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.”