Many years from now, as she faces her rebuilt home, Dalia will recall the massive fire that swept the city hilltop in November 2016. At that time, Cantagallo was a slum just a few blocks away from the Peruvian capital Lima’s main square. This is where hundreds of families of the Shipibo-Konibo community lived. Like Dalia, they too have lost everything in the fire.
Peru’s indigenous groups make up roughly 45% of its population of 31 million people. The Shipibo-Konibo who once lived along the Ucayali River, the major tributary of the Amazon River, is one of the country’s largest tribes.
Locals rummaging through the remains of the fire in Cantagallo
“Over the past few decades, Peruvian indigenous people have always been seen as second-class citizens,” Salic Shetty, the secretary of Amnesty International, said. With the majority of them still struggling under the national poverty line, something had to be done to find better ways to help them.
Building connections between indigenous people and tourists
Two decades ago, more than 2,000 of the Shipibo-Konibo people moved to Cantagallo in Lima to pursue a better quality of life. They have turned Cantagallo into a significant platform for indigenous culture. Tourists around the world visit the area for its handicrafts made by indigenous women thus providing a primary source of income for the community. In 1990, Dalia along with her daughter, started selling handicrafts.
The massive fire in 2016 not only destroyed the tribal people’s traditional residential site, forcing them to spread across Lima, but also wiped out the once concentrated Amazonian indigenous handicraft market. As a result, tourists lost the platform to purchase such handicrafts. Dalia and her daughter, forced to sell their products on the streets, often ended up with no income for the day.
Peruvian president Pablo Kuczynski once visited Cantagallo and promised to rehouse the community on their original site. Such a pledge has not been fulfilled to this day.
In general, Peru’s tourism tends to focus on the country’s well-known attractions. As a result benefits from tourism are also concentrated in specific areas. The connection between Peru’s indigenous people and tourists needed to be regained.
Alternative Peru, a social enterprise advocating for responsible travel experiences off the beaten path and authentic intercultural exchanges, was founded in 2014. Taking on a different perspective, Alternative Peru works closely with the Shipibo-Konibo people, considering them as equal partners and involving them in all decisions. “We don’t tell these indigenous people what they need to do because they are the real protagonists,” said Alfredo, a Lima tour guide who works at Alternative Peru.
Shipibo art and culture
By visiting a community of the Shipibo-Konibo tribe, tourists will learn more about their culture, traditions, history, and current reality while also enjoying a delicious lunch at a host family’s house. The focus of this kind of tour is an authentic and respectful cultural exchange.
Tourists are brought to the poorest parts of the city where despite such conditions, optimism and hope continue to pervade the area. Strong women who fought to preserve their traditions and to keep their culture alive have found a good way to get ahead by showcasing and teaching their art to visitors with the help of the Alternative Peru.
This initiative has opened more job opportunities for the indigenous people that have enabled them to live better lives,
From the Amazon, for the Amazon
In 2011, Sofia Rubio combined her love of the Amazon with her professional knowledge in biology and her entrepreneurial skills to initiate Shiwi—a company devoted to sustainable development based on rain forest resources by producing 100% natural and organic products.
Shiwi’s team with the indigenous people
Shiwi began producing granola made from Amazon nuts and later on expanded to more products including coconut oil, cane sugar, honey, cosmetic Amazon nut oil and lip balms, and Amazon nut beer. Their products are sold in ecological fairs and in healthy, organic, and environment-friendly stores,
Aside from promoting the harmony between humans and nature, Shiwi also works closely with indigenous communities to bring them development opportunities. To facilitate local employment, they hire indigenous people to collect nuts and honey and run regular workshops to share relevant knowledge and skills for production.
Shiwi seeks to empower the Amazonian communities that produce these items. “We also want to change their mindset and improve their lives by educating them and providing them with jobs,” Arturo, Shiwi’s marketing manager, said.
60-year-old indigenous man Ursino used to be a hunter and made a living by cutting trees in the Amazon. After Shiwi’s training, he has stopped logging and began sustainably collecting coconut oil.
Shiwi continues to witness progress in the lives of the poor communities they’re working with. In one community where there was no electricity, a number of families are now able to send their children to school.
Using Ecotourism to protect their homeland
Libertad, the village located on the east coast of the Ucayali River, was once an isolated Amazonian village with approximately 320 indigenous people. Ten years ago, the villagers only had access to a manually operated canoe that would take them an entire day to travel to Iquitos, the central city of the Peruvian Amazon forest. The villagers fished and hunted for a living, supporting a self-sufficient lifestyle.
Seven years ago, inspired by the concept of ecotourism, Manuel, one of the villagers, led 11 other villagers to build a well-equipped lodge in the jungle. Two years later, he founded the social enterprise, Libertad Jungle Lodge.
With this community-based project, many villagers acquired long-term jobs—chefs, boatmen, tour guides, as well as cleaners. The tourists visit and fully immerse themselves in nature. They hike in the jungle, fish, and observe the birds during the day and crocodiles at night. They also interact with the villagers, learn to make handicrafts, and purchase them from indigenous women.
Amazonian indigenous women teaching visitors how to make crafts
Alicia, now 72, was married at sixteen. In order to pay for her eight children’s education, she once had to travel to Iquitos to sell tomatoes, corn, and bell peppers for only 200 Peruvian soles which is equivalent to approximately 60 US dollars per year. After joining the local handicrafts industry, selling her products to the tourists and teaching them how to make handicrafts, her income has reached 1,000 soles per year. “I’m really grateful to the Libertad Jungle Lodge. It offered me a job, enabling me to earn more money,” Alicia said.
At present, Libertad Jungle Lodge hosts around 1000 tourists annually. “We used to live in a very primitive way. There were no tables or tableware. My families would sit around the ‘table’ on the ground made of banana leaves and eat with our hands. There were no beds, so we lied straight on the floor to sleep. Now that we have money, we get to buy anything we want,” 29-year-old villager Gumer shared.
“I wish, within ten years, that all 300 villagers are able to improve their living standards through the income from ecotourism. There will be no need to log, to hunt, and the Amazon jungle can be preserved, ” founder Manuel expressed.
People in the Amazon have chosen to take the initiative. The new operating model of social innovation that takes the input-output ratio and efficiency into consideration may be a promising way to truly solve the social problems faced by Amazonian indigenous people.