Diana’s Song: Musicians join indigenous defenders in Peru’s threatened Amazon

As my father said: Today I fight. I don’t know if I will die or if I will live. But if I die, you will fight. Fight with dignity, with strength, with pride….we are all human beings. – Diana Rios, Ashéninka activist

Music transcends languages. We can go anywhere in the world and connect with anyone. That’s one of the great privileges of being a musician. And when we play music, we also bring people into a state of openness: to new ideas, to being something else, to being better. We have an opportunity to bring some of what we have learned, in a very positive way, to a huge audience of people. – KT Tunstall, singer-songwriter

December 4th, 2017. It’s not every day that the average person finds herself sitting on a stage in Lima, singing an unknown song in a native Amazonian language to half a million viewers on Facebook Live, with back-up vocals by KT Tunstall and musical accompaniment by Maroon 5’s guitarist, Dave Matthews Band’s bassist, and the lead singers of Guster and Kanaku & El Tigre.

But Diana Rios is not your average person, and this was not your average day.

Diana and three fellow indigenous activists – Julia Peréz, Segundo Pizango, and Juan Tapayuri – had just returned from the jungles of Madre de Dios, southern Peru, where they were traveling with these musicians and a small crew of Peruvian and U.S. environmentalists. Our journey’s objective? To learn about illegal logging and other threats to the Amazon rainforest – as well as to the people trying to defend it.

Diana herself was thrust into the spotlight in 2014, when her father and three fellow leaders from the remote Ashéninka community of Saweto, near the border of Peru and Brazil, were murdered while attempting to defend their forest and obtain legal territorial recognition. She is one of many brave women and men working with scarce resources, scant recognition and under dangerous conditions to achieve justice and forest protection. This past December, the musicians had come to hear these peoples’ voices – and as it turned out, to sing their songs.

Prelude: Peru, Guatemala, and blood wood in your guitar?

Two years ago I was lucky enough to go with EIA and REVERB to Guatemala… we visited a concession area that was a positive example; what you had there was a local community that was in control of their forests and sustainably harvesting the timber. Being down here in Peru was a different experience – we saw the darker side of that coin. Hopefully we can learn from the Guatemala model. The local communities were the best stewards of their forests because they had such a long-term view, they’re preserving that forest for not just their children but their children’s children. – James Valentine, Maroon 5

The Environmental Investigation Agency and REVERB came together in 2011 around a shared concern: the idea that those beautiful guitars and other instruments played by artists across the musical spectrum might contain “blood wood”. EIA had traced endangered tree species being illegally logged by desperately poor people in Madagascar’s national parks straight to the fretboards of Gibson guitars. Musicians allied with REVERB were shocked by the idea that their beloved tools of their trade might be party to environmental and human rights abuses, and aligned to defend the U.S. Lacey Act making it a crime to import or trade in illegal wood products in the U.S.

Some musicians wanted to explore the issue more deeply. In 2015, we journeyed to Guatemala with Maroon 5 guitarists James Valentine and Jesse Carmichael to see how things can be done right. James and Jesse got up close and personal with trees in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a forest where some of the world’s most sustainable mahogany is produced by community-run businesses operating in long-term legal concessions, and exported to U.S. guitar manufacturers. While Guatemala faces many environmental and human rights challenges, its far-sighted decision to give forest rights to communities is an inspiring example.

But now, in 2017, James and his fellow musicians Stefan Lessard (Dave Matthews Band), KT Tunstall, Adam Gardner (Guster) and Nico Saba (Kanaku & El Tigre) came to Peru to learn about a vastly different situation in the forest. The Peruvian Amazon is one of the world’s final great rainforest frontiers. Much like in the American Wild West some 150 years ago, a slow-motion violent battle is being waged over who will gain the rights to these priceless territories and the wealth of timber, gold, water and other resources they hold.

