Precarious resilience: An ethnography of Shipibo communities

Precarious resilience: An ethnography of Shipibo communities

Melaina Dyck, MESc 20191


This ethnography offers a snapshot into the lives of Shipibo communities in the Peruvian Amazon by examining the factors that support and inhibit community survival. I propose the term ‘co-precarities’ to describe how multiple precarious conditions overlap to increase threats to survival, and ‘co-resiliencies’ to describe intersecting protective factors. The Shipibo are a resilient people, having adapted through millennia of changes in the Ucayali River floodplain and through the dystopia of settler-colonialism. The ethnography depicts this resilience and the ongoing environmental and economic precarities Shipibo communities face in the 21st century. This account is based on interviews and observation I conducted in seven smallholder-farming Shipibo communities over a three-month period in 2018, with follow-up visits to communities in 2019. I find that while the co-resiliencies of ecological knowledge of the Ucayali floodplain, pride in Shipibo identity, and access to community support systems and collectively-owned land confer securities, the co-precarities of climate change, economic hardship, and restrictive land tenure laws may overwhelm communities. I conclude that the most important tool for indigenous resilience is to secure land tenure rights that enable indigenous communities to govern themselves based on their own knowledge.

Esta etnografía ofrece una imagen de las vidas de comunidades Shipibos de la Amazonia Peruana, y trata de los factores que apoyan e impiden la sobrevivencia de aquellas comunidades. Propongo el término ‘multi-precariedad’ para describir como múltiples condiciones precarias coinciden para aumentar las amenazas a la sobrevivencia, y el término ‘multi-resiliencia’ para describir la intersección de factores protectores. Los Shipibos son un pueblo resiliente, como han adaptado durante milenios de vivir en la llanura de la cuenca Ucayali y en la distopia del colonialismo europeo. La etnografía retrata aquella resiliencia y las precariedades ambientales y económicas que enfrentan comunidades Shipibos en el siglo XXI. Esta historia es basada en entrevistas y observaciones yo completé en siete comunidades Shipibos multifundistas en un periodo de tres meses en 2018, con visitas adicionales a comunidades en 2019. Acierto que, a pesar de las co-resiliencias de sus conocimientos tradicionales de la ecología de Ucayali, el acceso a vivir en territorio indígena, y el orgullo de ser Shipibo, las co-precariedades del cambio climático, la dificultad económica, y estrictas leyes de tenencia de la tierra podrían abrumar las comunidades. Concluyo que la herramienta más importante para la resiliencia de pueblos indígenas es tenencia de la tierra garantizada que permite que las comunidades se gobiernen basado en sus propios conocimientos.


Historical accounts of Amazonia often claim that until the 20th century, Amazonian indigenous communities were “small, dispersed, mobile, egalitarian and politically autonomous, hunting-gathering-based societies” (Alexiades and Peluso 2015: 3). Yet, recent archeological investigations have found evidence of extensive agricultural and urban development in the Western Amazon, as far back as 10,000 years prior to European colonization of South America (Varese 2017: 326). When Europeans landed on the continent, Western Amazonia was a dense network of towns and trading centers, managed river channels, and agro-forestry operations (Varese 2016, 2017: 326). The diseases European explorers carried preceded the colonizers by decades and centuries, collapsing Amazonian societies before Europeans reached them (Varese 2016).

