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Life is also territory: an interview with Amazonian anthropologist Alberto Chirif


Alberto Chirif Tirado (Lima, 1943) is a prominent Peruvian anthropologist who has devoted his life to the Amazon and the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples. His work and diverse interests are attested to in a large number of research projects and books on Indigenous Peoples' rights, territories, memory and history, regional vocabulary, Indigenous cuisine and Amazonian literature. An exceptional witness to the Amazon and the history of Peru, Alberto’s career has encompassed the differing moments that have marked the transformations and course of his country, of Amazonian anthropology and of the Amazonian Indigenous movement.

RP: Alberto, what started your long career in the Amazon?

AC: It was partly the opportunity of a trip and partly the start of a friendship with a very significant person in Amazonian work, Stefano Varese. It was by chance because I had entered university thinking of studying literature until a course on philology made me realize that this was really not for me. I also spent a year studying sociology and found it remarkably boring. So I dropped out to work on my own on a small farm my father owned. Working the land as a farmer has always fascinated me. After a series of attempts to study something that really convinced me, an encounter with Stefano Varese, who was already doing research in the Gran Pajonal with the Asháninka, persuaded me to return to university.

One day, as I was in my second year of anthropology at the University of San Marcos, a friend told me that they were organizing a trip to where the Awajún (known as Aguaruna at the time) live in the Amazon and asked me if I wanted to go. I said yes, I thought the idea was a great one. The strange thing was that one by one they all pulled out of the trip and, in the end, there was only me left. Being rather stubborn, I said to myself, “Well, I’m going to go anyway.” I arrived by truck in Chiriyaco, in Amazonas.

During my second trip to Alto Marañón, in 1969, I read an article about an Amazonian hospital. I found the hospital’s approach interesting because it didn’t focus solely on health issues but also on working with Indigenous People to build their own capacities in the communities so that they could take responsibility for the issue themselves. There was talk of a hospital in Yarinacocha, near Pucallpa. I noted down the name of the director, a German, Teodoro Binder, and sent him a letter as soon as I returned to Lima. Months went by before I received a reply. It came from New York because the letter had reached the hospital but, as he was not there, it had been forwarded to the United States. He suggested a meeting in early 1970, on his return to Lima. I agreed. In fact, we met on 1 January that year.

I told him what I had seen and what concerned me about Alto Marañón, the way in which the rights of the Awajún were being trampled upon. There was a great deal of abuse, discrimination, racism, rapes of women. At that time, the Awajún world was still quite traditional. I knew of the great Awajún houses that no longer exist, the women used to mostly wear their traditional costume, as did the men. As a result of what I told Binder, he suggested that I put together a proposal to work in Alto Marañón. I was happy with this and started drafting the document. I remember that I spoke to General José Francisco Guabloche, Vice-Minister in the Ministry of Education at the time and a staunch defender of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Without saying no to me outright, he kept asking me a series of aggressive questions and the matter dragged on and on with no clear response from him. By that time, Binder said to me, “Well, keep pushing ahead with the plan but, in the meantime, why don't you come and work at the hospital?” That was my first paid job. I moved to the Amazon Hospital. I was in charge of relations between the hospital and the Shipibo communities.

RP: What year was this, were you already an anthropologist?

AC: It was 1970. I had just graduated in 1969. I was not an anthropologist, I had not yet done my thesis. I don't think I completed that until 1972.

RP: Is there anything else you would like to add about these formative years?

AC: Perhaps two things. In 1968, Stefano Varese encouraged Dr. Jorge Puccinelli, who was head of the Porras Barrenechea Institute, to establish a section on the Amazon, and this was named the Forest Research Centre (Centro de Investigaciones de Selva / CIS). It was tiny, and virtually run by Stefano alone. One day, Stefano told me that there were some funds to finance a trip to Alto Marañón. Basically, the aim was to gather information on the health infrastructure in the area and, as far as possible in this rapid survey, to determine what the health problems were. This was to be the first time that I travelled to Alto Marañón as a more systematic observer of that reality.

