Benki Piyãko: Self-empowerment and struggle against outside exploitation

The leader of an indigenous community in the Amazonian state Acre, Brazil, has decided to defend their land against outside exploitation. He seeks to increase the capacity and ability of the indigenous people to defend themselves and their rights against intruders, and teaches them land management techniques and how to preserve the rich ecosystem of the rainforest.

Benki Piyãko, who was born in 1974, was educated by his grandfather to become a pajé, the most important leader of the tribe of the Asháninka. The pajé is bestowed with the knowledge and traditions of the tribe and additionally learned in the wisdom and skills of traditional healers. He uses these healing powers to ensure the well-being of his community. The Asháninka are a tribe of about 600 persons, who live close to the Amônia River in the Amazonian state of Acre, close to the border of Brazil and Peru.

Although the Asháninka territory was officially acknowledged by the Brazilian government and given autonomy in 1980, it has increasingly been affected by the government’s energy and ecological policies. The Brazilian energy consumption is rising steadily, due to the country’s development and status as an emerging market country. The production of energy is to be expanded to include the flooding of landscapes and building of artificial lakes, reservoirs and dams. The territories most affected by these measures are those that are a part of the Amazonian region. Moreover, the powerful agribusinesses of Brazil are pressuring the government into new forest and agriculture laws. President Dilma Rousseff passed a new forest law in 2011, which not only included the drastic reduction of forest area under governmental protection, but also an amnesty to previously illegal wood clearings. Major NGOs like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) previously warned the government of passing a new forest bill and estimated that the law could affect a total area of the size of Austria, Switzerland and Germany combined.

Benki Piyãko and his tribe have decided to resist further restrictions of their rights and land by the government. The tribe protects their land against logging and wood clearings, as well as against the drug mafia, which traffics narcotics throughout the region. Due to the complete lack of state-enforced regulations and security in the region, the Asháninka patrol their territory in order to protect themselves and their ecosystem. Since 2000, several efforts by Peruvian loggers to invade and exploit the Asháninka lands have been made. In order to respond to these threats against the population and the upcoming disaster for the ecosystem, Piyãko helped establish a trans-border working group in 2005, which guarantees the participation of the indigenous population in development policies in the trans-border area.

Piyãko is the head of the training center „Yoreke Ãtame“, „Knowledge of the Rainforest“, where indigenous and non-indigenous youth are educated in sustaining the rainforest. Sustainable farming and the proper, careful usage of the rainforest to ensure its prosperity and renewal for the following centuries are a part of the training center’s objective. Furthermore, the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups living together in Brazil is propagated.

The education of Agri-Forest agents is also an initiative by Benki Piyãko. These agents represent the interests of the local indigenous communities, as well as map the communities’ resources as a way of inventory control. They negotiate and protect the interests of the communities, and communicate them to the government and big businesses. Piyãko was awarded the National Human Rights Award of Brazil in recognition of his efforts. He now has a new dream that he pursues: the establishment of a rainforest university in his river village.

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