Ashaninkas, the guardians of the jungle

Marta Moreiras


Satipo, Junín, Peru

The Ashaninkas are the most numerous and extended ethnic group of the Amazonia. Ashaninka means “person” and their culture counts on universal values based in the respect of nature and respect the others as basic principles. They live spread around hundreds of hectares in the Peruvian Amazonia and they gather in small communities by the Rivers Ene and Tambo, mainly.

Ashaninkas reject violence and they believe in education as the driving force of human progress. The jungle is their main source of life and they consider it their home. The ashaninkas are not just the inhabitants of the Amazonia, but also the guardians of the jungle.

The Ashaninka Community was one of the most afflicted by the violence and terror brought by Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), a radical maoist group with a strong sectarian touch that terrified all Peru for more than 20 years. Besides terrorism, active since the 80’s, the Ashaninkas fear that the coca growing fields close to their

area end up occupying their ancestral land. The increasing interest of energy companies, who are yearning for a big piece of rain forest, is one of the main concerns of the Ashaninkas.

Despite of living in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, the Asháninkas continue to live as they used to, as they are adapting slowly to modern times while fighting to preserve their life style and accepting development providing that their culture is always respected.

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  • The School of Samaria. Samaria is a small community in the District of Mazamari. There’s one single school for initial level (3 to 5 years old) and primary school (6 to 013 years old) and there are 32 students in total. The kids start learning Spanish from 3 years old.

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    Social roles are very defined in the Ashaninka culture, even though sometimes they share duties and collaborate in all the daily tasks. Women usually cook while men go hunting and fishing in search of food for the whole family.

  • Eva walks every morning to a small pool of fresh water by her house inside the wood for her and her brother Ashivanti’s daily wash.

  • Benjamin and his son Diego have a rest minutes before dinner.

  • The kids of the community get together everyday after school at the soccer field and they invent new ways of having fun.

  • Ashaninkas love celebrations and happenings. They enjoy very much when they gather all together in the community and they usually dress in their best cushmas (dresses) and get ready for the party.

  • Eva and her sister Ana Sha do their homework everyday. Among other subjects, Ashaninkas learn English (from 13 years old onwards), science and environment, communication in Ashaninka and in Spanish, religion, sports and arts. Education plays a key role in the Ashaninka culture, it is essential for their integration and their understanding of the globalised world they live in, even though they are in the jungle, far away from the cities. They give a great value to speaking languages and learning about their environment.

  • Olinda has five children and she was a victim of Shining Path’s violence in the nineties. When she was 7 years old an armed group attacked her community killing almost everyone in her village. She escaped and a helicopter found her alone some days after the attack. She was taken to a refugee camp close to Satipo, where she lived until she was 15 years old. Olinda still gets scared at night when she hears a weird noise and she never wants to talk about the episode of her childhood. She just wants that her children don’t have to live what she did.

  • Ana Sha and her brother Koakiti play and enjoy their spare time after school.

  • Benjamin rests while his family sleeps under the mosquito net. In spite of malaria and the big amount of mosquitoes, spiders and other insects in the jungle, not all the Ashaninkas are enough lucky to have a mosquito net to protect themselves from bites when they sleep.

  • The kids enjoy watching movies in DVD’s that their relatives bring for them very often from their trips to the cities of Lima or Satipo. They love the movies, even though sometimes they don’t understand what they say.

  • A group of kids from the initial level stand with Mercedes, the teacher. Generally, the teachers are not ashaninkas. It is very hard to find ashaninka teachers for all the different communities. This is not a problem at all, as non-ashaninkas are accepted in the community as if they were ashaninkas. They actually prefer teachers coming from the mountains or from Lima, the capital, instead of the jungle because this guarantees a higher and better education. Teachers who come from other places in Peru generally have more knowledge and are more prepared to be teachers.

  • View of Samaria, ashaninka community in Mazamari’s district, one of the eight in the Province of Satipo.

  • Eva and her aunt Airontsi are about to get lost in the jungle in search of wood for cooking.

  • Airontsi makes masato after sunset. Masato is the drink of the jungle, made of fermented manioc mixed with women’s spits. The art of making masato and the taste of it are very appreciated among the Ashaninkas. When a foreigner visits a community, they generally offer a bowl of masato to the guests who arrive to welcome them.