In mid-1969, Stefano told me that Richard Smith, a colleague from the United States, had invited him to a meeting of Amuesha leaders in a community then known as Miraflores (now Tsachopén), in Oxapampa. He told me he couldn't go and asked if I’d be interested in attending. Well, of course I would! I grabbed my bag and went. Upon returning from that trip, the CIS published a magazine called Kiario, an Asháninka word meaning “thus it is” or “truth”. Only one edition was ever published, in small format, incorporating several papers: an editorial by Stefano, another by Richard Smith, giving an account of the preparations and reasons for the Amuesha leaders’ conference; another by me, about the conference itself; and a brief that the Amuesha people were submitting to the Peruvian government in order to request the titling of their occupied lands in the form of “communal reservations and not individual plots” along with facilities to enable them to obtain national identification documents. In addition, Kiario announced a “project to compile the oral literature of the Peruvian forest ethnic groups”. Kiario magazine was never published again. This was probably due to some of the many crises the University of San Marcos suffered in those years. The CIS disappeared, perhaps lost in the confusion. But nevertheless, in 1969, the year the magazine was published and the year the Amuesha conference was held, the Amuesha Congress was established: the first modern organizational initiative to be created in the Peruvian Amazon. It was to later become the Federation of Yánesha Native Communities (Federación de Comunidades Nativas Yánesha).

I don't know what happened to the project to compile oral traditions but I do know that, as a result of Stefano's work with the Asháninka in the Gran Pajonal and my work in Alto Marañón, in 1970 we published an LP of these peoples’ music through the “Casa de la Cultura”, the forerunner to the National Institute of Culture (Instituto Nacional de Cultura). We called it “Voices and Instruments of the Forest”, and this was to be the name of a collection which, in the future, would include music from other Indigenous Peoples. No such collection was ever forthcoming, however, and this LP was the Casa’s only publication.

IWGIA DebatesIndigenas Chirif Octubre2023 2Chirif at the launch of one of his books, Pueblos de la yuca brava, Historia y culinaria. Photo: Allison Cadenillas

RP: Around that time, you were invited to join the National System of Support for Social Mobilization (Sistema Nacional de Apoyo a la Movilización Social / Sinamos), an institution of the military government. Tell us, how did this happen and what did you do there?

AC: I joined Sinamos in September 1972 and the Native Communities Law was enacted in June 1974. In other words, there was a lapse of around two years between my starting there and the enactment. During that time we had frequent meetings between representatives of various public agencies to discuss unresolved points of the law and to make proposals. Since there was no Congress of the Republic, meetings were held between representatives of different public institutions. The final body that it had to pass through was a committee of ministers and so-called “ministers without portfolio” who would decide whether or not to approve the law. I don't recall much opposition.

A few months prior to June 1974, the department in which I was working, the General Directorate of Rural Organizations, established a small “native communities” unit and I was tasked with running it. To begin with it was just me but, during the first half of 1974, the Directorate proposed conducting an assessment of communities over a very wide area: Urubamba, Ene, Tambo, Pichis-Palcazu, Oxapampa, Villa Rica, the Satipo area. We set up groups of three to four people each to gather information from 174 communities in this vast area. I went with a group to the upper Urubamba, and we travelled from Coribeni down, the first stretch by road and the rest by river to Atalaya. The work lasted one month.

RP: Did this assessment result in any modifications to the initial draft law?

AC: No, its aim was to better understand the reality on the ground and thus have more information at our fingertips when the law was finally approved: physical environment, history, demographics, presence of external agents, land and forests, housing, schools and other services, whether or not there were health posts, and so on. At the end of my trip to Atalaya, the Amuesha Congress (mentioned earlier) was holding a meeting at the confluence of the Tambo and Urubamba rivers, the point at which the river takes the name of the Ucayali, in a community in Alto Palcazu. The Native Communities Law had just been approved on 24 June 1974. I took a small plane and went to San Ramón, in Chanchamayo, and from there to the community to participate in the meeting. At that meeting, we discussed the passing of the law. There was much euphoria in the communities because the law recognized rights they had been calling for, such as ownership of communal lands.

Upon my return to Lima, I proposed making practical use of the material collected in the assessment, which included a census and a general form about the community: name, location, distance to reach it, school, students by sex, other services, and so on. More specifically, I managed to get these documents established as the requirements for registering the communities, i.e., for giving them legal status, an indispensable step towards their subsequent titling. It was quickly approved and then all the communities that we had worked with, all 174 of them, underwent the formal procedure and obtained legal status. This work was later expanded.

RP: A further assessment?

AC: Yes, but now in another area. We had money left over and, to make sure that it would not simply go back to the Public Treasury but would be put towards something useful, a smaller assessment was made in 43 communities in Alto Ucayali.

RP: How long did the first and second assessments take?

