Voices on the Road Documentary - Interview

This documentary follows the construction of a road that is silently destroying this protected forest in the depths of the remote Peruvian Amazon, causing conflict, fear and large-scale deforestation. Many indigenous communities are striving to live in this "paradise" and the road brings them the promise of a better life, but at what price?
Jack Wheeler
September 24, 2020

In the framework of the Storytellers project in cooperation with SéPerú and the Comunidad Nativa de Shipetiari, located in the Manu Reserve, we present Voices on the Road; a new documentary that focuses on indigenous rights and the future of the Amazon. We at Xapiri have created a blog entry to share this interesting documentary and interview the co-director and co-producer Bethan John.

Where did the idea of the documentary come from? What was your previous connection to the Manu rainforest or the construction of the road?

Over several years, we’d all been working in a field research station in the middle of Manu rainforest. A couple of the team are biologists and they were collecting scientific data and two of us are media professionals, working to communicate the global importance of the forest.

During this time, we kept hearing rumours that the only road into Manu was going to be extended, causing a devastating level of deforestation and opening up new areas to the outside world. In 2016, the then Regional Government started building the road illegally - without an environmental impact assessment or approval from the National Government. 

This construction was forcibly stopped by the Ministry of Environment, but for the next couple of years the Regional Government encouraged local communities to campaign tirelessly for the road to be built. It caused a lot of conflict between communities and conservationists. We had the impression that communication had broken down and there was a stalemate.

We wanted to understand the issues that were driving this conflict, to create a platform where voices could be heard, with the hope that solutions could emerge.

Documentary team conducting interviews. Manu Biosphere Reserve. Voices on the road.

How was the experience of filming this process? Did it go as expected? How was it with the communities?

We were very nervous ahead of the filming expedition, knowing that we were going into communities where we’d never been before, to ask questions about a hugely polarizing issue in the region. We were worried that no one would talk openly to us and that they might feel interrogated by our questions. 

We were especially nervous about going to Diamante Native Community, as they are the main community who have fought tirelessly for the road. Even though we’d written to the leader of the community, who’d approved our visit, it was still impossible to know what reception we’d receive when we turned up on the boat. 

In fact, we were overwhelmed by how every community welcomed us - always sharing a bowl of masato, a traditional alcoholic drink made from yucca, while telling us their story. Through these experiences, we began to understand the desperate situation that communities were in - they feel completely ignored and abandoned by the rest of Peru. What they want is for their basic human rights to be met, like access to clean water and decent health care. A road is the only option that is being offered to them as a way of improving their livelihoods and living standards. 

Before going on the expedition, we expected that most of the people we’d interview were going to be pro-road. What we didn’t expect or understand was the complex nature of this desire for road connection. Despite campaigning for the road, people in Diamante are still very concerned about the negative impacts, such as increased narco-trafficking, the exploitation of their territory and the loss of their language. 

Politicians and people in positions of power are promising Diamante they will reap the benefits from road connection, despite the fact that a nearby community who has had a road for over 50 years are still struggling with the same issues Diamante face. They say that politicians lied to them. On top of that, the people in positions of power are doing nothing to address the serious social and environmental problems that will be caused by the road. It was distressing to watch how the marginalisation and disempowerment of indigneous communities was being used by politicians as a weapon against them to force through their own agenda.

Were there any problems or impediments with the Peruvian or regional government?

Celebration of the first stone. Manu Biosphere Reserve. Voices on the road.

We met the then Regional Governor, Luis Otsuka, at the inauguration of the road. It was a tense and intimidating experience. Otsuka was visibly angry that we were there and attempted to prevent us from filming his speech or the bulldozers as they tore down the forest. He was convinced that we were representatives of a conservation organisation, which he is very antagonistic towards. In his speech to the communities, which was strongly paternalistic, he made it very clear that he thought the road should be used to open up the area to gas extraction. 

The new road cuts through the heart of the buffer zone between Manu National Park and Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. There’s a long and controversial history of gas exploration in Amarakaeri. Between 2014 and 2017, the North American company Hunt Oil was given concessions by Peru’s National Government to explore across 90% of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. After causing conflict and divisions within indigenous communities, who co-manage the reserve, Hunt Oil withdrew in 2017 stating that it was logistically too difficult and therefore expensive to access the site without a road. It’s telling that this new road extension was approved the following year and travels along the border of Amarakaeri, despite the fact that Peruvian law states that it is illegal to construct a new road in order to explore for gas or oil.

How would you explain the complexity between the need to have the road for the communities, the interest of the state and the private companies, and the refusal of the environmentalists?

