The Asháninka of the central jungle are defending themselves from inroads being made on their lands by colonists keen to extend the frontier of coca growing. This is an old story, but the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the pressure on land to produce coca.

With a population of some 60-80,000 and a reputation as fierce warriors, the Asháninka have resisted invasion of their cloud-forest homeland for centuries. Never absorbed into the Inca Empire but almost wiped out by the rubber boom of the early twentieth century, they recovered to retain control over the rivers and surrounding forests of six regions and their principal rivers: the Perenné, Tambo and Ene (in Junín and Cuzco); the Pachitea (in Pasco and Huánuco), part of the Ucayali (in Ucayali) and the Apurímac (in Ayacucho and Cuzco).

President Fernando Belaunde’s 1960s scheme to open up the area to colonisation via the so-called marginal highway confronted the Asháninka and other groups along the eastern slopes of the Andes with their greatest challenge to date. Along the Apurímac, Ene and Tambo, mobilisation of colonist migrants by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in the 1980s encouraged them to extend their territorial gains, expand coca cultivation, and use the leaf to produce cocaine.

With the defeat of Sendero, then President Alberto Fujimori stimulated further invasion in the 1990s by assigning Asháninka lands and other benefits to colonists who had fled the conflict. The returnees lost no time in converting forest to coca while simultaneously benefiting from government subsidies.

Under cover of the pandemic, organised crime has propelled the narcotics trade from its nerve centre in the VRAEM (valleys of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro) throughout Amazonia, alongside other lucrative businesses in illegal logging, gold mining, trafficking of land and deforestation.

Colonists along the Rivers Tambo, Ene and Apurimac have now set their sights on the creation of a new district which would seal the domination of colonists from Ayacucho and Cuzco over Asháninka lands.

Leaders of the Central Asháninka del Rio Tambo insist that the proposal only serves the interests of traffickers in drugs and land. These have become increasingly aggressive in infiltrating Asháninka communities and taking extreme measures against any opponents. An Asháninka of the Shevojá community of the Tambo, Lorenzo Caminti, was recently murdered after being previously tortured. Such deaths have become increasingly common over the years, and are beyond the capacity of the Asháninka patrols (ronderos) to control.

Politicians representing Junín want to extend to the legalisation of coca while creating a new district on the Apurímac. Popular amongst colonists of VRAEM, the coca movement now has a significant leader in the region’s congressman Carlos Chavarría Vilcatoma. Chavarría can count on the support of several other members of congress from Junín. All are aligned with the Unión por el Perú group in Congress.

The Asháninka are not without their own organisational strength. They can count on the support of Ruth Buendía Metzoquiari, leader of their national representative organisation. In 2014 she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for preventing the construction of a dam for the export of electricity to Brazil in the Paquitzapango canyon, a revered Asháninka site.

CART and OARA, the Asháninka organisations of the Tambo and Apurímac, were amongst the first to institute lockdowns of their territory, despite opposition from the military. These areas are ones today of comparatively low levels of infection and death. These organisations have also taken full advantage of technical support in forestry, agriculture and fish farming from government and NGO programmes.

The Asháninka have also presented government with a strategy for closing social divides, achieving security of land tenure, and accessing appropriate health and education services and such benefits as income support. While available to others, such benefits are still largely out of reach for Amazonian indigenous peoples.