The New Urban Jungle
For many Indigenous people in Peru, the best way to keep their land is to move to the city and keep a foothold in both worlds. It’s homesteading in reverse, giving Indigenous people new options and creating a new kind of city, one built on their terms.
My people, we are fighters for the Amazon, warriors who have long struggled for our territory. Finally, yes, finally, we now have lands in the city that are our own. My people know how to care for the land; we know how to value the forest, our animals, our plants, our medicines…all the natural resources we have on our earth. Here in the city [of Yurimaguas] it’s important to have a home. In the past, we came here from our communities, and we didn’t have anyplace to stay. We couldn’t live in the city. That’s why when there are opportunities here, like this invasion, we must take advantage of them. —Nixon Pisango Tangoa
Traversing roadways and riverbanks in the sweltering Amazonian sun, Spanish, Kechwa, Shawi, and Awajún languages drift above the din of construction ubiquitous to the growing community of Las Brisas del Paranapura. Wearing black rubber rain boots, Western garb, or customary traje, people gather to construct houses and municipal buildings, plant food crops, dig wells, and set up shops in a burgeoning urban settlement hacked out of the rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon on the outskirts of Yurimaguas, a teeming city of 80,000 people. Yurimaguas’ newest community, a so-called “land invasion,” was born the night of October 8, 2010, when approximately 50 Indigenous and mestizo families gathered in the shelter of night to claim a large tract of land that lay “abandoned” along the banks of the Paranapura River. The land reclaimed in Yurimaguas was at one time part of a sprawling private estate whose ownership is now in dispute. Many of the Indigenous participants in the invasion were driven by the desire to have a place in town to sell their goods from their chacras (rainforest food gardens), as well as food from their kitchens and their labor power. Many were also motivated by a desire to secure a permanent urban base as a way to defend their claims to rural homelands. The first arrivals to Las Brisas built lean-tos or improvised houses out of rudimentary materials: sheets of plastic, corrugated tin, cardboard, scrap metal, wood, and items scavenged from abandoned buildings around the city.
When we visited the community roughly two months after its creation, many of the “houses” appeared not to have progressed much from their initial construction. The landscape was dotted with shelters fashioned from torn sheets of plastic flapping in the wind, secured to wooden poles with only staples and string. Other dwellings, however, had four finished walls and a door and openings for windows, constructed out of industrially manufactured, store-purchased materials. The open doors of these more well-constructed houses revealed semifurnished interiors and families busily putting the finishing touches on a residence that holds the promise of a stable future home. This vitality contrasted with other, seemingly completed structures that visibly lacked a human presence. During the course of more than a dozen visits to Las Brisas, these structures remained phantom homes, devoid of occupants but clearly constructed to mark a person or group’s desire to stake a claim to a tract of land in the new community.
On one late Saturday afternoon walk towards the Paranapura, we passed Zein, an older man living with his daughter’s family in a marshy tract downhill from the banks of the river. Wearing the customary rubber boots and a pressed, button-down khaki shirt, he sat in front of one of the many seemingly abandoned shelters and lean-tos peppering Las Brisas’ emerging cityscape. Zein’s toothless smile greeted us as we approached, while his arms and work-worn hands graciously motioned us to take refuge in the partial shade of a lone tree that served as a reminder that the Amazon jungle was once thriving in this now-muddy urban sprawl. When asked what he was doing, Zein reluctantly admitted, “I am guarding this parcel of land claimed by a family who lives in the center of Yurimaguas.” As he talked about the absentee owners, it became clear that they were among those who want “in” on the potential investment opportunity of owning a lot in the new urban barriada, but were unwilling to bear the hardships of initial settlement living, with its lack of rudimentary facilities, such as electricity, water, and toilets. So, after claiming their tract with an initial construction, the family retreated to the more developed part of the city and hired a huachiman (improvised guard) to hold their place.
