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Peru – Biocultural heritage and community voice in Amazonia

Short description

Textile cultural heritage embodies the social and ecological relations, understandings, skills and beliefs that connect people to place. Despite the significance of textiles for defining and representing indigenous identity in the lowland Amazon, there are few academic sources and most accessible resources, such as the Museum of Indigenous Amazonian Cultures in Iquitos, present this diverse heritage primarily as a collection of objects rather enabling indigenous communities to choose how they are represented or how they wish to use their cultural heritage to interact with the wider world. This project aims to establish how indigenous peoples in lowland Amazonian Peru can use cultural heritage to support resilience, adaptation and autonomy at a time of increased stress – both gradual (e.g. expansion of oil exploitation, growth of markets for non-timber forest products) and abrupt (e.g. oil spills, epidemic, displacement).

Project introduction

Our project explores how textiles support and celebrate communities and their heritage in lowland Amazonian Peru, embodying the social and ecological relations, understandings, skills, and beliefs that connect people to place. Textiles have a significant role in defining and representing indigenous identity in the lowland Amazon, yet the presentation of this heritage is patchy and has not been developed by the people it represents. There are few academic sources and most accessible resources, such as the Museum of Indigenous Amazonian Cultures in Iquitos, present this diverse heritage primarily as a collection of objects instead of empowering indigenous communities to choose how they are represented or how they might use their cultural heritage to interact with the wider world. This project aims to establish how indigenous peoples in lowland Amazonian Peru can use cultural heritage to support resilience, adaptation and autonomy at a time of increased stress – both gradual (e.g. expansion of oil exploitation, growth of markets for non-timber forest products) and abrupt (e.g. oil spills, epidemic, displacement).

Introducing Urarina and Ticuna communities and culture

The Urarina and Ticuna are two of the 51 indigenous groups living in the Peruvian Amazon. Urarina communities live in seasonally flooded forests along the numerous rivers in the heart of the Abanico del Pastaza, including the Chambira and Tigrillo. This is one of the largest wetlands in the Peruvian Amazon (3,827,329 ha) and has been recognised under the Ramsar wetland convention as a site of international importance since 2002. Estimates of Urarina population size vary widely, from 2,697 people according to the Ministry of Culture (2018) to 4,853 inhabitants (National Institute of Statistics and Informatics 2007).

The Ticuna people occupy the triple border of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. In Peru, Ticuna communities inhabit dry forests in the provinces of Mariscal Ramón Castilla and Putumayo, in the Department of Loreto. Estimates of Ticuna population size in Peru range from 6,982 (National Institute of Statistics and Informatics), to 8,000 (Ministry of Culture), up to an estimated 24,000 inhabitants according to the Peru-based Institute of the Common Good (Instituto del Bien Comum, IBC) Information System on Native Communities of the Peruvian Amazon. If the latter estimate is correct, this would make them the largest indigenous group in the Department of Loreto.

During this project, we worked with three communities: two Urarina and one Ticuna.

Nueva Unión

Since 2019, the Urarina community of Nueva Unión has been located on the bank of the Chambira River, after moving from their previous location on the smaller Espejo watercourse. Nueva Unión is made up of 275 people, grouped into 70 families, comprising 139 men and 136 women (Communal Census, 2021). The present location is immediately southeast of the northern Peru-Pluspetrol North oil pipeline, which lies on the margin of the Chambira River. The community and its land title were recognised in 1996 (resolutions R.D.140-96-CTAR-DRA, R.D.250-96-CTAR-DRA) with their territory covering 7,008 hectares. While the founding date for Nueva Unión is not known exactly, it took place sometime during the 1970s, following the migration of several Urarina families who lived on the Tigrillo river and worked under the direction of a labour boss (patrón).

Community migration within this area is an established part of Urarina culture reflected in the move from the Tigrillo river to the Espejo tributary, a later shift from the mid to upper part of this tributary, and most recently, in 2019, the move from the Espejo to the Chambira. The first two settlements allowed the community to move away from the influence of their previous patron and gave them access to resource-rich ecosystems which formed the basis for subsistence. These changes allowed the community to grow. The most recent move was intended to increase access to promised support arising from oil extraction on indigenous titled land. Until around twenty years ago, the Nueva Unión community did not use money and their economy relied exclusively on natural resources. As part of this indigenous culture and economy, all women weave textiles, using fibres produced from leaves of a palm known as aguaje in Spanish. Girls learn the craft when they reach adolescence and weaving is part of the rite of passage to adulthood.

