November 19, 2014

A Trip to the Awajún

Cool Earth’s Projects Manager, Kitty Jenkin, on her trip to the Amazon as part of their Rainforest Lifelines campaign.

“I am proud to be able to declare myself an Awajún woman. I am Awajún by my blood, by my traditions and by my home in the rainforest. I want people to know that our home needs protecting.”

Marcelina, a tribeswoman from the Amazon village of Urakuza, doesn’t mince her words. As part of Cool Earth’s Rainforest Lifelines campaign, we’re working with Marcelina’s village and six others to safeguard their forest and their families. Fundraising will begin in just two weeks and my trip out to Urakuza was to ensure that we know exactly where funds are needed most urgently.

The project area lies just 50km from the border between Peru and Ecuador, in some of the world’s most vulnerable rainforest.  Our seven partner villages are scattered along the banks of the Rio Marañon. It is one of Peru’s most important rivers with 14% of the country’s population living along its length. Where the Marañón meets the Ucayali, the two rivers form the Amazon.

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To reach our Awajún Project from Lima takes two days of travelling. After a flight to the northern city of Chiclayo, there’s an eight-hour coach journey over the Andes to the town of Bagua, before eight more hours in a truck on the most pot-holed road I’ve ever seen, or felt.

Once we arrive word quickly reaches us that illegal loggers are in the area, approaching vulnerable villages with quick offers of cash. Our visit couldn’t have come at a better time.

Even after two years of meetings and discussion with local people, the best thing we can do is keep on talking. Villagers still want to know exactly what Cool Earth can offer them as an alternative to selling their forest to loggers. They still want to know how they can trust our promises. So during my short stay, I have three meetings with all seven villages, as well as individual meetings with the schools, the health clinic, the community defence force, the producers’ association, the women’s co-operative, the chief, the indigenous federation and the two community associations that will oversee the project.

Tensions are high. For some, selling off their trees seems to be the easiest way to get cash to feed their families. After years of NGOs turning up, promising the world and then disappearing within a matter of months, there is an understandable air of scepticism.

Thankfully, the trust that our local team has spent two years building pays off. People remember the visits from our other community partners in Peru. They remember the time Jaime Pene travelled 600 miles from Cutivireni to explain how Cool Earth had worked with the Asháninka for six years. They also remember that he fixed all their solar systems.

So the forest wins. People are excited about a partnership with an NGO that isn’t just a hand-out.  They understand that by getting the resources they need to help build strong self-determining communities, they are put back in control of their rainforest. So a list of priorities is decided upon. It begins with a community boat, solar power for the school and, most excitingly, satellite internet for the women’s co-operative, AMARNO.  This will help connect them to outside markets and help boost incomes. If we can raise the funds from the Big Give Challenge this will ensure 56,000 acres of Awajún rainforest is shielded from the illegal loggers.

On our last day, we walked to Umukai, the most remote village in our project. Umukai has made the conscious decision to keep the traditional Awajún way of life. They are five kilometres from the nearest track and all the houses are thatched. I expected a tiny hamlet but instead find a thriving village swelled by families moving in from more developed villages.

I am there to inaugurate a new footbridge that Cool Earth has funded. In the rainy seasons before, villagers couldn’t cross the swollen river to get to school, the health centre or to trade their produce. Now they are a united part of the Cool Earth Project. It was fantastic to see how such a simple thing, a small bridge, can transform life for an entire village.

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That night a spectacular storm marked the beginning of the wet season. The rain is so heavy we can’t hear ourselves speak. But whilst the new bridge will mean Umukai won’t be cut off this year, I wasn’t so lucky. The next morning news reaches us that the road back to Bagua has been washed away and there is a thirty-foot hole. The drive out takes five hours longer than usual with the pot-holes I complained about now a lot deeper. Welcome to the rainy season in Peru!

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The Big Give Christmas Challenge kicks off on the 4th of December and the stakes couldn’t be higher. We’ll be keeping you posted with news from Marcelina and our other Awajún Partners, and the extraordinary difference you can make by giving a Rainforest Lifeline.


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