance. Initially the Ashaninka numbers declined sharply, along with all of South America's indigenous peoples, as a result of the diseases brought by the Europeans, such as smallpox and influenza, to which they had no natural immunity.
Then, as the Conquistadors consolidated their grip on their new Empire, the settlers began to encroach on the Ashaninka traditional lands, which lay on valuable river systems. Concerted attempts were made by missionaries, throughout the Colonial period, to convert them to Catholicism.
The Rubber Boom of the late 19th / early 20th Century was particularly devastating for the Ashaninka, as they were forced to work in the lucrative extraction of the gum of rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis). Those that resisted were killed, and human rights abuses were widespread.
The next major upheaval to the Ashaninka occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s, when their territory became a battleground between the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path and the Peruvian armed forces. The former would often force young Ashaninka males to join their ranks, at gunpoint. The latter would carry out reprisals for 'collaboration'. To escape this spiral of violence, many villagers fled deeper into the rain forest, but this in itself led to tension with those indigenous peoples already living there.
Overall, when the Truth & Reconciliation Commission published their findings in 2003, it was estimated that 6,000 Ashaninka had been killed in the conflict, 10,000 disappeared, 5,000 had been captured by the Shining Path and 40 communities had ceased to exist.
It was during this devastating period that the Ashaninka found an unlikely ally in British anthropologist, Dilwyn Jenkins. He first met members of the tribe when backpacking in Peru in the mid-1970s, and then returned to make a documentary about the Ashaninka way of life for the BBC and Royal Geographical Society, that was screened in 1978. It was the first time the Ashaninka had been filmed and was received with great interest.
Jenkins' next visits to the region were undertaken as author of the The Rough Guide to Peru, from 1985 onwards. By this time, it was a much more dangerous journey, with the ongoing terrorism and counter-terrorism activities described above. Nonetheless, he was determined to bring the Ashaninka's plight to wider attention.
Even though the terrorist insurgency died down, from 1993 onwards, there are still pressures from the outside world seeking to exploit the natural resources of the jungle in which the semi-nomadic Ashaninka live. According to Jenkins, “Illegal loggers, cocaine smugglers, missionaries, anthropologists and TV documentary production teams all manifest real, if quite different, challenges.”
Therefore, Jenkins founded EcoTribal with the goal of 'facilitating processes and activities generating improved livelihoods and greater capacity in indigenous communities, while conserving rainforest resources and traditional culture'.
In practice, this meant projects such as helping the Ashaninka in exporting coffee, sustainable farming & rain forest management, and ecotourism, in the hope that the income generated from this will dissuade the community from cutting down the trees that are a resource for the future.
Sadly, Jenkins died suddenly in Lima in 2014, aged just 57. His obituary in The Guardian gives a good indication of how remarkable a man he was. And his legacy can be found in the fact that this generation of Ashaninka are claiming title to their lands to safeguard them against oil and logging interests, and are opening community-based tourism projects.
The strongest symbol of this is the creation in 2003 of Otishi National Park in the high jungle area of the Vilcabamba Range, traversing the Departments of Junin and Cusco, with the aim of protecting both the outstanding natural beauty of the area and the cultural integrity of the Ashaninka.
If you are interested in witnessing the Ashaninka way of life first-hand, there are a few ways to do this:
Marankiari Bajo is an Ashaninka village 26 km (16 miles) from La Merced, on the road to Satipo, which welcomes eco-tourists and has simple accommodations with local families. Villagers will guide you on walks and boat rides.
Puerto Bermudez, is a village on the Pichis-Pachitea River, between La Merced and Pucallpa. Here, there is an inexpensive lodge, Albergue Humboldt, where expeditions to visit remoter Ashaninka villages can be organized.
To find out more about these options, just get in touch.