The Woman Who Bore the River on Her Back

Chief of a tribal confederation which has fought the destruction of its little corner of the Amazon rainforest with remarkable success; survivor of Peru’s savage civil war with the mad revolutionaries of the Shining Path: in Joseph Zarate’s remarkable portrait of Peruvian native environmental activist Ruth Buendia, the attitude of her fellow Ashaninka tribesmen toward their leader is careful, unidealistic in spite of all her achievements.

In this skepticism toward its leaders, perhaps, lies the key to the tribe’s success in the face of endless encroachments by militants, governments, and multinationals. From Etiqueta Negra, and with the striking photography of Musuk Nolte.

The first time they tried to bribe her, the Ashaninka activist Ruth Buendia responded to the timber trafficker’s offer with four words: “I want your head”. The guy, a shiny watch on his wrist, looked out of the corner of his eye around the office where Buendia worked alone with its desk, chair and rusty typewriter. It was eight in the morning and Satipo, formerly a lake and now a city enclosed by high, fortress-like trees, in Peru’s central jungle, was waking up to the latest cumbia hits that had begun blaring from the stands selling food in the street, and to the sound of motorbikes on the partially-paved streets. Buendia had arrived early to her office, not thinking a stranger awaited her. The man wanted to transport trucks full of lumber out of an Amazon community without the police knowing. He needed her influence.

“How much do you want?” he insisted.

“If I give you a number, you aren’t going to pay me,” Buendia responded, “So I want your head.”

And she kicked him out of the office without letting him say goodbye.

Six years later, one morning in 2014, aboard a long boat going down a large river, Ruth Buendia remembers that time. Around then, she had been reelected as president of the Ashaninka Central del Rio Ene (CARE), an organization that defends the rights and land of the Ashaninkas, the largest indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon. Buendia was 32 years old, had completed high school by taking night classes, had just had a baby and lived in a 40-square-foot rented room with her three kids and her husband.

When she threw the man who tried to bribe her out of her office that morning, her reputation as a firm and honest woman strengthened among the more than 30 Ashaninka communities along the Ene River, an artery of water that runs down the valley where the first Ashaninkas have lived since 3000 B.C.

Today Ruth Buendia is sitting in the back of a boat, eating parboiled yucca with Santani, her two-year-old son. The Ashaninka men on board wear sandals, shorts and counterfeit soccer jerseys advertising teams from Portugal, Real Madrid or Barcelona FC. The women wear purple, green and red cushmas, a kind of sleeveless tunic that comes to their ankles. In contrast to the other women though, Buendia wears a blue blouse and weathered jeans. The boat heads toward Boca Anapate, a community eight hours away where there will be a congress, which CARE holds each year. There, over three days, Ashaninka chiefs from the valley will discuss with President Buendia issues regarding the natives’ lives: harvests, security, the impact of the oil companies and the dams. From the time she was a child, Ruth Buendia, the first Ashaninka woman to run for president of CARE, felt that she had to do something for her people. Her determination was put to the test in adolescence.

***

Ruth Buendia was 13 years old when she carried her mother on her back to save her life. They had been living for weeks in the forest of the Ene River valley, fleeing a war between members of the [Maoist revolutionary] Shining Path and soldiers from the Peruvian army. Each time they heard the rotors of a helicopter or footsteps close by, they ran and hid. They no longer had yucca, or fish, or water. Their tunics were stained with dirt. The four younger siblings cried from hunger. Their mother, sick with malaria, was skin and bones. Their father was dead. There was no one to defend them.

One morning, Ruth Buendia decided they had to get to the river.

“If they kill us,” she said, “well, then they kill us.”

She then helped her mother into one of the baskets that Ashaninka women use to carry yucca during the harvest, and she carried her on the long path down to the river like one would carry a backpack.

