Ashaninka: A People in Transition Adapting to the Internet

There are many stories documenting the sad story of the indigenous people of Brazil and Peru moving into a soft focus of the past as the economics and culture of the 21st century renders them redundant. 

This is not such a story.  Although the bell of change and time cannot be unrung, the people can use their agency to help direct the course of their future.  They are enabled by sever far seeing philanthropists, governmental agencies both in Brazil and Peru to use the internet to provide an early warning systems of loggers who cut and burn and disappear.  Brazilian authorities can be emailed alerts of outsiders building airstrips, logging, or other illegal actions in indigenous lands.  –  Carlos


The Ashaninka Resistance Movement meets the future

September 20 – 24, 2004 – Brasilia, Brazil

by Juliana Birnbaum

(Half of any revenue gained from this article will be donated to the Ashaninka-Apiwtxa community initiatives)

Deep in the interior of Brazilian Amazon, a logger crosses the border from Peru and invades Ashaninka tribal land, felling another ancient mahogany and dragging it toward the river to be floated down to a truck and headed for international markets. “This week is one of the most crucial in Ashaninka history,” observed curator Celso Carelli Mendes, speaking from his 15 years of experience living and working in the Amazon with various tribes. “This week may decide the future of the way that indigenous people work with the Brazilian nation-state, the future of the forest itself.”

We were eating a midnight snack at a café in the center of the capital city of Brasilia, after driving tribal leader Benki Piyanko to his hotel after a paparazzi-filled evening at Cine Brasilia. The evening was the official opening of Semana Ashaninka-Apiwtxa, five days of meetings, cultural events, round-table discussions and films revolving around the Ashaninka tribe. The Semana brought together some of the Brazilian government’s top decision-makers, including Minister of the Environment Marina Silva and the presidents of FUNAI and IBAMA, the two major government agencies dealing with indigenous people.

The opening event was a glamorous public spectacle, including performances by the Ashaninka and other Brazilian musicians, official speeches, TV coverage, a photography exhibit and the debut of a documentary film. Ultimately, however, most seemed to agree that despite the flash and sparkle of the night, it was ultimately superficial, a show. On the way back in the car, Benki and Celso spoke about the division between pretty words and real action, the eternal split between theory and practice.

“People were coming up to me tonight and telling me that I was demonstrating the future of Brazil, a future in which indigenous people work in alliance with the government to preserve the Amazon,” Benki said. “But I think that the future is already here, the way is clear-we just need people who are going to act, who are going to do what needs to be done for the forest, who are going to work. That’s what is lacking.”

When I arrived that evening at Cine Brasilia, the twelve members of the Ashaninka tribe who had traveled thousands of miles from the outer reaches of the Amazon for Semana Ashaninka-Apiwtxa were assembled in front of the flashbulbs, microphones and TV cameras. They were dressed in their traditional hand-woven robes and feather-topped crowns, faces painted with intricate red and black patterns, draped in countless strings of colored seeds.

The Brazilian Ashaninka (there exists an even larger number of Peruvian tribal members) live on a reservation of 85,700 ha (1 hectare = 2.5 acres), in the state of Acre, near the border with Peru. Apiwtxa refers to a specific community that might be called the capital of the Brazilian Ashaninka nation, where the leaders of the tribe live. The remote location of the tribe has played a part in its sporadic contact with devastating forces of colonization, and the land to this day is only accessible by air or by a journey of several days by canoe from the nearest road.

Compared to their ancestral territory, this reserve represents a rather small piece of land, which the Ashaninka people have managed to hold on to after hundreds of years of struggle and resistance. The preserve was recognized as their nation’s territory in 1992, 250 years after the first major uprising of the Ashaninka expelled the Spanish soldiers and Franciscan missionaries who had arrived with the wave of colonization.

After warding off invasion for over a century, many of them were enslaved in the brutal regime of coffee and rubber plantations. It is estimated that a staggering 80 percent of the tribe was decimated from disease and extreme exploitation during the rubber boom of 1839- 1913. In the face of this incomprehensible loss, the Ashaninka have battled to maintain their cultural identity, protect their forest home, and preserve their language and livelihood. According to the event program, the Semana Ashaninka had two objectives: to expose the “advances and victories of the tribe in relation to natural resources and sustainable production” and to “seek solutions to difficulties and problems in the Brazil-Peru border region.”

After the opening event, the Ashaninka took part in a series of meetings with government officials and public mesas-rodondas, “round-table” discussions. The major issue discussed was the illegal entry of loggers across the remote border, who are felling mahogany and other valuable trees in Ashaninka territory at a growing rate.

“A major preoccupation used to be the demarcation of the territory,” said Escrawen Sompre of the Model Program for Indigenous People. “Next is the protection of the territory once marked… Without a cultural force, it will be difficult to achieve. Right now, we have few resources.”

