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Taquile: A different kind of Carnival

A Tale of Two Islands
By Andrew Whalen

Trading beer for coca leaves with our new friend Bernardo and clapping my hands to the beat as a sea of dancers twirled, bobbed, and weaved in the main plaza on the island of Taquile, I realized that we’d stumbled on something special. There are two rules I’ve found true while traveling in the Andes: the locals are as stoic and difficult to befriend as they are said to be, and you as a tourist are typically seen as a potential source of income before all else. High up on Lake Titicaca, the island Taquile broke both those rules. Unfortunately, our spin through Uros islands (map) on the way back to the mainland put them right back in place.

The rules are the rules for a reason. The Andean region is one of the poorest in South America, and this poverty, the barren landscape, and the history of colonization have left their mark on the people. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of tourists flood the region each year, to drink in the beauty of Machu Picchu citadel, the sapphire blue waters of Lake Titicaca, the Bolivian salt flats, and dozens of other spectacular travel sites. It should be a major generator of local wealth, right? Not quite. Like all other lucrative industries down here, foreigners and local elites run the show. Cuzco is, again, a prime example. The British company Orient-Express owns the only rail service up to the famed Inca sanctuary of Machu Picchu and the only hotel located next to the ruins. Foreigners and carpetbaggers from Peru’s capital of Lima also own most of the tourist agencies that run treks up to Machu Picchu. I remember doing a story on the porters of Cuzco’s Inca trail and asking one of the Quechua Indians what he’d be doing if he weren’t hefting tents, trekkers’ baggage, and entire kitchens up and down stony mountain paths. He said back home, subsistence farming. “Up here there are only two economies: tourism and nothing.” Currently, there is a movement in the travel industry away from outside exploitation toward local-controlled sustainable tourism – known as community tourism, eco-tourism, eco-ethno-tourism, CO2rism in rainforests and more, depending on your pleasure. In the Andean region, this means putting control of the industry in the hands of local Indians. Taquile and Uros displayed both those extremes.

It was surprisingly difficult to get to Taquile, despite the fact the island was celebrating its carnival festival. All of the local tour agencies only ran overnight tours to the island of Amantaní, with a few hour stop the next day in Taquile. We missed the only community ferry to Taquile that left at 9 a.m., so we had to jump a boat mid-lake and pay extra to get there. Arriving in Taquile, we were surprised by how few tourists were there for the carnival. Our 2005 Rough Guide called Taquile the most popular island on the Peruvian side of Titicaca. We started asking around for hostels, only to find that Taquile played the whole tourism game by a different book. With no hostels in sight at first glance, we decide to grab lunch and ask around. Just 15 minutes after I asked the lunch joint’s owner about lodging, a spry, pleasant man dressed in traditional Spanish peasant clothing decorated with hand-woven Andean textiles – an outfit Taquileños adopted in colonial times – introduced himself as Jesus and said we would be staying in his home with his wife Esperanza, “Hope,” and their two children. It wasn’t until a few hours later, when a local schoolteacher turned politician, enter Bernardo, shoved coca leaves in my mouth and Pisco down my throat and decided to take me under his wing in the heat of the Carnival festivities that I got an explanation of what the heck was going on.

Taquile had been an early model for community-based tourism, explained Bernardo. As long as he could remember, islanders had rotated hosting tourists in their homes and also pooled sales of their UNESCO anointed textiles, sharing the bounty of the industry according to the ancient Quechua values of collectivism, ayni and ayllu. A Taquile representative recruited tourists in Puno and brought them over on a community-run ferry in the morning, and then delivered them to the family they were to stay with on the island. But Taquileños lost their grip on the industry in recent years, Bernardo described grimly, after agencies run by outsiders worked out a deal to bring  tourists to Amantaní. That left Taquile – which refused to let the agencies control profits and prices – as an afternoon trip on the way back from Amantaní to the mainland. Taquile still runs its morning ferry to the island, but the islanders get beat by the professional agencies’ advertising and sheer manpower in pushing their package to backpackers in hostels and at the local pier. Thanks to that sad turn of events, negotiations with the agencies had come to define the island’s politics, Bernardo explained, and that was the main reason why he, deputy mayor of one of the island’s six communities, wanted to run for a big promotion: mayor.

