It was a cold and wintry morning in 1999 in Cambridge, South East England. The wind howled through its narrow streets as I rushed late to an anthropology lecture on 19th century social theories and I took refuge from the bitter cold in the warmth of a bookshop. I was drawn irresistably to the travel books and the promises of steamy jungles, hidden tropical valleys and untrodden beaches that oozed from their pages. I found myself picking up a book about the Peruvian jungle: “Manu National Park” it proclaimed grandly “simply throbs with life”. The words swept me away to a world of jaguars, giant otters and scarlet macaws where indigenous peoples still fished and hunted in its crystalline streams and impenetrable forest. I read that until the mid 1980’s, one of these peoples, the Nahua, lived in the Park’s remotest corner, avoiding all contact with outsiders and fiercely protecting their territory from incursions of loggers and oil companies.
Six months later I landed in Lima. I was 20 years old, spoke no Spanish, had never been to South America and I had three weeks to try to meet the Nahua.
After four days chugging upriver in a tiny canoe I arrived in Serjali, the Nahua’s village with Federico, a Yaminahua man from Sepahua (the nearest town) and my guide and translator. I was instantly overwhelmed by the Nahua’s warmth. I was fed, housed, listened to with respect (and confusion) and given permission to return a few months later with a team of students.
After my epiphany in the bookshop I advertised through the Cambridge University Expeditions Society (CUEX) to attract some companions. To my surprise 137 fellow students wanted to accompany me to Peru; I had never been so popular. Nevertheless, Dora, Aliya, Gregor and Tamsin selected themselves: Dora oozed capability, she was bilingual, extensively traveled in South America and well versed in its tortuous beaurocratic procedures. Aliya was still entangled in a love affair with the rainforest, she had just returned from Bolivia where she had been working as a jungle guide. Tamsin was our zoologist, as excited about frogs and bats as I was about hunting and fishing. Gregor was an experienced expeditioner, he had built water pumps in Zimbabwe, Park guard posts in Uganda and counted monkeys in the Tibetan Himalayas. As a bonus he also looked like he could carry a few sacs of rice. Our team was completed with Federico and Ruth, our local counterpart from Cusco University. Preparing for our trip meant months of fundraising and research. Lev Michael and Christina Beier, linguistic anthropologists at the University of Texas with almost 10 years of experience in the region were our guides to this virtually unvisited corner of the Peruvian rainforest. They advised us on everything from who we should meet, to which diseases we should avoid.
In Serjali we began by investigating the Nahua’s changing relations with, and perceptions of, the timber industry. Federico’s enthusiasm, his skills at translation and interpreting combined with our use of participatory methods quickly produced rich information. After fifteen years of exploitation at the hands of loggers as cheap manual labour the Nahua had begun to extract timber independently. They had also started to control the entry of loggers into their territory in return for high value goods such as guns and motors. Nevertheless, many Nahua complained of individuals acquiring these donations for themselves, of loggers failing to meet their promises, and of the reduction in game animals caused by the loggers’ hunting activities. We also learnt about the Nahua’s recent and traumatic history. In 1984 their first sustained contact with the national society resulted in lethal epidemics that killed approximately half of them within a year. This contact didn’t just expose the Nahua to new diseases but to a world of guns and motors, fishing hooks and nets, clothes, soap and salt. Almost overnight their lifestyles and expectations transformed. They no longer fished and hunted with bows, arrows and spears but used shotguns, fishing hooks and nets. Their desire for new material goods pushed them into relations with loggers yet this relationship was a double-edged sword.
Although they didn’t know it the Nahua lived within a Reserve established to protect their lands, rights and livelihoods and those of other indigenous peoples with minimal contact with the outside world. Despite its protected status, loggers worked freely within its borders and the state was promoting the exploitation of natural gas within its limits. Most government authorities were either confused about its borders and the entity responsible for its protection, or were simply unaware of its existence. Our report combined the Nahua’s own perspectives and priorities with information about the Reserve, its borders, regulations, and the rights of its inhabitants. We presented this information in a workshop in Serjali and circulated a report amongst State institutions, NGOs and individuals working in the region.
