Matsigenka Storytelling for Rain Forest Conservation

A Matsigneka boy acts as the voice of his community in the educational booklet.

A Matsigneka boy acts as the voice of his community in the educational booklet.

I open the office door and welcome Gregorio Perez. He smiles shyly at me, his kind, gentle face warm with good humor. “Buenas dias, Senora Jessica,” he says. I offer him a chair and a mate de coca, and we get to work. Gregorio is a Matsigenka leader from the community of Shipetiari in the buffer zone of Manu National Park in Peru. He is an accomplished translator, and it is this that has brought us together. Last year, I received funding from the UK-based Iris Darnton Foundation, through Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), to produce a bilingual conservation education booklet for the Matsigenka communities in and around Manu. We hope this will help pave the way to a more transparent dialogue about, and deeper understanding of, conservation dilemmas in the Park by the key stakeholders, namely its managers and its indigenous residents.

There are approximately 500 Matsigenka people settled mostly in 3 main communities inside the park’s core. A further 250 Matsigenka live in two communities bordering the Park to the southeast, including Shipetiari. The Matsigenka engage in bow-and-arrow hunting and fishing, foraging, and swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture, mainly of manioc and bananas. Park rules prohibit firearms and most commercial activities, so the Matsigenka maintain a largely traditional way of life that is disappearing outside Manu National Park.

The presence of indigenous people in tropical parks has fueled a debate over whether they are conservation allies or direct threats to biodiversity. It has been argued that the westernizing and fast-growing Matsigenka population in Manu will eventually degrade the park’s biological integrity. On the other hand, some maintain that the Matsigenka may become the Park’s most important allies in the face of threats such as hydrocarbon exploration, illegal gold mining, and unsustainable wood extraction.

Education within the Matsigenka communities is of a poor standard. The Matsigenka population in Manu is therefore one of the target groups of the intercultural conservation education initiative of Manu’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station, which is co-managed by San Diego Zoo Global and Peru’s National Service for Protected Areas.

Otter Chava represents the aquatic environment in the booklet.

Otter Chava represents the aquatic environment in the booklet.

Enter Gregorio. He and I are co-authoring the bilingual—Spanish and Matsigenka—conservation education booklet. The main protagonists are a Matsigenka boy, Tito, acting as the voice of his community, and a young giant otter named Chava acting as the flagship species for the aquatic environment in particular but also for the protected area as a whole. The story explores the worlds and perspectives of each, as well as key conservation concepts and issues, in a non-judgmental and entertaining, highly visual way. It also incorporates several Matsigenka fables with an aquatic theme contributed by Gregorio. We hope these will reinforce the Matsigenka storytelling tradition.

Within the next 3 weeks we will print 2,000 copies of the booklet, to be distributed first among the families of the communities directly involved and eventually further afield in the region of Urubamba to the west of Manu National Park. We believe it is the first time that such a booklet has been created specifically for and by the Matsigenka, and we will seek to incorporate it into the provincial school curriculum through a local education authority.

As we pore over the text of the booklet, Gregorio explains to me that Matsigenka men wear cushmas (handwoven, long, tunic-like garments) with V-necks and vertical stripes while the women wear cushmas with rounded necklines and horizontal stripes. This is sometimes the only way to tell boys and girls apart! I am also fascinated to learn that it is considered rude NOT to interrupt a person who is relating a story. Rather, it is customary to prompt the raconteur—“And then?”—to show that you’re paying attention.

Although I have worked several years in Manu, monitoring and helping to safeguard the resident giant otter population, I had not had the opportunity to spend much time in the Matsigenka communities. For me, collaborating with Gregorio has been the most rewarding aspect of creating this booklet. It will be a proud moment indeed, not long from now, when I give him copies of his own publication to distribute within his community and to read with his family.

Jessica Groenendijk is the education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru. Read her previous post, Welcoming Schoolchildren to Cocha Cashu.

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