Discover more from Offshoot
“Our Territory is Our Life”
La Guardia Indígena’s struggle to defend the Peruvian Amazon
The Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, covers about 40% of South American territory, spreading across eight countries, and is home to hundreds of Indigenous groups and several dozen isolated tribes. Its rich biodiversity embraces millions of species of fauna and flora, where over 390 billion trees transpire flying rivers that pour down and impact rainfall patterns at a local, regional, and trans-continental level.
The Amazon River swirls and flows across like a guardian serpent, giving life to different ecosystems and habitats, carrying tons of sediment that have travelled down to meet its waters from as far as the north end of the Andes, South America’s spinal cord.
Perú holds the second-largest forest cover of the Amazon. For the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo peoples, the forest and all of its diverse forms of life are spirit beings. What manifests to the eye as a plant, a flower, a lake, or an animal, are, in essence, the territory’s spiritual guides and ancestors. Shipibo Sabios, ‘wisemen’, speak directly with mother nature in ceremonies with sacred Ayahuasca, a fermented drink that channels communication between the Sabio and forest spirits to bring healing, and provide guidance for any challenge the community faces.
As the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo council, COSHIKOX, states:
"We firmly believe that nature holds the solutions to the anxieties that plague our planet, and so here we will build a model for anyone seeking healing for their territories and communities. If when an individual gets sick, the whole community is affected; then when a particular territory is threatened, we all need to take charge."
In the face of environmental destruction and illegal activities perpetuated by drug traffickers, fishing, and mining companies, the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo are taking action. In the Ucayali region of Peru, they’ve formed over 200 groups of ecosystem guardians known as “La Guardia Indígena”, reflecting the larger movement in the Amazon of Indigenous communities uniting to defend their ancestral lands.
The Peruvian Amazon makes up over 20,000 hectares of forest. In 2022, corporate encroachment into the Ucayali resulted in the deforestation and incineration of fifteen percent of the forest cover. The rivers and lagoons of the Amazon are also under threat from illegal fishing and coca cultivation. Lake Imiría is one such area, where state attempts to form protected areas have failed to curb illegal activities. While the Guardia has organised to monitor and protect these areas themselves, this initiative continues to be met with violent encounters by fishers and coca traffickers.
Even though overfishing has been criminalised, the government has only enforced the law against Indigenous communities that have stewarded, and sustainably harvested from, the Amazon’s waterways for centuries. The situation has left these communities struggling to feed themselves and even put them in danger of incarceration.
Practising mediation, La Guardia Indígena has carried out 45 interventions to date to stop fishing companies from overharvesting. During these operations, La Guardia attempts to engage in dialogue with trespassers. If illegal fishers return, La Guardia seizes their fishing equipment, and may defend themselves with ancestral weapons like bows and arrows when necessary. La Guardia then informs the authorities of their actions to defend their collective rights.
Narcotraffic has also taken a serious toll on the communities living in the Ucayali region, polluting waterways, soil, and even the air of their ancestral lands by chemically processing coca leaves to obtain the base of cocaine paste. Though La Guardia has taken action by manually eradicating the plant, the intimidation tactics used by narcotraffickers threaten not only their lands, but their lives and the lives of their families and children.
The government has failed to provide adequate support and protection for these communities, leaving them to fend for themselves against external forces. La Guardia calls for greater legal support and protection to defend their rights and ways of life. On April 19th, 2023, the president of the Autonomous Government of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo People addressed the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York regarding this crisis, denouncing the national discourse of environmental protection while the government turns a blind eye to drug traffickers, loggers, palm oil companies, and the support these companies receive from the United States Government. Instead, The Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo people call for the Peruvian government to regulate the activities of monoculture companies deforesting the Amazon, and demand that their self-determination be protected through the establishment of an Indigenous Ecological Area under their administration and governance.
La Guardia Indígena centre their cosmovision and relationship with the Amazon when protecting their communities, turning to the wisdom of plants like Ayahuasca to shield and guide them through mediations with loggers, miners, fishers, and drug traffickers. La Guardia also looks to the future with the next generation, seeking to educate youth within their communities about their ancestral practices, territories, and ways of life. Ultimately, La Guardia Indígena seeks to uplift the autonomy of Indigenous communities that have lived in and stewarded the Amazon for centuries, as well as protect a larger global ecosystem that is dependent on such a massive ecological resource.