We returned to Cambridge ten weeks later to finish our studies but left our hearts in Serjali and within moments of finishing my final exam I was on a flight to Peru. One year had passed but the situation had changed dramatically. A regional legal decree from INRENA (The Forestry Authority) had declared half of the Reserve, and almost all of Nahua territory, as available for logging concessions. Despite its illegality, local loggers from Sepahua used it as a pretext to invade Nahua territory. They threatened the Nahua who resisted and local authorities simply ignored the Nahua’s protests. In response, the Nahua’s traditional headman travelled for over two weeks by foot and raft to Puerto Maldonado, the regional capital and news of the situation finally reached Lima. By August 2001 when I returned to Serjali with Federico, Nahua territory was swarming with over 250 loggers. They had felled over 600,000ft of mahogany and cedar and were having a devastating impact on local wildlife. I helped the Nahua document the logging with photos, GPS points and maps and then Federico and myself accompanied two Nahua leaders to Lima. The visit worked. A commission of senior representatives from INRENA travelled immediately to Serjali to decommission the illegal timber and formally process the Nahua’s charges. In an unprecedented step INRENA established two guard posts to control the illegal logging. Despite this, the loggers worked with corrupt INRENA officials to bypass the guard posts.
By this time Gregor had returned to Peru and we had teamed up with Olaf Reibedanz, a German anthropologist working with the Nahua. Gregor, Olaf and I helped the Nahua expose this corruption by making a short video documenting the illegal transportation of timber. Finally, in March 2002 after months of letter writing, press releases and meetings, INRENA declared the Nahua as rights holders over the timber that had been felled. That same month, a commission with senior government representatives oversaw the transfer of the wood to the Nahua and an agreement between the Nahua and the loggers. The loggers agreed to withdraw permanently from the reserve and paid USD25,000 to the community as compensation. By July 2002, Nahua territory was free from loggers and the decree permitting logging concessions had been annulled.
Despite the loggers withdrawal, Nahua territory and the Reserve was still vulnerable. The Nahua were demanding a land title which they felt would offer them greater security. Gregor and I felt we could best support them by helping them make a territory map that demonstrated the extent, limits and importance of their land both for subsistence needs as well as its historical and wider social significance. We trained the Nahua to use GPS’ and produced territory maps that we converted into signposts to demarcate the borders of their territory. The Nahua’s successful struggle with the loggers raised wider questions about the role of the Reserve and its strengths and weaknesses both for the Nahua and its other inhabitants. Aliya and Dora had now joined us in Peru. We were inspired by our work with the Nahua and felt that our energy and commitment could make a significant contribution. By January 2003 Shinai was an official Peruvian organization.
Federico Ramírez falleció el 10 de octubre de 2001 a la edad de 51 durante un viaje a Lima para defender los derechos de los Nahuas de Serjali. Fue para los miembros de Shinai mentor, guía, amigo y figura de padre.
Conocido por muchos con su nombre Yaminahua, Raondi, Federico nació y se crió en la cuenca del Purús, pero trabajó y vivió también en Brasil, Lima, Cusco, Pucallpa y finalmente Sepahua, sitio en el que había decido quedarse. Su inteligencia natural, sus profundos conocimientos de la selva y su capacidad como traductor hicieron que trabajara mucho con antropólogos, misioneros y biólogos. La bibliografía etnográfica, lingüística y biológica de toda la zona le debe mucho al esfuerzo, poco reconocido, de Federico. De joven trabajó con el antropólogo célebre Marcel D’Ans y, más tarde trabajó también con Graham Townsley, Glenn Shepard, Lev Michael, Christina Beier y el Instituto Smithsonian, entre otros.
En los últimos dos años de su vida Federico se dedicó a trabajar con nosotros y con los Nahuas de Serjali, defendiendo sus derechos contra la amenaza de la tala ilegal en su territorio. Fue justamente durante una visita a Lima con los Nahuas para exigir la acción del gobierno, que falleció.
Sus esfuerzos en Serjali han tenido frutos. En gran parte como resultado de su fuerza y determinación, los Nahuas están viendo un futuro más seguro y sano. Aparte de sus habilidades como guía en la selva, motorista, profesor de lengua y traductor, Federico era un hombre de gran integridad, buen humor, honestidad, y humildad. Sus amigos, su familia y la gente más vulnerable siempre fueron la prioridad para él.
Lo recordaremos siempre a Federico por su generosidad y alegría y por los buenos momentos que vivimos juntos. Nos hizo conocer la selva, enseñándonos a vivir, a hablar, a contar cuentos, a compartir y a soñar. No olvidaremos nunca las salidas de sol en la selva en las que intercambiábamos sueños recién soñados, las excursiones a pescar de noche bajo las estrellas, las noches tomando shori a la luz de la luna y los viajes por el Mishagua, siempre llenos de sorpresas, con peke-pekes poco confiables.
Será extrañado y recordado por siempre.