Below is an account by a local Amarakaeri Indian from the southeast province of Madre de Dios, a witness to the way of life that colonists and corporations are destroying. Originally given as testimony to a human rights movement in Lima, it is reprinted by permission of Survival International.
“We Indians were born, work, live, and die in the basin of the Madre de Dios River of Peru. It’s our land – the only thing we have, with its plants, animals, and small farms: an environment we understand and use well. We are not like those from outside who want to clear everything away, destroying the richness and leaving the forest ruined forever. We respect the forest; we make it produce for us.
Many people ask why we want so much land. They think we do not work all of it. But we work it differently from them, conserving it so that it will continue to produce for our children and grandchildren. Although some people want to take it from us, they then destroy and abandon it, moving on elsewhere. But we can’t do that; we were born in our woodlands. Without them we will die.
In contrast to other parts of the Peruvian jungle, Madre de Dios is still relatively sparsely populated. The woodlands are extensive, the soil’s poor, so we work differently from those in other areas with greater population, less woodland, and more fertile soils. Our systems do not work without large expanses of land. The people who come from outside do not know how to make the best of natural resources here. Instead they devote themselves to taking away what nature gives and leave little or nothing behind. They take wood, nuts, and above all gold.
The man from the highlands works all day doing the same thing whether it is washing gold, cutting down trees, or something else. Bored, he chews his coca, eats badly, then gets ill and leaves. The engineers just drink their coffee and watch others working.
We also work these things but so as to allow the woodland to replenish itself. We cultivate our farms, hunt, fish and gather woodland fruits, so we do not have to bring in supplies from outside. We also make houses, canoes, educate our children, enjoy ourselves. In short we satisfy almost all our needs with our own work, and without destroying the environment.
In the upper Madre de Dios River wood is more important than gold, and the sawmill of Shintuya is one of the most productive in the region. Wood is also worked in other areas to make canoes and boats to sell, and for building houses for the outsiders. In the lower region of the river we gather nuts – another important part of our economy. Much is said about Madre de Dios being the forgotten Department of Peru. Yet we are not forgotten by people from outside nor by some national and foreign companies who try to seize our land and resources. Because of this we have formed the Federation of Indian Peoples of Madre de Dios to fight for the defence of our lands and resources.
Since 1974 we have been asking for legal property titles to the land we occupy in accordance with the Law of Indian Communities. The authorities always promise them to us, but so far only one of our communities has a title and that is to barely 5000 hectares.
You may ask why we want titles now if we had not had them before. The answer is that we now have to defend our lands from many people who were not threatening us in the past.
In spite of journeys to Puerto Maldonado to demand guarantees from the authorities, they do not support us by removing the people who invade our land. On the contrary when we defend our land, forcing the invaders to retreat, they accuse us of being wild, fierce and savage.
Equally serious are invasions by gold-mining companies. The Peruvian State considers the issue of mining rights to be separate from that of land rights, and there are supposed to be laws giving priority to Indian communities for mining rights on their lands – but the authorities refuse to enforce them. Many people have illegally obtained rights to mine our lands, then they do not allow us to work there. Others, without rights, have simply installed themselves.
There are numerous examples I could give; yet when my community refused entry to a North American adventurer who wanted to install himself on our land, the Lima Commercio accused us of being savages, and of attacking him with arrows. Lies! All we did was defend our land against invaders who didn’t even have legal mining rights – without using any weapons, although these men all carried their own guns.
We also suffer from forms of economic aggression. The prices of agricultural products we sell to the truck drivers and other traders in the area have recently been fixed by the authorities. For example, 25lb of yucca used to sell for 800 soles. Now we can only get 400 soles. Such low prices stop us developing our agriculture further, and we are not able to sell our products outside because we cannot cover our costs and minimal needs. On the other hand, the authorities have fixed the prices of wood and transport so that the amount that we can earn is continually diminishing. And the prices we have to pay for things we need from outside are always rising.
There are also problems with the National Park Police. They no longer allow us to fish with barbasco (fish poison) in the waters of our communities, although they are outside the National Park. They say that barbasco will destroy the fish. But we have fished this way for so long as we can remember, and the fish have not been destroyed. On the contrary: the fish are destroyed when people come from outside and overfish for commercial sale, especially when they use dynamite.
Our main source of food, after agriculture, is fishing – above all the boquichico which we fish with bow and arrow after throwing barbasco. We cannot stop eating, and we are not going to let them stop us from fishing with barbasco either!
There are so many more problems. If our economic position is bad, our social position is even worse. Traders reach the most remote areas, but medical facilities don’t, even now with serious epidemics of malaria, measles, tuberculosis and intestinal parasites in the whole region. Our children go to primary schools in some communities, but often the schools are shut. And there are no secondary schools.
The commercial centres in the gold zone are areas of permanent drunkenness. Outsiders deceive and insult us and now some of our people no longer want to be known as Indians or speak our languages; they go to the large towns to hide from their origins and culture.
We are not opposed to others living and benefiting from the jungle, nor are we opposed to its development. On the contrary, what we want is that this development should benefit us, and not just the companies and colonists who come from outside. And we want the resources of the jungle to be conserved so that they can serve future generations of both colonists and Indians”

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