Logo Debates Indigenas

Mining activity in the Peruvian Amazon
is impoverishing the Arakbut Indigenous People

Mining activity in the Peruvian Amazon is impoverishing the Arakbut Indigenous People

By Jaime Corisepa Neri

Native community of San José de Karene. Photo: ECA RCA

November 1st 2021

Polluting and destroying the territory is not the path to a fulfilling life. The Arakbut are turning to mining in the belief that it will make them rich but, in the meantime, wild animals are becoming scarce, fish is poisoned and forest food is becoming insufficient. Because of mining, Indigenous communities are becoming more dependent on the cash economy. The Arakbut people need to rebuild their autonomy, governance and self-determination in order to reverse this environmental damage.


Gold mining has been in Indigenous communities since the 1960s. The activity was originally carried out with the use of homemade trowels, shovels and wheelbarrows on the beaches and along the riverbanks. Today, prospectors are using backhoes and other machines such as dredgers, tracas and carancheras (suction machines), thus increasing the impact on their territories. When the price of gold rose on the international market, the Peruvian government began to grant mining concessions in the territories of the Arakbut communities, located in the Amazonian region of Madre de Dios.

This violation of our rights has begun to mark the history of our territories through ethnocide, ecocide, mineral extraction and the intrusion of foreigners. Although leaders and common members of the Native Federation of Madre de Dios have tried to protect and stop the invasion of the settlers, the Peruvian State has ignored them and promoted one of the most disastrous and shameful policies in our history. The State seem not to care about the existence of Indigenous Peoples, nor do they respect our rights under the Constitution and international law.

Many Arakbut have turned to mining in the belief that it will make them rich ignoring the fact that the effects of mining on the environment and society are irreversible.

Many Arakbut have turned to mining in the belief that it will make them rich.

Those who hold the mining concessions now consider it their right to exploit and pollute our communal territories. Regional governments often support these activities. But when Arakbut people demand rights, the authorities do not take any environmental or social responsibility. This is the sad reality.

This extractivist and criminalising policy means that the Indigenous territories are being polluted and deforested at a rapid pace. The State authorities are not listening to the voices of the Arakbut, and this colonialist policy has fatal physical, psychological and spiritual consequences. Many Arakbut have turned to mining in the belief that it will make them rich ignoring the fact that the effects of mining on the environment and society are irreversible.

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The authorities are not listening to the voices of the Arakbut. They have tried to stop the invasion but modern-day colonisation is advancing.

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The authorities are not listening to the voices of the Arakbut

Why is mining activity so devastating?

Mining is an environmentally and socially irresponsible activity. Part of the territory is being eaten away like a disease, leaving behind it environmental disaster: deforestation, affecting ecological niches, reducing biodiversity, and destroying giant trees such as the Brazil nut (Bertholletia Excelsa), the Brazilian teak (Dipteryx Odorata) and the silk floss tree (Chorissia Sp). Swamps, bamboo forests, lakes, streams and rivers are being turned into stony deserts in the process. This is affecting Arakbut communities Puerto Luz, Barranco Chico, San José de Karene, Arasaeri, Boca Inambari, Kotsimba and the southeast of the buffer zone of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve.

Mining corporations and creditors do not recognize the devastating impacts of gold mining. Either they don't see what is happening or they don't want to see it. And yet the Indigenous Peoples who live in the territory and depend on its natural resources know how important is to protect the natural environment so that resources could be used in the future. Arakbut territories are no longer in a healthy or stable condition. Quite the opposite, their natural resources have been greatly reduced: there are no more animals to mitayar (hunt), fish are scarce (and those that are available are poisoned), habitat reproduction has declined rapidly, and food from the forest is insufficient and could only be found further and further away from Arakbut communities.

Naturally, this affects people’s daily diet. Our natural foods are being replaced by processed foods from outside. Community members are becoming dependent on external foodstuffs, and this has an economic cost. In other words, if you want to eat, you need to have the money to buy these products so there is no option but to continue working in order to earn a cash income. The communities are trying to offer an alternative that is more economically attuned to our cosmovision but these initiatives are hindered by a lack of support from the relevant authorities. Meanwhile, the mining continues to destroy the forests, and no one says a word.

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Gold mining pollutes the territory, affects the natural resources and reduces the food available in the forests for consumption.

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Gold mining pollutes the territory, affects the natural resources and reduces the food available in the forests.

Changing lives due to mining activity

In the past, when Arakbut had their own autonomous government, they did not need to rely on money: their use of natural resources was integral and balanced, in line with the climate and seasons. The natural resources were our allies, whereas today they are seen merely as commodities. Improvements in the way nature is managed and our knowledge of it have also been fundamental. The Arakbut elders, the wabayorokeris, used to have influence over the decisions of each clan and were the mediums that connected community members with the spirits of the forest, animals, rivers and sacred sites. Spiritual alliances and respect for living beings were an integral part of this lifestyle.

The arrival of globalization to our communities and state policies have resulted in Indigenous Peoples becoming slaves of money. It is not only the territory that is being destroyed but their ancestral way of life too. Community members stopped interacting with nature and engaging in traditional activities, for example fishing or mitayar. Instead, they become miners, negotiate with traders, workshop owners and gold dealers and get their provisions in town. They sit in their villages getting drunk, leaving their families alone in their houses, and they have no time to care for or protect their children.

In the past, when Arakbut had their own autonomous government, they did not need to rely on money: their use of natural resources was integral and balanced, in line with the climate and seasons.