Local politics aside, Taquile is probably the most original, welcoming, and non-Western corners of Peru I’ve found as a traveler, not to mention one of the most beautiful and clean. The islanders took us in with open arms and let us participate, learn, and mix with the locals during one of their most important religious festivals, no questions asked. There was none of the begging for money off tourists or angry haggling with locals trying to give travelers the “gringo price” (take the local price and double it) that can be so common in other parts of South America. I firmly believe that this is not only due to the fact that Taquile is separated from the rest of Peru by a big blue lake, but also has everything to do with the islanders’ knowledge that the community controls the local industry and that the entire island shares in its benefit.

We were sorry to leave Jesus and Esperanza’s home the next day, but once we did, we decided to swing by the Uros floating islands. We had missed them on the way out in our hurry to get to Taquile. The famed floating islands, made of matted reeds on floating sod, have long been one of Lake Titicaca’s main attractions. But our reception was like night and day compared to Taquile. As soon as we were dropped off at one family’s floating home, the family’s unbathed children started crawling all over us. As their parents sat in the background, uninterested, the girls launched into a little routine: they would curtsy, smile, and say “take a picture!” and as soon as you did, they would stick out their hands for money. Once that got old – we stopped taking the pictures – they started a song and dance routine that ended with the same hand-extended pose. Over the din, we finally convinced one of the elders to give us an explanation of the islands’ origins. He whipped out a laminated poster showing how the islands float, and ran quickly through an uninspired presentation on the Uros with one of the young boys acting as his assistant. Of course, when it was over the boy came over and stuck his hand out for money. The whole experience was a huge shock coming from Taquile, where we’d played with Jesus and Esperanza’s son Edgar all day, laughing with him as he tried to film us with Mike’s video camera and snapping pictures of him and his friends posing in the plaza, with nary a mention of money. It was all out of a genuine, mutual interest in getting to know how each others’ world worked.

We were so put off by the Uros islands that we decided we couldn’t wait another two hours for the communal ferry to go back to the mainland. So we paid a gentleman from the neighboring floating island to taxi us back in his fishing boat. It turned out José, our boat driver, was actually not an Uros Indian, but a Quechua from northern Peru. He had married a woman from Puno and moved to Uros to open a fish restaurant and hostel on the island. We asked him if all the islands were as touristy as the one we just visited and he scoffed. Nope, he said, only five of the 35 Uros communities host tourists. Everyone else refuses them, he said with a smile and a shake of his head that made you know he thought their decision to refuse tourists was both foolish and to his benefit. It was the smile of a certain type of person known here as a vivo: those street-wise Peruvians who know how to make a quick buck and will dance around scruples with a smile to do so. Just then I was struck by a tidbit from the elder Uros’ presentation: that the Uros migrated onto the floating islands centuries ago to escape assimilation into the dominant Quechua and Aymara cultures. As we motored back to shore in a boat driven by a Quechua, dodging the wake of a big white ferry whisking another boatload of tourists off to the floating islands, I thought to myself that I couldn’t blame those Uros who refused to host tourists.

Awash in Tradition, Drowned in Color:
Carnival in Taquile
By Drew Straus

To my right, a pile of corn, beans, and dried fish cover a blanket laid on the cobbled floor of the courtyard, as women pour the food from their brightly colored knapsacks. Meanwhile other members of the community dig into the food by the fistful. Across from me an elderly woman rests her head on a relative, crying while wailing a monosyllabic tune. To my left, a drummer continues to play the ubiquitous beat of the day, too drunk to notice that the party is on break. I’m on the island of Taquile for Carnival, one of their biggest festival days of the year. We’ve danced our way to the community center of one of the seven communities of Taquile after being taken under the wing of Bernardo, a leader of that community. Moments before, Bernardo jovially handed Andy his scepter-like baton, a symbol of his authority as community leader. For a few awkward moments, Andy held on to the baton, before a horrified woman noticed and snatched the baton back for the swaying Bernardo. On festival day: community ritual, endless dancing, bright colors, and an island imbibed and imbibing.

