Foto canoa paisaje Ucamara. A woman stands in a canoe moored along the Marañón River, where most community life centers on the waterway. (Radio Ucamara)
Foto canoa niña Quisca. A girl paddles a canoe during the high-water season on the Marañón River in Amazonian Peru. (Quisca Producciones/M. Araoz)
Foto mujer rito Ucamara. A woman shaman calls on river spirits of the Marañón. The legal case would safeguard the spirits, which play a key role in Kukama culture. (Radio Ucamara)

To commemorate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August), Barbara Fraser, a freelance journalist based in Lima, Peru, shares a story about how Indigenous women are defending a sacred river in Peru.

Like most Kukama women in Peru’s northeastern Amazonian region, Mari Luz Canaquiri’s life centers on the Marañón River.

The river is the place where she and her family fetch water for drinking and cooking, wash clothes, and bathe at the end of a day’s labor. She remembers the great fish migrations of her childhood, when giant catfish and huge paiche made a sound like drumming as they swam upriver.

In recent years, however, the river has changed, and with it the lives of Canaquiri’s people, the Kukama Kukamiria, who live along its banks. The great fish migrations have diminished. Oil from leaking barges and pipelines has seeped into palm swamps.

The final indignity was a plan called the Amazonian Hydrovia, which would involve dredging various shallow places – engineers called them “bad spots” — along the Amazon, Marañón, Ucayali and Huallaga rivers.

Under Peruvian law, Indigenous communities must be consulted about any project that would affect their collective rights. In the case of the hydrovia, however, the consultation was merely a series of information sessions, with little discussion of possible impacts.

Canaquiri and other leaders of the women’s organisation Huaynakana Kamatahuara Kana, which means ‘women who work’ in Kukama, were worried.

“We want them to respect the Marañón River,” she says. “It’s very sacred to us.”

Besides being a central place in the communities’ territory, the river is the dwelling place of spirits. Some are relatives who have fallen into the river and whose bodies have not been recovered, who have gone to live in underwater cities. Others are spirits that shamans summon to help heal illnesses.

Those shallow places are sand banks where the river spirits rest, Canaquiri said at one of the public hearings about the hydrovia, and the dredging would cause those spirits to flee.

The project has stalled because of other objections, but the consultation made the women determined to defend the river. In September 2021, they filed a legal case calling for Peru to recognise the Marañón as having rights — the right to exist, to flow freely, to maintain its biodiversity and natural functions, and the right to representation.

Those rights are related to the Indigenous communities’ right to maintain their culture, says lawyer Juan Carlos Ruiz of the non-profit Legal Defense Institute in Lima, who drafted the case.  The Marañón case is modeled on that of Te Awa Tupua in Aotearoa, in which Sister of Saint Joseph, Makareta Tawaroa, has been involved.

In Amazonian Indigenous cosmovisions, every being has a spirit, a madre, and that spirit is also gente, a person. “If the river has a spirit that is also a person, why can’t it have the rights of a person?” Canaquiri asks.

“Working with the Kukama women has taught me that water is much more than a natural resource: our rivers, lakes and streams are alive,” says Canadian filmmaker Stephanie Boyd, who is making a documentary about the Kukama people’s relationship with the river.

Observers are not sure whether the Peruvian court will side with the women, but Canaquiri says it’s important that the issue is being raised: “We need to do this for our children.”

Barbara Fraser