Ulderico Ríos Mozembite is a respected hunter, but the predawn racket he creates as he prepares the morning meal — splitting firewood, clanking pots with his big spoon — makes it hard to imagine him stealthily stalking a tapir. Or an armadillo, which is all the young men managed to bring back before last night’s rains forced them to seek shelter in our makeshift camp here at Ajial. Everyone on the expedition team could use more sleep after yesterday, when we spent twelve hours on the benches of clattering motorized boats that slowly hauled us, our dugout canoes, and a profusion of gear up from around the mouth of the Sucusari River to this point near its headwaters.
This million-acre expanse of wild waterways and protected forest is roadless, and pretty much self-willed.
But Ulderico was hired to cook, and by the time he announces that the meal is ready he’s been awake for hours, swinging his axe, stoking his fire, boiling rice and pasta and hunks of armadillo over the blaze he’s built at the water’s edge. We all scramble down the steep, slippery bank, and assemble at the bobbing collection of tethered boats that will be our breakfast room this morning. “Where is Shebaco?” Ulderico asks.
Shebaco is the most important member of our group, the leader who has drawn us all together, and it becomes clear that nobody knows where he is. Nor is anyone terribly concerned.
“The food is ready,” someone says. “Shebaco will come.”
At most 30 seconds pass before a weathered gray tarp near the bow of one of the longer boats stirs, crackles, and flips open to reveal the smiling, craggy face of Shebaco — who, we’ll later learn, was too tired to pitch a tent last night. He’d bunked on the bottom of the boat.
“Shebaco is here,” he announces.
“Shebaco el famoso,” Ulderico says, and everyone laughs.
Shebaco glances at the nearest plate, where the five nails of an armadillo paw point up from a steaming mound of starches. “Toto aqui,” he says, slipping out of his everyday Spanish to name the animal in Máíhikì, the Maijuna language. 1
The Maijuna are a small indigenous group whose ancestral lands sit within the Amazon basin in this part of what is now northeastern Peru. Sebastián “Shebaco” Ríos Ochoa is the founder and longtime president of Sucusari, the Maijuna community from which we launched yesterday. In 2004, he helped to establish FECONAMAI, the federation that binds Sucusari to the three other extant Maijuna communities, and he has held various positions in federation leadership. Yet his authority among the Maijuna transcends any specific title. He is one of the most important elders the Maijuna have, and at 67 he is a gatherer of names, reflecting the roles and experiences that have shaped him. Before he was born, his parents were enslaved on a plantation owned by one Rosario Ríos Ochoa, whose surname Shebaco still carries. Those who know him well call him Sheba, an abbreviation of Shebaco, which is itself a nickname for Sebastián, the Christian name assigned to him when he was four years old, by the patróncito his father worked for after his emancipation. 2 Shebaco’s primary name, the one he holds most dear, is Ma Taque, the Maijuna name he received from his parents at birth.
Historians estimate that the Maijuna numbered in the thousands prior to European contact. Today, the population is about 600.
Historians of the region estimate that the Maijuna numbered in the thousands prior to European contact. 3 Today, the aggregate population of the four Maijuna communities is about 500, with another 100 or so living outside the villages. That this remnant group persists is a minor miracle, considering the potent combination of forces that have assailed the Maijuna since the colonial period began. Those spared by disease were violently subjugated by generations of colonists extracting rubber and other commercially valuable forest products, and raising commodity crops on Maijuna lands. In the mid 20th century, missionaries and government officials imposed religious and educational programs that have continued to erode traditional beliefs and cultural practices. The Máíh
ìkì language is now in danger of extinction. Only Shebaco and a few dozen other Maijuna individuals can converse fluently in their mother tongue.
Brave, wily, charismatic, complex, Shebaco is more experienced at operating in the world outside Maijuna lands than any other Maijuna person before or since. Yet he carries a deep knowledge of his people’s cultural traditions, and much of his life has unfolded in their ancestral territory, especially here in the Sucusari basin, a landscape he has repeatedly risked peril to protect. The latest threat is a proposed government road and development project that would, if built, violate Maijuna sovereignty and irreparably damage the ecological integrity of the forest that sustains them.
Maijuna lands are targeted for exploitation by wildcat loggers, poachers, corporations, and the Peruvian government.
We are here because Shebaco trusts that our interest in helping the Maijuna fight for their ancestral lands and cultural survival is genuine, and he has confidence in our ability to amplify their message of resistance to audiences and organizations in greater Peru and beyond. Our published account of this trip will become part of a larger multi-pronged undertaking — which already includes a documentary film, an official Maijuna position statement, and various networking efforts with allied groups. The aim, most immediately, is to build a coalition with voice and visibility sufficient to beat back the government’s attempt to push through the proposed road. 4 More broadly, these efforts are about fortifying Maijuna control over lands that are regularly targeted for exploitation by interests that include not just the government but also corporate entities, wildcat loggers, and poachers. The two of us are colleagues at George Mason University in Virginia. Gilmore has more than 20 years of experience doing ethnobiological research and community-based conservation work in Maijuna lands; Wingfield is a writer and sustainability educator. Several years ago, while co-teaching the first iteration of a field course we have since offered regularly in Maijuna lands, we conceived the idea of combining skill sets to help the Maijuna articulate for non-indigenous readers the values made manifest in their native lands.
For the Maijuna, these lands are the source of physical sustenance, cultural identity, spiritual meaning, historical memory, and sovereignty. In naming and affirming such values publicly, for audiences outside Maijuna lands, we seek to extend and diversify the network of allies who support the Maijuna people’s absolute right to determine who has access to these lands, and what they’re allowed to do there.
