Most people I talk to don’t know who the Ese Ejja are. When I first arrived to Peru, I didn’t either. They’re a small group — while 45% of the population of Peru is indigenous, only 800 of them are Ese Ejja. I came in contact with the community while working with the Amazon Conservation Association on women’s empowerment initiatives. Our work wasn’t intended to touch upon issues of water contamination, but those became quickly visible the longer we stuck around.
Ese Ejja means “the real people” in their native language. While they’re traditionally nomadic, the discovery of rubber and the arrival of missionaries in the 19th century led to agricultural reform. The Ese Ejja were forced to accept small parcels of land which divided them into fragmented communities. Gradually, the population was whittled down from an estimated 15,000 at the beginning of the last century.
The community’s spiritual connection with the Amazon is known through history. Some people even say the Esa Ejja came to the world through a thread from the sky, to protect the jungle from invaders and bad spirits. Needless to say, they are hugely interested in Amazonian conservation efforts, as their livelihood depends heavily on a healthy ecosystem, but there’s not much they can do since historically and socially, they are vulnerable themselves.
Over the years, the Ese Ejja have demanded recognition of their traditional lands for hundreds of years, to no avail. Separation from their sacred sites and many of the areas that they relied on for survival only begins to describe the challenges they face. Because they are small, theirs is a story seldom told.