In our recent Peasant and Indigenous Press Forum, we were fortunate to interview Lizardo Cauper, president of COSHIKOX, and Marco Tulio Guimaraes, president of La Guardia Indígena. Here are excerpts from our conversation during the forum. You can also watch the recording of their intervention in English and Spanish.
We’ve seen how grave the threats are to what people call “the lungs of the earth”. For example, deforestation in the Flor de Ucayali region has destroyed countless ecosystems, habitats, and food sources for humans, as well as animals. In response, your community has established an Indigenous Guard as an autonomous security force. Can you describe who the Indigenous Guard is protecting?
We denounced the Peruvian government at the UN for everything that’s been happening in the Amazon; deforestation caused by illegal coca plantations, palm oil monocultures, illegal logging, and also a false discourse of greenwashing by the state through different entities that they finance, pretending that they are protecting the forests. But the reality is there’s massive extraction in so-called conservation areas.
Through all of that, our people, in the 8 million hectares of our ancestral lands, have resisted and will continue to resist generation after generation because this territory is our life. This is our communal way of living, and we're going to stay.
This is why we continue to denounce our government on global stages, to inform the world about what is happening in these lands. Currently, we are living under threats from different actors in the tropical forest where we’ve lived for so many years, and they are supported by the Peruvian government through different norms; protected areas, and false narratives of conservation that do not meet the community’s needs. There’s growing deforestation, coca monocultures, and illegal logging. What kind of conservation is that?
And so we created our own Indigenous Guard, our own security forces to defend ourselves as we continue sharing and practising our own ways of stewarding the land and restoring our territories.
Can you describe a little bit more about how you're specifically defending your territory?
We have our ancestral weapons, which we used centuries ago, and so we continue to defend our land with them, not to harm, but for us, they represent our strength, our spirit, and our ancestors. As guards, we try to have a dialogue with the illegal fisheries, with the drug traffickers, with these invaders, stating that the territory belongs to the Shipibo-Konibo people. Sometimes illegal actors carry their weapons to threaten us. But we are not harming anyone, we just find ways to protect our forests because they are for everyone. Without them, the world would be in chaos.
We know that you’re still resisting USAID projects like large-scale industrial fisheries that can remove tons of fish in one fell swoop, whereas your people are being jailed for simply selling fish to survive. We also know that last year, you all occupied the Regional Conservation Area and Lake Imiria, demanding that Probosques, a company funded by USAID, leave, which they did. How does the Guardia Indígena’s protection help communities access food?
Foreign programs do not understand the realities that our communities face, they don’t understand our worldviews or traditions. And many projects that are accepted in the name of our communities don’t really get carried out, sometimes, they just come with random “gifts” like a kilo of sugar or rice, but that’s not development for us.
We’ve become the victims of a lot of the illegal activity that’s happening in our lands. So what’s the point of these projects, these conservation plans that they try to impose? It’s a lie from the state. They're just really extracting our resources. As the Indigenous Guard, we are truly preserving our forests and our rivers because these are our food markets.
A week ago, I received death threats, saying I have my days counted. But we are always going to defend our territory with our life, with our children and families. We have about 25 bases, and we are building more throughout the communities, with about 300 Indigenous Guards who are committed to defending the forest.
What message do you want to convey to U.S. citizens who don't know what is happening in your communities?
USAID has violated our rights as Indigenous peoples. Please stop supporting those who prey on our lands, our livelihoods, and our collective rights. And by supporting the local government, USAID should know that they are pitting people against each other in our communities. Enough is enough.
The U.S. claims to support [coca] eradication and fight against narcotraffic, yet everything here remains the same. We have our own community-led conservation proposals for an ecological reserve; these solutions should be prioritised. National and regional proposals only limit their work to consultancies when they come, but we live here, we know our territory, and we are the ones truly fighting in defence of the environment. Financial support for our solutions can help the globalised world.
How can sacred plants like Ayahuasca help preserve the forest?