Peru has the fourth-most tropical rainforest on the planet, and the biodiversity it harbors as the forests rise from lowland Amazon to the heights of the Andes is without parallel. Peru’s forests remained spectacularly intact through the turn of the 21st century. But nowadays, highway and dam construction and the incursion of agriculture are eating away at the trees: Between 2000 and 2013, Peru lost an average of 113,056 hectares of forest yearly, the equivalent of 17 soccer fields an hour1.

Most logging in Peru is selective rather than large clear cuts, but it’s key to understand that for every tree extracted, more fall as collateral damage. What’s more, illegal loggers are only the vanguard: where logging roads go, forest degradation and loss follow. Nearly 95% of all deforestation in the Amazon occurs within 5.5 km of a road2. Illegal and unsustainable logging has been a critical factor in turning tropical forests from net sinks to net sources of carbon emissions since 2003. A shocking new analysis of satellite, laser and field measurements published in Science found that almost 70% of forest biomass losses globally were not from clear-cutting for agriculture but rather from logging degradation and disturbance.3

This trip took us to the southern Peruvian region of Madre de Dios, the center of a boom in mahogany logging in the 1990s and early 2000s that extracted hundreds of millions of illegal timber from Peru’s forests for export to the US and other markets, used in everything from luxury doors to, yes, guitars. Logging roads first opened Madre de Dios’s forests up to colonization. The Interoceanic highway, completed in 2013 connecting Brazil with the Pacific coast of Peru, has led to a devastating wave of land trafficking and deforestation for gold mining. All around the region’s rough-edged capital town of Puerto Maldonado, half-finished construction and shanty settlements are testimony to the influx of new wealth and landless peasants seeking to strike it rich.

But just as James observed in Guatemala, there are indigenous communities across Peru’s Amazon who are fighting to preserve and manage the forests for their own children, and their children’s children – if only they can keep the trees standing in the face of the current onslaught.

Verse 1: Musical connections in the community

If I speak English and you speak Spanish, we can’t understand exactly what we’re saying…but music transcends that. With music you can still convey feeling, show another person how grateful you are, how happy you are to be in their presence. When we arrived to the community, everybody was just sort of milling around, and we got out our instruments, and it just felt right to start playing. It was our way of saying, thank you for having us, and we’re so happy to be here, and so happy to learn about your forests and your world. – Stefan Lessard

From Puerto Maldonado, we travelled by boat to the small native community of Boca Pariamanu, passing boats of illegal miners and loggers along the way. It was haunting to know that a few days’ further journey up the same river, one would arrive at the territory of some of Madre de Dios’s “uncontacted” peoples – small, highly vulnerable groups of indigenous peoples who voluntarily isolated themselves from the outside world after disastrous contact experiences during earlier waves of resource exploitation, like the rubber boom that swept the Amazon 100 years ago.

Boca Pariamanu’s residents, of the Amahuaca ethnicity, received us with both kindness and spectacular food. Roy Riquelme, one of the best chefs in Madre de Dios, is part of an inspiring movement in Peru to rescue, value and conserve traditional local ingredients and recipes, and he was there to both teach and learn from the women of the village. As part of Boca Pariamanu’s efforts to generate income, the community is trying to build capacity to host volunteers and visitors interested in indigenous culture and wildlife research. They also conduct low-intensity logging and harvest valuable Brazil nuts to sell in regional markets. Don Alberto, Boca Pariamanu’s leader and healer, explained that Brazil nut trees are protected by law, but still occasionally cut down by outsiders. However, it’s the long-term threat represented by climate change that has everyone worried about whether the trees will continue to reproduce and regenerate.

All day long, music infused our little gathering under the palm thatch and adjacent bonfire, as the musicians pulled out instruments, improvised percussion and experimented with a small Peruvian charango guitar Stefan had brought along. Hearing a KT Tunstall or Guster hit song with the backdrop of rainforest cicadas and birds was a singularly charming experience. Diana and her fellow activists drew closer to listen. Later that evening, their own stories took center stage.