Zein, who is of Kechwa-Lamista origin, asked the owners to pay him for his guard services in carne del monte (forest game). “I can’t get carne del monte ever since my move from the Cainarachi River to Yurimaguas,” he mournfully said,. “Look at me: I am just a huachiman for someone else’s tract of land. I don’t really want to be doing this. I would rather be out hunting for my own carne del monte back in the forests of the Bajo Huallaga. But I’m old: I am 78, and my health is failing. All I can do now is pass my time guarding someone else’s land claim. I am not the only one in Las Brisas doing guard work. You know, even though it was founded with the vision of giving land to those who had none, let’s face it, Las Brisas is a place where people can make money [in land speculation].” While his kin struggled a few yards away to construct the walls of their new home, Zein stood guard over a cardboard enclosure for an owner whose primary residence is a 10-minute moto-taxi ride away, located in the relatively more affluent center of Yurimaguas.
While many Indigenous families have flocked to this riverbank settlement to gain access to the opportunities of the city, such as education and medical services, not to mention jobs, other “residents” have laid claim to their square of earth in Las Brisas del Paranapura in an effort to advance their lot through land speculation. This last group includes agents for the wealthy, such as the proprietors of the river transport services (lanchas), lumbermen (madereros) and extractive entrepreneurs of various ilk, as well as others of more modest means, purveyors of cane alcohol and building supplies, and the vendors of bureaucracy.
Land invasions like Las Brisas have long been characteristic of the urbanization process throughout Peru, bringing together Indigenous migrants from the countryside and long-term urban residents, vying to own land and to get access to urban opportunities. While the term “invasion” may suggest a hostile takeover, the creation of Las Brisas del Paranapura was from the outset rather peaceful. Established in the wake of local elections, the community has been shaped by promises of communal assistance by various politicians and NGOs alike. Although pledges of assistance have not been in short supply, the reality of entrenched poverty and pervasive cultural marginalization means that Indigenous residents must rely on one another for their basic needs—something they know all too well.
Las Brisas’ 12-member Junta Directiva, or Leadership Council, has met with both residents and local officials to disseminate information about their efforts to secure legal title to the invasion land and as a way to manage the challenges of urban planning policy and implementation. A November 2010 meeting established regulations on land ownership within the settlement. In addition to the 50 sol ($18) cost of registering their parcels, residents would be required to pay 2.80 soles per square meter, or roughly 500 to 700 soles ($180-250) for each family parcel. The Junta Directiva is trying to minimize land speculation, including efforts at ensuring “residences” can demonstrate a credible physical presence on their land claim. The council has also continued to agitate for official recognition of the new urban settlement. On January 2, they led a large group of residents, who marched with placards in hand towards the municipal offices of Yurimaguas, and loudly demanded support from the newly inaugurated government to aid in the titling of their lands.
Just a few months old when we visited, Las Brisas del Paranapura has swiftly become a hub of community organizing, Indigenous political activism, market transactions, and sheer human ingenuity, along with conflicts over land rights and economic opportunism. While some residents walk barefoot and are obliged to sleep under a tarp of blue plastic, others are smartly dressed and speed by on new motorcycles and type on laptops in the shade of plywood awnings.
Those people of Las Brisas who were already living in Yurimaguas were thinking mainly of property values and a potential end to paying rent. But Indigenous peoples, who come here by canoe and river ferry, have a more complex set of reasons pushing them to leave their rural communities.
Javier, a bilingual elementary school teacher from an Indigenous Shawi community along the Paranapura, told us he was a temporary resident in Las Brisas. “My wife and eldest daughter will now live in their new home in Las Brisas. By living here in the city they will be able to sell their crops and dry goods in a small bodega (shop). But I will continue living and working in our home community. I am going to travel by river each month to visit my family in Yurimaguas.” As a respected figure among his community, Javier underscored the importance of his work as a bilingual educator. “By teaching in my language, the language of my grandfathers, I am able to teach students of the new generation the important traditions that make people Shawi. The very survival of our Indigenous community depends on the maintenance of bilingual schools, which are the heart of the next generation.” For many, like Javier, who has access to food gardens and forest produce, having a post in the urban center might provide the extra income necessary to continue a family’s ties to their ancestral community.
