OTARI NATIVO, Peru (AP) — Peru's Ashaninka Indians share the world's top coca-growing valley with drug traffickers, rebels, illegal loggers and, now, an increased military presence.
The Ashaninka are the largest indigenous group in Peru's sparsely populated Amazon region but they account for less than 1 percent of the South American country's 30 million people. Their world has rarely been peaceful. During Peru's 1980-2000 internal conflict, Shining Path rebels overran their lands and slaughtered them wholesale. Hundreds have kept firearms that the government supplied them to defend themselves.
The Ashaninka live in some 350 communities centered in world's the No. 1 coca-producing valley. Despite the wealth-producing crop around them, they live a largely pre-industrial existence. About half their children suffer from malnutrition, according to Peru's Health Ministry.
The people subsist largely on manioc, a diet they supplement with fish and wild rodents known as pacas. Most grow coca and chew it as their ancestors have. But they also resist efforts to fell their forests to plant coca for commercial use.
The government is now boosting its military footprint in the valley of the Apurimac and Ene rivers where the Ashaninka mostly reside in a bid to fight Shining Path remnants and the drug traffickers they protect. It is building 11 new military bases in the region this year.
The threats faced by the Ashaninka are not just military and economic but cultural. Ashaninka elders teach the new generations to appreciate the wilderness that sustained their ancestors, but many have given up on rainforest life and moved to cities. Elders also worry that their language, a member of the Arawak family, is disappearing.
In the only school in Otari, classes are taught in Spanish.