Ayahuasca is deeply tied to our cosmovision. Our spiritual leaders take it before we leave to confront any actors. They see how things can unfold and guide us for the mediation. Coca monocultures have spread across our territories, vanishing about 80 hectares of land where Ayahuasca could be found, and therefore, destroying our source of sacred medicine.
Ayahuasca shows our leaders what’s to come for our peoples; without it, is impossible to envision a future for the Shipibo. This is why we don’t want any more coca cultivation on our lands. But the government, and even the police, have their own ‘chacras’, crops, and they always harvest and leave before we intervene.
What is the role of narcotraffic in the current situation in the Ucayali region?
Illegal crops can be found throughout the entire Amazon, and we’ve denounced this several times before the authorities. The regional and national governments have repressed and criminalised our protests against this issue, and many have been killed. So we want it to be known that here, in the Amazon, life threats don’t only come from illegal actors in our land but from the state as well.
Instead of answering our concerns, local governments craft protocolary documents that don’t really guarantee the life of our community’s land defenders. But we see this community as a global community, because we think of our work defending the tropical forest as an effort not only for ourselves but for the protection of humanity and planet Earth. This is why we need solidarity from the press and from the international community. To denounce all of the devastation and threats we are currently facing.
What does the Indigenous Guard need right now to be fully successful in your art of land defence?
Sometimes we’re asked to intervene quickly, and there are about 8 million hectares that we have to protect. What we're lacking is the logistics to be able to protect that entire territory, so we do need technological equipment. Because sometimes, when there’s illegal logging happening, we’re not always able to arrive on time, and when we do confront the issue directly, sometimes they come back at night or when we're not able to catch them on time. And so, we would need technological resources or surveillance cameras that we can place throughout the communities.
What is the level of collaboration you have with other indigenous communities when they are fighting for these similar problems?
Last year we had an international meeting with all the Guards of the native community and the Indigenous Guard of Colombia to amplify the reach of our defence, If anything happens in our territories, we count on each other for support. Unity and collaboration are crucial for our coexistence. In that sense, the Kakataibo, Ashánika, and many other Indigenous communities are joining forces to collectively defend our lands.
What does self-determination mean to you?
Self-determination for us means that we protect our lands, our forests, our foods and waterways with our own strength, with our own spirits. The government only stands in the way, imposing models against our cosmovision. And that is why we have taken the steps to have our own autonomy. We want to be able to work freely, we want to live freely without the government harming our forests and our rivers. They are our source of sustenance, our home, we wouldn’t exist without them.
Self-determination for us is to protect our worldviews and protect ways of living that we’ve been practising in our everyday life since the creation of this world. Our ancestors have been protecting this forever.
What inspired us this week:
This article by GRAIN breaks down the evidence on how carbon rice farming projects not only serve as greenwashing tactics for big corporations like Shell, but also unfairly burden small rice farmers in developing countries with the responsibility to reduce corporate emissions.
This reflection by Timothy Wise covers the latest on Mexico’s restrictions on Genetically Modified corn, which, in its hopes to reclaim the country’s sovereignty on its staple crop, has sparked massive push-back from the U.S. government.
This podcast by the ETC group which examines how corporations unrelated to food are investing heavily in the food industry. The speakers shed light on how these corporations are trying to take advantage of the food systems transformation narrative while promoting their technofixes as solutions to the issues caused by industrial agriculture, such as climate change and biodiversity loss.
Offshoot is a reader-supported publication. To support our work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Every resource produced by A Growing Culture, whether a newsletter, article, post, or design, results from countless hours of research, reflection, and the synthesis of profound conversations held both within our team and with our partners and comrades. Behind the scenes, a wealth of effort goes into making these conversations happen, from overseeing our day-to-day operations, securing our funding, to forging deep relationships with communities around the world who are leading food systems transformation. These relationships fuel our thoughts, inform our words, and inspire our actions.
We recognise that no single person can take credit for the work we collectively produce, which is why we prefer to sign as an organisation rather than as individuals. We believe that no idea is inherently our own and welcome anyone who sees value in our work to translate it, build upon it, adapt it to their own contexts, or share it however they see fit.