Throughout most of the day, Indigenous men, women, children and elders from Puerto Yanizú in the Peruvian district of Puerto Bermúdez traverse the points along the 182 kilometers of the Pichis River, either to reach the city or return to their communities. This constant back-and-forth involves the transportation of food, medicine and goods for consumption or sale. Authorities note that there are currently 147 communities, akin to small islets.
Puerto Bermúdez, located just over 500 kilometers from Lima, is home to more than 20,000 residents, with half of them belonging to the Asháninka Indigenous identity, according to the latest national census. Historically, this district has faced numerous challenges, including colonization and land dispossession. Presently, 40% of local children aged 0 to 5 are malnourished, and 4 out of 10 inhabitants live in poverty, as per the Municipal District of Puerto Bermúdez's Concerted Development Plan. To compound these issues, there is a distressing scarcity of fish in the Pichis River due to the illegal use of explosives in fishing.
Amazonian fish such as "chupadora," "lisa," various types of catfish and "carachama," which are essential components of the Asháninka diet in Puerto Bermúdez, appear to have their future imperiled in the Pichis River.
The damage caused by explosives is alarming, indiscriminately depleting fish populations and disrupting the fragile ecosystem balance. Water quality is compromised, significantly affecting aquatic life. Unfortunately, this practice has replaced the ancestral fishing methods in this district, known as the "geocentric city of Peru," surrounded by important protected natural areas supported by the Ministry of Environment.
"Although we do not have a specific presence in the district of Puerto Bermúdez due to the limited fish production volume, the Center for Productive Innovation and Technological Transfer (CITE), which currently operates in neighboring regions like Ucayali, is aware that dynamite fishing continues and extends to other Indigenous communities. It's a chain reaction that disrupts the fish's life cycle. We are committed to improving the competitiveness of the Amazonian fishing sector, but the problem persists in these rivers," says Gino Bustillos, a technological transfer specialist from the Institute of Production Technology (ITP).
Abner Campos, chief of the Asháninka Nationalities Association of the Pichis Valley (ANAP), acknowledges the abusive use of explosives for fishing in the group of communities he leads, as well as the methods employed by offenders to bypass the almost non-existent controls and introduce dynamite into the Pichis River. This practice constitutes an environmental offense according to Article 308-B of the Peruvian Penal Code, which punishes those who extract saltwater or freshwater species using explosives or toxic substances with up to five years in prison. These substances are reportedly obtained, according to community sources, from some businesses near the ports. According to the APU (Indigenous Amazonian authority), there have been no notable cases of effective imprisonment sanctions in Puerto Bermúdez.
"With the monitoring and surveillance team, we have been able to reduce explosions to some extent... we have to work to defend our territory, but here we have to collaborate with public and private entities," says Campos.
The Indigenous monitoring team has been operational since July 2013, composed of a group of Asháninkas organized for riparian surveillance, often with little support from the Regional Directorate of Production, representing the Ministry of Production, which does not have an office in Puerto Bermúdez but has one in the city of Oxapampa. One can reach Oxapampa after a six-hour car journey. There resides engineer Francisco Yauri, the institution's representative, who states that their absence in this district is due to budgetary constraints.
"Lack of budget and the pandemic have limited us; this is a macro problem... what we are doing to face it is to focus on aquaculture since we cannot continuously monitor this fishing due to economic limitations," says Yauri, who has led the institution for over 10 years and has not had the opportunity to travel to Puerto Bermúdez in 2023.
Meanwhile, in remote communities near the locality, Pichis River residents have organized for many years to confront and report offenders, even going to the police and the Mixed Provincial Prosecutor's Office of Puerto Bermúdez in previous years, despite the risks involved. According to them, in 2023, the Indigenous fishing vigilance team of the Pichis River does not have updated recognition cards from the authorities due to changes in municipal leadership.
"Monitors have to take risks to detect those who dare to introduce dynamite, we have placed signs with the law, but they are removed or we are threatened many times. I've heard up to 40 shots in a day this year," says Víctor S., one of the most senior Indigenous monitors.
Hans Ruiz, a journalist with many years of experience in the area, comments that this fishing practice emerged in the 1980s when construction of part of the Central Peru Highway began, connecting them to districts with more commercial activity, such as Villa Rica and Oxapampa:
"The same people who arrived at that time installed dynamite to use in fishing, which facilitated the capture of species. Some have already disappeared."
It is not an exaggeration to say that thousands of dynamite cartridges are now being introduced into the river and are difficult to track. When authorities arrive in a distant Indigenous community, the fish are already floating, as we have witnessed in the community Primavera, which is two hours from Puerto Bermúdez. Consequently, this crime is often not reported. "There are few reports, at most one or two," says the journalist.
The change of authorities currently faced by all regions of Peru has delayed the recognition of fish monitors in the Pichis River. Helen Melgarejo, the Development and Environment Manager of the Municipality of Puerto Bermúdez, details that an Environmental Commission is being activated in the municipality with a single chart of offenses and sanctions to reverse the situation.
"Since we took office, we have not had a meeting with the people responsible for the mentioned surveillance. We are new authorities," says Melgarejo at Puerto Yanizú when we highlight some points that would be hotspots for explosions, such as the Azupizú area and the communities of Puerto Pascuala, Palmacocha, Santa Isidora and San Juan de Chivis.
When we navigate the Pichis River, we see families trying to catch something. However, this has become a recreational activity. They can only joke while catching a "cunchi" (a type of fish). "We used to catch large sábalos, pacos, zúngaros, and doncellas," comments a local resident who prefers to remain anonymous.
In this regard, Melgarejo emphasizes that "the consequences of this situation in the Pichis River go beyond ecological issues. It profoundly affects society and the economy because the lack of fish in the river deprives these communities of a vital source of food and a fundamental element of their culture. Additionally, fishing is an activity that also generates income, both for local sales and small businesses."
In this context, aquaculture emerges as a quick and sustainable solution to the devastating practice of dynamite fishing, which is escalating and growing alongside the constant cases of dengue, frequent diagnoses of respiratory diseases and positive results for HIV. While dynamite indiscriminately annihilates the life of the Pichis River's aquatic ecosystems, fish farming benefits the Peruvian Amazon's food security. Fish monitor Víctor S. already has experience in this practice.
The Asháninkas in Puerto Bermúdez control the most consumed species in suitable and safe environments, preventing predation and harm to natural populations. This contributes to the conservation of their biodiversity, but it does not prevent explosions from resonating in their rivers from May to September, the warmer months.
To alert authorities, we traveled to Lima in search of Nelcy Heidinger, a member of parliament for the Pasco region this year. Regarding dynamite fishing, the parliamentarian mentions that "if it is a frequent practice, it is concerning, and a review of this issue will be initiated, starting by working with the municipality." However, she indicated that during her visit to this district, she did not see any signs of cooperation from local authorities.
As evidenced, not all involved have been engaged, according to the Amazonian guardians in the Pichis River, who demand an urgent call to action.
Read the original Spanish-language story here.
This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in El Cholo on September 5, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: This fish, caught at the Pichis river, won't serve to feed the Asháninkas families / Credit: Lizbeth Quijandría.