We started out our day in the town of Puno, Peru, on the west shore of Lake Titicaca. After a confused exchange at the port, we finally took the 3-hour boat to Taquile, an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. From the approach, Taquile looked like a giant whale on the surface of the water. One big hill dominated the north side and then gently sloped down to the flattened west side. Getting closer, the whale became ridged as the agricultural terraces that cover the island came into focus.

Once on the island, we climbed up to the town square. Along the cobble path, neat stone houses with corrugated steel roofs marked a striking contrast to much of rural Peru where the houses are made of dust-colored adobe and brick, and often look on the verge of crumbling. Another notable feature of the houses was that most of them had a solar panel on their roofs, since Taquile has no other source of electricity. This also meant that the island has no electrical wire or towering telephone poles to mar the pristine sky. The main square sits in the center of a cluster of taller stone buildings and narrow cobbled alleys and opens on one side to a cliff and the lake.

The day was blazingly bright and was amplified by the surrounding water. Talking to some locals we discovered that today was the first and most important day of Carnival. The seven communities of Taquile were slowly making their way to the central square where the festival would take place. Already in the distance we could hear many flutes and drums slowly growing louder. While we awaited their arrival, we discovered the amazing textiles of Taquile. Named a World Cultural Heritage in 2005 by UNESCO, Taquile’s textiles are brightly colored and intricately patterned. The figures depicted in the woven belts and scarves represent important aspects of life on Taquile. One type of belt is even a calendar. We would later discover the textiles are woven on looms made out of interlocking branches. Shortly afterwards we got to see the textiles in full action.

The first of the communities of Taquile paraded into the main square in a whirl of color and a flurry of flutes. The women were dressed in many layers of skirts each a different electric shade: blue, green, orange, yellow, and red. On their backs they wore crimson woven knapsacks. The men wore black pants and shirt; everything else was a blaze of color. Their belts, knit hats, and shawls were all covered with intricate loud patterns. Each wore many small, brightly striped bags, tasseled in neon rainbow. The men in the community each played an instrument. Drums of many sizes tolled out a 20 second beat, accompanied by a wide variety of flutes, some almost as tall as the player, as well as whistles, ox horns, and conches all playing the same 20 second melody, which was repeated, without stop or diminished gusto, throughout the entire day. The women danced along to the music with quick small steps. At the crescendo of the rhythm, the women all spun braided ropes covered in balls of colored string over their heads while twirling in unison.

The other communities arrived in the main square one by one, each claiming a section of the plaza. While all the communities played the same melody and rhythm, they made no attempt to synchronize with each other. As the square filled to capacity, the groups slowly circled the plaza with the effect of a gentle cacophony of clashing flutes, irregular drums, and spinning colors with the backdrop of a brilliant vast lake and the barely visible mountains on the shore.

We rapidly discovered the source of the seemingly limitless energy of the people of Taquile. Each bag or pouch contained a bottle of pisco and an ample supply of coca leaves. The mayor emerged from the town hall with fanfare, bringing with him crates upon crates of beer and an enormous mound of coca leaves, which he laid out on a table above the square for the enjoyment of the community. Watching from the sides of the square, we began talking with two men from Taquile both surreally named Cesar. We quickly found ourselves pulled into the party as we shared beer and pisco, which they drank by draining full cups (or caps in the case of pisco) before passing it on to the next person. The feel of the day had changed as we were brought around and introduced to other festival-goers, usually (and much to our surprise) by being taken by the hand from one group to another.

The tone of the festival, I realized, though heavy on traditions, was lighthearted -thoroughly about the enjoyment of the communities of Taquile. This realization somewhat relieved my creeping suspicion that, dressed in preppy shorts, a striped shirt, and a straw hat, I was at least an eye-sore if not a turntable stopping, toe stomping, all out party-crasher. Interestingly, as we continued our somewhat bewildered rounds with the Cesars, we were introduced only to other men. Almost uniformly, we were welcomed to Taquile and offered something to drink, even from the older members of the community with whom there was no common language other than a sly nod at an outheld bottle. The most common topic of the day (aside from some brief “we love beer too!” formalities) was how much the people we were able to talk to loved Obama.

