Sovereigns of the Forest: a Dialogue Between the Territory and the Word

Kichwa community members in the Peruvian Amazon
Kichwa community members in the Peruvian Amazon

Sovereigns of the Forest: a Dialogue Between the Territory and the Word

In the first of a two-part blog series, Forest Peoples Programme staff member Miluska Elguera, who supports Kichwa indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon, shares two approaches which have proven important in supporting and strengthening Indigenous Peoples’ defence of their territories and forests.

In 2017 and 2018, Forest Peoples Programme accompanied the Kichwa people in their defence of their ancestral territories in the San Martin region of the Peruvian Amazon. We had two fundamental strategies for the development of sustained work with our main partners: the Kichwa leadership of the Ethnic Council of the Kichwa Peoples of the Amazon (CEPKA) and the Federation of Indigenous Peoples of the Bajo Huallaga in San Martin (FEPIKBHSAM). First, coordination and accompaniment of visits to the forest; and second, facilitated dialogues between community members. These meetings were sometimes made possible through modest, early response funds, which enable the communities and federations to resolve diverse problems related to the defence and protection of their territories.

“Conversing, conversing”: Resolving misunderstandings

At Forest Peoples Programme we work with our partners insofar as they request it, such as by providing technical support to strengthen the development of their initiatives. With respect for the diverse ways of reading, understanding and living in the forest, we consider it essential to create spaces for dialogue between Kichwa communities, in the presence of their authorities. These often take the form of a well-planned assembly, with clear objectives, the resolution of misunderstandings and disputes, and even their possible prevention.

The federations are made up of indigenous communities located in areas which often lack access to electricity, internet or telephone signal. One way they can communicate with each other is by sending messages through local radio, otherwise they must wait until they next visit the nearest city where they may be able to meet with members of other communities. For this reason, opportunities for dialogue and debate can be sporadic at best.

In this way, meetings become an important opportunity for strategic dialogue and for coming up with solutions to misunderstandings and internal problems, as well as conflicts with settlers, companies or the government. The greater the number of participants, the richer the debate. A crucial element in these assemblies is the presence of communal authorities, the apus (community chiefs) and presidents.

Kichwa community members gather in Peru
Kichwa community members gather in Peru

For example, take the case of a “misunderstanding” relating to the boundary paths between the communities of Chazuta and Lamas, both of which shared the aim of achieving collective land-titling. Following a year of meetings, both internal and those including State authorities, a resolution was near at hand.

The community members decided to resolve the issue through dialogue involving everyone affected, leaving nobody out to ensure the best outcome. One outcome of the meeting was the decision to organise a visit to the area in dispute, because maps do not always suffice: the Kichwa people’s conceptions are different, their collective memories are better served by walking the paths in order to envisage a potential agreement, safe in the knowledge of where the stream begins, where the boundary ought to be set, how to do justice to competing claims.

The territory is an encounter; it is a living culture and the patrimony of its sovereign inhabitants, indigenous peoples.

Sovereigns of the forest: “Walking, we go resolving”

Long before being reduced to rigid polygons drawn up in offices, these landscapes were used by indigenous peoples since before the emergence of the Peruvian State, and it is indigenous peoples themselves, those who know these territories best, who ought to determine how these forests are governed.

The forest is a complex web of living paths, once traversed by the ancestors, collpas (springs), purmas (forest fallows), resins and much more, which taken together constitutes peoples’ collective memories. How is it possible to comprehend this richness while sat at a desk? What kind of data do we hope to obtain about indigenous peoples’ collective memories if we do not take into account the lived experience of walking their ancestral paths?

The territory is collective, as is its comprehension, its political organisation, its protection and its reaffirmation as a space which gives rise to practical life lessons, kinship and spirituality. All of these attributes are in a dynamic interrelationship, each with its own changes and continuities; losing sight of this can leave us with a reduced and distorted vision which is of limited value when it comes to understanding the living reality of the forest.

In 2019, we have witnessed how it is crucial to get out into the forest, not only to ensure the protection of the territory through patrols, but also to ensure that the paths are not allowed to disappear, by walking them and reactivating the bodily, collective memory.

By walking the territory, we have arrived at the resolution of various problems, such as the establishment of boundaries between communities which, though unable to recall the precise dimensions of their territory and that of their neighbours based on maps, had no issue remembering the finer details once out by the actual forest.

Kichwa community members walk through the forest
Kichwa community members walk through the forest

Finding solutions in the forest

Territorial emergencies ought to be addressed via both desk- and field based-work, taking into account the differences of each indigenous political organisation. Consensus ought to be reached including the indigenous presidents and/or chiefs involved, and decisions implemented with a visit to the forest. Every territorial dispute requires getting out into and walking the forest.

However, this does not mean that it is sensible to go to the field without preparatory meetings. What are we going to do once in the field? What technical expertise and equipment will we need to achieve our aims? What route will we take and how will the teams be made up? What will the logistics be? These elements cannot be seen to once in the forest.

Meeting of Kichwa community members in Peru
Meeting of Kichwa community members in Peru

The assemblies serve as a space in which to prepare strategic proposals which can be applied in the field, and to identify the objectives for going to the forest, where, in turn, the proposals can be turned into just and sustainable solutions.

Forest Peoples Programme recommends both strategies, accompanied by internal planning, to underpin both short-term objectives – such as field trips in search of something very specific – as well as longer-term ones, based on the vision which the indigenous organisations share with their base communities.