Transboundary Political Ecology in Amazonia: History, Culture, and Conflicts of the Borderland Ashaninka

Article excerpt

International boundaries in the lowland Amazon forest were historically drawn according to the scramble for natural resources. This paper uses a case study from the Peruvian and Brazilian border and the Ucayali and Jurua watersheds to understand the political ecology of a border process from contact to 2004. Results demonstrate how global resource demand and ecological gradients drove boundary formation and the relocation of indigenous labor to the borderlands. Forgotten in the forest after the fall of rubber prices, the borderland Ashaninka emerged to challenge loggers incited by the global demand for high grade timber. The transboundary impacts of this resource boom highlight discrepancies between the Brazilian and Peruvian Ashaninka's ability to mobilize power. A transboundary political ecology framework is necessary to grasp the heterogeneity and dynamism of natural resource management along boundaries and borderlands forged and tempered by historical resource booms.

Keywords: Amazonia; borders; Brazil; indigenous; Peru; political ecology


In the remote southwestern borderlands of Amazonia shared by Peru and Brazil dwell a formerly invisible indigenous people, the borderland Ashfininka, increasingly threatened by the global demand for high grade timber. This demand resembles the rubber boom that brought the Ashaninka to these nascent borderlands one hundred years ago. To make sense of the borderland Ashaninka's past and present this paper introduces the historical dimensions of transboundary political ecology through a case study of the history, conflicts, and peoples of an increasingly important, if little known, corner of Amazonia. Transboundary political ecology builds on the historical political ecology framework proposed by Offen (2004) as a field-informed analysis of human-environment relations in the past with significance for improving conservation and environmental/social justice today. Thus, the article's detailed results, from both archival and ethnographic methods, not only serve as documentation for the marginalized groups described within but also inform the historical and cultural ecology elements of cultural geography through the rural nature, historical approach, and indigenous focus of the article.

Fieldwork along the international boundary between the Ucayali and Jurua Rivers revealed complex cultural geographies and dynamic identities as the borderland Ashaninka people struggled against the incursions of illegal loggers. Two related and neighboring Ashaninka groups marshaled disparate amounts of power in the face of the invaders: the borderland Ashaninka in Brazil, a titled, empowered, and globally recognized people; and those in Peru, an untitled, marginalized, and invisible people. Following fieldwork, archival research traced a faint but complex trail woven into the political geography and ecology of the Amazon borderlands. This trail connects with multiple themes within this special issue: shifting cultural landscapes, hidden histories, heterogeneity, and political economy, to name a few. Before sharing this trail, the research is mapped in the literatures of cultural/political ecology, political geography, and the Ashaninka people.

Cultural and political ecology

The varied concepts and concerns loosely grouped under the label of cultural and political ecology lead scholars to increasingly see this as a vibrant and wide-ranging approach rather than a narrow subdiscipline (Zimmerer and Bassett 2003; Robbins 2004; Neumann 2005). While researchers continue to debate the approach's bias towards politics (Peet and Watts 2004; Walker 2007), ecology (Walker 2005; Waiters and Vayda 2009), or a particular scale (Brown and Purcell 2005; Neumann 2009), this research combines cultural ecology's nuanced understanding of culture-nature relationships with political ecology's focus on contextualizing resource management and its impacts within political economies at multiple scales (Hecht 2004). …