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The Ese' Ejja indigenous people


Our team camped at Sonene Village, the last remaining Ese' Ejja community, at the bottom of the Heath River at the end of the expedition. Eddi Little Bird arranged a meeting with the other elders and asked for permission for us to enter the village. We learned that the name "Sonene" is also the Ese’ Ejja name for the Heath River. Fawcett names three tribal groups he encountered on his expedition. The village elders told us all people on the Heath were Ese’ Ejja. We had viewed evidence of people living near the Heath headwaters. These generous people brought us fruits and drink and allowed us to sleep in their largest communal hut.


Barron had a meeting with the oldest man, also the shaman and ex chief of the village. His name was Shai (caiman or alligator). Barron, "I asked if he knew or heard from his father if anyone had seen an Englishman many years ago named Fawcett. He said he did not remember, but his father told him he had seen Whiteman travelling up river before his father was chief." "I asked if he thought there were any Ese’ Ejja living near the headwaters of the Heath. The chief spat and said "Yes, but they are naked and savage and there are no large groups anymore!" He then said "When I was a boy there was always fighting between the upper and lower river people. One day my father, chief before me, gathered all the men from the lower Heath and made a raid on the upper river Ese' Ejja." He said, "We killed all the men and scalped them. Then we put the scalps under our armpits and danced all night around the fire. That is how we gained their power and that is why there are no villages on the upper Sonene!"


The Ese' Ejja indigenous people of Bolivia and Peru live in the Amazon Basin region. Their name for the Heath is the Sonene River. An Ese' Ejja Village, called Sonene Village, lies at the mouth of the Heath as it enters into the Madre Di Dios River. Ese’ Ejja live in Bolivia along the Beni and the Madre de Dios Rivers. In Peru, they live along the Heath and Tambopata Rivers. Ese’ Ejja people are hunter-gathers, farmers, rangers and fishermen. Their name derives from their autonym, Ece’je, which means “true people.” They are also known as the Chama, Tatinawa, Huarayo, Guarayo, Chuncho, Huanayo, Kinaki, and Mohino.


The Ese' Ejja of Bolivia and Peru in the southwestern Amazon number around 1,300. In Bolivia in the Pando and Beni Departments,

 they live in the foothills along the Beni and the Madre de Dios Rivers. In Peru, they live along the Tambopata and Heath Rivers, near Puerto Maldonado.


The Ese’Ejja live in the Heath/Tambopata region of south east Peru and Madidi/Madre de Dios in Bolivia. 60 years ago there were around 15,000 Ese’Ejja in Tambopata, but today there are just a few hundred, as diseases introduced by foreigners and the decimation of the rubber boom have taken a heavy toll. The largest Ese’Ejja population is found in Bolivia.


The Ese’Ejja have retained their traditional use of rainforest resources, but these have evolved significantly from the ways of their ancestors. The Ese’ejja were originally nomadic – they are wonderful river navigators, and would move their settlements along the rainforest rivers, never depleting resources in any one location. Their traditional hunting methods have also evolved, with bows and arrows and (for fishing) harpoons being largely replaced by shotguns and fishing lines. 


However, the Ese’Ejja are working hard to conserve their environment and traditions, and now own or are active in running a number of eco-lodges and conservation centers. They have always used plants from the forests for medicinal purposes but in recent years that tradition was in danger of not being passed on to younger generations. While the benefits of western medicine were not in doubt, a program to address the potential demise of the Ese’Ejja’s plant medicines was set in place. As a result, a book, recording the traditional medicines and their uses has been produced and given to all the Ese’Ejja in Peru and Bolivia. And in Infierno the Ese’Ejja maintain a witchdoctor’s garden, with over 180 different species of plants.

In addition to subsistence agriculture, the Ese’Ejja sell the brazil nuts that they collect in the rainforest, and some of them travel up river to hunt, fish and collect turtle eggs. The rainforest also provides the Ese’Ejja with materials for their crafts – they make baskets, hats, bows and arrows, fans and hammocks – and the wood and palm thatch for their houses.


