The Asháninka: Respect and struggle in the Amazon

© Pedro França/MinC

The Ashaninka are an estimated 40,000 strong group of native peoples residing in the rainforests of both Peru and neighbouring Brazil. Largely based in Peru, the Ashaninka have been indigenous to the land for thousands of years, gaining a strong reputation from the famed Inca empire and dealing with multiple meetings with the brutally explorative Spanish conquistadors. Modern day illegal activity sees the group continually dealing with hugely problematic situations in their uniquely flexible way having never truly known peace.

The Ashaninka, now only making up less than one percent of Peru’s current population, embrace their mountainous roots with rich culture. It is written that the word Ashaninka means ‘our fellows’, ‘our kin-folk’, ‘my people’, ‘my nation’. Anthropologists and ‘invaders’ refer to the Ashaninka as Campa, a term found offensive by the indigenous people who take it to mean ‘ragged and dirty’.


As with many pre-modern cultures the main hobby as it were, after survival, is the telling of tales. Religious or mythical, to educate or to frighten off. True believers in Shamanism, a practice involving altered states of consciousness to interact with the spirit world, the Ashaninka’s spiritual beliefs are unique. Gerald Weiss, an American anthropologist, had a paper published in 1975 titled Campa cosmology: The world of a forest tribe in South America in which he discusses the Ashaninka’s complex spiritual structure. The Ashaninka have a “set of celestial levels”, the bottom tier being Sarinkaveni or hell. Sarinkaveni is the obvious home for the negative spirits of demons whilst the next two levels up in Kivinti, a sub-terranean environment, and Kamaveni, our world; both also have demonic inhabitants. These demonic inhabitants in Kamaveni go by the name of Mankoite which Weiss directly relates, due to characteristics and lifestyle, to the branco meaning non native or white peoples. Using myths to tell current and future Ashaninka generations of the branco and what they are capable of is more than understandable when the full story unfolds slightly later on.

The Shaman acts as a go-between with the Ashaninka and the sophisticated layers of both reality and spirit levels. The Shaman connects with such spirits on the different celestial levels using locally sourced tobacco, coca and ayahuasca. Coca has been cultivated into cocaine by outsiders whilst ayahuasca is a well known psychedelic liquid substance that changes visual perception and encourages deep introspection into ones self and mind. The Ashaninka call ayahuasca and their rituals surrounding it Kamarampi which translates as ‘to vomit’.

An Ashaninka man preparing ayahuasca. Source: Tiago Jurua

The spiritual ceremony of Kamarampi is held at night and usually in silence, a time to connect with themselves and spirits, and to praise Pawa, their creator God. A ritual that differs greatly from Kamarampi is Piyarentsi. Piyarentsi occurs on a more frequent basis, it’s underlying principles to bond with those in the settlement. The event involves drinking vast amounts of Piyarentsi, fermented cassava crop and banana leaves, in order to, simply put, get drunk and have a good time. They say Pawa wants to see his children happy so the Ashaninka sing songs and teach their young. It is seen as highly offensive if Piyarentsi is refused.

Other beliefs and traditions include providing children with a provisional name when they learn how to walk, they are then officially named at seven years of age. A shared belief amongst the Ashaninka people is that if a pregnant woman eats certain animals the child will then take on the characteristics of said animal so they mostly avoid eating turtle meat for example as it is seen to make the child slow in both body and mind. When women reach an age of adolescence they are isolated for six months, using the time to learn how to spin and manipulate thread in order to make a kushma or chusma, the traditional Ashaninka garment worn on special occasions; the Ashaninka are largely a nude population. There are joyous scenes when the women re-enter the fray with their new skills.

The Ashaninka paint their moods and emotions onto their face daily using the red seeds of the Achiote tree, commonly used in modern cultures as food colouring. The Ashaninka also believe that after death the human soul is likely to become a demonic spirit so would often abandon settlements soon after a local death in fear of the spirit returning home. A more common and widely accepted theory however is that the Ashaninka moved periodically in order to preserve the rainforest and their utilised crops. An Ashaninka man is quoted as having said “This way of farming is good for the rainforest because that is the way the rainforest is. We live in the forest and we respect it.”

