The Wachiperi of Queros have lived in the Peruvian rain forest for a thousand years. For most of their history they have had only limited contact with outside groups, whether other indigenous people or the Incas and Spaniards.
That all changed in the 1950s. The often surprising ways the Wachiperi dealt with that change and how it altered their relationship with the forest that had nurtured them for a millennium is revealed in research conducted by Rodolfo Tello, anthropology ’10.
Tello, who works to mitigate the impact of development projects on Latin Americans through his job at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C., spent years studying the Wachiperi, both as a doctoral student in anthropology at American University’s College of Arts and Sciences and as coordinator of indigenous affairs for a sustainable development project.
He found that for the Wachiperi, close contact with members of Western society had immediate benefits: machetes for cutting brush, shotguns for hunting. But that contact soon proved catastrophic. Communicable disease, especially smallpox, wiped out 65 percent of the population. The community now numbers only about 60 members, Tello notes in the book he adapted from his dissertation, Hunting Practices of the Wachiperi: Demystifying Indigenous Environmental Behavior. The survivors resettled in a Baptist mission, forced for the first time to live near outsiders. Suddenly people who had relied primarily on subsistence hunting were also trading, working as hired labor, logging, fishing, and farming.
“That contrasts with traditional views that provide a more static view of the environmental behavior of indigenous people—that similar causes produce similar effects,” says Tello. “It’s not like that. In reality, it’s a more dynamic process.”
Hunting practices, and how the Wachiperi adapted to this new era, provided Tello the key to understanding their community. Hunting among the Wachiperi has always been a male-dominated activity (although women do the butchering and cooking). And hunting has always been more than a means of survival; it is also a social activity, a chance for male bonding.
Hunting has ceremonial dimensions as well. Feathers are gathered for ceremonies, for instance. And animal products also have medicinal properties. Their fat, for example, can help relieve stiff joints.
Especially post-contact, Tello notes, the Wachiperi, so long dependent on the bounty of the land, have sometimes been poor stewards of the environment. Having shotguns made it easier to kill game, and shining flashlights to hunt at night created more opportunities. But animals soon became scarce and hunters had to trek for hours to find prey. Pursuing other economic options, such as agriculture, proved easier and more reliable.
Similarly, fishing became more productive, at least temporarily, through two means: the use of poison and dynamite. “The poison also killed the small fish and even the eggs sometimes,” Tello says, “so it affected the reproduction of the fish in the river.” As the number of fish subsequently dwindled, the practice was limited.
“When they started fishing with dynamite, that was even more intense because that killed everything,” says Tello. “Eventually they realized that fish didn’t replenish as they did before. Slowly that created a greater awareness of scarcity of resources to the point that, today, they even protect the fishing areas. People from nearby settlements, nonindigenous, come to the river to fish with dynamite sometimes, but the Wachiperi have now taken a more defensive approach to fishing,” proving again the dynamic nature of how indigenous people interact with their environment.
In July 2008, the Wachiperi community began managing a government conservation area in their region. With funding and technical help from an environmental organization, conservation efforts and ecotourism became part of their economic mix.
Other far-reaching changes have come as well. Some members of the community have earned college degrees and returned as professionals and government employees. Others operate twenty-first–century businesses, such as an Internet café. Indeed, Tello communicates with some members of the Wachiperi via email.
But less hunting by the Wachiperi as they pursue other activities has not meant more local wildlife, Tello notes in Hunting Practices of the Wachiperi.
“On the contrary, many species have become scarcer over time,” he writes. The cause: more settlers, more logging, more commercial hunting by the newcomers, and agricultural expansion.
The Wachiperi face other threats, Tello fears. Greater dependence on the outside world in pursuit of consumer-goods, chronic health problems that come with a changed diet, the loss of their culture—all are potential hazards.
Still, Tello remains optimistic. He concludes in Hunting Practices, “In the long term . . . the self-determined focus on sustainability, education, community organization, and recovery of cultural traditions is likely to place the Wachiperi in a better position than similar groups lacking these characteristics, especially if they create social spaces to reflect on the direction of their socioeconomic changes and develop mechanisms to mitigate their potentially harmful effects.”