When we sat down with Shebaco in March 2019 and explained our intention to make ourselves useful, he thought for a moment before telling us that sharing a trip on this river would be a good way to start. The trip would take us to a remote stretch of primary rainforest that the proposed road would destroy. Shebaco and other elders would describe for us what is important in this landscape, while paddling the bends of the sinuous Sucusari, camping under the dense forest canopy, and sharing meals. We rolled out a map of the Sucusari basin and Shebaco pointed out sites that hold significance in Maijuna history. Now, a few months after mapping the trip, having equipped ourselves with grant funding, cameras, audio recorders, and waterproof notebooks, we’ve returned to paddle the length of the river and listen to the stories that weave this waterway into Maijuna ethnohistory.
Right now, the river is the only means of access to the Sucusari basin. The proposed road would change this calculus completely.
Before we can descend the river, however, we must finish ascending it. Our advance team, three Maijuna men we hired to clear the upper river of fallen trees so that passage would be possible, set off a full day before we did. We caught up to them late yesterday afternoon, which is why we camped at Ajial. They launched before first light this morning, to commence the third straight day of what has turned out to be a herculean job.
After the morning meal, the full team mobilizes also, launching for the final upstream push from Ajial to Unguruahal, a camp close to the Sucusari’s headwaters. Most of the team rides in peque peques, narrow wooden boats named for the rhythmic racket of their outboard motors. The peque peques carried all of us upriver yesterday, completing in twelve hours a journey that would have taken several days if we had done it on the paddle. The relatively quick ascent bought time that our core team — Shebaco, his friend and contemporary Victorino Ríos Torres, the two of us, and our photographers — will use, in the week ahead, to paddle back down to the river’s mouth at an easy pace in the trio of traditional dugout canoes that the peque peques have towed upstream.
Four of us, craving some quiet time on the river, linger with two canoes now as the noise of the support crew diminishes in the distance, and a big woodpecker’s rhythmic drumming fills the windless forest. Then we too unmoor and set off against a current that, up here near the headwaters, offers only moderate resistance. Our hand-carved paddles have traditional teardrop blades. When the pointed paddle-tip pierces the water, it produces a crisp tap subtler than the woodpecker’s sound.
Shebaco sits in the bow of one canoe, Victorino in the other. Both are short and strong, broadly built in the Maijuna way. They exude an air of comfort and command comically lacking in their counterparts in the sterns of the canoes — a pair of middle-aged gringo professors, our shirt-backs soaked with sweat, our long bodies folded into these lithe and sensitive vessels whose tree-trunk hulls bear marks of the metal tools that recently scraped them hollow.
The Sucusari is an intimate waterway. Even at its mouth, where it empties into the wide Napo River, the distance between banks rarely exceeds 50 meters. Way up here, it is narrower than many creeks and accessible only because it’s high-water season. Green walls of rainforest hem us closely, with blue sky visible just now and again. The elders up front act as proberos, initiating turns with nifty one-handed swivels of the paddle blade, pointing out thorny branches to avoid, reading the current ahead for signs of submerged trouble. In these almost keelless canoes, the stern paddler’s primary job is to keep the craft from getting sideways to the current. When the river bends sharply, the work is vigorous.
Maijuna families hunt and fish mostly downstream. Our team is the first in about ten years to ply this section of river.
Maijuna families typically hunt and fish downstream from here, and our team is the first in about ten years to ply this uppermost section of the Sucusari. In the early 2000s, this part of the river was kept open by crews working for local logging bosses, unscrupulous operators who still regularly intimidate and cheat indigenous communities to gain access to valuable timber. The crews cut much of the valuable growth — cumala, Spanish cedar, and kapok, one of the largest and most majestic rainforest trees — until 2009, when the four Maijuna communities used their still-young federation to empower themselves and organize resistance. The same rivers that the timber crews used to gain entry to Maijuna lands provided the only viable means of extracting the logs they felled in the forest. Maijuna communities restricted loggers’ passage along their rivers with physical barriers and face-to-face confrontation, strategies that were risky but ultimately effective.
Ten years is time enough for many trees to fall across the river, and we paddle past one fresh cut after another left by our advance team. Where they have sawn through a fallen giant nearly a meter thick, we pause, and Victorino steps out into the forest to pee. Shebaco tells us about the death threats he received during the tense years when he was organizing against the loggers. He found this frightening, knowing how common it is for indigenous leaders who stand up to illegal timber harvesters and poachers to be murdered. He simply saw no other option. The carbohydrates in Maijuna people’s diets come from staple crops raised on family fields and fruits they gather in the forest — but fish and game supply virtually all their protein. 5 The logging crews would camp in the forest for months at a time, shooting the animals and fishing out the river and its tributary streams. “What choice did we have?” Shebaco asks. “A community with no food cannot survive.”
After the loggers were forced out, Shebaco helped to lead a lengthy and delicate negotiation involving other local indigenous leaders, allied nongovernmental organizations, and representatives from the regional and national governments of Peru. For most of his lifetime, official maps of Peru had labeled Maijuna ancestral lands as Tierra Abandonada or Tierra del Estado. But, in 2015, official protections were granted to a million-acre area encompassing the majority of Maijuna territory, including the entire Sucusari basin. Six years earlier, at the time they expelled the loggers, members of the Sucusari community had begun to strictly control access to the river basin. They’ve been careful to harvest game and fish at rates their land can sustainably support. Full fishing nets and carefully collected hunter testimonials now speak to a restored abundance that scientific studies of wildlife populations have confirmed. 6
The tushpa or kitchen fire, the thatch-roofed sleeping platform called a tambo, and the barbacoa, a rack for smoking meat, form the infrastructure of a hunting camp.
The Maijuna govern access, but no one controls the land itself. The Área de Conservación Regional Maijuna-Kichwa or ACRMK, the million-acre expanse of protected primary forest and wild waterways, is 22 percent larger than Yosemite National Park, roadless, and pretty much self-willed. In our home country, one would have to travel to Alaska to experience a big landscape as dynamic and unfettered as this one. 7
Shebaco is excited to see what we’ll find near the headwaters, where hunting pressure in the last decade has been light. “My friends, we will eat well at Unguruahal.”
