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The Reunion: The Rediscovery of an Enormous and Ancient Stone Face by the Harakbut

Published on November 24, 2014

 

‘The Reunion’ is a stunning story about indigenous Harakbut people exploring their ancient past in the Peruvian Amazon with the search for an enormous carved stone face, or ‘”Rostro Harakbut” in the cliffs of the jungle.

The Rostro had never been documented before. Perhaps the discovery of these ancient monuments could help prevent the exploration of gold mining and petroleum companies encroaching upon their territories.

The Rainforest Foundation, Handcrafted Films and long-time partner the Executor of the Comunmal Reserva of the Amarakaeri (ECA – RCA) carried out an expedition deep into the Harakbut ancestral forest – now the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve – to search for the “Rostro Harakbut in October 2014. The journey is captured in “The Reunion.”

The Amarakaeri Reserve and the Harakmbut communities that surround it are under intense pressure from illegal gold mining, which has ravaged thousands of hectares along the border of the Reserve, and from natural gas extraction, which is set to take place in the heart of the Reserve.

In addition to the threats that the extractive activities pose environmentally, they are also impacting the Harakbut culturally, as many youth are drawn to the quick money of gold mining rather than sustaining their indigenous customs – customs and practices that have served to protect the Reserve for centuries.

In order to recuperate and maintain the customary connection that the Harakbut have with the Reserve, community leaders Jaime Corisepa and Luis Tayori are carrying out cultural mapping of their land, with the goal of documenting the legendary heritage of the Amarakaeri Reserve.

According to oral legend, there are cultural relics all over the Reserve. However, until now, they had not been documented or seen by the outside world. The rediscovery of the Rostro and other cultural sites will help connect the youth to the Reserve, and hopefully generate interest in saving this precious, megadiverse part of the Peruvian Amazon.

 

Field Note from Tom Bewick, Rainforest Foundation US Program Manager, who took part in the expedition and making of the film.

 

To be able to share the experience of seeing the Rostro Harakbut for the first time, with the very Harakbut indigenous leaders who have been on a quest to rediscover it for eight years, was glorious. It was also extraordinarily sad, physically punishing, and soul searching.

The Amarakaeri Reserve, formally created in 2004, is the heart of the Harakbut ancestral territory in Madre de Dios, Peru. At that time the ecosystem was virtually intact between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado, which one could only reach by plane or a 25 hour jeep ride. This all changed rapidly over a period of about 5 years. During that time a new highway was built connecting Cusco to Bolivia and Brazil, the price of gold soared after the 2008 global economic crisis, and natural gas reserves were discovered in the Reserve. The indigenous leadership has been struggling to save the Reserve and the surrounding buffer zone ever since.

Every day—almost every moment—of the expedition was deeply affecting.

The first day, which began with a high spirited departure from Puerto Maldonado, ended in sad reflection. We camped in what remained of a Harakbut village, now surrounded by a vast desert of mining activity. The only people still living there were three elderly men. The rest of the villagers had died or moved too the city with mining profits. As we slept, the surrounding sand dunes that used to be lush Amazon hills rumbled from the sound of large tractors.

The next day, on our way out, we were questioned intensively by mestizo mining workers. We drove through thousands of hectares of mining devastation, until we finally saw some plants, then trees, then running water that looked clear. Dramatically, 50 meter high hills and cliffs shot up from the ground, blanketed in intense foliage. We hiked up to the entrance of the Reserve, where, at sunset we sat atop a cliff overlooking the foot of the Andes. From there I was able to fly the Rainforest Foundation drone over the cliff, capturing stunning images of the sunset. Our guide, a local shaman, blessed our journey. We all commented on the stark contrast between the lush Reserve and the devastated mining desert just two kilometers away.

The next morning we hiked through miles of river beds in sweltering heat and under constant attach from bees, until we reached a wide river and were greeted by a boat. At first a relief, the boat quickly became a burden: the river was low and full of boulders, so we essentially carried the boat upriver for four hours. Thoroughly exhausted we made camp with machetes, swatted bees away, and tried to soak in the beauty of the seemingly untouched nature of the Reserve.

As we made our way deeper and deeper into the Reserve, the terrain became harsher. Hills were steep, at one point we had to climb up a cliff holding on to vines, all with our camping gear, cameras and tripods, and a drone, all the while stopping to get interviews with Jaime and Luis, and film.

Finally that evening we reached a wide natural basin headed by a waterfall, and our shaman blessed us again. It was too late to get to the Rostro that night, so we made camp and a little kitchen over river rocks. That evening, Jaime and Luis told us about the legend of the Rostro, and the importance of mapping these sites. The mining, they told us, is far too alluring to young people in search of quick money. Reconnecting the youth with the Reserve, they hope, will reconnect them with their custom of prioritizing conservation, and make them aware of the long-term importance of protecting their natural resources. Finding the Rostro was the key.

That night we suffered from a sustained tropical downpour. Our tents flooded, our camp was nothing but mud, and morale was low. The next day we had nothing left to eat but rice. However, in the afternoon it cleared up and we all trekked over the mountain, down through thick jungle brush. It cleared, and suddenly we were in front of the glorious Rostro Harakbut. Luis, Jaime, and the rest of the expedition team were mesmerized, as were Paul and myself. We walked right up to the Rostro and sat on its chin, reflecting on how this can help conserve the Reserve.

It might have been Alex, the 20 year-old indigenous porter, who said it best. After snapping countless photos of the Rostro with his smartphone he commented, “Everyone I know is going to want to come here after they see this!”