Nuevo Pandora

The very small Urarina community of Nuevo Pandora consists of a single extended family, comprising 12 members, 5 men and 7 women (Communal Census, 2021). It was founded a decade ago, after the family left the mixed community of Pandora. In some respects, their move reflects a concern over sense of identity, which they aim to maintain via familial ties in the new location. The community is still in the process of obtaining a formal title to their lands, which are currently legally state-owned. As in NuevaUnión, all women weave with aguaje fibres.

Bufeo Cocha

The Ticuna community of Bufeo Cocha has 480 inhabitants, grouped into 95 families, with 270 men and 210 women. This includes 36 women who weave with fibres from several species of understory shrubs, called huarumá in Spanish, and two teachers who preserve and share this knowledge with younger generations. Bufeo Cocha is located in an interfluvial zone within the dryland forest, comprising numerous streams and lakes (cochas). As a result, the community is relatively distant from state and economic influence because in the dry season, community connections to the provincial capital of Caballo Cocha are limited and require a three to four hour journey by small boat. Generally, state influence in the community is confined to running the school. However, the education provided has many shortcomings: it is often of low quality and provides little geographical and age-range coverage.

National Cultural Heritage: motivation and expectations of the state

The Peruvian State, through Law No. 28296 “General Law on the Cultural Heritage of the Nation” and obligations arising from the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, has a procedure through which indigenous knowledge and practices can be recognised as part of the Cultural Heritage of the Nation. This includes the uses, practices, and knowledge, as well as the associated objects, artifacts, and cultural spaces, pertaining to communities, groups and individuals. Obtaining national recognition involves an administrative procedure through which interested parties submit technical reports on intangible expression of cultural heritage and present evidence that the practices constitute part of the heritage of a particular community or group.

The main aim of this procedure is to conserve practices that are part of the cultural heritage of specific peoples and make up a constitutive part of the wider cultural heritage of the Nation. The declaration obliges the state to periodically monitor traditional practice to assess its vitality and the capacity of communities or groups to transmit it to new generations. Heritage declarations formally acknowledge the significance of traditional practices that are of paramount importance to indigenous cultures, but which have often not figured prominently in what is assumed to be the ‘national’ culture. In this sense, heritage declarations not only have the potential to revitalize traditional practices within communities, but also to make them visible at the national level. A key weakness, however, is that they can fail to recognise the ways in which intangible cultural heritage sits within, and is integral to, indigenous thought and cosmologies. Therefore, there is a risk that practices will become commodified, stripping them of traditional values and the symbology they have for a specific culture.

National Cultural Heritage: community expectations and experiences

During the project w convened gender-specific participatory workshops to understand community views on National Cultural Heritage status. These allowed us to assess how perceptions of the declaration differed between women and men. We also held interviews with key representatives in the communities, both male and female. The terms “declaratory” and “cultural heritage” were not fully understood by the Ticuna and Urarina women who participated in the project. Recognition is an elusive concept to them, but it is now spoken of as a positive idea. Despite not understanding the Western terms, they are able to see some favourable effects on traditional activities. Sales of their textiles have increased, generating an increase in demand and, therefore, an increase in sale prices. The declaration of national cultural heritage status has not only improved the visibility and value of the traditional fabrics woven by Ticuna and Urarina women, but has also revived a wider sense of pride in the tradition of weaving and emphasised the pivotal role played by women in preserving culture. The declaration allowed women to be included in national society as artisans for the first time. This recognition gives them status within the community and a certain prestige in terms of their standing when compared to the men, who have traditionally been the only ones to have a recognised form of occupation. As Doyli, a Ticuna artisan from Bufeo Cocha, says, “now we are women artisans, now we come to Lima because we are recognized.”