Rain holds off, and the hunters prove Shebaco’s prediction; the following day, in Unguruahal, we wake to find the boats turned into a floating butchery. Bloody water sloshes in the bottom of each hull as the hunters carve a pair of collared peccaries and four pacas — ground-dwelling rodents that typically weigh about ten kilos, with a mild, flavorful flesh that many people here favor above other forest meats. As they work, they pitch the offal into the river. Meanwhile, in camp, Ulderico is already stationed at a table fashioned from stripped saplings in his open-air kitchen. On the ground nearby is his tushpa, or kitchen fire. Together, the tushpa, the thatch-roofed sleeping platform called a tambo, and the barbacoa, a slatted rack for smoking meat, form the infrastructure of a typical hunting camp. Ulderico’s family maintains another camp downstream from here, and Unguruahal can be reached from there on foot. They come up here often enough to keep the place in order.
But Unguruahal isn’t only a hunting camp. Ulderico’s father, Agapito Ríos Torres, who pilots the advance team’s boat, showed us around a bit when we landed yesterday, including drawing our attention to small piles of debris, most of it fragments from old glass containers. Unguruahal occupies a painful place in Maijuna memory, and these half-buried shards help to show why.
At the turn of the last century, when much of the world’s rubber was coming from Amazonia, enslaved Maijuna people did the heavy work.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when much of the world’s rubber was coming from Amazonia, the government deeded large tracts of indigenous-held lands to well-connected Peruvians. These colonists, called patrones, compelled indigenous people to harvest and transport rubber and other forest products for their profit. The patrón who controlled the Sucusari basin lived in a big house at the mouth of the river. Enslaved Maijuna people did the heavy work of clearing a narrow road through roughly 60 kilometers of forest that connected the patrón’s house to a place called Esperanza, beyond the headwaters of the Sucusari, two days’ walk from Unguruahal. The road crossed the river and its tributary creeks in multiple places, and Maijuna men built bridges from durable heartwood slabs called shungos. Rubber and animal pelts brought by Maijuna people into Esperanza and another outpost, Tutapishco, were hauled down the road on the backs of horses and Maijuna carriers. Unguruahal was one of multiple way stations along this road where horses and humans paused to eat and rest. Here, non-indigenous men employed by the patrón managed a warehouse for forest products destined for later shipment from the river’s mouth. The warehouse also stored rum and other items offered up as rewards for Maijuna people who fulfilled their quotas and remained obedient.
Agapito is Victorino’s brother, a quiet man who spends more time in the forest than down in the community. From his family’s downstream camp he regularly walks the four kilometers to Unguruahal. “I can hear those Maijuna people from a long time ago,” he tells us. “I hear them crying when I’m in the forest up here.”
Shebaco joins us to talk about Unguruahal, in a semi-structured interview that is the first in a series, anchoring each subsequent morning of the expedition. 8 Sitting on a mat of freshly cut palm leaves, responding to our questions about the history of this place, his face suddenly curdles into anger and he begins to weep, overcome by bitter thoughts of what his ancestors endured. “Today, I am a man. If you want me to work, you must pay me. If you punch me, I will punch you back. I will fight. But at that time the Maijuna couldn’t fight back. If they didn’t work for the patrón, they were whipped. Some were whipped to death. Others were shot, right in front of their families.”
‘I can hear those Maijuna people from a long time ago,’ Agapito tells us. ‘I hear them crying when I’m in the forest up here.’
Shebaco’s parents, and those of Agapito and Victorino, were enslaved in the 1940s and early 1950s, well after the rubber boom had ended. Yet the continuity with earlier exploitations was — literally — familiar: the plantation at the mouth of the Sucusari where they labored to raise commodity crops was owned by the daughter of the patrón who had enslaved Maijuna people during the rubber boom. Painful stories of these eras were passed down to Shebaco by his mother and father, who heard them from their own parents. Victorino’s parents shared similar stories with him, and he too thinks of how the Maijuna suffered in those days. But he is more subdued than Shebaco when speaking of what his forebears endured. Victorino is one of his generation’s best hunters. What he feels most acutely on this visit to Unguruahal, he tells us, is relief that the loggers are gone, contentment about the return of animal life.
And, indeed, before the rain starts falling on our second night at Unguruahal, the hunters come in with that day’s impressive haul — a five-foot-long spectacled caiman, a red brocket deer, and another paca. What we won’t need for our return trip is salted, bagged up, and sent downriver the following morning with the three Maijuna guys who ferried us to Unguruahal. The tree-cutting crew, well rested after three days of grinding work, sets off downstream as well. Now only our core team remains — the four of us in our two canoes, another canoe carrying our two photographers and their assistant, plus two supply boats with their crews of two Maijuna guys each. Our plan is to break camp and start paddling with the current around midday. Before that, we ask Shebaco and Victorino to return with us to the forest nearby, where we’d like to photograph them. They stand holding the jagged neck of a broken carboy we found in camp — a thick glass container with a capacity of about 40 liters, which likely contained rum in the time of the patrones.
For the shoot, our photographers settle on a trail where vegetation is less dense than it would be otherwise, and more light reaches the ground. We take this to be an old and lightly used Maijuna trail, but Shebaco and Victorino inform us that we’re standing in the path of the government-sponsored road they are now fighting to block. We knew that the proposed route cuts through the heart of the Maijuna protected area, but didn’t realize it skirted so close to the camp at Unguruahal. About ten years ago, Shebaco explains, the government dispatched a surveying crew to cut a track through the forest along this route, and it is on this overgrown cut that we now stand. The road project, if realized, would span 135 kilometers between the town of San Antonio del Estrecho on the Putumayo River, which forms Peru’s border with Colombia, and the village of Salvador on the Napo River. Along this section of the road would run a “development corridor” ten kilometers wide, which would be devoted primarily to oil-palm plantations. From Salvador, the road would continue to Iquitos, the largest metropolis in the Peruvian Amazon.