It was the summer of 1991. The Shining Path had arrived in the mid-80s and taken control of the entire Ene River valley, after they had fled the military in Ayacucho, in Peru’s southern mountains. They pillaged farms, burned clinics and municipal offices, and killed those who opposed their struggle.

The older Ashaninkas called them kamari: demons. Spirits that hid in the forest, in the caves. Malignant beings that crushed bones, that sucked out eyeballs, that can kill a newborn or the strongest of warriors, and can force an Ashaninka to take out his own brother without remorse.

Kamari is the essence of evil and for them the Shining Path was its incarnation. The Ashaninka accepted the Maoist rebels’ discourse out of conviction or fear. Rigoberto Buendia, Ruth’s father, was 39 years old when they tried to recruit him. He was a highly respected farmer and hunter who lived on a farm three hours from Cutivireni, the largest Ashaninka community in the Ene River valley, with his wife and six kids: four girls, two boys. Members of the Shining Path arrived and asked him to take them to the community’s priest, who had escaped with dozens of families to the valley’s high country. Rigoberto Buendia refused. But some Ashaninkas, seeing that they had approached him, started the rumor that he too was a terrorist leader. One day, after having breakfast with his family, Rigoberto Buendia went to coordinate the defense of their land with the priest’s group, but the Ashaninkas shot him in the back with a rifle. They threw his body in a ravine along with the four other men who were with him. The bodies were never found.

After her father’s assassination, the Shining Path took Ruth Buendia’s family to a kind of concentration camp built in the thick vegetation of the Amazon, where more than 300 indigenous people were being held captive. There they lived practically on top of each other for months. The rebels forced them to work the land, to cook for the terrorist commanders, to give up their language and speak Quechua or Spanish. Those who rebelled were stabbed or hung in front of their families. They raped the women. They kidnapped the boys between 10 and 15 years old to indoctrinate them and turn them into soldiers. Since there was not enough food for so many people, Ruth Buendia escaped to the forest with her siblings to fish for carachama, bring back yucca, fruit or insects that might provide nourishment. It took her a year to convince her mother to flee and hide with her siblings in the forest. That is how she escaped to the Ene River, carrying her moribund mother on her back.

The photographer Vera Lentz heard the story at the military base in Cutivireni about the young heroine who had saved her mother. Hundreds of natives had ended up there, rescued by soldiers and the Ashaninka army: a battalion of indigenous warriors armed with rifles, bows and arrows that made surprise assaults on terrorist encampments to free their relatives.

Unlike other ethnic groups in the Amazon that take over territory, the Ashaninka are defensive warriors. From the time they are young, they learn how to dodge arrows before they learn how to shoot them. But when they are attacked, when their territory is invaded, they have a reputation for being the strongest warriors — the best with a bow and arrow — of the 65 Amazonian tribes that exist in Peru.

Vera Lentz was there to photograph stories of resistance. She had already been in military camps in El Salvador and Honduras and had documented the bloodiest scenes from the internal conflict in Lima and the mountains of Ayacucho. But when the captain at the military base told her the story of the young heroine, Lentz was amazed. She knew she had to photograph her: In her black and white portrait Ruth Buendia is 13 years old, skinny as a rail, standing underneath a thatched roof. Next to her is her mother, laying on a table with her body emaciated. Her younger brother is laying down, perhaps asleep, and her younger sister is sitting behind her. A basket of yucca sits in the back, in the corner of the frame. Ruth Buendia is not looking at the camera, but she smiles nervously, like a girl uncomfortable with a stranger. Lentz could only get off two shots. Ruth Buendia would not let her take more pictures.

In mid-2012,(Lentz) sent the CARE office the images she had taken during that time for an exposition in Lima on political violence in the Ashaninka communities. Ruth Buendia remembers that they printed them and hung them like drying laundry so the natives could see them. She recognized herself in one of the photos. It is the only image that exists from her childhood. Today, on the yellowing walls of the rented house where she lives in Satipo, there are pictures of trips and excursions in the forest with her children, there are medals and diplomas, there are drawings of animals and children’s doodles made with crayon and colored markers. For Buendia, they are images from happier times.

