An Endangered People

Photo: University of Delaware


According to ancient legends, the Ese’Eja people of southeastern Peru and northern Bolivia were born from a cotton fiber in the sky.

Now, their entire future is hanging by a thread.

These indigenous Amazonians, whose total population today consists of less than 1,800 people, are facing imminent extinction.

A nomadic fishing and hunting-gathering culture that dates back more than 1,000 years and which is considered to be of the world’s last remaining foraging Amazonian societies, is quite simply on the verge of disappearing as a result of a modern-day gold and timber rush.

Once spanning a region more than 1.2 million hectares of rainforest, the Ese’Eja are now dispersed across three small communities along the Madre de Díos, Heath and Tambopata rivers.

Throughout the centuries, the passive Ese’Eja have tried repeatedly to keep to themselves, placidly surrendering their ancestral lands to intruders time and time again and retreating deeper into the jungle to find sanctuary.

But now, the commercial interests of some 30,000 newly arrived miners and loggers to the area surrounding the Ese’Eja lands is threatening to end their peaceful way of life forever.

The mercury and other chemicals used by the encroachers in their operations are poisoning the Ese’Eja’s crucial water supplies and fishing grounds.

And so far, the governments of Peru and Bolivia are doing nothing to prevent the Ese’Eja culture’s eminent demise.

This is not the first time that the fate of the Ese’Eja has been endangered.

In the late 19th century, the region around the homeland began to attract rubber barons and Dominican missionaries, who sought to “civilize” the savage natives.

In the 1940s, Japanese refugees, gold miners and loggers began to stake claims on Ese’Eja land.

The governments of Peru and Bolivia at the time were far more interested in cashing in on their share of the gold and timber than protecting the Ese’Eja, so in the 1970s, laws were passes confining the indigenous population to three restricted settlements in a 23,000-hectare area of land.

The creation of the Tambopata National Reserve and the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park in the 1990s further limited the Ese’Eja from accessing their traditional foraging grounds and sacred sites.

The Ese’Eja people, whose medicinal traditions have been responsible for numerous scientific discoveries in the treatment of deadly ailments such as certain types of cancer and heart disease, have always maintained a close spiritual link with their rainforest home, but now that home can no longer sustain them.

The world of the Ese’Eja is quickly closing in on this defenseless culture, and today, members of this once-vibrant community are becoming wards of the state, unable to support themselves and their lifestyle as their ancestors did.

A few determined Ese’Ejas have rejected government subsidies and opted instead to survive by harvesting Brazil nuts and taking on jobs as day laborers for the miners and timbermen.

The Ese’Eja way of life is disappearing almost as fast as the virgin rainforest they populate.

The crass financial interests of the intruders have vastly overshadowed token efforts to preserve this vanishing culture.

It is only a matter of time until the last vestiges of one of the America’s oldest indigenous cultures is swept away forever.



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