The ancestral lands of the Maijuna and many other indigenous groups are strongholds of the earth’s remaining biological and cultural diversity.
Such incursions are deadly to the ecological integrity of intact expanses of Amazon rainforest such as this. In addition to fragmenting the forest, roads and development corridors facilitate access for those eager to log valuable timber, poach game and fish, clear land for growing and grazing, and set up homesteads. It’s not difficult to understand that such projects damage the biosphere. Shebaco and other Maijuna elders help us to contemplate, as well, the road’s potential impact on what anthropologist Wade Davis calls the ethnosphere, “the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.” 9 The ancestral lands of the Maijuna and many other indigenous groups are strongholds of the earth’s remaining biological and cultural diversity. The fates of the biosphere and ethnosphere are inextricably linked, and the same extractive activities inevitably threaten both. While this land’s protected status counts for something, a loophole in the 2015 agreement gives the Peruvian government the right to relax protections if it deems a project to be in the national interest. 10 Such an act of erasure would be all too familiar to the Maijuna, who see the road as an existential threat to their cultural survival.
Right now, Shebaco explains, the river is the only means of access to the Sucusari basin. The community of Sucusari sits near the river’s mouth, and it’s impossible to pass without being seen; no one travels beyond without permission from Shebaco and other community leaders. A road would change the calculus completely, facilitating passage for any number of opportunists and interlopers, and making it impossible for the Maijuna to monitor, much less maintain authority over, what happens on their lands. “This forest is where we find our food. The animals we eat, the fish, the fruits we harvest in different seasons. This is where we find the trees we use to build our houses, the palms for thatching the roof. Put a road through here, and strangers will come in and take all that. Just like the loggers, they will hunt out all our game, catch all our fish, and leave us with nothing. Our children will starve.”
Victorino listens to Shebaco in grim silence before summing up. “The road? For the Maijuna it would be a disaster.”
Launching the canoes for our downstream trip from Unguruahal, we discover how much the rains have caused the river to rise, and how swiftly the current is running. Hazards present themselves in quick succession, and all our paddling is aimed at keeping the bows pointed in the right direction. The advance crew cleared many troublesome overhead branches and vines — but that work happened two days ago, and hence on a different river. Now we duck and sway, dodging threats and careening from bend to bend. Shebaco and Victorino, our seasoned proberos, dig deep into their bag of boatsman’s tricks to keep us safe.
The river demands complete engagement for a good two hours, before the whine of a distant chainsaw shreds our sweaty trance. As we round a bend, a traffic jam comes into view. The massive tree blocking the river is not freshly fallen, and when we came upstream, our boats slipped underneath it. Now the rain has raised the water level, and our full expedition team is having an unplanned reunion. The six guys who departed Unguruahal first thing this morning have been sawing and chopping for hours, and our core team’s two supply boats arrived an hour ago; their crews have joined the battle with the tree. Luckily for us, the same high water that has turned this giant deadfall into a problem for the bigger boats presents an elegant solution for the relatively light canoes. We paddle across the current and find that the banks have flooded just enough for us to get around the blockage and regain downstream momentum toward tonight’s camp at San Ramón.
Victorino was born near the riverbank camp at San Ramón, and being here puts this normally curt man in a loquacious mood. His parents buried his placenta in the forest a short distance downstream from where we make the palm-leaf mat for our morning interviews. San Ramón exerted a strong gravitational pull for the Maijuna in the period of Victorino’s early childhood, because a man named Babi Dei — Victorino’s grandfather and Shebaco’s uncle — lived here. Babi Dei was the last Maijuna curaca, a leader possessing great earthly and spiritual power. Today, the village of Sucusari is governed by a democratically elected council, similar to the administrative bodies in other Amazonian communities both indigenous and mestizo. The council is an administrative form imposed by the government. Traditionally, the Maijuna were led by curacas.
Babi Dei was the last Maijuna curaca, the river basin’s principal figure of authority, who possessed great earthly and spiritual power.
Babi Dei was the river basin’s principal figure of authority, who as curaca could have multiple wives and was responsible for arranging marriages. He was also a potent shaman who healed and harmed; asked if he ever used his powers to kill anyone, Victorino nods matter-of-factly and begins to rattle off names. Babi Dei, who died in 1984, was one of the last Maijuna men who wore balsa-wood ear disks, circular ornaments that were a traditional part of every adolescent boy’s passage to manhood, and symbolized the moon in honor of the Maijuna creator, Maineno. Early Spanish-speaking colonists referred to the Maijuna pejoratively as Orejones, big ears. The fact that men of younger generations never wore ear disks is due in large part to the power of such derogatory judgments. But it was the presence of missionaries that eroded Babi Dei’s position and rendered the role of curaca obsolete.
The American Protestant missionary Robert Sandberg arrived in the Sucusari basin in the 1950s, exerting an influence that has been profound, and double-edged. When he saw the exploitative conditions under which Maijuna people worked, Sandberg began to make noises that forced Rosario Ríos Ochoa, the last big patrón, to liberate enslaved laborers, among them the parents of Shebaco and Victorino. 11 Patrones had exposed generations of Maijuna people to Catholicism, but their methods for supplanting indigenous beliefs were not nearly as intentional and systematic as those deployed by Sandberg and his fellow missionaries, who brought Protestant Christianity to Maijuna lands and worked with the Peruvian government to establish a missionary school for Maijuna children. Victorino and Shebaco were in the first cohort of children to attend that school. As a boy in San Ramón, Victorino spoke Máíh
ìkì exclusively and answered to his Maijuna name, Ñame Bao. When he went to school, at age ten, it was the first time in his life that he’d worn clothes.
Rain starts falling as we launch the canoes from San Ramón, and continues intermittently throughout the day. In these conditions we paddle until the downpour gets too heavy, then sidle the boats in under overhanging foliage, waiting for the worst to pass before we carry on. The river widens as we descend, especially after we pass Quebrada Bellisario, a substantial tributary creek, and late in the afternoon, as we approach the next camp, the sun breaks through for the first time all day. We are soaked to the skin.