“This wound still hasn’t healed,” she says as we advance along the river.

After fleeing the Shining Path camp, Ruth Buendia was sent to Lima as a maid for a family of evangelicals because her mother did not have money to support her. But at 17 years old she returned to Satipo. There she worked as a cook and server while she finished school and raised her first daughter alone. At 21, while working at a juice bar, a client invited her to join CARE when he found out she was Ashaninka. Traveling along the Ene River, Buendia helped other natives get identification documents that they had lost during the war with members of the Shining Path. On those trips, she ran into Ashaninka leaders who had known and respected her father. Because of this, she felt at home again. In 2005, when the president of CARE resigned from his post, she entered the election and won with the overwhelming support of women voters. It was the first time an Ashaninka woman had dared be a candidate for president.

Now, each time a boat arrives to the community, Ruth Buendia gets out with a committee to look for the chief. The scene resembles that of a popular mayor visiting town: Buendia greets people with hugs and smiles. Buendia picks up a shoeless child. Buendia shakes hands with the men of the community. Buendia kisses the women who serve her fried fish and masato, a drink made from parboiled yucca fermented with water and saliva. As a sign of respect, they always serve her first.

Buendia feels that the work she does now is a way to honor her father’s name, to reconnect with her roots. Because of that, in each public appearance she wears a brown cushma adorned with seeds and robin’s feathers, and paints geometric forms on her face with red dye from a fruit called achiote, makeup for Ashaninka women. While some natives call their children Walter or Jhonny, Buendia gave her younger kids Ashaninka names: Metzoqui (soft), Yanaite (spirit that eliminates those who invade their territory), Eni (warrior ant) and Santani (a small bird that lives in the rocks). She also wants to return to her father’s farm to grow cacao, yucca and strawberries, among other crops of the Amazon. It is something she cannot do on the patio of her rented home, where she has only planted a few vegetables. In Ruth Buendia’s garden there are no flowers. The woman who protects the Amazon rainforest says she does not have a green thumb with them. She thinks she scares them: The energy of her personality is so strong, she says, that the flowers die a short time after being planted.

***

The Ashaninkas avoid conflict. When a native gets angry with a neighbor, he opts to go to the forest alone to calm down and come back later to talk. For an Ashaninka — a name which in their tongue means ‘our brothers’ — there is nothing worse than hating or killing a member of their own family.

The Ashaninkas share their food. If a native arrives to another’s house, they are served masato and food without asking for it. The natives account for 80 percent of their diet from fields where they grow yucca, plantains, maize and cacao, among other crops. Neither the land nor the hunting or fishing grounds have owners.

The Ashaninkas do not get married. For them, having children with someone represents the same the same thing as a marriage does for white people. Ruth Buendia has not married and does not feel it is necessary.

The Ashaninkas are aunts and uncles or cousins or nieces and nephews to each other. They are all family. It does not matter if they belong to a different community or do not share the same last name. There is no lineage, no class system. Their Western last names — like Bustamante, Buendia, Vega, Marcos, Samuel, Pedro — come from the old landowners and missionaries that baptized the natives. Ruth Buendia says that officials at the Registrar’s Office used to change their names because they could not understand what they said.

The Ashaninkas have chiefs in their communities. A man leads the rest on the strength of his personality and influence. In the entire Ene River valley, there are only male chiefs. Ruth Buendia is the president of all of them.

***

According to the final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Ashaninka people were the most damaged Amazonian ethnic group by the internal conflict with the Shining Path. More than 30 communities disappeared, some 10,000 natives were displaced, 5,000 were kidnapped and 6,000 were killed. For the anthropologist Oscar Espinoza, author of the chapter on the massacre of the Ashaninka in the Truth Commission’s report, these figures do not count everything. When this report was made, he remembers, there was no budget to even get boats to go to all of the communities on the Ene River. Pages were cut out. They eliminated details, anecdotes, cases. And many of the natives did not want to speak.