Many of the women we spoke with juggled babies and young children while simultaneously laboring with hammers and saws to construct their homes. Bathed in the oppressive heat of the tropical sun, they patiently explained that in establishing a residence within the municipality of Yurimaguas (Alto Amazonas) they were securing educational opportunities for their children, both for the babies that they juggled on their laps, and for the older ones still living in rural Native communities. A residential address in Yurimaguas guarantees a shot at secondary education, something nearly impossible in the rural Indigenous communities strung like beads along the growing network of roads and riverways that connect the Upper Amazon with the outside world. Residence in Yurimaguas allows the few lucky and industrious students to continue with their postsecondary studies at state-run and private technical institutes, or at one of the universities located in Yurimaguas.
None of the women we interviewed talked much about any personal motive in their decision to leave their former homes and to stake a claim in the expanding metropolis. Nelly, a middle-aged Kukama mother, said that they had migrated to Las Brisas, “with the hope of providing a better future for their families.” Urban residence gave them, “access to schools, health facilities, and jobs,” opportunities that Nelly noted they had been denied in their former communities. Yet Nelly also reminded us that, “life in Yurimaguas is different from they way I was brought up. Here everything is fast: people are always moving in Yurimaguas. Everything is about money. In Yurimaguas there are more thieves. It’s a city, and there are fumones (“crackheads”), sexual predators; there are so many strangers, people we don’t know. These bad people are not part of our family, but we have to live with them in the city. We didn’t come here to look for fights or for problems. No, we came to live here so our children could have a better future. That’s why we moved here.”
Marisol, a Kechwa-Lamista whose husband, Ronaldo, and son Miguel currently spend their time toiling as day laborers in Yurimaguas, busies herself constructing their makeshift home in Las Brisas. Like Nelly, Marisol says she lives in Las Brisas “because of my children. There is a future for them here in the city.” Marisol says that her second-eldest son, Clever, who is 16, is still “back home” in a Kechwa-Lamista community located three hours away by road. “My son didn’t move here with us. Clever is back in our community working, caring for our land. My husband and I have 100 acres. When we have more money, we are going to return. But we have to think about our children.” Clever, who occupied the first spot in his class (a position that, if maintained, guaranteed him a scholarship to a state technical institute or university), was now considering moving permanently to Las Brisas. Marisol says, “Clever wants to have access to computers and the Internet so that he could advance himself in his goal of studying computer engineering. He will be the first of the community to leave behind the struggles of an Amazonian campesino.”
To leave the school in his rural community would mean forfeiting the scholarship promised by his rank at the school, but without access to computers and the Internet, Clever was sure to start his postsecondary education behind his peers. Thus, Marisol’s family’s decision to move their primary familial residence from the banks of the Cainarachi River to Las Brisas, in spite of all of the hardship that settlement life entails.
For those coming from rural Indigenous communities, a permanent urban residence is also a means of leverage in the numerous local markets of Yurimaguas. Rather than having to abandon their traditional farming life to get access to urban opportunities, Indigenous settlers to Las Brisas’ riverside location have found that it helps them continue that life. “My family and I have a place to live so we can sell the things we grow in our chacras,” said Oswaldo, a 44-year-old Kukama farmer. “Unlike where we come from, my sons and I can also get jobs here.”
In contrast to the settlers who have migrated from Indigenous communities to Las Brisas, those who hail from a previous residence within the city represent a relatively more socioeconomically diverse group. While most of this group claimed that they participated in the invasion to end paying for a rented room or house in Yurimaguas, there was a visible range of assets and social positions among this category of Las Brisas’ residents. Jose, who sped past us on his Honda motorcycle one day, was a Swiss-educated doctor who spoke fluent English and traveled, always, with a laptop computer. Like his Indigenous neighbors, Jose asserted his rights to a plot of land at Las Brisas, saying that despite his education and job status, he, too, rented a room and wanted a home of his own.
With the help of nearly $40 million and a yet-to-be-determined private investment firm, construction is slated to begin this year on a new international port in Yurimaguas. Located on the banks of the mighty Huallaga River, this new port will doubtlessly bring new levels of commerce, tourism, and migration to this active port city. Some of the migrants arrived in Las Brisas with this future development on very much on their minds. What may start out as a small business in a thriving, chaotically teeming settlement could, given the influx of the right people and money that accompany a point of international commerce, become a robust, thriving enterprise strategically located in the heart of a major riverway.