Verse 2: Words that are hard to listen to

The thing that makes us all incredibly emotional is that we came here thinking about our instruments, and we’re leaving here realizing that people are having their family members killed. – KT Tunstall

Nighttime jungle noises whirring and chirping in the dark behind her, Diana rose and spoke directly to the musicians. The emotion in her voice hardly needed translation. “When they killed my father, it was very difficult…we women, we had to lead…I tell my fellow indigenous women – do not be ashamed – our culture is so rich…”

Diana Rios and Julia Peréz are the daughter and widow, respectively, of men killed – allegedly by illegal loggers – while defending their ancestral territory. Three years later, Diana, Julia, two other widows and their families still await justice. With legal support from solidarity organizations like Rainforest Foundation U.S., they have continued to seek a fair investigation into the murders by requesting that the case be moved to a national level. So far, however, this has not happened. No one has been tried, much less convicted, for what happened in the community of Saweto.

Their case is sadly not the only one. Peru is the world’s fourth most dangerous country to be an environmental defender, including activists against mining, land speculation, and logging. EIA’s 2012 report The Laundering Machine: How fraud and corruption in Peru’s concession system are destroying the future of its forests, found that illegality is the norm, not the exception, in Peru’s logging industry, and that there is high risk for those attempting to change the system, which ultimately supplies timber destined for the US, Europe, China, Mexico and dozens of other countries.

For the musicians, these cold facts became flesh-and-blood when they heard the stories of their fellow travelers.

Segundo Pizango Inuma, the president of ORDEPIA – a federation representing communities in the northern Peru district of Alto Amazonas, Loreto region – has received multiple death threats from loggers and police. That night in Boca Pariamanu community, Segundo’s trusted advisor and travel companion, Juan Tapayuri Murayari, told us how the loggers insinuate themselves into communities to convince the village head to sign off on contracts. “Sometimes they come and buy off the chief by marrying his daughter” he said to our unbelieving stares – had that been translated correctly? These loggers end up trapping the communities in a cycle of unpayable debts and legal problems.

ORDEPIA is also trying to prevent the Loreto regional government from building a road straight through community territories without any of the consultation process or environmental studies required by Peruvian law. This kind of infrastructure projects are becoming a massive threat to the 77 recognized Indigenous Peoples across Peru. A controversial new law proposed in 2017 by a Fuerza Popular party congressman has the aim to declare “the construction of highways and the maintenance of tracks in the frontier zone of the Ucayali region to be a national priority and in the national interest.”

The community of Boca Pariamanu is part of FENAMAD, Madre de Dios’s indigenous regional federation, part of the National Indigenous organization AIDESEP. FENAMAD leader, Goldman Environmental Prize winner Julio Cusurichi Palacios, is leading the fight against the roads such a new law would bring, one of which is proposed to pass directly through a national park and a reserve for peoples in voluntary isolation. He calls it a path towards genocide for such peoples, who lack immunity to Western diseases like the common cold: quite simply, “a highway would bring their deaths.”4

Cusurichi and other indigenous leaders from Peru and across the Amazon plan to bring these life-and-death issues of road and other infrastructure megaprojects, environmental contamination, territorial rights, and the protection of voluntarily isolated groups to the Pope’s attention, first-hand, in an audience with His Holiness on January 18th, 2018 in Madre de Dios.

Interlude: Feeling the forest

Our mission is to protect the forest to prevent further climate change. – Segundo Pizango Inuma

It turns out that KT Tunstall steers a traditional wooden raft like nobody’s business! After the intensity of visiting Boca Pariamanu, we took some time to explore the Amazon’s biological richness. The native community of Infierno is home to one of Peru’s most successful community-run ecotourism operations, and their Ñape Lodge proved a welcoming spot to gather thoughts and energy while paying our respects to soaring shihuahuaco trees, climbing towers above the forest canopy, and scoping giant river otters on a nearby oxbow lake.

In the evening at the lodge, the artists gathered around Diana to practice a song that was gradually taking form, an Ashéninka song from Saweto village. The melody was irregular, circular, and the musicians struggled at first to adjust to these unfamiliar rhythms, but soon laughter filled the jungle twilight as they found it, dropped in, began to fit into each other’s playing and bring out the strength in her voice.