The four Maijuna guys in our core team’s two support boats have been onshore for a couple hours, and we add our wet clothes to the ones they’ve hung on the drying lines. Ulderico has a fire going under tonight’s peccary soup, and puts on a pot of river water for coffee.
This snug camp belongs to the family of a Sucusariño named Josue Ríos Ríos, who made one of the dugout canoes that we commissioned for this trip. The overhead cost of building a canoe is minimal for Josue, who can harvest the tree himself and use a combination of basic tools and fire to hollow and shape the log. Opportunities to earn cash are welcome in a community where the typical family brings in about $500 in a good year, and Josue told us that he planned to spend his fee on a motor for his canoe, which would make it easier for his family to travel upriver from the village to their camp. 12 Now, as we sit over steaming cups of coffee discussing Josue and his motor, we begin to hear the sound of an approaching peque peque and, in minutes, as if we’ve summoned them, Josue, his wife Lisida Ríos Mosquera, and their two young daughters appear.
Our new headquarters for the night sits on a shelf of elevated ground accessed from a steeply sloped section of riverbank.
We thought we’d arranged with Josue to sleep at the camp. There was some confusion on the timing, yet the problem this creates is small, given the depth of forest talent we carry on our team. Reigan Ríos Mosquera and Laurencio Ríos Mozembite, our hunters, disappear for half an hour and return to tell us they’ve found a good spot to camp a short distance downstream. We gather our damp belongings, say goodbye to Josue and his family, and head off again.
Our new headquarters for the night sits on a shelf of elevated ground accessed from a steeply sloped section of riverbank, near the midpoint of an important bend in the river known as Soldado Vuelta. The boats tie up, and all six Maijuna men grab their machetes. Within fifteen minutes, they’ve cleared about 100 square meters of dense vegetation, making room to unfold the two ground-cloth tarps. Each of the roof tarps, peaked to shed rain, is supported by a rope strung between two poles — saplings cut and stripped at the site. The guys pull the roof tarps taut and lash them with vines to nearby trees.
Like boat building, paddle carving, hunting, fishing, farming, and a long list of other competencies, the skills on display during camp construction are the result of on-the-job training that virtually every Maijuna male undergoes so he can operate effectively in a landscape that provides all of life’s essentials to those who carry the right combination of knowledge and abilities. 13 Thriving in Maijuna lands is, in part, about being self-reliant. But it also requires interdependence and cooperation. When these guys create a campsite, they work from a blueprint in their collective mind, and there’s no need to discuss the plan; everyone contributes and no one is in charge.
Boat building, paddle carving, hunting, fishing, farming, and a long list of other competencies are on display.
This spot, where the Sucusari coils back on itself in a loop of roughly 300 degrees, marks the location of another story, which Shebaco and Victorino share with us the following morning, after the rest of our team has gotten back on the water. Soldado means soldier in Spanish. Vuelta means turn or bend, and it was here that a group of Maijuna warriors once ambushed a company of Peruvian soldiers. This happened more than 100 years ago, and is not part of any written history. Even elders like Shebaco and Victorino are generations removed from those who were alive when it took place. As often happens when a story is passed down, some details are left out; they may not be considered important, or may have been lost. But what matters is this: A Maijuna man was left to look after a group of women and children while other men were hunting and tending crops. A small unit of Peruvian soldiers traveling up the Sucusari took the group captive. Once the party reached their upstream destination, the lone Maijuna man managed to escape, stealing the soldiers’ ammunition, and even emptying the bullets from their guns. He rejoined the other Maijuna men and they waited, concealed in the forest at this advantageous point where the river doubles back, for the soldiers to come in pursuit. As their boat rounded the bend, the Maijuna warriors surprised them. Without loaded guns, the soldiers were defenseless, and every one of them was killed.
The Soldado Vuelta episode is rare in that the Maijuna routed a group of hostile invaders; the story celebrates Maijuna guile and ferocity. Shebaco appreciates his ancestors’ unlikely triumph, though he admits that he also feels for the defenseless soldiers. Not Victorino. “The soldiers got what they deserved,” he says.
A day that begins with this intense tale changes completely as the four of us push our pair of canoes out onto a mellow stretch of river under a cloudless sky. We resolve as we unmoor to take our time, let the current carry us, and take advantage of the perfect conditions to see if we can spot some wildlife. Victorino’s eye is especially acute, so his canoe leads.
Presently, he spies a two-toed sloth clinging to a high branch of a cecropia tree, whose leaves are its favorite food. The sloth’s grizzled fur blends perfectly with the textured gray cecropia bark, and the animal’s deep stillness makes it difficult to detect — until Victorino whistles, loud and sharp, sounding so much like a harpy eagle that the sloth jerks its face upward to search the sky for trouble.
Victorino whispers that a group of baotutu or monk saki monkeys is overhead. It’s another positive sign of ecosystem recovery.
A few bends further on, scanning the high branches, Victorino whispers that a group of baotutu is above. Squirrel monkeys and black-mantled tamarins are small primates we’ve seen in abundance during our time on the river, and Victorino is blasé about such creatures. But his body language changes when he notices the stirring overhead. Baotutu is the Maijuna name for monk saki monkeys, which have dark shaggy fur and long bushy tails. The adults can weigh more than two kilos, heavy enough to shake the branches dramatically as they jump — and heavy enough to be worthwhile if we were hunting. Baotutu are usually bashful, but these six are acting bold as they look down on us, vocalizing assertively until, satisfied with the scolding they’ve delivered, they leap across a wide gap between two trees and make their way back into the forest.