Incas and conquistadors

A quote from the website Povos Indigenas no Brasil sums up the Ashaninka in a succinct manner, describing them as “a people proud of their culture, driven by a strong sense of freedom, ready to die in defence of their territory, the Ashaninka are no mere objects of western history.” Before the arrival of brancos and European counterparts the Ashaninka would sporadically trade with the Incan empire, swapping the fruits of the forest for man made objects such as cloth and jewellery. This trade brought with it a varied amount of peace but the Incas, with their empirical nature, occasionally sought to expand further into the forests and land inhabited by different tribes. The Ashaninka, among other communities, consistently rose up and defended themselves using vast knowledge and extensive experience of the local lands. The Ashaninka were to be no strangers to violence.

In 1532 a group of between 150-200 Spanish conquistadors discovered the mighty Inca empire in Peru which they would eventually colonise after forty-years of strategic explorations and battles. The conquistadors, lead by Francesco Pizarro, were handily known as the Franciscans and, just as the Incas, would seek to expand their territory into the Amazon. In 1595, around twenty years after their colonisation of the Incas, the Franciscans would venture into the Amazon on small forays and explorative expeditions. One such mission led to two Jesuits, members of the catholic society of Jesus, by the names of Font and Mastrillo to come across a group of natives now known as the Ashaninka. Despite letters sent to superior officials it was to be over forty-years later that an evangelical colonisation mission was launched in 1635 by Jeronimo Jimenez. Two-years later and Jimenez was dead, the victim of an Ashaninka ambush.

A 1902 oil painting by Juan Lepiani depicting Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors arriving in Peru

Similar missions into the forest had a similar outcome amid the following decades. The Spanish never gave up hope and continued to spread out their roots, finally capturing main Amazonian access routes in the mid 1670s however it was not long before the missionaries were slaughtered in a vicious Ashaninka uprising. As Povos Indigenas no Brasil put it: “A hundred years after the first contact between the Ashaninka and non-Indians, the results of Spanish penetration were practically zero.” The Spanish sought to change that.

A huge colonisation effort was launched with groups of natives rounded up and communicated with, preached at if you will. The majority of native peoples fled the programme despising the branco and all they stood for. Some contacted the branco in order to trade and obtain previously rare tools. Not only had the Spanish invaded privacy and territory but they also viewed the polygamy practiced by the Ashaninka as barbaric and unjust. The Conquistadors were inflicting huge damage on to the Ashaninka lifestyle and to life in general as it is estimated by researchers that following a native peoples first contact with outsiders it is common for more than half of them to die having not been exposed to common western diseases before.

A rebellion was needed and so was a leader. The latter arrived in the form of Juan Santos Atahualpa and he sought to achieve the former. Atahualpa had been educated by the Jesuits and claimed to be a descendant of the Incan royal family. It is written that the Peruvian born Atahualpa sought to rebalance the cosmic order after the Spanish invasion and attempted colonisation. Atahualpa is said to have announced his recovery mission by sending out messengers to indigenous people across the land. In all territories the overwhelming message was one of support and unity against the branco. Stefano Varese, Darcy Ribeiro, and Susan Giersbach Rascon, in their book Salt of the Mountain: Campa Ashaninka History and Resistance in the Peruvian Junglesays of the uprising that “the political unity of nearly all of the Indians of the central Peruvian Jungle, a unique and unprecedented panindigenous phenomenon, presumes conscious loyalty to a messianic ideal of liberation.”

A painting by Etna Velarde depicting Atahualpa

For decades in the mid 1700s the Franciscan conquistadors and the Atahualpa revolutionaries were at loggerheads. The battles were tenaciously fought with Viceroy Manso de Velasco struggling to comprehend the need; Viceroys ruled the vice royalty of Peru at the request of the King of Spain during Spanish rule. Viceroy Manso de Velasco wrote: “these expeditions of excessive cost and little effect are an intolerable burden on the provinces, and in the inevitable loss of the beasts of burden necessary for transportation of supplies, [the expeditions] suffer the irreparable harm that they do not receive from the Barbarians, [who] never show their faces. Nature fights on their side with the shelter it offers them. They hide easily, swimming across even the deepest rivers. Even the Incas did not concern themselves with bringing these subjects into their Empire.”