Evidence is clear from tropical forest regions around the world – there is no more effective way to ensure forests stay standing than to secure indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral lands. Taking this fact seriously is a critical part of preventing runaway climate change. Throughout the trip, a message came loud and clear from our indigenous colleagues: they’re not only fighting for their own rights. As Julio Cusurichi told us, “FENAMAD and Peru’s indigenous peoples are taking concrete actions so that the planet itself continues to live. We need support from international society to continue managing the forests well, because these forests are not only for us but for all human beings on earth.”

Verse 3: A chord change back in the city

I knew nothing, and I learned everything… I consider myself a fairly well-informed person, but I knew very little about this issue, and I’m a Peruvian, and I live here. It’s embarrassing to say that, but if I don’t say it, I don’t acknowledge it, and if I don’t acknowledge it, others won’t either…I feel profoundly moved and indignant for the treatment that Diana, Juan, Julia and Segundo have received… it’s an urgent problem and we have to do something. –Nico Saba, Kanaku & El Tigre

Our group returned to Lima, changed in a profound and real way by the experience. It was time to begin sharing and acting on what had been learned. In a meeting with the new U.S. ambassador Krishna R. Urs, James, KT, Stefan and Adam expressed their concerns over the ongoing illegal timber trade from Peru to the United States, and their support for U.S. enforcement efforts to prevent that wood from entering the market. The Americans then rejoined their Peruvian colleagues for a meeting with Peru’s Vice-Minister of Inter-culturality. During a wide-ranging conversation about racism and the role of music in cultural change, the artists took backstage while Diana, Julia, Juan and Segundo explained the challenges they faced in their regions and asked for more support from the Ministry.

Within an hour of the meeting, the Vice-Minister had helped Diana and Julia obtain the high-level meeting they came to request with Peru’s national Prosecutor. While only one step in a long legal process, it was a gratifying reminder of the powerful role that this sort of trans-cultural, trans-national advocacy can play.

Chorus: Giving voice to environmental defenders at home and abroad

We were lucky enough that Diana shared a song with us …. Her heart and her bravery and everything she has struggled against and the struggle she still has, you can hear it through the music. – Stefan Lessard

As the press conference finishes, the artists each grab an instrument and sit down at stage’s edge in this Miraflores restaurant-bar. KT Tunstall announces to the public in the venue and watching the live-stream, “We are Diana’s new band and we are called Antamiki! …the word means the forest and everything inside the forest…”

Diana’s voice is tentative at first, but quickly strengthens to fill the space. She sings in a minor key but it’s not sad so much as penetrating, hypnotic. KT harmonizes and the music gathers force now that there are four guitars and percussion. “Kamaranpi… Kamaranpi…

The words her song transmits are about Saweto community and about the medicinal plant ayahuasca – which is to say, about the wisdom born of a spiritual journey that takes you far from home. She has chosen well. The journey we’ve just made took us all far from home, and in the process brought these people together to sing about the forest and everything in it: a song with notes of both sorrow and joy for the sharing of powerful moments, a song of hope for the future of Peru’s forest and the people who defend it with such heart.

We’ve been working on this issue of illegal logging and its effects on indigenous people and the environment for a few years, but …it’s one thing to know it from distance and it’s completely another thing to be in it and feel it. This trip was about feeling it. And we hope as musicians that we’re able to make our fans feel it too. We all need to be emotionally moved, to take action, to make change happen. And the action and the change that we need to see is justice. – Adam Gardner, Guster & Co-founder, REVERB

1 Ministerio de Ambiente (2016). Tercera Comunicación Nacional de Perú a la Convención Marco de las Nacione Unidas Sobre Cambio Climático, pág. 112.

2 Barber, C., et al. (2014). Roads, deforestation, and the mitigating effect of protected areas in the Amazon. Biological Conservation 177: 203-209.

3Baccini, A. et al. (28 September 2017). Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.aam5962