“The Ashaninkas don’t like to talk about their dead,” the anthropologist says.

An Ashaninka mother cannot name her dead son. She believes, if she does, she will not let his spirit go to heaven. During the last decade, however, the Ashaninka women have been the first to talk about the horrors of the rapes and killings in order to transmit to their children the memory of those years. So the memory of what happened to her people does not depend only on family stories, Ruth Buendia wants to ask the government to build a museum in the jungle. She wants it to be a reminder of the violence suffered by the Ashaninkas, which today number almost 100,000. She wants young people to know about this story that was not in the news.

Buendia is sure that people in the city do not feel what the Ashaninkas lived through, nor what is what happening now on their land with the oil drilling or the construction projects for hydroelectric dams. That is why she is speaking now, so it will not happen again. So they do not cheat them again.

“It’s not fair that so people in Lima can live well, I have to risk my life, my people, my land,” the activist criticizes, opening her eyes wide, “First terrorism displaced us. Now they are going to build dams to displace us again.”

For Ruth Buendia that is also terrorism, but by investment.

***

While we navigate a narrow and deep canyon on the lower part of the Ene River, in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, Ruth Buendia approaches the edge of the boat and points to an enormous hill, textured with leafy trees.

“There it is, look,” she says to me.

The hill is called Pakitzapango: ‘House of the Eagle’ in the Ashaninka tongue.

The myth says that centuries ago, on this hill taller than the Eiffel Tower, there lived an eagle that ate human flesh. Each time a native crossed the canyon, the pakitza flew down, caught him in his talons and took him to a cave high on the mountain to devour him. But the animal was never satisfied. So he tried to build an enormous rock wall from shore to shore so the natives could not escape. One day, while the pakitza was building his wall, the Ashaninkas got tired of his attacks and decided to take revenge. They fashioned the figure of a man out clay and rubber, dressed him in a tunic and put him in a boat that floated down the canyon. The eagle thought it was a native and came out to hunt. It drove its talons into the effigy but got stuck in the mud. The Ashaninkas came out screaming from amidst the trees. They surrounded him and threw rocks and shot arrows at him until they killed him. His feathers floated down the river. From the feathers — according to the myth — all the other Amazon peoples were born.

On this same hill — Ruth Buendia remembers — the terrorist leaders of the Shining Path hid out when the group arrived to the Ene River at the end of the 1980s to take over the valley. Just like the pakitza, each time an Ashaninka crossed the canyon or stopped to swim or bathe, the Shining Path would shoot at them from the summit or would capture them. The Shining Path was the new monster out of the same legend.

“People still bathe and fish here,” says Buendia, “But some are scared that those times will return.”

As if every once in a while a different threat creeped up on the same place, in 2008 the Peruvian government authorized the construction of a 65-meter tall concrete wall in the Ene River canyon. The dam for the hydroelectric plant would have the same name as the man eating eagle: Pakitzapango.

The project heralded big benefits for the country. The dam would produce more than 2,000 megawatts, enough to provide electric lighting for almost 800,000 homes. Peruvians would get cheaper electricity and the Brazilians would buy the ‘surplus’ over 30 years, thanks to an energy agreement signed between the two countries. The government swore that this would not only cover future energy demand, but it would attract more investment, more ‘growth’ for the natives, more money for building schools and clinics in an area where seven out of ten children suffer chronic malnutrition and barely finish grade school.

This was all good news, of course. But Ruth Buendia did not believe it. At the beginning of 2010, a team of engineers from CARE and the British Rainforest Foundation traveled to Pakitzapango Canyon to do some research. The GPS measurements and the digital simulations on their computers corroborated what they already suspected. The artificial lake created by the dam was going to flood more than 700 square kilometers of jungle: like submerging a fourth of the city of Lima. Ten communities would lose 65 percent of their cropland and would be displaced to higher reaches of the jungle. The Peruvian government never asked the Ashaninkas if they agreed with the plan. And they have not to this day, despite the existence in the country of a law of previous consultation and international agreements that demand they ask.

