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Dispatches from Peru: Indigenous Communities, Language Loss, and Ecotourism

Hello again AIDemocracy network!

I write to you again from Cusco, just after returning from a week-long stint in Puerto Maldonado near the border with Brazil and Bolivia.

I was in Puerto conducting my independent research that is required of me for the completion of my study abroad program here in Peru. My research concerns bilingual education in the Peruvian Amazon (focus on the Southern Amazon). To do my research, I conducted a number of interviews in Puerto Maldonado within the organization RESSOP as well as interviews in the native community of Infierno.

RESSOP is the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that has started nearly all, if not all, bilingual education programs in the Southern Amazon of Peru. RESSOP has religious ties, as all NGO bilingual education programs in Peru do – Dominicans, specifically. RESSOP is working with the Ministry of Education to make bilingual education materials in two indigenous languages at the moment – Harakbut and Ese’Eja. In the Southern Amazon, educators must work within the parameters and rules of the Ministry of Education, which can make things pretty difficult for them and the communities they work in.

The native Amazonian community Infierno that I visited is a community traditionally identified with the Ese’Eja people. However, the number of Ese’Eja speakers in the community has been greatly reduced due to the fact that the community has become of mixed ethnic origin (Ese’Eja is now the minority with mixed background, Andean background, and communities who traditionally kept to the rivers making up the majority of families in the community). Since the increase in populations that are non-Ese’Eja started, there has also been a huge loss of language and cultural identity among the Ese’Eja of the community.

Adding to the problem is the presence of an Ecotourism agency called Rainforest Expeditions run out of Lima (the capital of Peru). One would think that the presence of Ecotourism in the community would help with conservation and sustainable methods being used in the community. However, this agency in particular has a special agreement with the community of Infierno because their first EcoLodge was built on land owned by this community. As a result, they give each family in the community a certain amount of money for using the community’s land once annually. Rather than working and using this money for improvements in the community, this money is considered the only income for each family for that year. This amount of money has families in the community in debt and unable to make improvements to their school or to their community. For example, Infierno is only 18km away from Puerto Maldonado (which is the capital of the state Madre de Dios) and has no electricity, no sewage, and no water connection. They have had an agreement with Rainforest since 1986 and have an agreement in place until 2016. This means that by the time their second agreement with Rainforest is up, anyone around 40-45 years old or younger has never worked in their life, but has only subsisted on the money given to them or their family by Rainforest.

There is a growing alcohol problem in the community as well. Teachers in the community as well as a teacher who formerly worked in the community talked to me about how parents don’t have money to buy their children notebooks or pencils and students would arrive to school without them. I think this would be acceptable to the teachers if the parents didn’t spend the money on alcohol instead. One teacher told me that it made her incredibly sad to perpetually see her students coming to school without the right materials and when she asked them why, they stated that their parents used their money on other things (alcohol being one of them).

All of these problems together make it even more difficult for retention of the language and customs to take place. This means that Ese’Eja continues to be lost in Infierno, making it even more difficult to get the government and Ministry of Education funding for bilingual language programs and other important services.

This was a really important experience for me in that it taught me just how complicated the issue of bilingual education is – in the Peruvian Amazon or elsewhere. Bilingual education is not only packed with issues of diglosia (where one language has a dominant status over another, as in the case of Spanish and Ese’Eja), but also colonization and neocolonization, socioeconomic differences, and so on.

I hope that this is a message that reaches you all well while you work on your respective projects and are finishing up the academic year.

Good luck on final exams, papers, and presentations and keep working on all the projects you have all dedicated yourselves to.

Signing off!
Alma Raymer

About Alma Raymer

Junior at Earlham College (Richmond, IN) with a double major in Peace and Global Studies and Comparative Languages and Linguistics. Currently studying abroad in Perú with SIT World Learning on the Indigenous Peoples and Globalization program. Doing independent investigation about bilingual and intercultural education in the Peruvian Amazon and will be at an internship mid-May through the end of July in Rosario, Argentina studying and working with the office of Alternative Economies.

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  1. This is an extremely interesting story and exposes a lot of issues in Peru that most people wouldn’t know about without living there. I’m especially interested in the alcohol issues in Peru, and wondering if you have any idea what percentage of the community struggles with this issue.

    Great work, as you exposed several very important problems in Peru that I probably would have remained unaware of if I didn’t read this article.

    • Ianm,

      Sorry I am responding to your comment so late, I didn’t see it until just now. As far as percentages of community members in the Peruvian Amazon regions who struggle with alcoholism, I’m not sure, but I do know it’s not just a problem prone to the southern Peruvian Amazon. One student in my group did her research on alcoholism issues in the Northern Amazon region near Iquitos, and found the same issues. Since she focused on this a bit more than I did, I was able to glean quite a bit of information from her presentation. There was great information that she presented about different cultural connections that alcoholism has in the communities she focused her research on: machismo culture, poverty, and much more.

      I hope this helps!