Taking a bullet for his river

Exploring Peru's imperiled Rio Maranon with activist-paddler Zacarias Cumbia C’hamik

Photo by Steve Miller
Story by Nathan B. Warren

There's more than river-running at stake in the fight to save the Rio Maranon. For many Peruvians living along the equatorial river that cuts through the Andes, the battle is far more than a struggle to defend the environment or to safeguard access to "truly world-class" river sections including what outfitter/conservationist Rocky Contos has helped establish as the "Grand Canyon of the Amazon." They are fighting to protect their communities and livelihoods that have lasted thousands of years. It is a fight with increasing consequences, one that is literally becoming a matter of life and death.

On December 28, 2015, community leader and environmental activist Hitler Ananías Rojas Gonzales was murdered in his hometown of Yagén, Peru. According to Peru's National Human Rights Coordinator, Rojas Gonzales's death follows the unsolved murders of three other environmental leaders in the region, each fighting against the proposed construction of over 20 dams along the Marañón.

Just prior to Rojas Gonzales's murder, in October 2015, I was fortunate to travel down the Marañón with one of the river's staunch defenders—one who almost became part of those tragic statistics. Zacarias Cumbia C'hamik is a 30-year-old member of Peru's indigenous Awajun community who took a bullet in the fight to protect his river.

C'hamik behind the oars. Photo: Steve Miller

As an Apu, or community leader, C'hamik works with other Awajun to protect their lands from interloping energy corporations and to protest the government's attack on their sovereignty. In 2009, he joined other leaders from his community in an attempt to prevent corporate petroleum and mining interests* from entering their lands by interlocking arms to create a human roadblock. Backing the corporations, the Peruvian military opened fire, shooting C'hamik and two of his friends who died from their wounds. When C'hamik joined us on the river, he still had the bullet in his arm. He shared with us how his work as a river guide would allow him to earn the $500 necessary to remove it. Despite his experience, C'hamik remains willing to sacrifice his life to protect his people and their lands from the energy-hungry consumers who see the river as a potential fiscal boon rather than a natural wonder and community resource.

Photo: Steve Miller

C'hamik grew up on the banks of the Maranon, in a small community where the river stops flowing north and pushes eastward through the Andes before entering the flats of the upper Amazon basin. The mountains force the river into a tight gorge, called a pongo, and the high-volume river becomes a swirling tumult of exploding waves, raft-crushing holes and kayak-enveloping whirlpools. As they have done for thousands of years, the villagers along this section of river farm sugar cane, root vegetables and fruits to supplement diets of freshly caught game.

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Indigenous Awajun Peruvians crossing the river with cattle. Photo: Nathan Warren

In late September 2015, seven rafters from the United States and I joined up with Contos's nonprofit, SierraRios, to travel from the confluence of the Rio Maranon and the Puchka rivers to the Amazon jungle and the Awajun communities along the pongos. We were fortunate to have C'hamik guide us through 410 river miles over 28 days through four distinct canyons, each over one mile deep. We floated by local villages cut off from society except for the river and relaxed in natural hot springs built by pre-Incan communities. We climbed up dry narrow canyons straight out of southern Utah. Throughout the journey, C'hamik's connection to the river spanned the spectrum of his life: It is his home, his community, his work, his passion, his spirituality and the highway connecting him to his family and his ancestors.

One with the river: Zacarias Cumbia C'hamik guides a boat this fall. Photo: Britt Runyon – brittrunyon.com

We each quickly came to appreciate C'hamik, not only for his driven work ethic and easy smile, but also for his profound appreciation of the river and ecosystem. Every new shape of rock, every slot canyon and waterfall plunging into the river, and every pre-Incan ruin, path and granary that we encountered became another opportunity to remember the ancient and spiritual nature of the river. On the river, he would heed premonitions from his dreams, one day opting to swim a long and winding boulder-strewn Class IV rapid rather than ignore the bad omen and risk paddling it in raft. Every night as we established a new camp, C'hamik would disappear into the surrounding brush and emerge carrying an entire tree trunk on his back. The end of each day was another chance to recognize and give thanks for the bounty of the river and the canyon – celebrated by building a fire large enough to keep the moon warm throughout its journey across the southern sky.

