Everything changes, but nothing is lost.
(Editor’s note: Jungle Love is pleased to feature this guest post from David “Slocum” Hewson, the founder and owner of Amaru Spirit, a holistic healing center located in the jungle outside of Iquitos, Peru. Their website is here: http://www.amaruspirit.com. Regular Jungle Love readers may notice some similarities between Slocum and Chillum, a recurring character in the blog. These similarities are, I presume, not totally a coincidence.)
“Building Community in the Amazon Jungle”
A guest post by David Hewson
Many gringos come to the Peruvian Amazon with dreams of buying land in the jungle, building homes and perhaps even starting businesses. The natural beauty and abundance of the jungle seems like a paradise on Earth, and it is, until you try living there full-time.
As a kid, I loved reading about Daniel Boone, and the whole pioneering spirit. My great-grandparents first settled the land where my family in North Carolina still lives today. I guess on some deep level I always had that pioneering spirit too, and the past three years–buying jungle land in Peru and building a retreat center there–have given me the ultimate test of my pioneering skills! I have paid a lot of dues to get where I am now. While many gringos come here with similar ambitions, I’ve seen a lot more failures than successes during my seven years in Iquitos. So I’d like to share a few of my own learning experiences in how to build community relations in the jungle.
When I first bought my land on the Itaya river, it was completely undeveloped. In time I learned that I had inherited a border dispute between my neighbors and the former owner of my land. There’s this idea in the jungle that, if you are tending land, even if it doesn’t fall under the deed, it’s yours. But there are always going to be disputes when the map and territory itself do not align. After I bought the land, we discovered that government officials had taken an old map and used that as a template, but no surveyors had ever come out to properly survey it.
The neighbors had been fighting over a disputed swath of land from the people I bought it from– and sometimes they didn’t even know where the line was. There was a tree a meter over the line, but the neighbor tended the tree, so it’s theirs. In my case, the neighbors over-claimed what they actually had. But fortunately, some other neighbors with property adjacent to mine had actually done their surveying according to legal requirements, and filed it in the public registry. The government surveyors then had a problem on their hands–they were obliged to do their jobs properly. Otherwise the borders would have overlapped, based on the boundaries of my neighbors, which were already on legal record.
So the surveyors came back the second time, and it turned out that both neighbors gained land from what they had before on paper! And with that, the dispute was settled, and both sides were content, without the need to construct fences or make problems. This was a rare example where a dispute resulted in a win for both sides! Because where there there are no fences, borders in the jungle can get very fuzzy, and it’s always better to know exactly what’s yours.
When we began building the first structures on the land, I invited all my neighbors over for a minga. This is a day of shared communal labor. No one gets paid, but you provide a meal for everyone when the work is done, with the understanding that you will show up for your neighbor when it’s their turn for a minga. This event was chronicled here: http://www.jungle-love.org/2011/04/12/the-minga/
The minga is a great example of community in the jungle. It encourages social cooperation and trust between neighbors, which becomes extremely important when the time comes for the community to band together in order to deal with problems that affect everybody.
One of the greatest problems faced by this community, myself included, was illegal logging on all our lands. Thieves coming upriver from Belen were constantly entering the quebrada (creek) that gave access to this area, cutting down and stealing trees and whatever else they could take. I knew something had to be done about all these invaders, after I caught some thieves on my own land. It had been vacant for so long, people assumed it was free for the taking. This problem with wood theft really was so out of control that in the beginning, there were eighty to one hundred boats coming in on the weekends, dozens and dozens of people on a single day! Each one intent on sneaking in and hauling logs illegally out of the forest.
So I obtained a signed, notarized document stating that I had permission to control access to the quebrada, on behalf of the entire community. Then I hired a person from the community to be my guard, as he would know who was from the community and who wasn’t. I paid him a good monthly salary, because it was essential to be able to identify people as locals or strangers. Some of the people coming up the creek were harassing me, yelling crude and insulting things, but they weren’t strangers or thieves, they were locals from the village! Not everyone in the community thought it was a good thing to have a gringo in the neighborhood.
The other thing I did was buy some guns and make sure my guard was always well-armed, night and day. A word about guns: there are no police in the jungle. You are your own police. I never owned a gun until I moved to Peru. In the jungle, it is a necessity. Without that protection, eventually you’re going to be exposed to the risk posed by people who come onto your land with guns of their own. It’s just that simple.
Finally, I hired a painter to paint a big sign, stating that we had armed guards and permission to shoot on sight, complete with a pictorial icon of a person getting shot, so even people who couldn’t read would get the message. We posted this sign prominently at the entrance of the quebrada where it was impossible to miss. And after we did that, the traffic from invaders dropped immediately from dozens every week down to maybe one or two a year. The problem virtually went away overnight.
Even with that, I wasn’t accepted by a lot of the community. And I understand, I’m a gringo on the land, I have a different way of living, and they’re not used to it, they’ve never had a gringo try to set up stake among them. And that brings me to the Sunday morning meeting where everything turned.
