Overcoming a history of traumatic violence, Ruth Buendía united the Asháninka people in a powerful campaign against large-scale dams that would have once again uprooted indigenous communities still recovering from Peru’s civil war.
In 2010, the governments of Brazil and Peru signed a bilateral energy agreement that called for a series of large-scale hydroelectric dams in the Amazon. Under this agreement, most of the energy would be exported to Brazil. Few economic benefits would come back to local communities in Peru, whose ancestral territories would be flooded during construction.
Among the indigenous people living in the proposed construction site of the Pakitzapango dam along the Ene River are the Asháninka, who have made a home in the thickly forested “eyebrow of the jungle” practicing subsistence farming, hunting and fishing.
The energy agreement was pushed through without any input from the Asháninka, in direct violation of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) treaty—which Peru ratified in 2006—that requires governments to consult with indigenous communities on any development projects in their territory.
Ruth Buendía was 12 years old when the Shining Path guerillas invaded Asháninka territory and set up political and military operations. Her father was killed during the violence that ensued, and her mother sent Buendía away to seek safety in Lima. Thousands of Asháninka were killed during the conflict; thousands more fled their ancestral lands.
Following her return home, Buendía worked at a juice shop in Satipo where she was approached by a customer who recognized her as a fellow Asháninka and encouraged her to join the Asháninka Center of the Ene River (CARE). Eager to reconnect with her roots and contribute to the Asháninka community’s healing, she began volunteering with the organization, helping indigenous people obtain the documentation needed to attend school and access public services.
Traveling across the Ene River Valley, Buendía met several tribal chiefs who had known and respected her father—and felt at home for the first time. She thrived at CARE, and in 2005, a retirement in the organization’s leadership led to an unexpected opportunity as Buendía, at 27 years old, was elected the first woman president of CARE.
Not long after the historic election, Buendía came across news coverage of the bilateral energy agreement and the proposed Pakitzapango Dam. CARE’s requests to the Peruvian government for more information went unanswered, but it soon became clear that the massive dams would displace thousands of Asháninka—reopening old wounds from Peru’s civil war a mere decade before.
Buendía and her team at CARE began reaching out to Asháninka communities, raising awareness about the dam and its threats using digital simulations of how the valley would be flooded during construction. They organized a region-wide assembly and united the Asháninka in opposition to the dam.
Buendía took the struggle to international leaders. She traveled to Washington DC as the representative of the Asháninka delegation and presented a report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the impact of Peruvian energy development on her people.
In December 2010, as a direct result of Buendía’s advocacy, the Peruvian Ministry of Energy rejected a request from Pakitzapango Energy that would have allowed the dam to move forward. The following year, Odebrecht, the main shareholder in another dam, the Tambo 40, announced its withdrawal from the project, citing the need to respect the views of local communities.
With the Pakitzapango project tied up in court, Buendía is now working to firmly establish land rights for the Asháninka. She is developing a management plan for the Asháninka Communal Reserve that would protect their lands from future development while allowing local communities to pursue sustainable economic opportunities such as coffee and cacao farming.