Soon the dancers prepared for the inter-community dance-off, judged by the mayor. Up until this point, I had been entirely unable to tell the difference between the garb of the members of the seven communities. While the dance competition went on, I noticed small distinctions, a style of hat or a particular color of ribbon in the hair worn only by one community. I should mention that this was the only distinguishing factor about the dance competition. All the communities performed exactly the same tune, rhythm, and dance moves as before, this time just one group at a time. A winner was declared (God knows how) and we ended up standing near the area reserved for the island officials.

Bernardo, one of the island officials, began talking to us and offering coca. Taking a liking to Andy, whom he wanted as his assistant on his run for Peruvian congress, Bernardo pulled Andy by the hand over to where a group of whirling, fluting, Taqilians were making their way out of the plaza. The rest of us followed and soon I found myself marching through the cobbled streets and down the hill with a huge marching band drum strapped to my stomach and no idea where we were going. We took turns trying to get the beat down right before we were stripped of our drum and Bernardo motioned us up a hill towards a large stone building.

Without realizing it, we had been invited back to Bernardo’s community. The building was the community center and in the courtyard, the dancing and playing continued. At this point, almost everyone in the community was so inebriated that no one noticed the women bouncing off walls or the flute players who had moved on to play their own solos. As I sat down and the evening meal was laid down on a blanket to my right I realized that this was the most colorful, probably highest participation level party I’d seen unfold. As a place not too far off the tourist map, I was surprised by how few tourists were there and, likely in turn, the openness of the people of Taquile.

I should mention too the wonder of the couple that we stayed with for our night at Taquile. Jesus and Esperanza run a wonderful B&B in addition to being the most impressively named couple in Peru.

We join the party. Hail Cesars!

“Bout that time, eh chaps?” “righto

Many layered skirts of Taquile women

The many bags of the Taquile men. All filled with booze & coca leaves.

We bring the funk.

Potatoes, beans, fish, salsa, and other Andean goodies: the holy spread of Taquile’s Carnival.

Rockpile #2: at the top of Taquile’s highest peak.

Where We Come From, Where We’re Going

-By Andrew Whalen. Photos by Elliot Whalen

Travel has never been easier than for us 21st century kids, or more complicated. Sometime between Starbucks’ assault on the Forbidden City (and let’s not forget the reach of Micky D’s, especially since they’ve reached Cuzco) and the release of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the institution of globe-trotting revealed its true nature as a double-edged sword. While I still believe the cross-cultural understanding fostered by global travel outweighs its negatives, we can no longer ignore that travel by airplane, bus, train, and car is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and that globalization gone wrong can homogenize and crowd out the very far-flung cultures we go to such lengths to see. Of course, being the conscientious young folk we are, we decided our grand South American adventure must have the daintiest footprint possible. On the cultural front, we figured that with some pre-trip research, constant vigilance against the inner jackass, and a little charm, we’d come out in the black. Emissions proved a more adept adversary, but the match has been an excellent teacher. Thus began our ongoing education in alternative energy.

Researching alternatives to a fossil-fuel powered road trip, we quickly ruled out electrical cars. We figured we didn’t have the greenbacks to pay for one and that recharging would be difficult in a region of underdeveloped national electrical grids. Meanwhile, Drew had heard about a guy who drove around the world using vegetable and animal oils and anything he could get his hands on for fuel, including the fat of a pig he was forced to boil down while stranded in some far flung mountain village where he couldn’t come up with anything else. Ever the suckers for adventure and pigs, the rest of us were sold on biofuel almost immediately. It couldn’t be just any biofuel, we decided. It had to come from used vegetable oil or nothing at all.  Why used vegetable oil? Well, watching the food vs. fuel debate play out during the 2008 global food price spike, and how the race for biofuels had unintended consequences down here in the Amazon, we decided the whole growing your fuel thing was too messy – not to mention impractical for on-the-move vagabonds.