“It’s as if the government went into your home without asking and said: ‘Sir, we have found oil under your land. So leave, please, it belongs to all Peruvians.’ What would you do?” Buendia asks, “Would you just leave?”

The boat advances slowly under the tyrannical afternoon sun.

The Ene River is as a torrent that rips up trees by the roots; a wide avenue of water.

Some Ashaninka leaders on board look at Pakitzapango Canyon until we leave it behind. For a big part of the Ashaninka population, this is still a sacred site. For others, those who fear the return of the Shining Path and the construction of the dam, it is a cursed place.

***

Ruth Buendia. Photo Muzuk Nolte.

Ruth Buendia. Photo Muzuk Nolte.

Ruth Buendia heard the news when she turned on the radio in her office. Up until then, the end of 2008, she had faced that trafficker of illegal timber and Pluspetrol, an Argentine oil company that attempted to explore Ashaninka land after the government had given them a concession without consulting the natives. But building a dam on the Ene River, as the radio announced that morning, was a larger danger.

“The Ashaninka’s reason to be is having land,” Buendia told me, “But if the dam floods the valley, where I am going to go? It would be like disappearing.”

All the world’s dams have flooded a total surface area the size of Spain. Their reservoirs contain three times the amount of water of all the rivers on the planet, and they generate 16 percent of all the electricity we consume in the world. The problem — says the World Commission on Dams — is that more than 80 million people have been displaced because of them, which is like kicking all the Germans out of their own country to build hydroelectric dams.

Phillip M. Fearnside, a researcher who has spent 30 years studying the ecological impact of hydroelectric projects in Brazil, says it is an error to think that dams produce clean or ‘green’ energy. To begin with, they block the natural migration of fish, because the giant walls do not let them return to the places where they mate and lay eggs. Vegetation submerged underwater rots and generates enormous quantities of methane gas, 20 times more potent than the carbon dioxide emitted by cars, and contributes to global warming. The water loses oxygen and accumulates mercury. The fish get contaminated. The natives eat the fish and get sick. The watersheds outside the dams are depleted. The rivers are no longer navigable and the earth dries up and loses minerals to fertilize crops. The contamination does not end even after the dam stops functioning (after 80 years, on average). The sediment accumulated in the reservoirs behind deactivated dams is as toxic as mine tailings. For an indigenous people like the Ashaninka, whose culture depends on the river and the forest, the damage caused by a hydroelectric project would be just as brutal as if a fire ripped through the jungle.

In exchange, the construction company set to build Pakitzapango offered classes to the almost 1,500 Ashaninka families in how to build greenhouses, make sweet bread, roast chicken, and make chocolates and crafts.

“Crafts? What do you do with that?” Ruth Buendia asked me while remembering the story.

She faked a smile as if they had just told her a bad joke.

The CARE team asked for advice from engineers, hired a lawyer and sent requests to government agencies asking for the document with the plans for the project: What would happen to them? Where would they go? For several weeks, Buendia visited Ashaninka communities to inform people about the impact of Pakitzapango. She prepared her speech. She researched from how a dam works to what a megawatt is. She also travelled eight hour by bus from Satipo to Lima to interview officials from the Ministry of Energy and Mining. Sometimes they did not meet with her, and when they did, it was with indifference. The response was always the same: That they were sorry, that they could not do anything, that the project was in the country’s interest.