Each Sunday morning around 8 or 9am, the community held a public meeting to discuss whatever issues were current. I found these meetings to be largely a waste of time. Besides, we worked on the land on Sundays, and often did ceremonies on Saturdays, so it was inconvenient for me to attend, although I was expected to either go in person or send a representative.
Meanwhile, the mayor was talking behind my back, sending nasty verbal messages through the locals, little birds coming to chirp that we’re going to fine you for not attending, little threats like that. It was just a situation like, how are we going to get money out of this gringo? We’ll fine him! I said to the little birds, I won’t talk to the mayor unless he sends me a signed, hand-written message with my name on it. If you want me to come, you have to give me a signed invitation. And so they did that.
I talked to my lawyer about it, and he said I was on private property. So long as the community is not indigenous, I wasn’t legally obligated to attend any of these meetings, and they couldn’t legally enforce a fine.
Armed with this information, I went to the meeting that Sunday with my wife and my child. I planned my words carefully in advance, so I would know exactly what to say in the heat of the moment, facing a roomful of villagers, some of whom had been publicly denouncing me. When I got up to speak, it was obvious that they were all charged up to harass the gringo. I began by talking about how we all faced a common problem, and pointed out the money I had personally invested in order to deal with it.
“I’ve spent a lot of money on this already, for example to hire an artist to paint these signs, warning people not to come into this territory,” I began.
How much did you pay? They wanted to know. I told them. And then they laughed. They were making fun of me for spending that much money on a sign.
“But if you don’t spend that much, so it looks professional, no one will take you seriously,” I said.
At that moment, what I really needed was for them to take me seriously.
So I said, “Who here feels safer now, because I have put up signs and bought guns and hired armed guards from your own community to police this area? Are people still tearing your trees down? How many people come onto your land now?”
There was a silence in the room as that sunk in. Then one man, a guy who had been one of the ones harrassing me before, spoke up.
“No one,” he said. “I have not had any problems since then.”
“Me neither,” another man said. “I don’t have invaders anymore.”
Then all at once, they collectively understood that the money the gringo was spending actually was benefiting the entire community, and the whole energy changed. They had to admit that the problem had more or less gone away. And they said, he’s exonerated from these meetings, we’re not going to fine him, and the gringo is OK.
“In fact,” I continued, “Each one of you has a right not to come to these meetings, you all have private property!” The mayor cut me off immediately. He got out a book and started reading the laws.
I said, “I don’t care what you’re reading, this doesn’t mean anything! It’s a tax system, and they make money each time you don’t come to the meeting, but you don’t actually have to pay it.” I made the mayor very nervous talking about individual rights, and once I mentioned my lawyer’s advice, he intervened and quickly changed the subject. In my opinion, this problem with meetings and taxation goes back to Fujimori, who put these meetings in place, to make sure regional authorities could keep track of what local villages were doing. They didn’t want any of these communities getting too independent.
After that Sunday morning, something shifted. As a show of goodwill, I agreed to send a rep to be there every week in my place. And we’ve never had any problems since then. They accepted me because they know who I am now, because I was willing to stand before them publicly with my Peruvian wife and child by my side to make my case, and because it’s not in their interest to mess with me. Now the whole community knows that I am a job provider, I’ve got a good business up and running, and I’m not going anywhere.
I even made a proposal to the town to raise the funds to plant coconuts along the road to the town, so people don’t have to drink sugary sodas all the time, they could drink coconut water instead. If we ever get the funds together, I’d still like to do that.
The mayor and I even started to get along after that. He was the one who made the ruling that I didn’t have to attend the meetings anymore. The mayor, you see, is also a shaman, and he had wanted me to drink ayahuasca with him for some time, but I wasn’t interested– he was too political, too slick, he had lived in different parts of Peru and knew a lot about life outside the jungle. I was wary of him–he was very charismatic, which can be a red flag with Peruvians–in my experience here, the most charismatic people are the ones to watch out for. So it was, I believed, with the mayor.
Ultimately, what really broke the ice between us was that I did drink ayahuasca with the mayor-shaman; or rather, he drank my medicine, at my place. And this veteran ayahuascero, who had worked with the medicine for decades and bragged about his ability to handle it, got rolled over by my brew and went unconscious for three hours. And I was the one tending to him. After that, I think we started to have a real understanding with each other, and there was mutual respect.
It’s funny how the people I avoided the most in the beginning are the people I’ve gotten the closest to now! The mayor is now employed as the head shaman at my retreat center, conducting regular ayahuasca ceremonies for my clients there, and he does an excellent job too.
One last observation. When I first moved onto the land, my cane field was burned. I found eleven witnesses who said it was the former owner’s cousin, who had kept an eye on the land, but never got paid for it. He wanted to scare me so that I would go away. He’s now one of my best workers. He’s the only one who will tell me in advance if he’s not coming in to work the next day! No other worker does that, they just don’t show up.
At the time, I confronted him, did you burn my cane field? I have eleven witnesses. He denied it. I said, well, because you burned the chacra where I’m going to construct a maloca, now I don’t have to do another minga! So I told him I wasn’t going to press charges, and I thanked him instead.