Baotutu are among the numerous primate species that the loggers hunted out, so their presence here is another positive sign of ecosystem recovery. It’s good to see this, and we are a lighthearted foursome when we arrive at tonight’s camp, Sancuduyo. Tying up, we discover that one of the camp’s two tambos has turned into a paddle-carving workshop. Back at Soldado Vuelta, the Maijuna guys found a Remo caspi tree, tall and heavily buttressed, with dense, buoyant wood that is ideal for paddles. They harvested several rectangular blocks, and now splinters and shavings fly as they trim the pale timber into shape with their machetes. Most of the guys will take their paddles home to use or sell; but Everest Ríos Vaca has a more immediate need. Everest, Shebaco’s eldest son, skippers the boat that carries Ulderico and the kitchen supplies. One of their paddles has broken, so he is crafting a replacement.
Everest is 44 years old, a heavyset, slow-moving man whose prodigious belly is the source of his nickname, Barrigón. His given name betokens his father’s worldliness and panache; Shebaco had read about mountains, but never seen one, when he convinced his wife, Selmira Vaca Ríos, that they should name their first-born son after the planet’s tallest peak. Everest’s very presence among his own people now is evidence of how successful the Maijuna have become at managing their lands sustainably. Like many men his age, he has had to leave his wife and child at times to earn an income elsewhere. Before he returned to Sucusari full-time two years ago, he worked in an oil palm plantation outside the Peruvian city of Pucallpa; pay was meager, living conditions bleak, and the prevailing attitude toward indigenous people hostile and dismissive. He is glad to be home. With the loggers gone, and game again abundant in the Sucusari basin, he lives well and doesn’t need to earn much cash. “I like it here,” he says as he assesses his handiwork on the new paddle. “I have my house, my fields, my hunting camp. Everything I need.”
The next day’s story from Shebaco and Victorino emerges when we pause at a hunting camp known as León Dormido, about a 90-minute paddle downstream from Sancuduyo. León himself, Shebaco tells us, was a formidable Maijuna man who sometime in the 1950s was killed and buried at this spot, the name of which translates as Sleeping León or Sleeping Lion. 14
León was an abusive husband. His wife left him, and brought her three daughters to shelter with extended family who lived in a big house on the river here, an agreeable spot on a shallow inlet that makes a natural harbor for canoes. León arrived to kill his wife and retrieve his daughters, and got into a machete fight with one of his wife’s relatives. This man’s sixteen-year-old son, Julio, was at that moment preparing to go into the forest to hunt. Fearing for his father’s life, he loaded a shotgun with the type of heavy slug used for 300-pound tapirs and killed León with a single shot to the chest.
Civil authorities showed no interest in what had happened among León and his family. Outsiders might be interested in exploiting resources and labor on Maijuna lands, but “there were no investigations out here,” Shebaco says. “To the police, a dead Maijuna was like a dead animal.”
Accordingly, León’s wife and her relatives weren’t worried about legal trouble. What they feared was retribution.
They buried León’s body, and set off hastily on an overland journey to the distant Maijuna community of Puerto Huamán, on the Yanayacu river (where Julio, an old man, still lives today). They were gone by the time León’s grown son, Francisco, got wind of what had happened and traveled to Sucusari from his home on the Ampiyacu River, several days’ walk away. Unable to find Julio, Francisco settled the score by killing Julio’s cousin, Telmo, as he lay asleep.
Telmo’s murder put an end to the vendetta, but the grisly drama remained fresh in adults’ minds when Shebaco and Victorino were boys. Something in Shebaco’s wide-eyed way of telling the story brings back the frightened child he was when his father told it to him long ago. It’s clear from the quiet way they slip the canoes back onto the river that Shebaco and Victorino have no interest in waking up León.
In the 1960s, with encouragement from missionaries, Maijuna people made their first attempt at forming a riverbank village.
Burial was expedient when León was killed, but it was not customary. Traditionally, the Maijuna cremated their dead. The norm changed as the missionary influence increased in the second half of the 20th century, and this afternoon, on our way downstream from León Dormido to Pasto, we stop to visit Cementerio Viejo, the Old Cemetery. This place sits about 50 meters in from the riverbank and bears no visual marker that would set it apart from any other piece of the dense forest. It isn’t fenced. It doesn’t have headstones, rock being rare in this part of the world. What identifies it as a special place are its name and the memories of the people whose dead lie here. Victorino buried an infant daughter after she died from an illness. Also interred in this soil is his grandfather, Babi Dei. Babi Dei’s daughter, a devout Christian who still lives in Sucusari, insisted that a cross mark her father’s grave. After some searching, Shebaco bends down and lifts from wet leaf litter a six-foot piece of moldering heartwood that served as the upright of the cross.
The cemetery lies six or seven bends upriver from Pasto — where, in the 1960s, with encouragement from the missionaries, the Maijuna of the Sucusari basin made their first attempt at forming a riverbank village. At this time, Maijuna families lived widely dispersed throughout the river basin. A riverside settlement would make it more feasible for kids to attend the school that the missionaries sought to establish. An important Maijuna family who lived at Pasto gave the missionaries permission to build a house near theirs, and to open the school there as well.
These days, only one dwelling stands at Pasto, a sturdy house on tall stilts that belongs to Agapito and his wife Victoria Mozembite Ríos, the parents of Ulderico and his brother Laurencio, one of the hunters on our team. With their trio of small hunting dogs, Agapito and Victoria welcome us as we join the rest of the group to eat the meal Ulderico has prepared. Generous plantings of yuca, plantain, banana, and pineapple surround the little house on three sides. A pair of toucans call to one another across the clearing. After dinner, the two of us stroll in the fields with Shebaco and Victorino, who help us to imagine Pasto as it was when they lived here as schoolboys: the long-gone houses, the school building, the soccer pitch.
Shebaco and Victorino help us to imagine the village as it was when they were boys: the houses, the school, the soccer pitch.
They explain to us that, after three years at Pasto, the school moved to Puerto Huamán on the Yanayacu River, where a larger population of Maijuna children lived. Peque peques were not an option back then, so anyone traveling from the Sucusari to Puerto Huamán faced a multi-day trek on foot or by canoe. Shebaco followed the school because his older brother was the teacher, but Victorino and several other children from Sucusari families stayed home. The three years of schooling Victorino received were not enough to make him literate, a fact that still saddens studious Shebaco.