She insisted for two years. But they never gave her the information she demanded. Tired of waiting, Buendia, with the help of international cooperation, started a campaign to expose the risks to the Ashaninka. In March 2010, she travelled to Washington DC to bring a lawsuit against the Peruvian government at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Ruth Buendia and a lawyer against 12 officials. Dressed as always in her brown cushma, and her face painted with red lines, the Ashaninka activist visited a dozen countries — among them England, Norway, Spain, France, Belgium and Holland — to gather environmental ministers and bankers who financed hydroelectric projects in the Amazon. She even met with executives from the construction company Odebrecht — an investor in the Pakitzapango project — and Brazil’s ministries of energy and foreign relations. She warned them what would happen if they built the dam on Ashaninka land. “But if despite everything they don’t listen to us, blood will be shed,” she said to them at the time, “If our government does not respect us then we will make them respect us.”

At the end of 2010, the Commission sent a card to the Peruvian government asking them to guarantee the protection of Ashaninka land. The government had no other option but to stop the project, and a year later Odebrecht backed down from Pakitzapango, saying they would respect the natives’ decision. Ruth Buendia and CARE had been able to paralyze the concession without marching, burning tires or blocking roads. Something very uncommon in Peru, where, according to the People’s Legal Counsel, there are more than 100 social conflicts every year caused by ecological disputes.

During that time, Ruth Buendia was expecting her fifth child. She had also begun studying political science at the university. Each afternoon after work, she went to class and returned home around midnight, worn out. She almost never got home in time for dinner. Her husband, the engineer Fredy Antezana, a short man with a kind voice, usually got up at four in the morning to help her study for exams. Her travels took her away from home for days. Her children complained that she never attended their school functions. Some relatives told her that she had abandoned her kids. Ruth Buendia tried to do everything, but she could not. She had complications with her pregnancy and she quit school after a year, frustrated from having failed almost all her classes.

Political opposition to her within the Ashaninkas strengthened. They wanted the construction of the hydroelectric plant and the entrance of the oil companies and they started to smear her. They accused her of being the daughter of a terrorist, an unprepared single mother and an impediment to the progress of her people. The three community chiefs broke off from CARE to create a parallel organization. Ruth Buendia, one of the most 100 most influential people in Ibero-America according to the newspaper El Pais, remembers that split like her first defeat.

“Sometimes I can’t stand it anymore and I say: ‘Okay, if they want the oil companies, the dam, then what in the hell am I doing here?'”

There was a time when the activist used to ask herself those questions frequently. Most of all when the attacks came from her own family.

During the days when the fight against the Pakitzapango hydroelectric plant and the opposition from the other ashaninka leaders got worse, her younger brother stole a check from the CARE offices for almost $3000 destined for social projects. Ruth Buendia had to file charges against her own brother and ask the bank for a personal loan to pay the money back. Her mother resented her, offended that she would that to her own blood, and her sister started the rumor that it had been Ruth herself who had stolen the money. The Ashaninka leader distanced herself from her mother and sister for almost a year. She had to explain the situation to an assembly of all the community chiefs.

“My name and the organization I represent could not be sullied. But that did not weaken me, on the contrary. That’s when I got to know my family, who’s with me, who’s not.”

One afternoon, Ruth Buendia got a call from the bank that loaned her the money to pay back what her brother had stolen. She would have to liquidate the loan payments on time to avoid a fine. After hanging up, Ruth Buendia sent her kids to play for a while in the park. With no one at home, the woman who three years later would win the battle against the construction of the hydroelectric plant, let herself cry.

***

The sky gets dark quickly in the community of Boca Anapate, in the upper part of the Ene River valley, and Ruth Buendia hurries across the wet grass of the soccer field. Her black hair, her face painted with red lines, the brown cushma adorned with robin’s feathers. She runs. It is the third and last day of the Ashaninka congress and she wants to give the chiefs some news before it gets dark.

When she gets to the place where more than 40 activists are drinking masato under a corrugated metal roof, Ruth Buendia shows them a circular bronze sculpture.

“It looks like an anaconda that’s biting its own tail, right?” she says, and everyone laughs.