Once we knew our car would run on used vegetable oil, our only problem was that we had no idea how to run our car on used vegetable oil. Thankfully Al Gore built the oracle, and upon consulting it we discovered an entire community of like-minded individuals dedicated to doing just such a thing. The oracle told Drew of a biofuel guru in the Bay Area that went by the name of Girl Mark and sent us out to scour the crunchiest corners of Berkeley, California to find her. Find her we did not, but at the Biofuel Oasis co-op fueling station, we found the next best thing: Maria “Mark” Alovert’s Biodiesel Homebrew Guide Edition 10.5: “Everything you need to know to make quality alternative diesel fuel out of waste restaurant fryer oil.”

While Mark’s guide would become our biofuel bible, Biofuel Oasis also gave us a first-hand view of how biodiesel from recycled vegetable oil could work on a large scale. As we examined the gas station’s charming biofuel book and souvenir shop, we watched card-carrying members of the station’s collective come and go, filling their tanks with biodiesel produced from used vegetable oil collected at restaurants all around the city.

As the friendly fueling station attendees explained, and we later researched at length in our new bible, we had two options for running our car on used oil. The first is home-brewing our own biodiesel in a process called transesterification. Though it sounds scary and torturous, it’s relatively straightforward. The equation goes something like this: react methanol with used vegetable oil, using sodium hydroxide or lye as a catalyst, and you get biodiesel and a few byproducts including glycerol and household soap. For a walk through of the process courtesy of Kenyi García Cervantes, head chemist at Reth Córdova del Carpio’s EPA, see the short film we’ve posted above. We briefly considered finding a way to do the chemical reaction on the fly, perhaps involving a washing machine mounted on a bicycle as a rustic, transportable reactor to mix veggie oil and methoxide (another Drew special courtesy of “some guy at MIT” who ignored our emails). We dropped the idea pretty quick once we had a close look at the time-consuming process and decided it didn’t jive with our impatient itinerary. It was a good thing too, as we were later told that methanol can be hard to come by in these parts.

The second option was to install a straight vegetable oil conversion system, or SVO system, in our car and run it on unmodified used vegetable oil. The ease of collecting oil from restaurants and dumping it straight into a second tank installed in our car was very appealing for a long road trip, so we started researching companies that manufacture the kits, and looking into how the hell we were going to get one of them down to Lima and installed in a car. Thankfully, while the oracle had sent Drew and me to Berkeley, it had firmly deposited Sr. Kote in a far corner of the worldwide web dedicated entirely to all things Volkswagon. There, by a stroke of good fortune, young Miguelcito found the car we were all born to drive: a campervan equipped with a straight vegetable oil system installed by Plantdrive in British Colombia, beds to sleep four, a minifridge, and a stove, on its way to Santiago, Chile. A jolly Canadian-American couple drove her down from the Pacific Northwest, through the lower 48, then Mexico and Central America, shipped her across the Darien Gap, with plans to hawk her off and use the money to start up a hostel and live happily every after in Buenos Aires, Rio, or some happening Latin locale.

Thus, we became the proud owner of Mango, the omnivore campervan. I say omnivore because of the essential trick that enables the SVO to function: we start the car up on diesel for about five minutes to give the fuel system, modified during installation, enough time to heat up and thin the used vegetable oil to the viscosity of petroleum diesel. Before we turn the car off we also run it on diesel for about five minutes, to flush the system of veggie oil. Veggie oil is thicker than diesel, and if put straight into your car’s tank without thinning, it can leave heavy carbon deposits that wear on your engine or precipitate instant mechanical death. And of course, before we put the used oil into our second tank we have to filter it to remove chunks of French fry, chicken, or whatever else our donor restaurants felt like frying up. Obviously, we try to rotate cuisines with our donor restaurants, to keep Mango’s B.O. from getting monotonous.

A lot of people are shocked when we tell them we are running our car on used vegetable oil, either because they had never heard of biofuels at all, or they had heard of refined biodiesel but never of running an engine on 100% unmodified, used veggie oil. To keep those conversations quick and not boring, I’ve come up with a few fun facts about the diesel engine, provided by, who else, Miss Mark: an early version of the diesel engine displayed at the 1918 world fair ran on peanut oil from French African colonies, several countries used vegetable oil to replace or extend petroleum diesel on the homefront during WWII, and crackpot homebrewers have been experimenting with second, veggie oil tanks in their cars in the Northern hemisphere since the 1970s oil shocks.