Native American scholar Kyle Whyte argues that native peoples today are descended from those who survived apocalypse—death, disease, enslavement, destruction of their cultures and way of life at the hands of settler-colonists—and now live in a post-apocalyptic dystopia (Whyte 2018a, 2019). The apparently unmanaged forest landscapes occupied by small bands that European colonizers encountered in Western Amazonia was in fact a post-apocalyptic landscape. Shifting agriculture—identified by 20th century anthropologists as the “traditional” agriculture for indigenous people in this region—was a postcolonial adaptation by societies decimated by deadly pandemics and became a means of survival through centuries of oppression and disregard by settler-colonial rule (Varese 2017: 327). ‘Settler-colonial’ describes the unequal power relations between indigenous people and the descendants of colonizers, who assumed the apparently “empty” landscapes were theirs to take, killed or displaced indigenous residents, and continue to dispossess indigenous people of self-determination (Coulthard 2014; Bell, Dennis, and Krings 2019). From this perspective, the continued existence of indigenous peoples and cultures in the Peruvian Amazon today must be recognized as testament to their ability to “[adapt] to a hostile and complex environment and […] to the social and environmental transformations brought in by external colonists” (Varese 2017: 326). Whyte argues that indigenous knowledge is informed by this history of survival and is key to indigenous resilience (Whyte 2016).

This story of the persistence and adaptability of Amazonian native peoples can be analyzed through two concepts: precarity and resilience. Precarity here refers to living under environmental and economic conditions that frequently change and impose threats to survival while lacking sufficient resources to mitigate or respond to those conditions. Resilience is the ability of a particular group of people to survive precarity for generations, while “maintaining a sense of self amid external turmoil” (Baker 2019). Embedded in this conceptualization of resilience is the recognition that previous experiences of survival may equip communities to with the knowledge and self-determination strategies to survive precarity in the future (Whyte 2016, 2017). Notably, this definition of resilience includes community-level practices and inter-generational knowledge, but explicitly excludes mechanisms for sustaining economic and political systems that degrade the environment and oppress vulnerable groups (Baker 2019; Bell, Dennis, and Krings 2019). With these definitions in mind, I propose the term ‘co-precarities,’ to describe how multiple precarious conditions can overlap to increase threats to survival, and ‘co-resiliencies’ to describe intersecting protective factors.

The Shipibo are one of the Amazonian peoples who have adapted their knowledge, culture, language, economic systems, and ecological practices in order to survive. The Shipibo are the third largest indigenous group in Peruvian Amazonia, with 36,000 people and over 150 communities in total. Most Shipibo people live in the Peruvian Departments of Ucayali and Loreto (Wali and Odland 2016, Ramírez, Erquino, and Orsi 2018). About a quarter of Shipibo people live in urban communities in the Amazonian cities of Iquitos, Loreto, and Pucallpa, Ucayali, or in Lima (Espinosa 2012: 452). The rest reside in rural villages ranging in size from less than 200 residents to over 1500, scattered throughout the lowland tropical forest floodplains of Eastern Peru.

Fig. 1. Map of Shipibo communities. Purple dots mark all Shipibo communities. The seven Shipibo communities included in this research are all located along the Ucayali river, north and south of Pucallpa, the regional capital, which is indicated with a star on the map. Map sourced from the Economic Plan of the Shipibo-Konibo Counsel (Ramírez, Erquino, and Orsi 2018).

Fig. 1. Map of Shipibo communities. Purple dots mark all Shipibo communities. The seven Shipibo communities included in this research are all located along the Ucayali river, north and south of Pucallpa, the regional capital, which is indicated with a star on the map. Map sourced from the Economic Plan of the Shipibo-Konibo Counsel (Ramírez, Erquino, and Orsi 2018).

In 2018, I traveled to seven Shipibo communities as well as Yarinacocha—the Shipibo district of Pucallpa—with the intention of learning why Shipibo farmers plant the crops they do. What emerged from this research is an ethnographic snapshot of Shipibo communities that are confronting a multitude of precarities, including disruptive environmental change, unstable subsistence economies, insufficient government services, and insecure land tenure. The people I encountered in these communities are constantly on the edge of being overwhelmed by the precarious conditions. At the same time, I observed the knowledge, determination, pride in being Shipibo, and collective community support that made people resilient. This paper details the specific, grounded experiences of Shipibo community members and examines the interviews and observations they shared with me.