The second two days of round-table discussions focused on the border issue and on the integration of political strategy between Peru and Brazil. Several participants spoke about border security and plans to create checkpoints. Besides the pressing concern of the illegal logging, the talks addressed the issue of river pollution. Corporate interests are exploring the region for oil in the area upriver of the reserve, and the Ashaninka are concerned about water pollution and other environmental effects of petroleum exploitation.

“For us, if the forest doesn’t exist, if the jungle doesn’t exist, then culture doesn’t exist,” said Moises Piyanko Ashaninka. “We realize that we can’t take care of the forest and protect it without help from the outside world, because the invasions are coming from outside.”The tribe gained some amount of media attention in the past decade, owing in part to the charisma, strength and initiative of their young pajé, Benki. Thirty years old and the son of the “chief,” or cacique, Benki’s intense shamanic training included a year of spiritual practices in isolation in the jungle as an adolescent. He is a healer, working with a variety of powerful Amazonian plant medicines including ayahuasca, the entheogenic tea detailed by anthropologist Jeremy Narby in his bestselling book The Cosmic Serpent. Benki was among the leaders of a project to bring the Internet to the Ashaninka, using small village kiosks to facilitate communications between remote areas and create a website to publicize news about the tribe.

“Some people ask, ‘why are Indians messing with the Internet?'” Benki remarked.. “But I think it is really important that we have this net of communication, to let the world know what is going on with us.”

The Ashaninka presented their initiatives towards sustainable development through documentary films that demonstrate some of the work. One aspect is a program of reforestation, replanting land destroyed since the invasion of brancos, or white men. Benki reported that the tribe has replanted 25 percent of the deforested land, and that the small fruit plantations have been bearing products that the tribe has sold to benefit schools. They have also implemented projects to raise fish and turtles for food, with excellent results. Much of the work was done by children as a form of experiential learning, and training for the future.

“I asked myself, what did my grandparents and great-grandparents do to protect the forest?” Benki said. “Our people want to work with Brazil to create an alternative development, to show the world an example of sustainability…. Eight years after we started this project, we were able to feed people, and hope to continue forever.”

“The Ashaninka story is different in that they are showing us the way,” commented Romulo Mello, Director of Hunting and Fishing Resources at native affairs organization IBAMA. “They don’t just talk, they do, and they are inviting us to participate with them, to share lessons from indigenous culture.”

Alexandra Reschkle, the Secretary of National Heritage, drew a parallel between the indigenous culture of the Amazon and the culture of Tibet, both threatened by the forces of colonization and globalization. From the devastation, the seeds of a culture manage to spread throughout the world and grow.”

“The Dalai Lama has spoken about the invasion of Tibet as a means for its culture to expand and educate,” she said. “The situation in Acre is giving us the privilege of meeting and knowing the Ashaninka, and learning from them.”

Benki and I are winding our way through the bustle of the enormous Conjunto Nacional, the shopping mall at the center of Brasilia. We are heading for the music store with philanthropist Ali Zeitoun, who has worked to fund projects and record music with the tribes of Acre for more than 10 years, to buy Benki a new guitar. He is wearing jeans and a T-shirt today, but on his head rests the traditional woven-reed crown topped with three dancing feathers. Feeling a little overwhelmed at the crowds, noise and lights myself, I wonder at the culture shock that Benki must feel at times. He tells me that the first time he left the village was around age 13, speaking minimal Portuguese.

A few years before that time, Benki’s name had become nationally recognized as a result of a popular song written by musician Milton Nascimento. The song was named after the ten-year-old after they met during the star’s visit to the tribe, and Nascimento had actually been scheduled to appear and play “Benki” at the opening event of Semana Ashaninka, but had cancelled for health reasons. Remarkably, the lyrics to the song seem to foretell the moment at hand, a moment where the people of the forest go out into the world to struggle for change.

One of the main images is that of the beija-flor, literally “flower-kisser” or hummingbird, a symbol of the mysterious and magical power of the forest: The hummingbird sends me away/To work and open people’s eyes.  On the way back from the opening event that night, we were laughing. I was telling Benki a story that I found somewhat amazing in its synchronicity. About two weeks earlier, when I had first met Benki, we were playing guitar together. Among the songs I knew in Portuguese was one which I found particularly beautiful, about the beija-flor, and so I played it, singing about the forces of renewal in the jungle, a full moon rising. It was only later that I learned the title of the song, and its connection with Benki. At the time, he just listened, nodded, and smiled.

Juliana Birnbaum is a freelance writer, anthropologist and musician based in San Francisco, California. She has completed a Masters in Cultural Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where she focused on shamanism and native people in Brazil.

Photo: Stephen Lyons – Opening night of Semana Ashaninka.

About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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