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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Meet the Author
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.