In our conversations with Las Brisas’ residents, and especially with some of the emerging community leaders, thoughts of the future port were often at hand, as residents expressed both eagerness for economic potential and a fear of exclusion. Settlement leader Pepe Navarro was anxious about the idea that, as completion of the port got closer, new communities would spring up closer to the port facility, competing to establish a market for shops, bars, and hotels. By allying with the political party of the new municipal government, Pepe hoped to spearhead efforts to include the community of Las Brisas in the activities associated with the construction of the port.
Nixon and his wife, Maria, work with two different Indigenous federations in the area (AIDESEP and a regional one based in Cahuapanas). They helped establish 10 Shawi families in an area of the “invasion” overlooking the river. Nixon and Maria have a house in Yurimaguas, but they recognize the strategic importance of having a specially designated Indigenous section of the settlement. This would provide Nixon and Maria with both political capital and “a way to court the much-needed international support for human rights, tourism opportunities, and economic investment.” Nixon is savvy about the politics of international aid. “It’s obvious international allies will be more supportive of our ecological preservation and tourism efforts here in Las Brisas if we emphasize the importance of traditional, Indigenous knowledge for sustainable community development initiatives,” Nixon says. “My wife and I want to establish a Shawi neighborhood within the settlement of Las Brisas. We are prepared to turn to our growing network of international contacts so we can get financial and social support for the community.”
Describing Las Brisas as, “an urban center in the midst of a rich and diverse spread of Indigenous cultures,” Nixon talks about both his Shawi and Awajún heritage, and how it was crucial that Las Brisas, “now as an official extension of Yurimaguas, would recognize and respect its diverse cultural and ethnic makeup, including the Kukama-Kukamiria, Shawi, Awajún, Kechwa-Lamista, and mestizos.” Nixon’s desire for the formal recognition of the rich cultural nature of Upper Amazonian society is gaining traction in regional politics. The new municipal administration that was transitioning into power as we arrived at Las Brisas includes, for the first time in the history of Alto Amazonas, an Indigenous representative, Bladimiro Tapayuri Murayuri, a prominent Kukama-Kukamiria leader who was elected as a Municipal Regidor (Councilman) late last year.
Tapayuri, who is from a Kukama community on the Lower Huallaga River, took a leading part in the 2009 Indigenous protests that eventually led to the bloodshed in Bagua, and he is appealing a three-year suspended sentence for his involvement there. A year and a half later, he became the first Indigenous representative of Alto Amazonas. In addition to being a provincial councilman, Tapayuri is an active member of CORPI, a regional organization that defends the rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Alto Amazonas and the Marañón (Datem).
With the help of CORPI, he is trying to convince the Concejo Municipal to officially recognize the territoriality of six Indigenous groups in Alto Amazonas, including the Shibilos, Cocama-Cocamilla, Shawis, Candoshis, Kechwas, and peasant communities. He is also working on an Indigenous Land Management Project, which will soon be presented to the Provincial Municipality of Alto Amazonas for their full approval.
Subject to agreement of the Municipal Council, Tapayuri is hoping Yurimaguas will implement an ordinance or resolution that recognizes the region’s Indigenous People’s territories. “This could provide the basis for the legal recognition of Indigenous lands by the regional government and the national congress,” he said. “Indigenous territories must be respected. Both public and private development plans for Indigenous territory must first involve consulting the people living on the lands. The government has rarely consulted us about the future of our lands and outsiders seldom take into consideration Indigenous cosmologies or our ways or doing things.” In addition to his other efforts, he is trying to establish a separate Division of Indigenous Peoples Affairs within the Municipality of Yurimaguas, and he hopes to create a protected forest area in the city.
While Las Brisas remains largely beyond the Yurimaguas police beat (residents noted that no policeman lives in the settlement, nor are they seen very often), crime is not a major concern, as the people have turned to community policing. Roughly 60 community guards, or ronderos, take turns in groups of ten each night, patrolling and providing security for the asentamiento humano. In addition to trying to establish who lives where in Las Brisas, the ronderos provide night-watch services, including dealing with cases of petty theft, intimate violence, trespassing, drunken debauchery, and assorted disturbances of the peace. According to the secretary of the Brisa’s ronderos, Juan Soria Reategui, the community patrol has captured eight thieves since its inception a few months ago, including a number of fumones (drug addicts). Rather than relying on an ineffective and abusive system of state justice, the ronderos practice community justice, which reflects Indigenous traditions. This often involves the public censure of offenders, who are subjected to moralizing lectures in front of community members. Repeat offenders are detained for a few days and made to do strenuous exercises (inspired by military training) or community service in the way of menial labor.
