Monte Salvado

10 adults, 3 little children, 30 kilos of rice, 3 barrels of petrol, a basket with chickens, my camera equipment and much more.

Everything and everyone finds a space on this motorized canoe in which we take off on a Sunday morning from Puerto Maldonado at the Madre de Dios River. Only after a little while we turn into the Río Piedras, where the atmosphere changes instantly. As opposed to Río Madre de Dios and Río Tambopata there is no gold mining on the Río Piedras, which leads to heavy mercury contamination of the water and fish.
Four days it takes with this small motor to reach the Comunidad Monte Salvado, the last native community before the so-called Zona Reserva that is restricted to nature and the non-contacted indigenous tribes. The days of getting there are filled with sleeping, eating and fooling around. Early in the morning the women cook, we eat on the boat with plates and cutlery, then wash the dishes in the river while the boat keeps going and refill them for the next person.
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The nights are spent in other indigenous communities that we pass going up the river and in a small lodge. Everywhere we go we are first served a plastic cup with Masato, the traditional drink of the Yine made of Manioc. We are welcomed with open arms and introduced to everyone. Everyone wants to know where we come from and why we are here. I want to learn from them and document, show the people at home why it is important to safe and support places like Monte Salvado.Teodoro, the founder of Monte Salvado, keeps trying to shoot at river turtles out of the boat. Turtles might be slow, but as soon as they notice the humming of our engine, they splash into the water, or the bullet gets caught in the muzzle, which makes everyone on board laugh. At dusk he is lucky and catches a Capybara (the biggest rodent on the planet), which gets prepared for dinner.

At mid-day of the fourth day we reach Monte Salvado, which lies on a kind of platform ten metres above the highest river level during rainy season. Up there in front of the houses we are being welcomed by adults and numerous children who come to help with luggage and cargo. And they are happy to welcome their visitors. I am being accompagnied by Ruben, a Peruvian high mountain guide that grew up in the rain forest and knows the jungle well. He helps me with shooting my film here in Monte Salvado, and I am happy to not be by myself. The cultural differences become obvious in small things on a daily basis, and it is a great gift to have someone on my side, who hasn’t been to Europe but knows a bit about our culture because of his work and helps to realize the film in the best possible way.

The group of man who share the job as park rangers meets with us in the Puesto. There is a sort of office with radio communication, a computer and two telephones. In front of the wooden building is a huge satellite dish to communicate with the world outside of the jungle. The four guest rooms are scarcely equipped, each with a bunk bed and a small shelf. The windows are covered by mosquito nets.  Connected to the building is what they call dining room that is waiting for a bit of repairing and to be used by visiting tourists one day.

We can only rest for a little bit before Teodoro calls us for the birthday party of a pair of two-year-old siblings. The whole community is present under a sort of shaded pavilion. A cooling wind breezes through every now and then. They sing birthday songs in Spanish, then in their native tongue Yine. Afterwards there is food for everyone and, of course, Masato. The very young mother breast-feeds every now and again. For that the little ones clop crying to their mom and grab her boobs. Most women in the community seem to breast-feed beyond their children’s second birthday.
The we play volleyball – the main Peruvian sport. Even though I do not have children yet I play with the team of mothers against the „Señoritas“, yet I seem to still be oldest one amongst my team. The Peruvians play really well. Eventhough it doesn’t rain today as an exception, noone stays dry in the burning sun with more than 90 percent humidity.

I am looking forward to the sound of the jungle at night, but I haven’t been aware of the generator that rumbles behind the puesto between around 6.30 and 9 pm. This is the only source of electricity in the community that supplies them with scarce light at dinner time and the possibility of watching the news on TV.

During the first few days I only film a little in order to settle in, to get to know the people and to help them getting to know me without the camera. Teodoro really takes care that I get to film everything I have been imagining. He is contained and respectful, doesn’t seem to know small talk, but when he talks, he delivers information that catches your attention!

The comunidad Monte Salvado shows the meaning of community and seems to live it. There seems to be none (or just a little) of jealousy amongst neighbours. The people of Monte Salvado are a big family. Family in Latin America still has a different significance than in many other countries in Europe or North America. Family as foundation of community means that you care about the well being of the other members just as you care about your own well-being. Under the circumstances here It is absolutely necessary on one hand, on the other hand that makes for quality of life that is often missing in Europe.

One example for community life is the system of the so-called „minga“, in which the people of Monte Salvado work on their „chacras“ (= field). The word minga (or “minka” in quechua) describes working collectively for the communal well being.
In our case this means getting up at 6 in the morning. With a group of about 20 aduldts and youths we go down the river by canoe to Teodoros manioc chakra. Plucking the weeds in a field in the rain forest means getting rid of climbing plants three times a year. The stronger plants are removed with a machete, even the eight-year-old Yvon is at it. Everyone works together at the chacra of a community member. Teodoro’s wife Lourdes is climbing over fallen tree trunks to serve everyone chichi (a corn drink). She takes care that everyone has enough to drink. After three hours of hard work everyone is soaking wet and covered in mosquito bites. Now I understand why there are only a few trees in the community itself. The plants stimulate the existence of mosquitoes. My feet are already covered by red dots and slight swellings, I have stopped counting at one hundred.

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Back in the community there is “breakfast” for everyone – monkey meat, rice and beans.

