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The Power Of A Child's Imagination To Bring The Amazon Back To Life

Illegal mining and deforestation are destroying parts of the Amazon and devastating indigenous people's lives. As laws and governments fail to protect the environment and vulnerable communities, locals have turned to the imagination of the future generation.

Photo of a group of children from the Awajún community participating in a workshop to draw on photographs of destroyed ecosystems in the Amazon

Awajún children drawing on photographs of destroyed ecosystems

Fiorella Montaño and Leslie Searles

What do the children of the Amazon dream of? How do they observe the destruction of the forests around them? How do they imagine those areas if the situation were different? Ojo Público supported a local effort that brought together a group of children from the Awajún indigenous community in northern Peru to draw on photographs of devastated forests the elements that they imagined should be there.

Illegal activities are destroying the forests of the Amazon and polluting its rivers. On the landscapes destroyed by illegal mining and deforestation, they painted huge trees, plants, animals in the forest and fish in pristine rivers.

"The trees suffer," says Suely Apika, a 12-year-old Awajún girl, while she draws a hunting scene in the forest on top of a photograph of an empty terrain. Where there were once trees, now only a yellowish mud remains.

Suely's drawing recreates an everyday scene in her community. It shows what she believes would have happened in those forests if they hadn't been destroyed by illegal mining. While drawing on the image of the environmental disaster, she notices a well with yellow water. "It has been formed by pollution," she says.

Photo of an aerial picture of rivers and forests with fish drawn on top

Drawing fish in polluted rivers flanked by deforestation scenes

Leslie Searles / Ernesto Benavides

Using art to encourage conservation

In the Awajún community of Cocoashi in northern Peru, art helps teach children about the importance of forests and the impact of uncontrolled resource extraction. The association of women artisans in this area organized a workshop where kids used colored markers as tools to correct the impact caused by illegal mining.

For the first time, the children of Cocoashi saw aerial photographs of areas devastated by illegal mining and deforestation.

To reach the Awajún community of Cocoashi, you must travel by boat for more than three hours on the Marañón and Cenepa rivers. The journey begins in the city of Santa María de Nieva, located in the province of Condorcanqui in the Peruvian Amazonas region, where a chalupa, a small slow-moving boat, is boarded. Along the way, landslides are seen on both banks of the rivers, which were caused by the dredgers of the informal miners settled on the banks.

Just over 10 years ago, the landscape on the right and left banks of the Marañón and Cenepa was different. A study by the Cenepa Border Communities Development Organization (Odecofroc) estimates that this illegal activity has been carried out since 2009. Hortez Baitug, president of Odecofroc, recalls that prior to the landscape of dredges and landslides, there were many corn and banana crops near the riverbanks. "Before, Cenepa was not like this.”

During the journey from Santa María de Nieva to Cocoashi, the number of dredgers decreases as the final point of the trip approaches. This happens because the Cocoashi community has decided to confront illegal mining, in defense of the area's natural resources. Using art to show the negative effects of the activity to children was one of the most recent efforts by the organized community.

In Cocoashi, it is the elders who tell the younger ones about the effects of illegal activity. Gerardo Petsaín, an artist who helped organize the workshops, says: "At first they did not really connect, but after a while a child told me that illegal mining is not good, it is bad because it produces pollution for fish that can make animals and trees sick […] They took it seriously and gave a lot of importance to the issue.”

Aerial photo of a body of water polluted by illegal mining activities, with drawings of carachupas, crabs and turtles on top .

Drawing carachupas, crabs and turtles on top of aerial photos of illegal mining.

Leslie Searles / Ernesto Benavides

A landscape ruined by illegal mining

Cocoashi is located in the middle of mountains covered with vegetation. The river provides food and transportation. To hunt, residents must go into the jungle and walk for several days. This everyday life is present in the drawings of 10-year-old Yair, who decorated the photographs with images of hunting of ducks, boas and carachupas, a marsupial from the area.

Estefanny Chimpa, a 20-year-old Awajún woman, emphasized the importance of the river in her daily life. She took an aerial image showing a stream of water in the middle of a logging plot and added a blue river full of fish. "The river is ruined by the work of the mine. Water is polluted and fish cannot survive because of the pollution," she explained.

"Most of the children have made drawings of animals from the area," explains Olivario Wisun, president of the Cocoashi women's artisan association. His 8-year-old daughter Yanelis also created an image. The artisan leader points out that he tells his daughter about the consequences of illegal extractive activity.

The children's drawings have a common connection, says the painter Gerardo Petsaín. "They express that both animals and plants are related, helping each other. Starting from the bacteria in the soil, plants and animals. Including the air and water of rivers, lagoons and streams. If some of the elements are missing, they don't function well, they get damaged and produce contamination of different types," he said.

Drawn mameys, an edible fruit plant that abounds in the Amazon forests, amid deforestation and pollution.

Imagining mameys, an edible fruit plant that abounds in the Amazon forests, amid deforestation and pollution.

Leslie Searles / Ernesto Benavides

How mining causes divisions

Raising awareness about the environmental problems caused by environmental pollution in the children of Cocoashi could also help reduce school dropout in El Cenepa. Many Awajún and Wampis minors do not finish high school and go to work as informal miners in dredgers. Another problem that this activity has generated is the decrease of fish in the river, which increases hunger in the area.

One of the reasons why this activity increased in El Cenepa is the little control that the State has in this border territory with Ecuador. Last July, the Ombudsman, Walter Gutiérrez, asked the Public Ministry and the Ministry of the Interior to prioritize the fight against illegal mining in the north of the Amazon region.

The Ombudsman pointed out that although the Armed Forces had been ordered to help the police with the control of this activity, this was not enough. He also warned that leaders of the area were being threatened by illegal miners.

Salomón Awananch, president of the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Northern Amazon of Peru (Orpian-P), said that the expansion of mining in the territory has caused a division between representatives of communities who are for and against the activity.

Stopping illegal activity is one of the main struggles of the Awajún people. This is the only way to avoid “having no landscape” in the Amazon area, as Suely Apika put it, observing the aerial image of areas affected by dredgers and illegal logging.

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