It’s very important to stress that the communities’ desire for connection is completely understandable and legitimate. Environmentalists have failed to demonstrate how these aspirations for improved livelihoods and living standards can be met through forest conservation and sustainability, while at the same time preserving the communities’ cultures and languages. From the outside, it seemed the focus of conservationists was to prevent the road from being constructed. Once this was no longer possible, there appeared to be no strategy or attempt to limit the negative impacts of the road. 

Having said this, it’s very easy to be critical from the outside; without doubt, conservation organisations were in a very difficult position due to the antagonistic and uncooperative attitude of the then Regional Government. There’s now a real opportunity to change this dynamic, as a new governor was elected last year who, hopefully, will think more progressively about the future of Manu and the communities who live there. 

It is urgent that these discussions take place now. Last month, the regional government announced their plan to extend Manu Road even further to connect to the Interoceanic Highway. This new extension seems to be happening under the support of the National Government as part of their COVID-19 economic recovery plan and the hope to complete the construction by July 2021. If this goes ahead then it will connect Manu to the heart of illegal gold mining in Peru, which is a hotbed of modern day slavery with the trafficking of boys into unpaid labor and girls into prostitution. It’s likely that the gold mining frontier will move into untouched areas of the rainforest and cause devastating levels of destruction. Is this really the vision of building back better after COVID? 

Conservation organisations need to unite with state institutions and communities to urgently come together to develop a strategy to address this threat, as currently there’s no plan to protect the area’s natural and cultural heritage. We’re hoping to use the film and Impact Campaign to facilitate discussion on the issue and further our understanding of what action is needed.

Panoramic view of the road. Manu Biosphere Reserve. Voices on the road.

The matsigenka Comunidad Nativa Shipetiari was able to take advantage of the first section of the road to have better access to their community and at the same time they were able to control the external exploitation of their territory, in part because they manage their territory themselves. What do you think are the steps to follow so that with or without a road the rainforest will be protected?

The situation in Shipetiari Native Community gives real hope. In the past, they allowed loggers into their territory, who exploited the forest and the community. But through strong collective decision-making, Shipetiari was able to change this situation and communally agreed on a plan to conserve their forest while also meeting their social and economic needs. 

A desire for autonomy and self-determination was strongly expressed in every community we visited, but due to the years of discrimination and marginalisation by ‘colonists’ it has become very difficult for communities to make truly empowered choices and take control over their future. One of the main ways that Shipetiari has achieved this is by making the decision not to intermarry with anyone who is not matsigenka. Had you told me about this before the expedition, I would have thought it an extreme reaction, but not anymore. 

We heard many stories of how indigenous people had become ashamed of who they are and their cultural identity. There is a high level of alcoholism in communities and many interviewees had very low self-esteem, referring to themselves as ‘ignorant’. With this devalued sense of self and cultural shame, it is no wonder that they accept and aspire to the global worldview of progress. So to protect the rainforest, with or without a road, somehow we have to reverse the damage that is being caused by systematic discrimination and foster a different vision of progress that challenges the status quo.

As a team, what common goal do you have after releasing the film? Could you explain your plans for your impact campaign?

Through our documentary and Impact Campaign, which is funded by IUCN NL and the Otter Foundation, we’re working to understand and support the action needed to tackle the social and environmental injustices that are taking place in the Manu. We are in the process of organising an online conference to bring together a diverse range of experts so that we can explore some of the threats facing protected areas in the Amazon and learn from on-the-ground solutions being spearheaded. We want to understand what action can be taken to protect Manu before the new road extension goes ahead. We are also running educational workshops and activities for school children, youth groups and university students with the aim of enhancing knowledge on biodiversity conservation and indigenous rights. 

Next year, if it’s safe to do so, we plan to return to Manu to run Participatory Video workshops with communities. The aim is for community members to explore issues, voice concerns, and communicate their needs to decision-makers through making their own film. Crucially, this gives people control over their own narratives and a means to amplify their voice. We also wish to carry out further research on the environmental and social impact of Manu Road now that it has been built through Diamante Native Community by carrying out in-depth interviews with community members.

Our role in delivering the Impact Campaign is to act as facilitators and enablers, being led by in-country experts and directed by local needs. Through this approach we hope that people will feel that they can take ownership of the Impact Campaign and use it to meet their objectives. All resources created during this project will be freely and openly available, including all research results, lesson plans, workshops, and media. This ensures the results from the project can have a wider application and can continue to be utilised far beyond 2021. We’d love to hear from any one who’d like to get involved.

It has been a pleasure to share the vision of the team that made Voices on the Road a reality. We recommend watching the documentary (bellow) in order to understand all the faces and interests involved in a problem such as the destruction of a protected area due to the construction of a road that runs through it. A documentary about a much more complex reality than it may seem from the outside.