Why is territory important to indigenous people?

Indigenous people are dependent upon their land and the different natural resources found there to provide them with many of the materials and products they need for their everyday survival. These include food (meat and fruits from the forest, fish from the rivers and lakes, vegetables from their gardens), materials to construct houses (palm leaves for thatching, different woods for posts, flooring and walls, vines for ropes), medicinal plants and clay for making pots and plates.

Territory is not only important as a source of subsistence resources, it is also often a source or manifestation of the spiritual and cultural identity of a people. Indigenous peoples have often lived within a defined territory for many years, sometimes hundreds of years, and the history of the people is tied up with the different landmarks and landscapes which make their territory. For many Amazonian peoples the act of an individual working on the land creates a connection between that person’s spirit and the land, a connection which endures over time and after death. This relationship which Amazonian peoples have with their land is apparent in the names they give to rivers, streams, lakes, hills and caves, and the stories they tell and retell about actions or adventures which occurred in different places, in a mythic or remembered past.

Example: The Nahua's connection to territory

The Nahua say that when a person dies their yoshi (the part of the person connected to their everyday life and personality) leaves their body and tries to maintain contact with their living relations, bothering and upsetting them. The yoshi is connected to all the dead person’s material possessions and anything or anywhere which reminds their family of them, so all the areas which were frequently used by a person during their lifetime (paths, beaches, gardens etc) will always be attached to their yoshi. Thus the identity of individual Nahua becomes incorporated into the landscape, and people remember and speak of the deceased when passing abandoned settlements and gardens.

Indigenous communities with a healthy, abundant territory are not poor: they may live on the fringes of the capitalist economy and have a very low monetary income but quality of life and access to resources is high. Remove this resource base however and over time the knowledge about relationships between resources and land and indeed a whole way of life may be lost. Indigenous people who lose their relationship with their land often lose part of their identity and coherence as a people, they may start extracting more from it than it can give, or they may start to depend on external sources for resources for which they were once self-sufficient.

Territory is not an alienable resource, replaceable and separate from the self or the people. It does not exist in the same way if abstracted from the people who live in it, know it, work to recreate it and to whom it is essential to keeping alive a connection with the past, to ensuring their physical and spiritual well being, and to providing a strong basis from which to negotiate their changing relationship with national society.

Peruvian law and “Comunidades Nativas”

Over the past thirty years there has been an increasing global awareness of the significance land holds for indigenous people and several international laws and treaties have been developed defending indigenous peoples rights to land and territory. Significant among these are the ILO Convention 169 and the UN Draft Declaration of indigenous rights.

Within Peruvian legislation indigenous people did not receive any legal rights over land until 1976 when, during the agricultural reforms of President Velásquez, the legislation for “Native community” (indigenous) land titles was developed. However Peruvian legislation falls short of meeting international standards and to meeting indigenous territorial demands, significantly because the granting of a ‘title’ to individual communities is not equal to recognition of territory:

Example: The Achuar's fight against petrol exploitation

The Achuar of the Pastaza have been fighting for over ten years to stop companies from entering to work on their land because they believe that the extractive activities would upset their territory’s delicate ecological balance, cause pollution, frighten away their forest spirits and permanently alter their access to resources and use of territory. “Our grandfathers left us a healthy, clean territory and our grandchildren are going to continue living in it; we want them to have a healthy land. We hunt in the forest, we collect water from the river: we do not want this water to be polluted because water is life. Our grandfathers always went into the forest to look for arutem, the spirit that helps us to learn and see the future. If they destroy the environment where will these spirits live? Who will give us our vision? If a petrol company comes and our children can no longer find their vision then they do not have a future. This is why we do not want the company here.”

Example: Gaps between Achuar titles

Many of the Achuar communities of the Pastaza have land titles, however the titled areas cover less than half of the land that the Achuar claim as their territory. There are gaps between the titles (although territory is continuous) and many important hunting grounds, used on a daily basis, lie beyond the title’s boundaries.

Example: An Amahuaca community surrounded by loggers

The Amahuaca community of San Juan de Inuya (on the River Inuya) has a titled area in a narrow strip along the river. The community is surrounded on all sides by logging concessions, which give rights over the headwater regions of many of the streams and rivers flowing through their title to logging companies. Much of their ancestral territory now lies within these concessions; loggers travel and transport much of the wood extracted through community land, facilitating illegal logging on recognized communal land and disturbing community members, and causing impacts on the fauna and floral resources that the community depends on.

Example: Machiguenga and "imagined" communities

The titling of Machiguenga communities in the Lower Urubamba began about 30 years ago, many of them founded around settlements already established around Dominican missions and SIL schools. For the Machiguenga families, used to living in small and remote family groups, the creation of community settlements, titles and even the concept of “indigenous people” were all new. Over the last 20 years the communities have been learning the requirements of the State in relation to titled lands and barriers have arisen between communities based on the “imaginary” boundaries of their communal lands, in spite of the fact that many families have kin on both sides of a frontier. Instead of making joint decisions about resource management, many communities are now in conflict over the use of certain resources – especially commercially valuable ones like wood. The petrol companies also make use of the community model and sign individual agreements with each community and compensate only those on whose titles they work (known as “directly impacted”), which leads to a disproportional distribution of “benefits” and the emergence of new differences between communities. In this way the creation of the native community as a mechanism to protect territory has contributed to making less visible the connections between families and thus the weakening of the Machiguenga as a people.

Problems and threats to territory

There are two main challenges facing indigenous people in their fight to get legal recognition of their territories within Peru. The first is to make the State understand how indigenous people use territory and its non-material (spiritual and historical) importance to them. This is necessary so that they understand the difference between titled communities and territory, the need for extensive areas of land that correspond with ancestral use, not just small pockets around a settled community, and the importance of maintaining a level of control over all the resources (below, on and above ground) found within a territory. The second major challenge is to develop a legal framework that recognises territory and ensures that the State respect it.

However, whilst the indigenous movement develops a national campaign on this issue, more and more land lying inside indigenous territories is being degraded or put to uses contrary to the rights of indigenous peoples. Some of the biggest threats come from projects promoted by the central government;

Example: Andean settlers in Machiguenga territory

Andean settlers started to put pressure on Machiguenga territory in the Upper Urubamba in the 1950s. By the time the Agrarian Reforms came into force in 1974 and permitted the titling of communal lands, there were already settlers in many parts of Machiguenga territory. The titles the Machiguenga were then given were allocated in lands that the settlers had not yet “improved”. Thirty years later the map of community lands in the Upper Urubamba is an archipelago of small islands – many too small to maintain their way of life – in a sea of settlers. See Key Issue “settlers”

Example: Restrictions placed on the Machiguenga of Manu National Park

The Machiguenga community of Tayacome lies within Manu National Park. The Machiguenga who live there are not allowed to hunt with guns, extract timber or receive formal land rights because these activities could interfere with the strict conservation and investigation aims of the park.