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Shipibo-Konibo elects first tribal council in Peruvian Amazon

On Oct. 18, the Shipibo-Konibo elected its first tribal council, consisting of an Apo (Chief) and four officers. The election was the culmination of the 2nd Congress of the Shipibo-Konibo held Oct. 16 – 18 at the Institute of Bilingual Education of Yarinacocha outside of Pucallpa, Peru.

The goal of this historic and highly anticipated event was to establish an autonomous tribal government for the betterment of the Shipibo-Konibo. There were 42 villages represented at the congress and nearly 300 Shipibo-Konibo in attendance.

The first day of the congress consisted of opening ceremonies and lively discussions about tribal concerns. Speakers spoke passionately about long-term problems that have plagued the Shipibo-Konibo and the need to find solutions that will improve conditions for future generations. Problems include extreme poverty, poor medical care, a lack of quality education and opportunities for higher education. Tribal members also discussed the need for sustainable economic development and tribally-owned business enterprises.

On the second morning, Dr. Luis Alva Castro, president of the Peruvian Congress, was present to talk with Shipibo-Konibo leaders and attendees. Guillermo Arevalo, spiritual leader of the Shipibo-Konibo, introduced the subject of the recent massacre of peaceful indigenous demonstrators in Bagua on June 5, and the Peruvian government’s continued handling of the situation.

Shipibo-Konibo leaders told Castro that the indigenous people are not terrorists, as had been characterized by the Peruvian government in the news. They said indigenous Amazonians are only attempting to protect their territories from exploitive and environmentally destructive policies that would destroy their way of life and that the land belongs to the Amazonian tribes.

The indigenous Amazonians have long felt their needs are ignored by the Peruvian government. Castro acknowledged this by saying the Peruvian Congress has a mission to help indigenous Peruvians improve their educational opportunities and medical care. The Shipibo-Konibo also told Castro that they want indigenous representation in the Peruvian Congress and that they would like to be treated as equals among all Peruvians.

Finally, the Shipibo-Konibo asked that Castro visit their villages to see the conditions for himself, which he agreed to do. He was given a prepared document by the Shipibo-Konibo to take back to Lima describing their concerns and requests for change. Castro said he would discuss the matters in Lima with President Alan Garcia.

The remainder of the congress focused on creating and voting on a governmental structure consistent with Shipibo-Konibo traditions and electing its first tribal council. Throughout the congress, the enthusiasm and support among the Shipibo-Konibo tribal members was palatable, and the theme of unity and working together was repeated by many speakers. The banner behind the stage summed up this theme and read, “Total Unity for the Defense of Our Land, Territories, Natural Resources, Environment, Ecology, Biodiversity, Health, Education and Culture.”

The Shipibo-Konibo tribe is the fourth largest of 64 indigenous tribes in the Peruvian Amazon. They have a population of at least 35,000 and 140 villages along the Ucayali River north and south of Pucallpa, Peru. The Shipibo-Konibo are highly respected for their powerful healers, or curanderos, and their unique visionary art work is internationally recognized. The Shipibo-Konibo have received marginal benefit from its territorial resources, cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge. Through the work of this congress, the Shipibo-Konibo have begun the important process of improving their conditions and their global presence.

Mershona Parshall can be reached at mershona@gmail.com.