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A New Idea to Improve Lives of Amazonian Indigenous People: Social Innovation

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

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 in the sandy wasteland just a few blocks away from the Peruvian capital Lima’s main square, where hundreds of families of the Shipibo-Konibo community lived. They lost everything in this fire that went through Cantagallo.

Devastating fire through Cantagallo

Peru’s indigenous groups make up roughly 45 percent of its population of 31 million people. The Shipibo-Konibo indigenous people who once lived along the Ucayali River, the major tributary of the Amazon River, is one of Peru’s largest Amazon tribes.

“Over the past few decades, Peruvian indigenous people have always been seen as second-class citizens,” said Salic Shetty, the secretary of Amnesty International. With the majority of them still struggling under the national poverty line, people need to find a new way to help the indigenous people better.

Connecting indigenous people and tourists

Two decades ago, more than 2,000 of the Shipibo-Konibo people moved to Cantagallo in Lima to pursue higher income and better quality of life. They lived together and turned Cantagallo into a significant platform for indigenous culture. In 1990, tribal woman Dalia moved to Lima with her daughter, making a living by selling handicrafts. Tourists around the world arrived in Cantagallo with the intention to buy the handicrafts made by indigenous women. These crafts provide the primary source of income for the community.

However, the massive fire 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, thus having to sell their products on the streets, often ended up with no income for the day.

After the fire, Peruvian president Pablo Kuczynski once visited Cantagallo and promised to rehouse the community on their original site. Despite such pledges two years ago, however, the Shipibo-Konibo people are still waiting.

Fortunately, someone is willing to step out and build a communication channel between the indigenous people and tourists.

Alternative Peru is a social enterprise founded in 2014, advocating for responsible travel experiences off the beaten path and an authentic intercultural exchange. Tourism in Peru tends to focus on only those well-known attractions of the country, which means that benefits from tourism are also concentrated in certain areas.

This company works closely together with the indigenous 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.

Showing Shipibo art and culture

By visiting a community of the Shipibo-Konibo ethnic group, people will learn more about their culture, traditions, history and current reality while also enjoying a delicious lunch at a host family’s house and learning two Shipibo art techniques. The focus of this kind of tour is an authentic and respectful cultural exchange.

Although visitors are brought to the poorest areas of the city, little depression or sorrow can be sensed. Instead, optimism and hope pervade this area – strong women who fought to preserve their traditions and to keep their culture alive, have found a good way to get ahead by showing and teaching their art to visitors, with the help of the innovative enterprise.

There, one can find indigenous people working for their projects (including cooks, guides, cleaners, and drivers) with a decent salary, enabling them financial stability and a comfortable life.

From the jungle, for the jungle

Apart from helping the indigenous people who migrated to the city, some people who love nature choose to use the model combining social innovation and business to promote community development in rural Peru’s Amazon area.

In 2011, Sofia combined her love of Amazon with her professional knowledge in biology and her entrepreneurial spirit to initiate Shiwi, a company devoted to sustainable development based on rainforest resources by producing 100% natural and organic products.

Shiwi’s team and indigenous people

Beginning from granola made from Amazon nuts, soon Shiwi’s products expanded to coconut oil, cane sugar, honey, cosmetic Amazon nut oil and lip balms, even Amazon nut beer. Their products can be found in ecological fairs, organic stores, or any other spots where healthy and environmental-friendly products are expected.

Aside from promoting the harmony between human and nature, Shiwi also cooperates closely with indigenous communities to bring them development opportunities. For example, to facilitate local employment, they pay 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. Basically what they are looking for is that everyone receives the fair price for their products. “We also want to change the mindset and improve their lives by educating indigenous people and providing them with jobs,” said Arturo, Shiwi’s marketing manager.

For example, Ursino, 60-year-old indigenous man, used to be a hunter and make money by cutting trees in the Amazon. After Shiwi’s training, he changed his mind and began sustainably collecting coconut oil.

“In one of the poor communities that we cooperated with, where there was even no electricity before, people now have enough money to let their children go to school, which means that maybe we really made something,” said Arturo.

Using eco-tourism to protect the homeland

The indigenous people who live in the Amazon jungle have taken actions as well. They improve their living standards through eco-tourism.

The village located on the east coast of the Ucayali River, Libertad, was once an isolated Amazonian village with approximately 320 indigenous people. Ten years ago, the villagers only had access to a manually powered canoe, so it 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, sustaining a self-sufficient lifestyle.

Seven years ago, inspired by the concept of eco-tourism, 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, lots of villagers acquired long-term occupations—chefs, boatmen, tour guides, as well as cleaners. The tourists can come here and become fully immersed in nature. They hike in the jungle, go fishing, observe the birds during the day and crocodiles at night. Additionally, tourists can also communicate directly with the villagers, learn to make handicrafts and purchase them from indigenous women.

Alicia, now 72, married at sixteen. In order to pay for her eight children’s education, she once had to travel to Iquitos to sell her products such as tomatoes, corns, and bell peppers for only 200 soles 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, five times more than her original income. “I’m really grateful to the Libertad Jungle Lodge. It offered me a job, enabling me to earn more money,” said Alicia.

Amazonian indigenous women are teaching visitors how to make crafts

Nowadays, 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.”

When asked about the changes to the village brought by the eco-tourism project, the 29-year-old villager Gumer couldn’t stop praising.

When questioned about the developmental objectives of the project, the founder Manuel answered, “I wish, within ten years, that all 300 villagers are able to improve their living standards through the income from tourism. There will be no need to log, to hunt, and the Amazon jungle can be preserved.”

Indigenous people and people who care about indigenous people have chosen to take the initiative, perhaps 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.


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