The sculpture symbolizes the power that Mother Earth has to renew herself. Buendia remembers that they told her that on the night in April 2014 when she received the trophy at the Opera House in San Francisco, along with six other activists from India, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa and the United States. The Goldman Prize. The Green Nobel, they call it. The most important environmental award in the world. The night she got the Goldman, after giving a nervous, three-minute speech, Buendia was named a heroine of the environment for uniting the Ashaninka people to stop the construction of the Pakitzapango hydroelectric project. She was the third Peruvian woman to win the prize.

For ten days, she was on tour in San Francisco and Washington DC, participating in homages and conferences with politicians and environmentalists. She gave interviews to the BBC and Fox News. The Altantic ran this headline: “The Woman Who Breaks Mega-Dams”. Even Robert F. Kennedy Jr. hugged her, fascinated by her story. Ruth Buendia was an environmental celebrity and Lima awaited her. They decorated her in the ministries of women, of culture and of the environment. They interviewed her for television and radio. Her picture came out in the newspapers. A man got out his truck to ask her if he could please take a selfie with her in the middle of the street.

But that afternoon in the Boca Anapate, a month after 3,000 people gave her a standing ovation in San Francisco, only three Ashaninkas villagers raise their hands when Ruth Buendia asks if they know anything about the prize. One says he saw her on television by chance. Another read something in the newspaper, but does not remember exactly what. Ruth Buendia smiles and patiently explains in her language what the prize is about, what it is, why they have given it to her. She says thank you — “pasonki, brothers” — and sits down.

But no one applauds, no one asks questions, no one says anything.

So the leader who is running the meeting asks for more applause, please, brothers, and explains one more time, in Ashaninka, what the prize is about. After a while everyone seems to understand and they applaud. It is dark already. The women serve more masato to celebrate.

“It’s that we’ve never heard of a prize for environmentalism,” she will explain to me later, “They didn’t understand why they had given me that, and it’s normal. They think they only give prizes in sports, in soccer.”

“It seems mean, but it’s not,” says the anthropologist Oscar Espinoza, who affirms that he has never met an indigenous person in the Amazon who speaks well of their leaders, “They think that if they do it will harm (the leader), that the leader will become arrogant. It’s a way of keeping an eye on them. They don’t congratulate them for doing a good job because they are doing just that: their job.”

Neither did Ruth Buendia understand the time when she was in Madrid and they called her early in the morning at the hotel where she was staying to tell her that she had won the Goldman Prize plus a bonus of $175,000. She thought it was a joke. She thought they were trying to scam her.

“Even my husband thought that when we got to the United States an organ trafficker was going to kidnap us and take out our eyes,” she laughs, “I had no idea what the Goldman prize was. Prais? Is that how you say it?”

Buendia did not know they had nominated her for the prize.

“It’s that I’m taking on companies that have a lot of money and also my country’s government. Right now the company has stopped their interest in building a dam in Pakitzapango, but that does not mean the government thinks the same way. The struggle is not over.”

Two days after presenting the prize to the Ashaninka chiefs, Ruth Buendia returned to Cutivireni, the community where she was born. A delegate from the Rainforest Foundation and three British journalists had arrived to the Ene River to make a documentary about her and the Ashaninka culture. When she got to Cutivireni with them, a cousin of hers yelled at her in front of everyone what some of leaders were saying about her: that the prize was a lie, that the hydroelectric company had given her $80 million to let them build the dam, that they were not dogs that would let her come in with these gringos, take pictures their pictures and then leave.

Ruth Buendia patiently refuted her cousin. Minutes later, when everything had calmed down, she let out a sigh.

“I knew that some would use the prize against me, saying that the company had given me that money. It hurts me that this would happen in my community, in my family.”

***

María Metzoquiari has a high voice and long, straight hair, like her daughter’s. Ruth Buendia’s mother now lives on the outskirts of Satipo, in a cement house with a patio, a garden, and a cat and two dogs that prowl around the room where we are now having a lunch of pasta and parboiled yucca. A battery-powered radio on the table is turned down low, the shrill voice of a preacher escaping. He says something about the mercy of God, a gift to heal the soul.