Choosing to save a river is more often an act of passion than of careful calculation. You make the choice because the river has touched your life in an intimate and irreversible way, because you are unwilling to accept its loss. — David Bolling, How to Save a River: Handbook for Citizen Action

C'hamik's sensitivity to the natural world is reminiscent of a time in human history when survival depended not on making money, but rather on knowledge of one's surrounding environment. This grounding knowledge was accumulated in local villages and passed down from generation to generation, and C'hamik was happy to share it with us. One night he managed to catch a fish with a flashlight, a knife and his bare hand. Another day he shimmied 50 feet up a mango tree with a graceful confidence that would inspire many climbers — just so he could shake loose ripe fruit for us to feast upon.

Photo Nathan Warren

On a rest day, four of us decided to hike up a small side stream to explore a community of 10 homes tucked into the canyon. We wandered across a small hand-irrigated farm. C'hamik engaged a family in a long conversation about the spirituality of the river and the cruelty of the government forcefully removing these people from the land. Contrasting the thatch-roof hut and traditional clothing of his Quechuan parents, the family's 16-year-old boy wore studded jeans, decorated with chains and enough pocket space to hide a small collection of 40oz beers, suggesting'90s punk-rock fan that reminded us of the dynamic pull of modernization. We returned to camp downstream where C'hamik caught three fish and one large freshwater crab by diving under and reaching into the smallest and darkest crevasses of the river bed with his bare hands.

Photo: Steve Miller

While witnessing C'hamik's passion for the river and its interdependent life systems was, for me, a spiritual journey, arriving in his village was blissful. We were inundated with small children who touched our scruffy beards, sat in our boats, and showed off how well they could swim in the river. We were invited up to the village where rousing speeches about the importance of protecting the river were given in Awajun, Spanish and English. We watched the men machete weeds and chalk lines onto the small rocky dirt rectangle in the center of town for a soccer tournament between the three closest villages. We sat with the teenage mothers, watched the games, and drank a local concoction, which the Awajun rebottled into used plastic Coca-Cola bottles before handing them to us. Five-year-olds ran about, climbed trees and supervised their 3-year-old siblings. In the community house—a long two-story building with packed mud walls and a half-thatch, half-metal roof—they fed us a traditional meal of soup, rice, root vegetables and chicken with an infusion of water and purple corn to drink. They loved us and cared for us.

An Awajun boy relaxing in a village. Photo Nathan Warren

Apu, the spirit of the mountains, drawn down into the mighty Rio Maranon, brought us together despite our language and cultural disparities. This place and these people were not yet ready to be drowned by modernity and its promises of smartphones and packaged food. They had what they needed to live happily and many lessons to teach. And for those of us who had strayed from the ebbs and flows, the waves and eddies, and the ceaseless flow of the natural world, we were grateful to listen.

Photo: Britt Runyon – brittrunyon.com

* [Editor’s Note: This story has been modified from its original version with input from Rocky Contos, noting C'hamik’s injuries resulting from the 2009 indigenous Baguazo protests against federal regulations to open the region to corporate natural resource extraction. Contos also noted that the Maranon’s Grand Canyon section remains safe for tourist travel, largely because most paddling groups employ guides and local residents friendly with the communities along the river. “Bringing more tourism to the river is one of the main ways that will probably help save the river,” said Contos.]

— Read more on the paddling and eco-politics of Peru’s Rio Maranon in our list of Most Threatened Paddling Classics.

— Stay tuned as C&K covers the increasingly violent hostility to dam opposition in Latin America with the recent news of the murder of Honduran indigenous and environmental rights campaigner Berta Cáceres, following her protest to the massive hydropower project on the Rio Gualcarque.

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