Another question we tend to get is whether it’s been hard to convince restaurants to give us oil. Unlike the U.S., where restaurants change their cooking oil frequently, restaurants down here may not change the cruddy oil that dishes up your French fries and chicken nuggets for months. Poorer and less educated regions also don’t have the environmental consciousness to properly dispose of the oil, so when they do get rid of it they dump it in the sewer, causing serious problems for urban water supplies. Despite all this, on average, we’ve struck greasy gold at the third or fourth restaurant we try for oil. We’ve got a full schpiel that gets better with age, especially since we printed Verdant Collective business cards, and set up a restaurant owner photo blog on our site. It also helped when we ditched the 30 cent pollerias for more upscale restaurants, which are more likely to change their oil frequently, save it for proper disposal, and invite us to a chilled beverage when we lay on the charm especially thick.

Lastly, we are often asked if used veggie oil is carbon neutral. Plantdrive, the company that installed our system, claims that “SVO is a carbon dioxide neutral fuel since plants capture CO2 and then it is released again when the oil from the plants is burned.” I’ll let you be the judge of that. Like any fuel burned in combustion engine, waste vegetable oil emits carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants, but as you can see in plant drive’s graph, particulate matter or soot content in waste veggie oil emissions is much lower than regular diesel. Is waste oil the end all solution to climate change and energy consumption? Of course not. For us, fueling our road trip with veggie oil is all about making people revisit their assumptions about waste, recycling, and energy consumption. As a U.S.-style consumer economy spreads across the world, finding multiple uses for our limited resources and so-called waste has never been more urgent, and recycling is a practice we can no longer think of as an uninvolved, hands-off activity. Again, we’re no experts or engineers, but we can hope to inspire.

So that’s our whole biodiesel shebang. Now that I’ve put you through all this, I’ll inform you that while straight vegetable oil is an alternative fuel source, it is not technically biodiesel. It has to be refined through the transesterification process to carry that namesake. But you know, details. If you do choose to follow in our footsteps and install an SVO system in your vehicle, be warned that it provides mechanics with an easy, and undeserving scapegoat when their fixes go awry. We’re told this is worse in the States, where dealership mechanics fear what they don’t understand.

For those looking to follow in Reth’s footsteps and start up your own backyard biodiesel refinery, or even a local green business, here are a few websites: www.localb100.com, www.biodieselnow.com, www.biodiesel.org, and www.biodieselcommunity.org.



Cantagallo, Lima, Peru                                                                                                                             Jan., 2010

-By Andrew Whalen. Photos by Elliot Whalen.

In Peru, all roads lead to Lima. Schooling, jobs, and a Westernized ideal of progress have led millions to travel those roads from Peru’s interior to Lima – for better or worse. It’s an ideal that proves elusive for many indigenous and mestizo migrants. The blue jeans and knock-off Nikes come easy; it’s formal jobs and running water that are harder to come by.

I’ve heard Lima called a desert purgatory, a second-world Los Angeles, “Lima the Horrible,” and “Lima the Ugly.” Francisco Pizarro, Spain’s ruthless conqueror, founded the capital in a lush coastal valley beside the Rimac River in January 1535, during one of Lima’s fleeting, sun-burnt summers. It’s something Limeños still regret. The skies over Lima are uniformly overcast the remainder of the year, but humidity hardly ever gives way to rain.  The city sprawls across an arid desert, but the sun rarely shines. With no rain, a layer of dust and soot coats everything in town, and the smog emanating from Lima’s congested avenues has turned the coastal mist into a toxic cocktail. The Rimac’s green is now paved over, and shantytowns of half-built brick shacks stretch endlessly out into the surrounding desert. It’s this bundle of regret that prompted Ms. Alma Guillermoprieto to call Lima “proof that there are no knowable limits to what people will put up with.”

Granted, Guillermoprieto penned the phrase back in 1990, when the brutal Shining Path insurgency rained down daily car bombs on the capital city, and monthly inflation topped 400 percent. Since then, twin economic and gastronomical booms, and the virtual disappearance of the Shining Path from the capital, have made life quite pleasant in the comfortable seaside enclaves of Lima’s light-skinned elite. The phrase sticks with me, however, whenever I take a trip across town to Cantagallo, a squatter’s village of Amazon Indians in sight of Peru’s government palace. Cantagallo is proof that despite a decade of stability and record growth, little has changed for Peru’s other half.

