We sat down with 2014 Goldman Prize winner Ruth Buendia for a Q&A on her work to unite the Asháninka people in a powerful campaign against large-scale dams that would have uprooted indigenous communities still recovering from Peru’s violent civil war.
Can you describe the landscape and culture of the Ene River Valley, and your experience growing up there during the civil war?
There are 17 Asháninka communities in the Ene River Valley with almost 10,000 people living in the region. The Asháninka are an autonomous people, with our own language and culture. We are extremely connected to the land and river, both spiritually and practically. The river is the mythological birthplace of our tribe, and we depend on the land for hunting, farming and fishing. This way of life was taken away from us for many years during the civil war. I was 12 when the Shining Path guerrillas arrived in our community and my father, along with many other Asháninka, were killed. We were forced to flee our homes to escape the violence, and have only recently begun to rebuild our communities and our sustainable way of life.
What led you to become the leader in the fight against the dam projects?
When I was a teenager, I began volunteering with Asháninka Center of the Ene River (CARE), an association that was formed in response to the violence in our region. I traveled throughout the region and got to know the different communities and chiefs, many of whom had known my father very well. I felt at home for the first time when I was connecting with these people, and when I was 27 I was elected as the first female president of the organization. CARE’s mission is to defend the human, collective and individual rights of the Asháninka. When I found out about the construction plans for the dams in Asháninka territory, which the government had approved without our consent (violating Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization), I knew we needed to stand up for our rights. The dams would completely flood the valley and displace the 10,000 people living here – people who had already been displaced once before.
How did you organize the Asháninka people to oppose the dams?
The first thing I did was bring in engineers to explain the effects of the projects, and I educated myself on the issues so that I could effectively educate the community. Then, I traveled around the region to the different communities to raise awareness, using digital simulations of flooding to demonstrate the devastating effects these dams would have. Speaking about our personal history of violence really resonated with the community and convinced people to join the fight. I reminded them that we had faced violent terrorism in the past, and now we were facing economic terrorism. Through these tactics I was able to unite Asháninka community against the dams, which helped elevate our fight to the national and international level.
What have you been working on in the years since successfully halting the Pakitzapango and Tambo dam projects? Is the region still under threat?
Though we succeeded in paralyzing the construction projects there is no definitive ruling stating that they can never move forward. And with the Peru-Brazil Energy Agreement in place, we still live under constant threat of development. I’m currently working on integrating the Asháninka territories in order to get legal documentation of our land rights, which I’m hoping will help our ongoing legal battle against development. Additionally, I am working on getting official recognition for our land as a national conservation area – another tactic I hope will help protect us from future threats.