Changing Planet

The Ese’Eja: From a Cotton Thread in the Sky to Protectors of the Amazon

The Genographic Project Legacy Fund, funded by a portion of the proceeds from Geno 2.0 DNA Ancestry Kits, helps to revitalize indigenous languages and cultures around the world. Grant applications are accepted biannually on April 15 and September 15. The Ese’Eja of the Madre de Dios Amazon region in Peru recently received such a grant to establish a cultural mapping initiative and provide educational materials to Ese’Eja youth to preserve and document the Ese’Eja traditional culture and way of life. Here is a small part of their story.

The Ese’Eja 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’Eja 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’Eja hunter-gatherer way of life was further disrupted with the arrival of missionaries from the 1910s to 1930s. Ese’Eja children were taken away from their families to live in mission schools in Puerto Maldonado. Permanent settlement initiatives of the Ese’Eja 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’Eja original ancestral home range. These newly demarcated boundaries limited and even excluded Ese’Eja 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’Eja 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’Eja have limited opportunities to experience the traditions of their elders.

Facing a range of challenges, the Ese’Eja community is taking steps to protect their history and preserve their natural resources. In the words of Carlos Dejaviso Poje, president of the Ese’Eja 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 Carlos Dejaviso Poje, president of the Ese’Eja 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.” Photo by Jon Cox
Carlos Dejaviso Poje, President of the Ese’Eja Nation, expresses his worry over losing the indigenous knowledge of his people. (Photo by Jon Cox)

In 2013, the Ese’Eja received a Genographic Legacy Fund grant to perform a cultural mapping initiative and provide educational materials for Ese’Eja youth. The project was a collaborative effort with researchers from the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) and the University of Delaware. The research team worked with the Ese’Eja to create tools to document their culture, promote self-expression, and record traditions for future generations. Cultural practices such as the traditional use of plants for medicine and food were captured through photography and by recording oral histories. Elders drew maps from memory of their ancestral territories featuring sacred fishing and hunting locations. All the information gathered is incorporated into educational materials for the Ese’Eja children and surrounding communities. These records will serve far more than just the Ese’Eja youth; they will allow the Ese’Eja to share their identity and stories with the rest of the world.

“The goal of the project was to work with the Ese’Eja to tell their oral stories and indigenous knowledge of the forest through their own eyes, document their ancestral lands and share the pressures they are facing from the outside world,” said Jon Cox, Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Delaware.

While the traditions of the Ese’Eja are unique, unfortunately, many of the problems they face are not. Indigenous groups around the world struggle with the reality that they may lose the natural resources they have depended on for generations. The Ese’Eja remind us of how connected we all are to our environment, our planet, and to each other. Collaborative efforts, such as this one, preserve keys to the past far beyond traditional communities.

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About the Genographic Legacy Fund

Rachel Bruton is a member of National Geographic’s Explorer Programs team. She works with National Geographic’s explorers and several initiatives including the Genographic Project and the Big Cats Initiative. In this role, her focus is on social media, event implementation, marketing and outreach. Rachel is a Maryland native and received a B.B.A in Marketing from James Madison University.
  • Karen Seymour

    This story is extraordinary! I never knew it existed. It is so disheartening that these wonderful people have to fight to keep their history alive! While valuable information is documented, nothing can compare to the young children actually experiencing the life of their ancestors. The Documentary is fantastic!

  • cesar augusto jojaje eriney

    STATEMENT Ese Eja indigenous people

    The indigenous leaders and authorities Ese Eja undersigned, met on 17, 18 and 19 August 2016, in the native community Palma Real, located in the region Madre de Dios, Peru, organized in Palma Real, Sonene native communities and hell, members of the Council of the Nation Ese Eja recognize the work that the regional indigenous organization FENAMAD .;
    We conducted an exchange of knowledge about the situation of indigenous peoples and protected natural areas as conservation strategies, considering the international context, the existing regulatory framework on the rights of indigenous peoples and protected areas, and met about the experience of others Latin America and its relationship with indigenous peoples protected areas.
    As a result of that meeting protected by the Constitution of Peru (Article 89 and fourth final supplementary provision), the General Environmental Law, and the Law of Protected Natural Areas and its regulations, and the right to a decent life (Convention American Commission on Human Rights), self-determination (Article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), the right to indigenous participation (Article 6 of Convention 169 of the ILO) the right to free and informed prior consultation (Article 7 of the Convention 169), the right to property and possession of the land, and the right of indigenous territory (articles 13, 14, 15, 16 of the Convention 169 ILO and Article 21 of the American Convention on Human Rights), the right to the use, management and conservation of that traditional natural resources and have ancestrally had access (Article 15 of the Convention 169 of the ILO and articles 8j and 10c the Convention on Biological Diversity), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the relevant articles,
    The people Ese Eja is pre-existent to the Peruvian State and the right to demand that their history is recognized, the articulation of national and international structures, must ensure the survival of their culture,
    We declare the following:

    1.Demandamos legal recognition of the Peruvian State of Ese Eja indigenous people;

    2. We demand the claim and restitution of ancestral historical territory to guarantee the right to food and to life worthy of people Ese Eja. This principle is not negotiable.

    3. Indigenous authorities Ese Eja people sue the Peruvian government developing a management model ancestral province, respecting natural resources, culture, intangible heritage, the dignity and rights of the people Ese Eja.

    4. We demand the co-management and co-administration of ancestral province and the protection of biodiversity in the Bahuaja Sonene National Park and the Tambopata National Reserve.

    5.Declaramos the importance of strengthening partnerships with international regional national organizations (AIDESEP), (FENAMAD) and (COICA) with indigenous authorities Ese Eja indigenous people in the struggle for their historical rights to ancestral territories and co-management.

    6. We recognize the importance of strengthening our own organizations with training activities through an education program in language Ese Eja, and strengthening our rights;

    7. We declare that the Peruvian State restore and repair our rights for the exploitation of natural resources in the ancestral territory made arbitrarily without consultation or prior, free and informed the People Ese Eja;

    8. We declare our solidarity with other indigenous peoples facing similar struggles, indigenous people Matsiguenga, and Yine in the Madre de Dios region.

    Given in the native community of Palma Real, Mother of God, on the nineteenth day of August of the year two thousand and sixteen.

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