Internal conflicts and illegal activity

A Peruvian war of independence lasted for fifteen years between 1811 and 1826 after which not much was still known about the Amazon regions and those living there. The newly formed Peruvian republic replaced colonial rule but still exacerbated the Indigenous people whom they believed to be brutal and potentially threatening, their integration was seen as vital for the new Peru. A gargantuan conflict of interests saw military operations construct forts and seize Ashaninka territories. With Peru financially unstable the Government almost had no choice but to lean on westerners, despite sacrificing so much to rid themselves of the Spanish. In 1891 Peru officially provided the Peruvian Corporation, a British run organisation keen on acquiring land and property in Peru, with 500,000 hectares of land. The corporation were known for developments in terms of railways and canals but were now tasked with maintaining coffee plantations, using the Ashaninka as hard labour and displacing them from their homes.

Newly independent but chaotic Peru needed a stable economic output to sustain control over the country. In came the rubber industry and the profitable harvesting of Castilla elastica or caucho. Caucho rubber involves a tough cultivation process requiring the chopping down of multiple trees as the production spreads out rapidly when previous land is used up. The impact on the environment was unsparing and on the Ashaninka disheartening. Lung busting labour destroyed their own territories, exasperating expansion strangling their culture.

The Ashaninka, however, would soon be attacking other cultures under the regime of one Carlos Fitzcarrald: ‘the King of Caucho’. Fitzcarrald was born in central Peru, the oldest son of an Irish sailor, and at aged thirty firmly became the most notorious rubber baron in the region. He decided to kill two birds with one stone and fled to the Amazonian territories in a bid to discover a trade route through the forests as well as to escape the Peruvian republic who had sentenced him to death for allegedly being a Chilean spy. The Ashaninka believed Fitzcarrald to be the next divine spirit sent by Pawa, similar to Atahualpa, so fully backed his methods and believed in his motivations.

Armed with weapons supplied by Fitzcarrald himself the Ashaninka and other native peoples controlled caucho production through violence and threats. Native tribes were wiped out in the process, others threatened by death would carry his cargo ship in pieces through the Amazon and across mountains in order to find a usable trade route to export the rubber. Fitzcarrald would die when his ship, evidently back in one piece, sank. Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, expressed his thoughts on the rubber industry and its impact: “The vulcanization of latex and the ‘rubber boom’ that swept through this part of the Amazon wiped out 90% of the Indian population in a horrific wave of enslavement, disease and appalling brutality.”

Carlos Fitzcarrald – Biblioteca Nacional del Perú

Into the 20th century now and the price of rubber declined on the global market. Corruption and greed in this form was no longer needed but it would not be gone for long. Due to lessons learnt from the past some Ashaninka migrated to Brazil whilst others sought weaponry for protection. It was to be a wise move with the tumultuous Peruvian republic coming under serious threat by communist groups as part of a huge internal rift. During this period, the 1980s and early 1990s, the Ashaninka were tortured and executed as guerrilla groups such as ‘Shining path’ invaded Amazonian lands and killed on sight.

This coincided with the increases in logging, also causing huge upset for indigenous people. Be slaughtered by communist groups or work as slave labour for illegal logging corporations destroying your own home, there was no way out for most. The population was dwindling and with it the culture. During the aforementioned ceremony of Piyarentsi the brancos were accused of sexually abusing Ashaninka women when drunk. This unsurprisingly led to the halting of Piyarentsi alongside other cultural factors such as the production of bows as the people were too busy labouring, the Indigenous music was also replaced by western music and cassette players.