Ese´Ejja belong to the Tacana language family, and has traditionally inhabited the Tambopata, Heath, Beni and Madidi river basins in Peru and Bolivia. In 1948, the Ese´Ejja population was estimated to be 15,000 individuals. Presently, the Ese´Ejja Community of Infierno, on the Tambopata River has around 400 members, and although other Ese´Ejja communities exist along the Heath River, a drastic decrease in the population has occurred due to diseases introduced by foreigners and to the atrocities committed during the rubber boom.


The Ese´Ejja are superb river navigators, who traditionally shifted their settlements along the banks of the rivers in their territory, managing to travel up to the headwaters. Thus, Ese´Ejjas spread the intensity of resource use throughout a territory of millions of hectares, without permanently affecting any particular site: a sustainable use of forest resources. The Ese´Ejja cosmology holds that humans may live in harmony with nature.           


Presently, families of the Ese’Ejja Native Community combine their traditional use of forest resources with some occidental influences to produce a lifestyle that is noticeably different from their ancestral ways, as well as from those of other rain forest residents (mestizos, Andean immigrants, etc). Their principal activity is subsistence agriculture, but they combine this with a wide variety of complimentary practices. Brazil nut gathering is important, as the community’s forests harbor dense Brazil nut tree stands. Most of what is gathered is sold, along with surplus crops. Traces of their migratory habits are still present: small number of Ese’Ejja navigate up the Tambopata river during the dry season to hunt large vertebrates within the reserve, to fish and to collect beach-nesting turtle eggs. Other edible products they gather from the forest include fruits, fungi, bird eggs, honey, and larvae. They also use forest fibers, barks and seeds for their crafts: fans, palm thatches, baskets, hammocks, hats, bows, arrows, spools, and collars. Hunting was traditionally done with bow and arrow, techniques that are now secondary to the shotgun. Likewise, fishing with bow and arrows and harpoons has been partially replaced with line fishing. Both these techniques, plus their now permanent settlements have diminished the large mammal, bird and fish densities and made it difficult for Ese´Ejjas to maintain their traditional lifestyles.


The Ese’Ejja believe they climbed down to Earth from a cotton thread in the sky. The elders in their community point out the exact spot in the forest of this legendary descent. A traditionally nomadic community, the Ese’Ejja have a long history that demonstrates a spiritual connection with the Amazon. Their nomadic lifestyle began to change in the late 19th century when rubber was discovered and rubber tappers created permanent settlements in the Amazonian region. The Ese’Ejja hunter-gatherer way of life was further disrupted with the arrival of missionaries from the 1910s to 1930s. Ese’Ejja children were taken away from their families to live in mission schools in Puerto Maldonado. Permanent settlement initiatives of the Ese’Ejja people continued when the Peruvian military government of Velasco introduced indigenous peoples land rights reform in the early 1970s giving land titles to individual communities. However, the title and actual acreage was only a small percentage of the Ese’Ejja original ancestral home range. These newly demarcated boundaries limited and even excluded Ese’Ejja access to sacred sites and many of the traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering areas that they relied on before the land reform policies of the 1970s.

To this day, the Ese’Ejja have limited access to their ancestral lands due to land rights battles with the Peruvian government. Mining operations pollute their waters and logging operations deplete their forests. These extraction practices have culminated in a devastating loss of wildlife populations and biodiversity. As a result, younger generations of Ese’Ejja have limited opportunities to experience the traditions of their elders.

Facing a range of challenges, the Ese’Ejja community is taking steps to protect their history and preserve their natural resources. In the words of Carlos Dejaviso Poje, president of the Ese’Ejja Nation: “I worry most about losing the indigenous knowledge of our people. It would be a cultural genocide if we lost our customs and we didn’t know how to value what our ancestors valued.”


In the words of one Ese’Ejja elder, Mateo Viaeja, “We are the ancient owners of this land because we were the first to come down from the sky. Without the forest, there is no life… and no Ese’Ejja.”

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