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Ethnobiologist Helps Peruvian Maijuna Chart and Protect Ancestral Lands

March 30, 2012

By Michele McDonald

The 400 members of an indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon pushed back against loggers, poachers and the government to reclaim their ancestral lands — with a little help from a Mason researcher.

The Maijuna live in four villages of thatched-roof homes between the Napo and Putumayo Rivers in northeastern Peru. Last month, the Regional Government of Loreto, akin to state government in the United States, approved nearly one million acres as the Maijuna Regional Conservation Area.

Without this legal protection, hunters kill tapirs, loggers hack down trees and fishermen use fish poisons for an easy catch, says Mike Gilmore, an assistant professor in New Century College who began working with the Maijuna in the late ’90s.

Mike Gilmore, right, a professor in New Century College, helped the Maijuna map more than 1,000 locales in their ancestral lands. Photo courtesy of Mike Gilmore

“The Maijuna don’t go to the supermarket like you and I do,” says the ethnobiologist, who studies the relationship between people and their environment. “Their supermarket is the forest. When these poachers come in and devastate the land, the Maijuna just don’t have enough to eat. They don’t have enough resources to survive.”

This new protected area, replete with biological and cultural riches, is 22 percent larger than Yosemite National Park. The move also squashed plans by Peru’s national government to build the first road through this sensitive ecosystem, Gilmore says.

While the Maijuna called the Peruvian Amazon their home long before the Spanish arrived in the 1600s, they couldn’t ask to have their land protected until they had an official map, Gilmore says. Gilmore began helping the Maijuna chart their ancestral lands in 2004 and finished five years later.

“The results are absolutely critical,” Gilmore says of the mapping project. “Without their ancestral territory, they can’t live the way they want to live. It’s important for their cultural survival. They’re worried about their children. They’re worried about their grandchildren and the generations beyond that.”

The Maijuna already have lost some of their identity. Children speak Spanish, not native Maijuna, and many don’t know the traditional stories and songs. The once-famed giant ear discs that Maijuna ancestors used to wear no longer adorn earlobes.

Protecting their ancestral land could help stop the slide. Gilmore traveled to each of the four villages with large sheets of paper, and the Maijuna went to work drawing maps. They started by marking rivers and streams. Then they added favorite hunting, fishing and resource-collecting spots in addition to sites where ancient battles were fought and other historically significant locales.

Maijuna village

One of the Maijuna villages in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo courtesy of Mike Gilmore

Equipped and trained on GPS, the Maijuna traveled with Gilmore and his students to each spot on the hand-drawn maps, entered the coordinates and took pictures. Gilmore also filmed interviews of Maijuna elders telling stories behind the names of watering holes and favorite hunting grounds for tapirs and peccaries.

It made for an amazing jungle odyssey. During one six-week mapping jaunt, Gilmore saw troops of monkeys, herds of 300 peccaries, jaguar prints and huge flocks of blue-and-gold macaws. “You see the most incredibly gorgeous intact rainforest that’s teeming with wildlife,” he says.

More than 1,000 locales are detailed on the now-computerized map.

The Maijuna are taking back what is theirs, and Gilmore is helping them in any way possible. Gilmore looks forward to returning to the place he loves best. It’s a two-day trip just to get there, involving planes, boats and sometimes even an 11-hour hike through the jungle to the most remote and isolated village.

“Some of my best friends in the world now are the Maijuna,” he says. “It’s really my second home. I always stay with families. We sit and tell stories and joke. It’s a completely different pace of life. They have much more time for their family and much more time for their friends.”

And when he returns to visit his Maijuna friends, he brings some gifts. “I always bring fishing hooks,” Gilmore says with a smile. “U.S. fishing hooks are, apparently, hands down 100 percent better than Peruvian fishing hooks.”