A politically assisted uprising

The 90s also saw a rise in coca being manufactured into cocaine by guerrilla groups with Ashaninka leaders threateningly offered to grow more coca or to allow the drug to be smuggled through their land. The forest had been so kind to the Ashaninka and the Ashaninka so kind to the forest, because of this they refused all offers sometimes with dire consequences. With so many catastrophic events around them the Ashaninka did what they do best and united. Letters were sent to parliaments explaining the illegal activities and the constant threat of conflict between Ashaninka and branco. Between Peruvian officials, Brazilian charity workers, and British diplomats, over 85,000 hectares of land was given back to Indigenous people in November 1992. It is said in the myths that Pawa tried to construct a wall to keep the branco away from the Ashaninka, he was partially successful in the 1990s.

Other schemes were carried out such as supplying the Ashaninka with a boat and, in 2000, allowing communities to participate in beekeeping projects. With each project the confidence in both parties increased and the projects became increasingly ambitious and beneficial. Despite consistent cooperation and supreme support, illegal logging and drug trafficking incidents still take place regularly with full area control being difficult to exert. Between 2004 and 2005 the partnerships got rid of 22 illegal encampments as well as arresting 65 people but still they come. In 2000 Marmude Cameli Limitada, a company partaking in illegal logging, were sentenced by court to compensate the Ashaninka people with the equivalent of around a million pounds. They were also told to pay over one million pounds for the costs of environmental restoration. After an appeal the case is still not settled. The structure is not in place to properly deal with criminal activities and the repercussions are causing the slow death of the Ashaninka way of life.

Illegal logging taking place near the Ucayali river in Peru. Source: Toby Smith/EIA

The impact of illegal activity

Ashaninka elders are unable to now teach some of the newer generations about the forest that helped them so much and the myths of their people. Many youngsters have given up hope of living in the rainforest and taken up new lives in big cities. This is having the ripple effect of the Ashaninka language dwindling with city goers seeking to communicate in Spanish to get by. Who can blame them with half of the Ashaninka officially malnourished despite living amidst vast farmlands, schools shutting down as teachers ‘disappear’, and their communities now having to build trenches in order to hide material goods living in constant fear of attack.

The struggle continues and light at the end of the tunnel is sparse. Below are some words spoken by Benki Piyako in 2018 on behalf of the Ashaninka people, the statement was read out in Geneva for the United Nations. “In 1984, the Ashaninka people suffered a great massacre. Through unlawful operations seeking to seize precious wood and rare animal furs, the company Orleir Cameli destroyed 25% of the total 87,000 hectares of the Ashaninka land. This attack thus led to the loss of a part of our cultural heritage, and directly harmed the history of our people. In 1992, we were freed from the physically and morally damaging invasion of the timber operators thanks to the demarcation of the Ashaninka land. At this time, a legal proceeding was undertaken and favourable decisions were given by all the courts. However, this year, 2018, the supreme court invalidated all previous decisions to our disadvantage. In front of this injustice, we call upon the supreme court, wishing that they apply the laws protecting the rights of the indigenous people. Our struggle led to the planting of more than 2 million trees for the recuperation of our land. But we need support to assert our rights.”

Benki Piyako. Source: Carolina Comandulli

To sum up the Ashaninka story in a basic manner is to call it an enduring mission for respect and unity. The mission is still ongoing, as previously said, and in 2014 this factor was reinforced. An indigenous tribe found deep within the Peruvian rainforests contacted the outside world for the first time in order to seek help  after drug traffickers murdered some of their peoples. Ze Correia, an Ashaninka tribesman, met with the tribe who had told him of their struggles, “the majority of old people died and they buried three people in one grave. They say that so many people died that they couldn’t bury them all and their corpses were eaten by vultures.”

Respect for indigenous people should not have to be sought, it should always be there. It has been revealed in previous years by the Guardian that oil companies such as Perenco withhold knowledge of uncontacted tribes in areas they wish to explore. Take heed from the Ashaninka people, respect the environment and it will respect you, give and get back.

 Further information and links

This rousing video message from Benki Piyako serves to educate and inspire whilst this project from Cool Earth seeks to create change now; this video from Cool Earth and OVO Energy is also very helpful.