The ronderos in Las Brisas also act as a form of land control. The declaration that families must stake their claim and continuously occupy their new land is taken very seriously by the residents of Las Brisas. Indeed, there have been accounts of plots being repossessed under the dark of night by ronderos after neighbors report that homes are unoccupied. However, this also leads to problems for those that legitimately intend to live in the land reclamation. Indigenous and mestizo families oscillate between living in their rural communities and their urban homesteads. Many newcomers to the city are obliged to return to their home communities, having to leave their urban land holdings either in the hands of a family, friend, or guard, such as Zein. Others, with minimal resources, are forced to leave their land claims unoccupied. Upon returning to the city they must often deal with the ronderos, who may have repossessed their home while they were traveling.
Despite on-going strife and the inevitable insecurity associated with any land invasion, in Las Brisas there is a palpable sense of hope as residents, Indigenous and mestizo, move endlessly about, assembling their new lives, homes, and community. It’s hard to say whether the community will ultimately reflect the ideals of community members or whether negotiations marred by corruption and greed will triumph. For people with the determination to invade, or rather reclaim, the steamy and overgrown parcels of land that compose the community of Las Brisas, the risk of failure is seldom contemplated. Indeed, the Indigenous residents of Las Brisas, like Nixon, are not the type to let worries about the future stifle their determination to work hard and prosper in for what is many a novel, urban environment. Yet at the same time, they know very well the stark reality of other asentamientos humanos in Yurimaguas, such as Los Maderos, where, after a number of years, basic services, such as sewage, are still lacking.
On New Year’s Day, 2011, we accepted an invitation to Las Brisas, chatting with our various friends and new acquaintances about what was in store for them in the coming year. As the sun began its slow descent and the sweltering heat of the Amazonian summer subsided, we made our way from the river toward the city center of Yurimaguas, conscious of the fact that neither the hour nor the holiday had diminished the constant buzz of activity and construction that characterized the initial, formative stages of the impressive creation of this rainforest community. Conversations with the new residents revealed a mix of hopes and anxieties for the coming year, specifically in terms of the Junta Directiva’s negotiations with the bank and the capacity for change signaled by the municipal government’s new political administration. The land that they had claimed and fought for still, at least contractually, belonged to a financial institution, and their trust, for the moment, was with the elected community leaders who would, they hoped, be able to advocate and negotiate a fair price.
Following the violent land clash in Bagua and ongoing uneven economic growth, Indigenous residents of Las Brisas are aware that efforts to reclaim the land may come to nothing, or even worse, lead to more violence. But they have still pushed forward, constructing their homes and business from materials bought and salvaged. Despite the insecurities and anxieties, a sense of buoyant optimism pervaded. Perhaps Nestor, a wiry young Kukama man of 18 who we met on the banks of the river, said it best when we asked him what his goals were for the coming year. “To work,” he said, barely pausing to think about his response, “I need work to live.”
Bartholomew Dean teaches anthropology at the University of Kansas. He was recently awarded a Fulbright to teach at the Escuela de Posgrado, Universidad Nacional de San Martín (Tarapoto, Peru). Dean's newest book project is dedicated to understanding social trauma associated with the political violence and civil unrest in the Bajo Huallaga Region of Peru. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sydney Silverstein is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kansas. Her research interests include youth and identity politics, visual anthropology and medical anthropology, and her work is based Peru. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Matthew Reamer is a freelance photographer based in San Francsico, California. His photo essays have been featured in numerous publications throughout the United States and Europe. He is currently working on a personal project examining the lives of teenagers in American suburbs. You can see more of his work at www.matthewreamer.com.
Joshua Homan is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kansas with research interests that include political violence, consciousness, and indigeneity.
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