Fighting Extinction: Of Threatened Rainforests and Ghostly Caretakers

In Peru, where nature is treated as a cheap and inexhaustible source for profit accumulation, the reality of extractivism is becoming violently tangible. Resistance to this violence reveals indigenous life forms that, though facing extinction, could be the key to our planetary future, as Eliana Otta shows in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


On January, 2022, the Portuguese filmmaker Nuno Cassola and myself started our journey to one of the four indigenous communities that accepted our visit, to gather material for creating a website about recently killed Indigenous leaders. We did not know that a small airline recently started to fly from Lima to Mazamari, the closest urban center to Nuevo Amanecer Hawai, our destination. So, we took a common route to that part of the country from the capital: a flight to Jauja, a very old Andean city, where we spent a night before a seven hours ride to Satipo, the main city in that area. We had been told by Víctor Pío Flores, our contact at Nuevo Amanecer, that we should arrive as early as possible. They would pick us up for another five-hour drive to their community.

We woke up at 5 a.m. to meet our hosts at noon. That was a long morning of mixed emotions. The beautiful surroundings, transitioning from the Andean mountains to the colorful Amazonian region, contrasted with the risky maneuvers of the drivers, who never reduced the speed while taking curves. When we arrived, happy to be alive, there was no one to receive us. We waited a couple of hours chatting through WhatsApp with Víctor, who always replied they were about to finish a meeting. We proposed to meet next to the river, since the heat was hardly bearable. We took a moto taxi there, finding our way to the water and shadow. I napped on the backpack, while Nuno started to practice how to scan the river’s stones with a tablet, for the website we would make after those trips.

The big pasture”

The website “Luto Verde” is the core of the project “Virtual Sanctuary for Fertilizing Mourning” as part of “Seven Prototypes for Eco-Social Renewal.” It contains videos about territories that indigenous leaders and forests’ keepers protected when they were murdered. These types of assassinations have increased notably in the last decade all over the world. From 2002 to 2020, more than 2,000 environmental defenders have been murdered in 64 countries, according to Global Witness. In Peru, they are connected to extractivist activities such as wood felling, mining, and oil extraction, but also to land trafficking and drug production.

The case of Nuevo Amanecer Hawai is even more complex. This community is located in a vast area called El Gran Pajonal, meaning “The big pasture.” Some attribute the name to an old colonial fantasy of filling the place with pasture for livestock. El Gran Pajonal has been historically inhabited by the Ashéninka and Asháninka ethnic groups, the main ones present at Nuevo Amanecer, where also Matsiguenga, Yánesha and mixed-race peoples coexist. (The Ministery of Culture acknowledges the existence of 55 native groups in Peru, 51 of which live in the Amazonian area.)

The community is formed by a unique interethnic conjunction, product of their experiences of displacement and survival. When they tell their story, they say that they lived four years in peace. They were first expelled from their lands in 1987, when the insurgent groups The Shining Path and Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru brought their war against the state to the rainforest, even killing the important indigenous leader Alejandro Calderón. The Asháninka people formed an army to avenge that death and expelled the invaders. They achieved that by using their traditional fighting methods: poisonous plants and coded whistling, which allowed them to find each other and attack the enemy, in a dense forest unknown to the urban invaders.

New Sunrise”

Víctor Pío was a teenager then, and his community was called differently. It was named Piriali, after the river where it originally settled. He, his two brothers, two sisters and the rest of the families of Piriali, followed their leader, Mauro Pío Peña, to the closest city, Satipo. They found refuge in a convent, as did hundreds of indigenous folks escaping war at the time. That was how most of them learnt to speak Spanish, to eat pasta, rice and food that would not be hunted, farmed or fish. That was how Víctor started working in a refreshment factory. That was how his father, Mauro, learnt basic medical aid, accounting, and diverse skills that made him the resourceful and inspiring leader everybody talks about today.

They all lived protected by the church until the early 2000s, when the armed forces announced that the Gran Pajonal was again at peace. Mauro encouraged the community’s members to return and rebuild it together. But this time with a new name: Nuevo Amanecer Hawai. The name, that means “New Sunrise” also honors the “Hawaian” type of pineapples growing in the region, which they gladly found at their arrival. This time they settled above the river, higher in the mountains, in an ideal terrain for the coffee they wanted to grow, following Mauro’s dream of becoming a modern and productive community.