AC: The first fieldwork was done in 1974 and published the following year. The second was done in 1976 and published in 1977. In both cases, the field work lasted around 30 days.

RP: Were the tussles between you and the officials most opposed to the draft law difficult?

AC: I don't remember much opposition. There were difficulties, however, when the actual titling work began. Many people believe that Sinamos was in charge of titling the land to the communities but this is not true. Sinamos was only in charge of registering the legal status of the communities and, during the initial years, of setting up the Civil Registries in the communities. Land titling was in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture, more specifically the General Directorate of Agrarian Reform (DGRA). There were a number of problems that basically related to the areas being titled. I should clarify, here, that in some places the possible area to be titled was determined by the number of settlers already living in the region. In other words, in Chanchamayo, Satipo and Oxapampa and Villa Rica, you couldn’t ask about the area to be titled. It was the area with no settlers that would be titled. Settlers had been present in these areas since the end of the 19 th century in what had been a long and highly significant process. In other basins, such as the Pichis-Palcazu, the situation was different. In these places, we in Sinamos had problems with officials who claimed that if the Amazonian Indigenous People were not cultivating the land then why should they be granted such large areas? Sinamos had set a criterion that forest societies needed larger spaces because of the shifting nature of their cultivation and because they were also hunters and gatherers. The Agrarian Reform people, however, only understood agrarian concepts and thought that we were just making excuses to justify the laziness and ignorance of the Indigenous People.

IWGIA DebatesIndigenas Chirif Octubre2023 3Chirif has helped numerous communities obtain legal status. Photo: Servindi

RP: After this, there were changes in the military government and de facto President Francisco Morales Bermúdez took over. Were there also internal political changes in the way the law was implemented?

AC: I worked at Sinamos from September 1972 to the end of 1977. Morales Bermúdez took over as President during the second half of 1975. To begin with, it seemed like everything was going to stay more or less the same but then, along with my co- workers, I began to see some worrying changes. The organizations created under the Agrarian Organizations Law, including the National Agrarian Confederation (Confederación Nacional Agraria / CNA) and its federations and grassroots organizations, had begun to push back at the government’s attempts to manipulate them. The conflict grew and, in the end, Morales Bermúdez decided to close down the CNA. The leaders asserted their independence, pointing out that the CNA was an organization that belonged to the grassroots and not to the government, and they therefore continued to work, in open opposition to the regime. The repression worsened and leftist leaders and journalists critical of the government also had to go underground.

This was why, together with anthropologist Carlos Mora, I decided to resign from Sinamos. I left in December 1977 and he shortly thereafter. In 1978, we founded the Centre for Amazonian Research and Promotion (Centro de Investigación y Promoción Amazónica / CIPA) as a new space in which to work with Indigenous communities albeit now within the private sector.

The community titling agreements were an initiative devised by CIPA. We ran an initial trial in a basin that we considered calm, the upper Napo. There was an additional advantage in Loreto besides the peacefulness of this part of the basin. Dr. José López Parodi, a magnificent professional and great human being, held a senior position in the Regional Directorate of Agriculture in that area. With these conditions in place, we were able to ensure the success of the titling project. Our second experience was with the Regional Directorate of Junín, for Asháninka and Yánesha communities in the Pichis and Palcazu basins. There, we had problems with officials who questioned those of us from CIPA who wanted to title very large areas to the communities as they considered that the Indigenous People were barely working the land. CIPA was furthermore promoting a strategy of titling adjacent communities with the aim of ensuring their territorial continuity and thus preventing settlers from occupying the untitled areas in between. The third agreement was also with the Regional Agrarian Directorate of Junín although we made some adjustments because the administration of the funds was now being done by CIPA. In other words, we were no longer handing over all the funds to the public administration but were instead purchasing the land budgeted for within the titling initiative directly.

In later years, other institutions took up the idea of agreements with the State for titling, including the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana / Aidesep), which undertook some remarkable work in the early 1990s, not only titling the communities of the upper Ucayali but also obtaining their freedom from the slavery to which they had been subjected by cattle ranchers and loggers from the Ucayali, Urubamba and Tambo. In addition, they encouraged the organization of the communities into local federations. Among the private institutions, the Centre for Indigenous Amazonian Development (Centro para el Desarrollo del Indígena Amazónico / CEDIA) is one of the organizations that has done the most work to title communities through agreements with the State.

Tags: Indigenous Debates



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