I’m a travel blogger, yes, but I’m also an anthropology student and this is why I find important to write about anthropological matters in the context of my travels. This is why I decided to tell you more about the Tres Islas indigenous community, in Madre de Dios, Peru and their fight for their rights! I had the chance to travel to Peru in summer 2013. I’ve already wrote an article focusing on the second part of this trip, which was a great backpacking experience in Lima, Cusco, Machu Pichu and Puno (read my recommendations on Peru here) but I now want to tell you about the first part of this trip, which was a field school I took in the context of my studies.
I first signed up for a Indigenous Rights Field School Program from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru (in Lima) because I knew I wanted to see Peru and doing it while getting some credits for school seemed like a great opportunity! The class on Indigenous Rights was the closest to my studies (cultural anthropology) so I signed up for that class, particularly interested with the concept of meeting a Peruvian indigenous community. At that point, I knew nothing about the Tres Islas community and their fight.
The first week was spent in Lima, where I stayed in a Peruvian family. Every day, I had classes at the university. My fellow classmates were 6 a ladies, four from the United States and one from Poland (I’m a French Canadian). Our teacher was a peruvian lawyer and anthropologist. She was the lawyer responsible for the defense of the rights of the Tres Islas community. During that week, we learned about the history of Indigenous people in South America together with the laws concerning indigenous rights. After that, our teacher told us about the Tres Islas community…
This community lives in Madre de Dios. As indigenous people group, they have complete rights on their territory. However, these rights are not respected… at all. In fact, many companies use their territory for gold mining. However, this mining activity is really noxious for the community as it contaminates the Madre de Dios River with mercury. This river being one of the main sources of food for the community, the mining cause a lot of health damages in the community.
It matters to mention here that those minors are not only individuals but mainly people working for companies, lots of them coming from North American countries. Because the gold was being extracted anyway, thus contaminating the river, some members of the community also started their own mining activities, trying to take advantage at their best of an [much worst than] unfortunate situation. This caused conflicts among the community since some other members remain firm on the fact that they shouldn’t participate in this environmental damaging activity. As you can imagine, there are clearly no easy answers to this issue.
The community first tried to stop the illegal activities on their territory by building a gate to keep minors out of their territory. However, this gate was torn down by the minors. When they brought that problem to legal court, with the help of our teacher, not much was done. Of course, the court had no choice but to grant them the fact that the mining activities were, in deed, illegal. However, nothing was clearly done to stop it. Some bombing happened on some mining boats (when no one is on them), which isn’t really practical because some of those boats actually belong to the community. An action of arresting illegal minors and giving the boats to the community for fishing activities, in stead of simply destroying them, would clearly make more sense and is what the community wish the government would do. However, this is also a hard thing to deal with, as the government isn’t clear on where the bombings come from.
After learning about that case and discussing which indigenous rights laws were broken in this matter, we were ready to travel to Madre de Dios to meet the community. On our arrival there, some elders showed us around their community land, showing us their little nut factory. We met with the community, introducing ourselves, discussed with the elders and played with the children. On the next day, we went on a boat trip on the Madre de Dios river to observe the illegal mining activity in action and to see one of the boats that was bombed.
Later that week, we also had the chance to go with some of the members of the community to meet with the police, which was involved in a conflict among the community, even though, according to indigenous rights law, they had no business being involved in it. It was sad to see the lack of respect the police had for the community members, compared to how they were addressing our teacher (who is Peruvian but not indigenous). We also got to meet with the regional government with our teacher and the elders of the community. During those meetings, our teacher was doing most of the talking and our presence served our learning but also served as international pressure for the good of the community we defend.
Other activities of the week included a walk in the Peruvian amazon rainforest where we learned much about the jungle, heard a legend of the community and learned about the used of ayahuasca from the shaman of the Tres Islas community. We had opportunities to discuss with members of the community, which got a chance to grasp what they were going through in the context of this fight for their rights.
We also had a lot of fun with the children, drawing with the younger kids and discussing with the older ones what they wanted to do for a living. These interactions were particularly interesting because we could easily see (from both the drawing and the discussions) which kids came from family doing mining activities and who didn’t.
Something really frustrating that happened while we were there was when one of the young members of the community received a letter from the university stating that the scholarship for which she applied had been refused. The reason why her application wasn’t retained was clearly stated: there was gold mining activity on her territory. For that reason, the government didn’t consider she was in need for a scholarship. However, this young woman was part of a family that wasn’t participating in the mining, in order to protect their living environment, therefore, they didn’t receive any benefits from the mining. This is only one more way the illegal mining is affecting negatively the community! I really bonded with the children of the community and this made the need to solve this situation seam even more pressing to me: I wanted a fare future for those children, where their rights would be met… and a safe future!
Our During our time there, we wanted to do more then just serve as international pressure during meetings with the authorities, therefore we used the information collected during those meetings, our observations and our discussions with the community members to write two papers about the environmental and social effects of the illegal mining on this community’s territory. We presented those papers to the community and, with their blessing; we got them published in the University newspaper in order to make their case known among scholars from their country, people that could do more than what we could do during our short time there.
I’ve learned a lot through this field school opportunity. Not only about indigenous rights but also about Anthropology. I learned that Anthropology isn’t only about going to study the Other to bring back knowledge about its culture to our own. It’s also about reciprocity. You learn but you also give. I hope what we had to offer (by our papers and our presence in meetings with authorities) helped this community’s fight. I know it’s not over, they won some fights but the battle isn’t over! However, their fight already is an inspiration to other communities that also encounter breaches of their rights!
If you are interested in this community’s fight and believe you can help somehow, please contact me (here) and I will do my best to put you in touch with the people involved.
Following are more of my pictures from my time in this community!