“When I found out about the prize, as a mother I was happy,” Maria remembers, “I told her she had to thank her father and Papalindo. You’re not abandoning your kids because you want to, I said to her. I never thought she would turn into what she is now, after everything bad we went through. Now sometimes we get along, sometimes we don’t.”

“Why?”

“As her siblings say, now that she has money, she doesn’t love us anymore. Not even a job for her brother, I tell her. She says to me: ‘Mom, how can I do that? It’s bureaucracy, nepotism. I’m not like that, mom’. But I think: So many people get jobs like that. Before, when Ruth was younger, she would say: ‘When I’m someone I’m going to give people work. I’m going to look after my siblings’. Now do that, I tell her. Now that she has the job she doesn’t help them.”

“But aren’t you proud of her, proud of the prize?”

Outside, the midday sun seems to want to melt everything.

“Just a little,” she says, and takes a sip of lemonade.

The dogs bark. The preacher’s voice continues coming out of the battery-powered radio: the mercy of God, a gift to heal the soul.

“The prize is okay. It’s for her and her organization. But not for us. Not for her family. It’s not a big deal for us.”

***

It is a hot afternoon, two days after the Ashaninka congress, and at the CARE offices Ruth Buendia helps her six-year-old son with his kindergarten homework. The activist usually brings her youngest children to study and play on the patio while she takes care of business, signs documents, answers emails, deals with the Ashaninka chiefs and the authorities. It is the way she has found to spend more time with them. Time is what she most needs now, she says. Time to go home and watch a soap opera at nine in the evening with her five kids and her husband, all laying in bed. Time to look for ladybugs on the patio with her two-year-old daughter, like the ones they once saw on the Discovery Channel. Time to raise their chickens and plant roses in the garden, to see if they can get them to flower this time.

“I already spoke with my board of directors to do the job as if I were dead,” Buendia laughs as she helps her son paint a tree in a notebook.

These days, the Ashaninka leader who headed off construction of the hydroelectric plant says she wants to go back to school and be the mayor of the district in a few years. She will use half the money from the Goldman Prize to educate her children. The other half will be for CARE and for buying a new motor for the boat they have that lets them get to the communities on the Ene River. It will allow them to inform and unite the Ashaninkas against what she thinks is the new threat.

Pluspetrol is the man producer of gas and oil in Peru. In 2005, the Peruvian government gave them a concession for the Amazon territory for more than a million hectares, ten times size of New York City. The territory is called Lot 108. Underneath it, in the ground, natural gas and light crude oil are abundant. And there is so much of it, according to the company, that it could another Camisea, the largest natural gas reserve in Peru. The problem is that the entire Ene River valley — where more than 20,000 Ashaninkas live — is inside Lot 108. In the northern part of this sector there are encampments, the sounds of helicopters cutting across the sky, workers cutting in roads to set off explosives that will scare away the animals of the forest. In the southern part, the oil company still has not done anything. The Ashaninkas do not let them.

“They say that with the oil company we are going to have money for a car, a boat, a house. But no one asked us beforehand,” says Ruth Buendia, her voice firm and high, “For us it is not development. We don’t want handouts.”

Buendia tells me that a month after receiving the Goldman Prize, a team of topographers from Pluspetrol entered without permission an Ene River community intending to build roads. The natives, furious, threw them off their land semi-naked and bathed them in Genipa juice, a natural black dye that stains the skin for 15 days. The oil company had to apologize.

“The communities are well informed. They know their rights. They can’t cheat them anymore.”

At seven in the evening there is no one left in the office.

The child colors a tree at the corner of the table, interrupting his mother to ask her if they can go home yet.

“In a bit, love,” she says, “I’m working.”

“No,” the boy says with stopping his coloring, “You’re just talking.”

Joseph Zarate Translated by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard