Loreto Regionalism and Indigenous Amazonians

I was recently delighted to discover that Gabel Sotíl has a blog, Tipishca. Gabel Sotíl is a prolific writer and public intellectual based in Iquitos, Peru, who writes on Amazonian environmental issues and indigenous groups, in connection to education and politics in Loreto. One of the especially nice things about his blog is that Gabel uses it to reproduce pieces he has written for local newspapers and magazines, which are all but impossible to obtain outside of Iquitos. Check them out!

Gabel is part of an interesting political movement, which for want of a better term in English I refer to as Loreto regionalism. Some background first: Loreto is the largest departamento (a state-like administrative unit) in Peru, and covers the entire north of Peruvian Amazonia. (Loreto was previously even larger, until 1980, when a large chunk of Loreto was split off as its own departamento, Ucayali.) Loreto is fairly geographically cut off from the rest of Peru, and its capital, Iquitos, is said to be the largest city in the world without road connections (apart from roads to nearby population centers, Iquitos can only be reached by river or air). Loreto has been a major producer of oil since at least the 1970s, from which time, roughly, one can date the emergence of a growing number of regionalist political parties that have pushed for greater regional autonomy. The oldest of these parties is Fuerza Loretana, which has been joined by a host of other parties, such as Unidos Por Loreto, Frente Independiente de Loreto, and Frente Patriótico de Loreto, among many others. The Loreto regionalist movement is largely driven by the perception that the national government’s interest in Loreto (regardless of the party in power), extends little beyond natural resource extraction (especially petrochemicals), and that the needs of Loreto are essentially ignored when it comes to government policy, despite it being the largest departamento in the country (population density is low, however: ~900,000 for the entire department).

One of the most interesting facets of Loreto regionalism to me is that the political movement is tied to a vibrant community of regionalist intellectuals. This group of regionalist intellectuals is mostly located in Iquitos, the region’s capital, and they dedicate much effort to reconceptualizing the relationship between Loreto and the remainder of Peru, and creating what they frame as a properly Amazonian vision for Loreto. A major part of this intellectual project has been to develop an historical and cultural grounding for Loreto independent from the coastal and Andean grounding that occupies a central place in the national imaginary of most Peruvians. This reconceptualization has focused on three major themes: rainforest ecology, indigenous Amazonian societies, and ribereño folklore. The interest of these Iquitos intellectuals in indigenous Amazonian societies is motivated by two concerns: a desire to create a regional historical narrative distinct from the prevalent national narrative originating with the “Inkas”, and a desire to rethink the extractivist economic paradigm that characterizes the national government’s interest in Amazonia.

You can even see this totally different historical grounding of Loreto in the first paragraph of its Wikipedia article:

Lo que es hoy el vasto departamento de Loreto ha sido una región habitada desde los inicios de su poblamiento por una gran diversidad de tribus que lograron un pofundo conocimiento de las especies de sus respectivos entornos.

[What is today the vast department of Loreto has been an inhabited region, from the beginnings of its peopling, by a great diversity of tribes that achieved a deep knowledge of the species of their respective environments.]

Passages like the preceding one may not seem particularly revolutionary to the casual observer, but in a nation that (when it looks beyond its mestizo vision of itself) grounds itself in the Inka Empire, the decision to tie the origins of Loreto to Amazonian indigenous peoples represents a significant shift in the way the cultural origins of (part of) Peru are conceived. Many more examples of this conceptual reframing of Loreto history can be found on Tipishca.

In some cases, the yoking of the Loreto regionalist movement to indigenous Amazonian cultures and societies makes use of rather romantic ideas regarding these societies, or consigns them to an originary past, but in many cases has led to an explicit valorization of Amazonian societies and languages. While anti-indigenous racism is still a significant factor in Loreto, it is now balanced, to a degree I have seen nowhere else in Peruvian Amazonia, by a respect for indigenous Amazonians, their societies, and their languages. Once again, not all the manifestations of this respect are entirely benign (for example, I find the widespread “folklorization” of Amazonian cultures to be quite suspect), but other manifestations have served to open up spaces in public discourse for the concerns of Amazonian peoples. For all its flaws and shortcomings, I find this general receptivity to indigenous Amazonian issues to be unparalleled in the remainder of Peru.

I will close with an illustrative example that I found quite striking: in late 2006, while I was in Loreto, a group of Shuar communities on the upper Pastaza river decided to occupy a number of well-heads and pumping stations owned by PlusPetrol, thereby temporarily bringing oil production in that part of Loreto to a halt. The Shuar have been fighting for many years to have something done about the massive pollution resulting from the petrochemical operations near their communities, and the occupation was an effort to force PlusPetrol and the government to negotiate in earnest. What surprised me about this series of events was the general level of support in Iquitos (where I was at the time), for the Shuar and their actions, both in the local press and among people on the street. This contrasts rather starkly with pollution and accidents PlusPetrol has recently been responsible for in the southern Peruvian Amazon, in the Urubamba River basin. In this latter case, there has been little concern, either in the press or among local mestizos, for the impacts of petrochemical activities on indigenous peoples (principally the Matsigenka). Similarly, there is very little interest in, or respect for, Amazonian peoples among mestizos at the local level, and no serious regionalist movement of the type one finds in Loreto.

I am led to wonder how unusual the political situation in Loreto is, when compared with other regions in Greater Amazonia. In any event, Tipishca is a window on the world of Loreto regionalism and its relation to indigenous concerns, and I recommend it to all Amazonianists.


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