We ask Shebaco why he was excited, as a boy, to learn. He shares a memory from his childhood, when his family lived for a time in the mestizo village of Tamanco, on the Napo River near the home of his father’s patróncito. Shebaco played with local children, and grasped that the marks on the pages of their books formed messages the children could decipher. This upset him. “Those kids were no better than me. It made me angry — it made me embarrassed — when I saw them reading and doing arithmetic. I wanted to do what they did.”
Shebaco excelled in the Maijuna school, showing a particular gift for languages. At seventeen he was recruited to help missionaries at the Summer Institute of Linguistics with their work. Headquartered in the United States, SIL is a global organization founded in 1946, whose efforts to learn and document indigenous languages provided them with a means of proselytizing to indigenous groups, especially in Latin America. In Maijuna lands, SIL missionaries enlisted Shebaco’s help in creating an orthography for Máíh
ìkì, which had always been an oral language. Developing an alphabet enabled translation of the Bible, so that older Maijuna people, who didn’t speak Spanish, could be subjected to SIL’s proselytizing. During a three-year period, Shebaco spent extended stretches at the organization’s regional headquarters in Pucallpa, doing orthographical work and Bible translations, and recording Máíh ìkì versions of Bible stories on tape.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Shebaco’s work with SIL played a role in the far-reaching cultural transformations that the missionaries championed, changes that now threaten the viability of Máíh
ìkì as a living language. “A language,” writes Wade Davis, “is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old growth forest of the mind.” 15 Today, although the Máíh ìkì alphabet and some basic vocabulary are taught in Maijuna schools, all instruction is in Spanish and children speak Spanish with their families at home. Most living speakers of Máíh ìkì are old enough to be grandparents. The shrinking old growth forest that is Máíh ìkì now holds just 50 or so fluent speakers; Shebaco is the only one who reads and writes the language as well.
Most living speakers of Máíh
ìkì, the indigenous language of Maijuna people, are old enough to be grandparents.
Shebaco certainly never set out to undermine the viability of his mother tongue. Yet the work of leading a marginalized, vulnerable indigenous group has left him little time to dwell on the complexities of his unique relationship with Máíh
ìkì. He’s inclined to direct his energy and talents into action. As a young man in Pucallpa, he developed his capacities as a reader and writer, and learned to operate effectively with people and institutions beyond the boundaries of Maijuna lands. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Shebaco’s skill set is unique among the Maijuna, and it proved essential in gaining government approval of the Maijuna protected area. His adroitness and experience are once again indispensable as the Maijuna recruit influential partners — their allies include regional and national indigenous federations, NGOs focused on indigenous land rights and environmental law, and officials in sympathetic government ministries — in their effort to block construction of the proposed government road. As a child in Tamanco, Shebaco grasped that literacy is power. As a leader, he has learned to use his literacy — both his advanced ability to deal with documents and his astuteness at reading the shifts in cultural, economic and political currents — to help his people stay afloat.
For the past seven nights, we peered at the underside of the forest canopy whenever we looked up. Down here at Pasto, where the river is wide and farm fields keep the trees at bay, we are treated before we bed down to the sight of a star-packed sky. Crops surround Agapito and Victoria’s house, leaving no room for our tarps. We sleep sardine-style on two levels, half of us beneath the house’s thatched roof, half on the ground beneath the elevated floor, each person inside a tent or mosquito net.
In the morning, after breakfast, we break camp and form a circle at the river’s edge for our clausura, the Maijuna custom for marking the end of a shared experience. Shebaco speaks first, expounding on the adventures we’ve had over the week, the food we’ve eaten and the memories we’ve made, and thanking everyone for their contributions and company. When he finishes, each member of the circle delivers brief remarks in a similar vein. The clausura is the appropriate time for the two of us to announce our intentions regarding the three canoes we commissioned for the trip: Shebaco and Victorino will each receive a canoe in token of our appreciation for their leadership and companionship throughout the expedition; the remaining canoe will be donated to the community of Sucusari.
As we begin our final day on the river, a troop of rambunctious squirrel monkeys keeps us entertained while the current carries our canoes along what is now a broad, bending river from Pasto to Loma Alta. Here, at the top of the steep hill for which the place is named, is a flat clearing. The Sucusari families’ first attempt at setting up a village had foundered when the school for Maijuna kids moved from Pasto to Puerto Huamán. The second attempt was focused here at Loma Alta, about a decade later. Shebaco says they got off to a promising start, but the whole arrangement started to go sideways after a party one night, when two men got into a drunken brawl and one of them, the guy who’d been trained to run the health clinic that would help anchor the Loma Alta community, ended up with a badly broken arm. He left to seek medical treatment in Iquitos and never returned. Shebaco regrets that the Loma Alta village failed to cohere, but he doesn’t blame this entirely on a single incident. “They wanted me to lead that community,” he says. “But I was a very young man and I didn’t know anything about being a leader. I would have failed.”
In an earlier century, Shebaco would have made a good curaca. No updated manual was available as he evolved into the leader he’s become.
It’s little wonder that the Maijuna faced a steep learning curve in establishing a stable village structure, given their tradition of living in dispersed family clusters. They also had to contend with the legacy of violence their forbears had endured under generations of brutal patrones. Shebaco, Victorino and their contemporaries were the first generation born to emancipated slaves, indigenous people who had, like their parents and grandparents, been oppressed, exploited, humiliated, and physically abused their whole lives. Emancipation is of course only the beginning of a process through which people recover stolen dignity and build up habits conducive to harmonious living. Even in the best cases, the process moves slowly and follows a crooked course.