From 2004 until 2008 Nuevo Amanecer Hawai imagined a flourishing future which included building a school in order to deepen the knowledge they were introduced to in the city. But since the late 2000s, wood fellers started to operate in the zone, thanks to irregular concessions given by regional authorities who dismiss the indigenous claims about land ownership and environmental protection.

The killing of Mauro Pío and his older son Gonzalo

Mauro Pío focused on getting the titles for the communal lands, traveling constantly to Satipo, visiting city halls and ministries, as indigenous leaders do daily in Peru. He was also skilled in accepting rejections, deferrals, and false promises, knowing that half of his interlocutors probably received a gift from a wood feller friend. But he would always arrive back to the community full of optimism, carrying candy for the children and plans to discuss with his family. He transmitted them his visions of a prosperous place, capable of combining traditional indigenous knowledge with modern practices, seeking a life out of poverty.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

It was in one of those visits to the city, after picking up the resolution to inaugurate the community’s school, that Mauro Pío was shot, at the open air, by a worker of the company Forests’ Products. It was May, 27, 2013, a week before a planned meeting with the Chair of the Council of Ministers, who would help in the land titling process. After his death, his older son Gonzalo was appointed leader. He continued fighting for the land’s titles while studying at the university, carrying forward the father’s cause regarding the upbringing of the community’s children. But in 2020 he too was murdered, after being kidnapped with his wife, who survived the attack.

Welcome in Nuevo Amanecer Hawai

Following this story, Nuno and myself traveled to Nuevo Amanecer Hawai. We found not only sad memories connected to these killings, but also a generous, extremely welcoming community, eager to show the habitat they defend. And we met other sons and daughters of Mauro. Beatriz, who told us that before our arrival, she had a dream. In it, her father asked her to be nice to the visitors, to host them and receive them joyfully as the community should always do.

After the long trip there, we arrived finally at midnight. Our first morning started with a generous breakfast: coffee from their harvest and a grilled Santani bird, which we ate with curiosity, without knowing that they considered it sacred. Our hosts took us to the communal space, where an assembly would begin. Everybody came to attend it. Children, teenagers and adults were sitting on wooden benches in a big hut with a blackboard in the middle. The leaders spoke. First Víctor, who welcomed us, saying that they are very happy about our visit and that they are eager to receive others who want to know their lands and way of living.

The current leader, Jhover Meléndez continued the greetings and with the help of Elvis, Víctor’s brother, explained the program they prepared for us. It was written on the blackboard. First: receive the visitors, second: field trip, third: visit the house of the community members, fourth: visit the nearby sacred places.

Kitaitirí hermanita”

For the reception to the visitors, they suggested me to go out of the community and repeat my entrance, with the camera this time, to register my arrival and their greetings. I followed this invitation, but I asked Nuno to hide somewhere, since it could be strange to include a white European male awaiting me among the people.

I entered the community space accompanied by a dog, hearing the potent sound of the snail they blow to announce the assembly. When I reached the communal house, Emilio was blowing a snail, and from different directions, people slowly appeared saying hello. One by one they approached me, greeting me with a handshake saying “Kitaitirí hermanita,” (“Good morning, sister”), mixing Asháninka and Spanish. They performed a warm welcome, which included the shy but kind greetings of the children. From the youngest to the oldest community member, they all wore the traditional cushmas, handmade tunics made with a waist loom.

At the communal house, Víctor spoke and we all shared some food. They announced that we will leave to walk into the rainforest, coming back at night that same day. Nuno and me decided to take an extra pair of clothes because of the possible rain. We also prepared extra batteries and memory cards. Later we were happy to have done so, since we ended up returning three days after.

Field trip”

That first day after the assembly, we did not expect to be taken on a journey shaped by the land, weather and collective decision making of thirty persons walking with us. Thus, we would learn that “Field trip” in Nuevo Amanecer Hawai meant walking, camping, sharing food, and observing our hosts fishing, playing and singing in the rainforest. And so, we packed our things without knowing that we would come back totally exhausted, looking like vagabonds but with one of the deepest feelings of gratitude we ever experienced.

It was the beginning of a project aiming to share bits of the universe that each community inhabits, profoundly influenced by the terrain they live on, their collective activities and their connections with other than human beings. Oral histories, memories, songs, and any other information that they deemed appropriate to share are now being used to create gateways into ways of existence that are on the verge of extinction, while simultaneously providing hints toward the unseen and beloved bonds that sustain them.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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