During rainy season the people here eat much more meat than during summer, when they can harvest more bananas, corn, papaya, coconuts and manio, as well as radish and carrots. Originally fish made for the majority of the alimentation in Monte Salvado, but today the fish from the mercury-contaminated area around Puerto Maldonado reach even the remote creeks. Therefore, they have to fish in small lakes that can only be reached by canoe and a hike into the forest.

The types of meat are divers, but for a European vegetarian like me it is quite a challenge to try: three different types of monkey, turtle, tortoise, Pauhil (savage poultry) and probably much more than I am aware of. I am a guest and am being welcomed with open arms and cared for, even though they themselves have only little. The people of Monte Salvado support my project wherever they can. Gratefully I eat what I am served. They do understand, however, that I care more for fried bananas than for fried meat.

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Teodoro came to this place twenty years ago to offer his family space to recuperate their traditions in a natural surrounding. It is his self-chosen duty to protect nature and the so-called “hermanos aislados” (the isolted brothers). Basically all of the Madre de Dios province has been parcelled and licenced, either for forestry or the Brazilian nuts. Only a handful of white spots are left on the map, indication that these places are left without having been licenced yet. Monte Salvado is a Comunidad, a community. They don’t sell goods on a grand scale but grow and take what they need to live. With the available means and in this climate this is hard work! During rainy season the river carries huge peaces of wood, which the people recover from the water. Like that they don’t need to cut a tree. In case they miss a piece they contact the next community downstream so they can profit.
Behind the boundaries of the community you reach the so-called Zona Reserva, the area that is preserved for the non-contacted indigenous tribes. It is next to the Manu national park, where there are also human beings that have never contacted modern civilization. But the illegal wood workers don’t stop here. That’s why the post has been put up at Monte Salvado, controlling and stopping people to enter this zone.

Some people in the government the existence of the non-contacted tribes is a fairy tale. But Montes Salvado has proof now. When in June 2013 140 non-contacted people approached on the other side of the river and stayed for a total of four days, they were filming. Communication was possible in they native tongue Yine. That’s how they got that the visitors where only asking for food and came with no aggressive motives. Willingly they left their spears on the beach. They did not have any physical contact. The community put loaded of bananas into a canoe and pushed it across to the other side of the river.

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The non-contacted tribes are highly affected by the development of the region, because the area where they can live, which also means get their food, is more and more limited. Illegal wood workers penetrate into the restricted areas, often being aggressive. A few times apparently they have assaulted non-contacted individuals and even violated girls. That kind of aggression is incomprehensible for the non-contacted people cannot. They cannot understand what is happening around them, and therefore get scared. Teodoro and his family in Monte Salvado can help by building a bridge between the two worlds. They regard it as their duty to protect nature as well as their “isolated brothers”.
As park rangers some men of Monte Salvado get paid a very small salary by FENAMAD (Federación Nativa de Río Madre de Díos y Afluentes), which is barely enough to buy petrol to get to Puerto Maldonado and back – not even speaking about their children’s education.

In Monte Salvado the children take over daily duties from a very early age on. The do not necessarily differentiate between house work (as annoying liability) and games. Their creativity knows no limits. They own no or only a few toys, but every wooden stick or plastic cup can be used for something and is fascinating.

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The school of Monte Salvado only teaches until sixth grade. After that the children have to continue studying in the city. That tears the family apart, sometimes there is no adult who can live with them and young girls have to look out for themselves. In the community women grow up with the feeling of responsibility for others. They seem older as other girls their age, but are more naïve in other aspects, which men like to benefit from. Some get pregnant at a very early age, which makes it even more difficult to finish school. In that regard the cultural difference is most obvious.

The rain forest seems to have medicinal plants for everything. Even plants that make women completely unfertile exist. For the people living in town, however, the plants are far away. They simply don’t use them. However, in cases of a severe disease sometimes indigenous people are asked for advice and visited by people from the city. Teodoro guides me through the forest – where I have been trying to film parrots in vain – and explains to me different plants and their virtues. Preparing the respective medicine is much more elaborate than going down to the pharmacy, but especially in the apparently hopeless cases much more effective as well!

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Teodoro would like to share that knowledge, as well as he would like to share the community’s lifestyle with visitors. Therefore, we would like to make it possible for more and more people to visit Monte Salvado in small groups. The sanitary facilities and rooms have to be improved for that. Ruben and I are working on a program together with Teodoro and Romel, the president of the community. We are now more like guests of honour in the community. All the community’s hope seems to be on our continued co-operation!

The last Sunday of our visit they organize a party especially for us, showing off their special dance and traditional dress. And of course: there is loads of Masato! The days before the celebration I help with the preparation, peel and cut the huge manioc lumps that simmer in immense pots on the open fire. You also add shredded sweet potatoes and corn sprouts. All of that gets mashed with a wooden plough and rests two more days to ferment.

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The young girls of Monte Salvado have bee painted with typical Yine symbols and walk around with huge decorated Masato bowls. Masato is being served alternately to dancing. Normally, this kind of party lasts three days and three nights, but for me one day of intense Masato drinking is enough. Plus we do play volleyball afterwards in the heat of the midday sun.

The day of our departure the children seem to be closer to be than usual. The know we are going to leave, and they are sad. For two weeks we have been sheltered and cared for by the people of Monte Salvado, like family. That’s how it feels like as our canoe takes off slowly and slowly starts its way downstream. Up next to the houses the people of the community have spread out, our new friends, waving their good-byes. In this case I am certain that there will be more than just one reunion!

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