The Ashaninka of Peru: rescued from Shining Path militants, but still at risk

At last: people rescued from the Shining Path. Reuters/Mariana Bazo

In two operations the Peruvian Army recently rescued 54 people who had been kidnapped and held prisoner by the Maoist guerilla movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). In some cases, the people had been abducted as long ago as the late 1980s.

It has been 35 years since the Shining Path tried to topple the Peruvian state and kicked off a civil war, and 15 years since the Peruvian government declared that war finally over.

Led by lecturers from the University of Huamanga in the Andean region of Ayacucho, the group set out in May 1980 to create a Maoist-inspired “New Democracy”. Although the group had some initial support in the Andean highlands, its actions soon turned violently repressive, leading to a war that caused almost 70,000 deaths and disappearances. The Shining Path controlled most of the Andes and central Amazon by the late 1980s, and many observers thought it would take Lima in the early 1990s.

But the group quickly dwindled after its leader, Abimael Guzman, was arrested in 1992. Classified as a terrorist organisation by the Peruvian government, the group is currently involved in narcotrafficking in the central Amazon.

Shining Path members in a post-civil war hideout. EPA

In a press statement, Peru’s deputy defence minister, Ivan Vega, explained that the group of hostages comprises 20 adults and 34 children aged up to 14, that most of them are women and girls, and that the children are probably born as a result of rape. Officials said the group were kept as labourers for Shining Path cadres, and were put in charge of farming and raising animals. The group also planted coca for cocaine paste production.

The rescue took place in the San Martin de Pangoa area of the VRAEM, the valley made up by the rivers Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro in central Peru. This is the world’s centre of cocaine paste production, and is therefore heavily militarised as part of the government’s war against narcotrafficking.

We officially know little about the rescued people. But based on communications I have had with people in the area, the characteristics of groups that have previously been rescued from the Shining Path, the clothes worn by most of the adults and children, the area where they were rescued from, and affirmations that some of the adults had been kidnapped from the Franciscan Mission at Puerto Ocopa, most of the group appear to be Ashaninka people.

The never-ending war

Ashaninka people are speakers of an Arawakan language that live in Western Amazonia. It is estimated there are fewer than 100,000 of them, most living along the rivers of the Peruvian central Amazon. I have worked with them since 2007, and lived in their villages for three years.

Ashaninka people took part in both sides of the internal war, leading to the deaths and disappearances of around 8,000 of their people – a big chunk of the nearly 70,000 total deaths in the whole of Peru during the war.

By 1990, at the height of its power in the Amazon, the Shining Path controlled the heartland of their traditional territory, the Ene and Tambo river valleys, as well as 10,000 Ashaninka people. This led to the destruction of half of the villages of the Tambo and all of those in the Ene, as people escaped to other valleys or were taken by the Shining Path to its camps in the forest.

Yet, five years later, the Ashaninka militia and the Peruvian army had recaptured the area from the Shining Path, and those groups that were able to had begun the difficult move back into their villages.

The war drove many Ashaninka from small and dispersed kin-based settlements to large nucleated villages, where former enemies now live side-by-side. These everyday pressures are exacerbated by a steady influx of landless Andean peasants and by the Peruvian state’s post-war reconstruction projects.

The reconstruction agenda is based on the extraction of natural resources (oil, gas, and timber) and mega-projects (motorways and hydroelectric dams) that overlap with legally protected indigenous territories.

An Ashaninka militiaman. Jonathan McLeod, Author provided

This is particularly bad news for Ashaninka people, who have spent decades trying to complete their own reconstruction projects in the face of continuous violence – first from the Shining Path and now from the extractive industries.

As an Ashaninka leader put it to me, they are trapped in “a past that won’t pass”. They experience government policies aimed at improving the “social inclusion” of survivor populations through “progress” as a continuation of war.

War by other means

With their reconstruction project, Ashaninka people are trying to get back to the pursuit of kametsa asaiki (“living well together”), an ethos of well-being that deals with the creation and conservation of social relations between humans and the other-than-human beings involved in aipatsite (“our earth/territory”). These beings include the physically visible (plants and animals) but also some that can only be seen with shamanic-trained eyes (the masters of animal/plant species and other good spirits).

My Ashaninka collaborators point out that the beings inhabiting aipatsite have not been allowed to rest, since the civil war was followed immediately by the violence of resource extraction. As they see it, the violence has led to game and fish shortages on their lands, and a decrease in the productivity of their gardens. They understand these as a result of aipatsite’s anger at the years of violence.

Many of my collaborators compared their fear of the Shining Path cadres to their fear of petrol companies or hydroelectric dams, highlighting how war and extraction have been experienced as a continuum of intense violence and fear. As a collaborator told me:

I used to be scared of the Shining Path killing my family and taking my children [to their camps]. But now, look at all that has happened (…) now I am scared of the companies (…), of the dams. Where will we go? What will we eat? Where will our children grow?

The proposed site of the Pakitzapango dam. Jonathan McLeod, Author provided

Indeed, Ruth Buendia, president of the Ashaninka organisation for the Ene River and recent recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, denounced these actions as “economic terrorism”. It’s hard to see how reconstruction can be possible under these conditions.

The political struggle against extraction, which has led to the assassination of Ashaninka leaders, is part of the Ashaninka project to return to kametsa asaiki. As they see it, there is no point in restoring social relations among Ashaninka villagers if they cannot do the same with aipatsite. But their effort is complicated by the continuous possibility of more violence.

The Ashaninka’s project remains unrecognised by the government, which dismisses it as mere “belief”. That has led to a misunderstanding of the conflicts over extraction, some with lethal consequences, and to an inability to resolve them.

When Maria Chavez Velez, one of the recently rescued Ashaninka survivors, was asked by a journalist if she would like to live in Lima after her ordeal, she replied: “We are used to our territory. The government should give us gardens, a school, and a medical centre so we can stay living here.”

But the Peruvian government opposes indigenous people’s demands for territorial security, and its policies further infringe upon their rights – especially their right to self-determination.

Instead of setting the stage for a process of reconciliation, the government has simply renewed its attempt to colonise its indigenous citizens. This is not just politics; it is war by other means.