In the past, when Arakbut had their own autonomous government, they did not need to rely on money.

Some Arakbut no longer teach their traditions to the new generations. Their social circle has changed: the connection between fellow villagers has been broken. They no longer talk to each other and are beginning to value outsiders. They do not participate in the community's meetings due to lack of time and there are constant conflicts between families. Sexually transmitted infections are now occurring in the communities.

Spiritual issues also need to be considered. The connection with sacred sites of cultural significance, the relationship to healing chants and spiritual alliances no longer exists. There is no longer the same respect for or dialogue with the forest spirits. The sacred sites are waiting for the Arakbut to connect. If this disconnection persists, if we give up our strength, we will continue to lose interest in protecting and conserving our territory.

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Many Indigenous people have become slaves of money: they believe that mining will make them rich but they only end up losing their independence

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Many Indigenous people have become slaves of money: they believe that mining will make them rich but they only end up losing their independence

From the destruction of our territories to a re-evaluation of our identity

Fortunately not all is lost because, if the Arakbut people organise, they will be able to bring about change. Self-governance must be strengthened and our agenda prioritised. We need to remember where we come from and how our ancestors used to live. We need to compare how Arakbut self- government was before and to what it has evolved now that we have become a part of the global system. In this context, we have to ask ourselves what we understand as development. Is it the extraction of gold and the destruction of our territory, losing our language and our identity, forgetting the knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation? If we take off this blindfold, the light of hope will flood in and, with the support of the leaders, the elders, and also the family, we will be able to make changes. Education starts at home, since parents are the best teachers, children can have.

We need to promote alternative economic solutions that are more attuned to our culture, such as Indigenous tourism, use of medicinal plants, promotion of our art, trading in native essences and wild fruits such as chestnut, cocoa,chimucua,huayo blanco and charichuelo. The Arakbut nation needs to develop a legal strategy and bring an international lawsuit for violation of our human rights and contamination of our resources. In addition, environmental compensation must be demanded from the State and the companies for the damage caused by the mining rights that have been granted in the communal territories.

We must conserve and protect what is ours, and promote a territorial monitoring programme, the Arakbut Indigenous Guard. This force must have the authority and power to exercise order and limit encroachments onto the territory.

We must conserve and protect what is ours, and promote a territorial monitoring programme, the Arakbut Indigenous Guard.

The socio-environmental impact of mining activity on the Arakbut territories must be acknowledged as the main problem. This discussion has to take place with the involvement of the leaders and elders, with the objective of recognising that mining activity is slowly but surely killing us, even more than the pandemic. Once this has been recognised, a way of iregulating mining internally must be found. Surveillance and control actions must be strengthened, with the use of our own Indigenous solutions. We must conserve and protect what is ours, and promote a territorial monitoring programme, the Arakbut Indigenous Guard. This force must have the authority and power to maintain order and limit encroachments onto the territory.

If we want change, we must promote comprehensive education programmes for young Arakbut, programmes founded in the knowledge of the forest and of our identity. We have to educate the new generations on the value of their territory. Young people must care for the territory because it is important to continue living in harmony with the nature that surrounds us. The community leaders and opos of the Arakbut nation must be aware of the importance of their leadership: they must go to the sacred sites to gain spiritual strength and, through this, obtain visions of struggle and resistance to protect our territories.

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The Arakbut people must strengthen their self-government and organise to bring about in-depth change. Photo: ECA RCA

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The Arakbut people must strengthen their self-government and organise to bring about in-depth change. Photo: ECA RCA

Some considerations

The Peruvian State will always promote globalisation, support large corporations and favour multilateral banks. If the State is aligned with the new world order then why should we continue to rely on it? We have wasted a great deal of time asking for recognition of our rights even though this is something they will never agree to because they are practising a modern form of colonisation. We expect nothing from the Peruvian State. Trusting and placing our future in their hands has led us to the verge of extinction. This is why we need to act now. We need to strengthen the Arakbut nation as it undergoes a reorganisational process, and exercise the freedom we have always had.

How can anyone believe that mining is a form of development? Our canoe is about to sink and our wanamei tree, our tree of life, is about to come tumbling down. Mining creates divisions and family arguments. We are killing nature, the nature with which we have lived in harmony and which has given us the knowledge we pass down from generation to generation. Destroying our homes, our houses, our markets and the source of our traditional medicine is not a path to development. It is time to rebuild our Arakbut territorial governance.

Destroying our homes, our houses, our markets and the source of our traditional medicine is not a path to development. It is time to rebuild our Arakbut territorial governance.

Destroying our homes, our houses, our markets and the source of our traditional medicine is not a path to development.

International experts are aware of the importance of recognising Indigenous Peoples and their territories. In practice, however, companies and governments turn a blind eye to this fact, seeking only to exploit the resources that will satisfy the needs of the global system. Multilateral banks also have a responsibility not only they are financing the extractive industry in our Amazon, their reserves of gold bullion came from the soil of our ancestral territories.

We need the international organisations that are fighting climate change and protecting the Amazon to directly support Indigenous organisations and their communities. We must abandon all demagoguery and ally with individuals who respect the rules of the game set by nature. Finally, the communities must reflect on the depletion of our resources. We are being unfair to future generations. That is why it is important for the Arakbut start to seek their roots learn where they come from and think about what the future holds for our young people.

Jaime Corisepa Neri, an Arakbut from Madre de Dios (Peru), was leader of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries from 2011 to 2012. He is currently advising the Board of Directors of the Arakbut Nation on the process for establishing itself as an autonomous territorial government.