Messages From The Amazonas


By Matthew Barker & Franziska Agrawal

It takes three full days of travel by bus and boat to get from Lima, Peru's capital city, to one of the country's most isolated Amazonian communities, on the Cenepa River, deep in the rainforest near the far northern border with Ecuador. As our motorised canoe pulled up to the village's makeshift wooden jetty, stepping back on to dry land was an instant relief.

But it was a relief tempered by a growing sense of apprehension: night had fallen, mosquitoes the size of houseflies were buzzing around our heads and through the darkness we could sense the inquisitive, unfamiliar stares of the villagers who would be hosting us in their community for the next four days.

As we scrambled up the wet, muddy slope towards the village's communal hut an ear-splitting noise erupted. Men were banging thick wooden poles together with furious energy, women were screaming and shouting at the tops of their voices. In the gloomy firelight we could see people jabbing the air with fearsome looking spears.

"Welcome to my community,” said Diógenes Ampam Wejin, our colleague, guide and translator, flashing us a boyish grin. “This is our traditional welcome ceremony. They are saying hello to us.”


They don't often welcome outsiders to the Cenepa. The community of 300 people lives in and off the rainforest and the river. The nearest thing they have got to modern technology is the odd motorised canoe. Someone might have a gun in case a jaguar gets too close to the village. The one ubiquitous tool is the machete.

But we were about to bring them into contact with the outside world via mobile phones, You Tube and Facebook.

Why the mobiles? Working for the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development (IFRTD), an NGO that aims to improve people's mobility and their access to basic services, we had the idea to use the latest technology to bring to life the plight of these people who lack the very basics of survival.

Communication and travel much beyond their villages is virtually impossible for them. The nearest store is a day away by motorboat. This means that for many people in the Cenepa and similar communities, accessing vital medical services is simply impossible. Transport to the closest clinic is prohibitively expensive, travelling medical workers are under-skilled, understaffed and not trusted. And the villagers have no way to call for help in an emergency.

IFRTD’s research had shown that all this is having a devastating impact on people's health. Diseases and health problems considered mild in the rest of Peru are killing people with alarming frequency. Diarrhoea often kills children long before medical treatment can be sought; childbirth is a leading cause of death among women; treatable illnesses such as typhoid and parasitical infection are not being diagnosed in time to prevent serious illness or death.

Our visit to the Cenepa was to build on that research. We wanted to find a way of giving these isolated communities a voice, to describe their hardships in their own words, and to demand a more effective approach to mobility and health in the region.

We wanted to use social networking sites to reach a far wider audience than traditional campaigns could, and by presenting the world with these real life stories of extreme suffering, force policy makers to take notice - and hopefully, even take action.

It wasn’t easy. With no roads through the impenetrable jungle, we had to spend hours in dugout canoes chugging up and down the river, covering the huge distances between people in this strung-out community.

Before setting out we knew it would be remote. We took our own sack of rice, vegetables and a live chicken. Luckily someone remembered at the last minute that there would be no electricity and we managed to get some wind-up battery chargers sent over from the UK.

But as we quickly discovered, what were inconveniences for us were often life-threatening for the local people.


In all the excitement of our night time arrival, the community had seemed a vibrant, thriving place. But in the light of the following morning, a very different picture began to emerge. The district is classified by the national government as being in extreme poverty and the indigenous Awajun and Wampi peoples who live here are almost entirely isolated from the rest of the country.

The communities are so small and scattered throughout a vast stretch of rainforest that they do not feature as a recognisable unit on the state's radar, meaning that their needs are institutionally overlooked by national planners and policy makers. While the rest of Peru has made massive advances in healthcare, these remote communities have been left behind, with little investment or attention from the authorities.

Many people in the Cenepa think that the problem is more than just neglect, that it is part of a deliberate national discrimination against the indigenous people of the Amazon. Our visit coincided with a series of major clashes between Awajun protesters and the security forces over plans to open up the Awajun's ancestral lands to development by international mining firms. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people have died in this continuing conflict, and claims of torture, disappearances and mass graves have left communities feeling embattled and victimised.

Even when talking to the Awajun-speaking villagers hrough a translator, their sense of anger and betrayal was clear. One man, Julio Wisum, explained the difficulties he faced when trying to find treatment for his critically-ill wife. “I took her to the doctors, but they had no medical or surgical equipment, they weren't even trained properly and there was no vehicle or money to transport her to Nivea or Bagua [the closest towns with medical facilities].

"Finally in a balsa wood boat, we travelled to Nivea where they attended to us, but curing my wife until she was healthy has put us into so much debt. That is the problem now.”

Another man, Rafael Ukuncham, told us how his son had died from diarrhoea because he was unable to reach the clinic or call for help. Rafael said: "For these reasons the Ministry of Health should watch this video and realise that out here live human beings who need treatment from professionals. I think children's lives can be saved.”

Almost everyone we spoke to recounted tales of close family members suffering and dying from easily treatable illnesses. Some of the stories we heard were short and heartbreaking, such as Fidel's, whose sister had died from typhoid. Others were long, detailed complaints of the community's many problems, and the things that could be done to help.

But every story had a common theme: a sense of injustice that people here were forced to suffer because policy makers are simply not interested in these distant and apparently forgotten communities.

Despite living in a world virtually untouched by modern technology, the villagers instantly recognised the power of their videos and understood how they could broadcast their messages to the world. Obviously unfamiliar with being filmed and recorded, they were reticent at first, but as they began to tell their stories, their anger added a clear sense of urgency to their messages.

Before long, people were asking if they could film more messages. “I am sharing my story with you in the hope that someone takes notice and can help us,” said, Delicia Santiak, whose daughter had eaten a toxic plant and died because there was no way of getting her to the clinic.

Our departure from the community was much less animated than our arrival. Physically and emotionally exhausted after four long days of near constant travelling, talking and recording, we boarded our small boat and set off for the long journey back to our world. Our hosts stood on the riverbank waving, watching us leave. Go and tell them what it's like here, they were saying. But we didn't need to speak any Awajun, we could read it in their faces.

How you can connect with the Messages from the Amazonas:

Watch the community’s messages and testimonials online at:

Project website:

Become a fan of the project on facebook:



Contact Person: Peter Njenga
Position: Executive Director and Coordinator East and Southern Africa
Tel/Fax: +254 (20) 883323
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Visit our Other Sites