For the Maijuna living in the Sucusari basin, the third time trying to establish a lasting community turned out to be the charm. The village of Sucusari, from which we launched eight days ago, is where our expedition will end later today. Shebaco headed a group of nine families that formed the core of the new community in 1978. Sucusari has faced its share of struggles, but over four decades, Shebaco’s charisma, bravery, and cool judgement have helped to ensure that the community’s arc bends toward stability and growth. Today 30 families comprise Sucusari, for a total population of about 170.
Shebaco has served as Sucusari’s elected president for most of its existence. During interludes when he hasn’t held that title, he has remained the most respected voice in the room when the community conducts its monthly meetings. If he’d been born in an earlier century, Shebaco’s talents and family lineage would have made him a good curaca. No traditional model, nor any updated manual, was available as he evolved into the leader he’s become.
When asked for his thoughts on leadership, Shebaco doesn’t dwell on strategies and methods. Instead, he talks about Maijuna children. His task as a leader, he says, is to protect the children’s future, and the key to this future is the forest. As long as the Maijuna manage—and maintain sovereignty over — the ancestral lands in the ACRMK, which support the hunting, fishing, and farming that underpin Maijuna sustenance and lifeways, Shebaco is confident that the future will be secure. “One day I will be gone,” he says. “But if the forest remains, our children will grow up in the Maijuna way. They will have all they need.”
We expected a swift current to carry us all the way down to the village of Sucusari, but the water we paddle after putting in at Loma Alta is strangely still. The Sucusari River empties into the Napo and Victorino explains that, if the Napo is running high enough, the lower stretches of its tributaries will back up and slow down, as the Sucusari is doing now. Advancing under the strong sun, we begin to see the thatch-roofed Maijuna homes that dot the stretch of river above the central community. The clatter of a generator emanates from one house, where we wave to a father who’s barbering his son’s hair with an electric clipper.
The water has risen so much in the past week that it’s hard to get oriented as we approach the village proper, where houses and community buildings occupy several acres of cleared ground on the west bank of the river. We can see the community center and the school, both built of concrete, and the small clapboard church. A wide lagoon shimmers where the soccer field will be again, once the river recedes. Many of the houses would be swamped if not for their stilts. As we pass, people who live along the bank look up from what they’re doing, smile, wave, and engage in a bit of banter with Shebaco. Though this community will be our final destination this evening, we’re not finished paddling just yet. Doing this trip right means descending the full length of the Sucusari, and the mouth is another hour downstream.
Strong afternoon sun slants down, and we get our shoulders into the work, scooping full blades of water and making the canoes glide. The still water delivers its satisfying tap each time a paddle tip pierces its surface. An elegant white egret crosses back and forth ahead as if it were sent to escort us. The surface is so glassy that when the angle is right, we see two egrets, real and reflected.
Birds become more active as the sun sinks below the treetops. We see green kingfishers, a pair of chestnut-eared araçaris, too many tropical king birds to count and, atop a tall snag at the river’s edge, the striking silhouette of a crimson-crested woodpecker. As we come around the final bend and catch our first glimpse of the river’s mouth, we note a roiling in the surface that can only mean one thing. Fish congregate where the Sucusari’s current meets the Napo’s, so pink river dolphins come here to feed. We set our paddles aside and drift as three dolphins breach around our canoes, arcing their slick rosy backs above the surface and puffing through their blowholes. Pink river dolphins will sometimes damage people’s fishing nets, and take fish caught in them. Even so, people in these parts leave them alone; the dolphins are seen as supernatural beings with potentially dangerous magical powers. 16 Only a suicidal fool would think of harming one, and the trio around us show no fear at all.
‘If the forest remains,’ Shebaco says, ‘our children will grow up in the Maijuna way. They will have all they need.’
The dolphins depart, and we turn our attention to the view. From the Sucusari’s mouth, we can see out across the wide Napo and a good distance both upstream and down. To the right, where far-off rain is falling, a dark gray smudge blends clouds with river. To the left is a peaceful sky with tall cumulus clouds stacked and glowing. The late-day light is lush, almost palpable.
Shebaco gestures toward the densely forested banks around the river’s mouth and informs us that all this growth is secondary. This was cropland in the 1940s and 1950s when his parents and Victorino’s were enslaved here, cultivating sugar cane, yuca, and corn on a plantation run by Rosario Ríos Ochoa. Rosario was the daughter of Corsino Ríos, the patrón who had compelled earlier generations of Maijuna people to gather forest products up around the headwaters of the Sucusari, where we slept seven nights ago. The Maijuna were forced to clear the road from Esperanza that ran through Unguruahal and all the way down to where we are now. They hauled much of what they’d extracted in heavy baskets, walking down the road and across the bridges they themselves had built, until they reached the mouth of the river, here. Then they loaded the bounty of their ancestral lands onto boats bound for Iquitos, so that Corsino could sell their resources for his own profit.
Like Rosario’s fields, Corsino’s road is overgrown now, the scars on the land healed over. But at the confluence of the two rivers, where thoughts of the Maijuna people’s harsh past intermingle with cautious optimism for their future, there is a bitter aptness in the fact that the threat now looming on the horizon is a second road. This road, like its predecessor, is being planned by the kinds of outsiders who see indigenous lands as an opportunity for extraction, and think of indigenous people, if they think of them at all, as a nuisance to be dealt with or a pool of cheap labor to exploit.
As we sit mulling over what we’ve experienced the past week, we hear a peque peque approaching on the Napo, then catch sight of the boat slowly rounding the point to our right, to turn into the Sucusari. This narrow, open vessel is packed with young Sucusariños returning from a friendly soccer match against another community a few kilometers up the Napo. Twenty or so Maijuna kids, mostly teens, sit closely packed along the gunwales like passengers on a crowded country bus, their collective weight pushing the boat low in the water. They smile and laugh, shouting to us and waving.
Two of Shebaco’s sons are part of this crew. But it’s clear that he is talking about more than his own offspring when he says, pointing toward the crowded boat, “That is the future. They are the reason we continue to fight.”
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