Women, more than men, value the symbolic character of the fabrics. When asked about the importance of weaving, Urarina women repeatedly replied, “Weaving is our culture so we cannot forget”. Amongst the Urarina, textiles enable the integration of women within the community, but also activate, integrate, and catalyze flows of knowledge that contribute to and perpetuate culture. Through weaving, Ticuna women build purely feminine spaces that support the transmission of knowledge and the strengthening of identity amongst the next generation. While economic contributions from the sale of fabrics are also important, they cannot be separated from other intangible benefits that are perceived by women as necessary both for their culture, and for fulfilling their sense of womanhood in their community.

Evaluating the process of becoming cultural heritage

Declarations of cultural heritage represent a state initiative to safeguard indigenous practices and performances. A declaration of heritage is usually aimed primarily at fulfilling economic objectives, rather than reinforcing the symbolic role of a particular practice in an indigenous community or group. In part, this is because indigenous practices are linked to different cultural spaces within a community. The role of indigenous practices in shaping identity and relations therefore receives little recognition within the declaration. This is evident in the artisan fairs, held annually in Lima and in departmental capitals, which represent the visible expression of the declaration since they focus on displaying the product, rather than conveying each product as a tangible distillation of skills and complex meanings. This risks commodifying heritage practices within the communities themselves, thus eroding the cultural value and symbolism that this practice embodies within each indigenous culture. “Know-how” is a necessary but not sufficient premise to give cultural value to a traditional practice.

The creation of groups of artisans who could become disconnected from their culture as they focus on the market and do not invest time in the transmission of knowledge poses a danger to the sustainability of cultural practices. The productive capacity of a woman who engages with the market to sell textiles is seldom taken into account; economic value is rarely aligned with cultural value. If it were to be so, then the value put on a woman’s textiles made in a week following traditional procedures and cultural practices should reflect the work she has done as an artisan, as well as the additional cultural value and intergenerational heritage that the textile represents. Much work remains to be done to embed the full value and symbolism into the objects that are promoted once they have been declared the cultural heritage of the nation.

Geographical distribution and approximate population sizeFrontier between Brazil, Colombia and Peru, with the majority of the population in Brazil; Peruvian population estimates range from 6982 to 24000 peoplePeruvian Amazon along the Chambira river and its tributaries, with population estimates of 2697 to 4853 people
Key ecosystems for heritageDry forest, species used grow mainly in the understoryPeatland palm swamp, dominated by aguaje
Plant used – Spanish (indigenous) nameHuarumá (dexpe)Aguaje (alaa)
Botanical speciesIschnosiphon arouma; I.obliquus; I. puberulusMauritia flexuosa
Parts usedStemYoung leaf fibres
Weaving methodInterlacing (basketry)Backstrap loom
Weaving products – Spanish (indigenous) namesCedama (cuexchine), tipiti, pacaráCachihuango (ela)
DescriptionCedama: sieve used to produce cassava flour (fariña) or to sieve masato, which requires a finer mesh size. Tipiti: tube woven from huarumá fibre, used to dehydrate bitter yucca (poisonous varieties). Pacará: traditional Ticuna basket woven with fibres derived from I. obliquus. The lidded basket is used to store personal items.Mat woven from aguaje fibre that is used for sleeping on. The Urarina people do not sleep in hammocks or on platforms.
Who weaves?WomenWomen
Award of National Heritage status in Peru2017 (resolution no. 144-2017-VMPCIC-MC)2019 (resolution no. 115-2019-VMPCIC-MC)
Cultural significanceSense of identity, closely linked with food security, since the woven products are used to process the various types of cassava grown in food gardens.Sense of identity, symbolic of individual and community wellbeing, linked to the right of passage from girl to woman, and knowledge of fibre and dye plants that grow in the ecosystem
Key threats facing biocultural heritageDirect: illegal coca crops and associated drug violence and militarization, placing pressure on forest resources; state-sponsored cocoa production as an alternative livelihood
Indirect: weakening of knowledge transmission, leading to intergenerational loss of knowledge
Direct: displacement due to oil production, reducing access to forest resources; increased monetization leading to commodification of cultural heritage
Indirect: weakening of knowledge transmission, leading to intergenerational loss of knowledge

Principal Investigator(s)

Dr Althea Davies, School of Geography & Sustainable Development


Dr Katy Roucoux, School of Geography & Sustainable Development

Project partners

  • Manuel Martín Brañas
  • Dr Emanuele Fabiano
  • Margarita Del Aguila Villacorta
  • Wendy Darlene Mozombite Ruíz