While young for a Lima shantytown, dating to 2001, Cantagallo is commonplace in its poverty. Like the rest of the 1.3 million people in Lima whose homes receive no running water, Cantagallo residents pay exorbitant prices for trucks to deliver water by the barrel. They make due with generators for electricity, and slog across town through hours of traffic in rickety combivans to work as maids and gardeners for well-to-do families. Like the rest of Lima’s ever-proliferating slums, it reeks of rotting garbage and human waste. No, it’s not the living standards that make Cantagallo curious, but the people that choose to live here. Unlike the first wave of migrants to Lima – highland Quechua Indians who abandoned hardscrabble lives in the high Andes – Cantagallo’s residents come from the world’s most abundant, biodiverse forest. Indeed, if you only need one indicator of the sorry state of Peru’s Amazon rainforest, it’s the fact that hundreds of its natives are squatting illegally here on a sandy hill in a gloomy desert, downwind of their own refuse.

I met Charly Romas a few months after Peru’s “Amazonian Tiananmen,” as certain indigenous rights groups have come to call an ugly clash between Peruvian police and Indians near the northern city of Bagua that left 33 dead and one officer missing. The immediate cause of the protests was a packet of decrees aimed at easing indigenous control over their lands and loosening forestry laws to boost large-scale oil, mining, logging and agricultural investment in the jungle. Peru’s President Alan Garcia passed the decrees with special legislative powers granted to implement a free trade pact with the United States. The deeper roots of the conflict can be found here in Cantagallo, however, where some 500 Amazon Indians have migrated to gain access to education and jobs.

Charly, a short Shipibo Indian with a warm, earnest demeanor, round face, and spiked black hair, came to Lima in 2002 to complete high school and attend Lima’s public San Marcos university. Now 24, he is the president of the 250-strong Asociacion Interetnica de Estudiantes de la Amazonia Peruana, or Inter-ethnic Association of Peruvian Amazonian Students, and is preparing to launch a career as one of Peru’s first Amazon Indian lawyers. He does not mince words when discussing why 190 Shipibo Indians have abandoned his native state of Ucayali to live in Cantagallo.

“We have a lot of problems.  First off are the oil companies. In several communities they’ve severely damaged the environment. You can’t even fish anymore because the animals are dying off from toxic oil contamination. A second problem is rampant logging – illegal and transnational. After they are through ravaging the forest, the jungle floor is just dead earth – it takes 20 to 30 years for the forest to regenerate,” Charly says.

For Charly, the sorry state of Peru’s Amazon is due to the government’s failure to consult Indians about projects affecting their lands. Traditionally Lima’s elite has seen the jungle as a treasure trove of resources devoid of human settlement. The Amazon forest accounts for 60 percent of Peru’s territory, but only 350,000 of the country’s nearly 30 million people belong to an indigenous Amazonian ethnicity. Currently more than 70% of Peru’s Amazon rainforest is carved up into oil and natural gas exploration and drilling blocks, the rights over which are granted by Peru’s energy and mining ministry in Lima – without any prior consultation of the communities whose land sits atop the oil reserves.

In Peru, the state owns rights to subsoil fossil fuel and mineral resources, and one of the decrees that sparked last year’s protests would have removed already ignored restrictions on mining and oil exploration and drilling without consent of the communities that own the land. The decree – repealed after last year’s violence, along with three others – flew in the face of the U.N.’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169. The ILO has long found Peru remiss on its obligations under the convention, but it took last year’s political violence to force the government’s hand. The passage of a new law guaranteeing indigenous consultation rights has been hung up by the government’s decision to press charges against the leaders of Peru’s leading Amazon Indian confederation, AIDESEP, in the wake of the June violence, but a law is set to be debated in March.

Even a new law on consultation rights, however, won’t be enough to change the power dynamics in Peru’s Amazon rainforest. The U.N. declaration and the ILO’s Convention 169 only grant Indians the right to be consulted about projects, not the right to a veto of government contracts. Hundreds of indigenous communities are still fighting for the government to recognize their land with legal property titles; Peru’s Indians suffer poverty at twice the rate of their mestizo and European-descendent countrymen; and with substandard schools and limited finances to fund post-secondary education, it is nearly impossible for Indians to take a leading role as chemical or forestry engineers in the resource-led development of the Amazon that politicians in Lima envision.  “Oil companies bring in their own engineers and managers. They only hire us Indians to do peon work,” said Charly over a cup of masato, a traditional Amazonian drink of fermented yucca brought by his father from Pucallpa.

As a consequence, more Indians end up here, in Lima. Charly says first to arrive were he and some fellow youths looking to become the first in their families to attend university. Their families soon migrated as well, to support their children with tuition, food and living costs – some $200 a month for a student who has to pay his own board – and eventually to put their younger brothers and sisters into better primary and high schools than those in the jungle. But even with support from their families, the transition isn’t easy.

Charly says he and many of the students in his association have gone hungry to try to cover the cost of tuition and books. The government provides skimpy financial support to only 50 Amazon Indian students a year, and most students come from fishing, hunting, and subsistence farming families with little in the way of savings. Moving to the big city is a huge culture shock as well. Substandard schooling in the jungle means most students who come to Lima need help improving their Spanish – a second language for most, who grow up speaking one of Peru’s nearly 150 native languages – and getting up to speed with the new technologies of the classroom.

“It’s a huge shock to leave the jungle after high school for university in Lima,” says Charly’s uncle Abner Davila, a Shipibo artisan.  “If you don’t know how to use a computer, you’re nobody here.”

Worse than educational restraints, and a big reason they exist, is Peru’s worst-kept secret: a deep racist strain ingrained since its days as the seat of the Spanish vice-royalty in South America. Students who come to Lima from the highlands or jungle to attend school can be laughed at and belittled for often poor Spanish or funny accents, and scandals over nightclubs and posh beaches that illegally ban indigenous or dark-skinned Peruvians from their premises still pop up frequently in local newspapers and telecasts.

For Charly, his first experiences in Lima as a student are difficult to discuss. Gone is his self-confident delivery and knowing smile. He struggles for words.  “I suffered from discrimination,” he says shaking his head slowly, then pausing, and looking down, “or maybe it wasn’t discrimination. It’s just that life is really complicated in Lima. When you first get here you have no support from anyone.”  Pressed, he admits his peers from the coast treated him differently. “Unfortunately, in my case, that’s what happened. But little by little I overcome it. It was one of the stages of my life I had to deal with.”

Overcome it he has. The students’ association he currently leads now provides financial support and tutoring to new students arriving in Lima, and he’s set his sights on educating a new generation of indigenous leaders – this time, in the jungle. His dream is to open a university-level educational institute in his native Pucallpa to educate leaders from ethnicities across the Amazon about their rights, history, and environmental issues associated with oil drilling, mining and logging. He hopes to begin with a pilot class of 25 students this year, the idea being that the graduates will act as their tribes’ informed representatives in Peru’s ever-proliferating number of socio-environmental conflicts pitting communities against extractive industries.

“I miss the jungle, every day I’m here,” Charly says wistfully, gazing off eastward into the hazy dun of Lima’s foothills. “I’m only here for my education, I’ll be back in the jungle to get to work – and soon.”

Not everyone shares Charly’s enthusiasm about life in the jungle, however. When asked about where he sees himself in the future, Charly’s uncle, Abner Davila, speaks enthusiastically about a Cantagallo with electricity, running water, a road connecting it to the highway, and a bustling artisan market for tourists to buy hand-made Amazonian textiles and necklaces. When told that tourists aren’t likely to hike into Lima’s desert slums to buy Amazon jungle souvenirs, Abner is stunned silent. Frowning, he ticks off the reasons why going back to the jungle permanently isn’t an option: few tourist customers for Shipibo products, the renewed presence of Shining Path guerrillas, and poor schooling. The grizzled artisan says he loves the jungle, but he’s practical.

“Sufficient attention isn’t paid to our jungle frontiers” by the government, says Davila. “From what I see of my society, to progress, I believe we need a firm footing here in Lima.”

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