This paper also provides a necessary supplement to the ethnographic literature on Shipibo communities. Many ethnographic accounts of Shipibo livelihoods are several decades old, and recent academic study of Shipibo communities is most often conducted through the lens of the ayahuasca and shamanic tourism industry. While ayahuasca tourism and traditions are certainly important areas of inquiry, I interviewed Shipibo residents who are not directly engaged in the ayahuasca industry and who are therefore often excluded from current research.

I present an ethnographic description of Shipibo communities and analyze the experiences of Shipibo informants through the concepts of precarity and resilience. The ethnography depicts two major concerns raised by my informants: first, the challenges of living in legally restricted territories on a floodplain experiencing increasingly unpredictable weather events linked to climate change (Lavado Casimiro et. al. 2013, Espinoza et. al. 2016, Sherman et. al. 2016), and second, the economic hardships of depending on volatile agricultural commodity markets to provide sufficient income. The ethnography describes the environmental and economic precarity in the lives of Shipibo villagers. The discussion analyzes the environmental and economic co-precarities in the lives of Shipibo villagers and co-resiliencies that allows these communities to survive. Shipibo communities are living in Whyte’s dystopia: the co-precarities imposed by settler-colonialism, capitalism, and climate change may be too much for any individual community to survive, but the co-resiliencies passed down from generations of survival may be communities’ preservation. I conclude that the most significant support for indigenous resilience is to secure territorial and governance rights (Whyte 2018a).


This paper is based on interviews and participant observation I conducted in seven indigenous Shipibo communities in the Ucayali region of Peru during May to August of 2018 and follow-up visits to communities in 2019. The seven communities included in this research vary in size from less than 300 residents to more than 2,000. Six of the communities have been established within the last 50 years. In contrast, the seventh and largest community has been settled for 5 centuries. The farmers interviewed for this study were all smallholders, with chacras (small farms) ranging in size from 1 to 7 hectares. All of the interviewees farmed plantains and some cultivated other fruit crops.

I supplement my interview data with contemporaneous notes from participant observation and from conversations with a diversity of Shipibo residents—men and women, teachers, community leaders, young people, elderly people, and artisans. I also draw on literature, particularly about land tenure laws in Peru. Following ethnographic convention to protect the privacy of informants, communities and individuals are not identified. The seven communities in this ethnography were quite similar to one another in terms of broad characteristics including governance systems, infrastructure, agriculture, household economies, connectivity to Peruvian society, and history (with the exception noted above). All quotes from informants have been translated from Spanish by me, based on interview transcripts.


This ethnographic snapshot of Shipibo communities is divided into two sections, each corresponding to topics that emerged in my interviews and conversations. The first section focuses on the centrality of the Ucayali River in Shipibo lives and on observations about living in a floodplain during this time of increasingly unpredictable weather events. The second section describes the subsistence livelihoods and economic concerns in Shipibo communities, particularly around the education of young people.

Before beginning this ethnography, it is useful to understand the governance and land tenure structures common to these seven communities—and to many native communities throughout the Peruvian Amazon. The 1974 Law of Native Communities, along with the 1993 Peruvian Constitution and amendments to the law in 2011, allow “Native Communities” (communities made up of indigenous people) to receive communal land title and require free and prior informed consent for industrial activity in indigenous territories (Monterroso et. al. 2017, Larson, Monterroso, and Cronkleton 2018). These land tenure laws align with the Shipibo customary land tenure practices that dictate that land in Shipibo communities is owned collectively. Houses, chacras, and any goods produced belong to individuals or households, but individual community members cannot buy or sell their land. Informants generally reported that land in their communities was managed and distributed appropriately, although a number of communities had disputes with adjacent communities over territory.

The 1974 Law of Native Communities also institutionalized a system of local democratic governance in native communities, in which some community members are elected to various positions, represent, and lead the community for terms ranging from two to five years (Wali 2011 in Wali and Odland 2016: 2). The number and title of positions vary by community. Together, the elected representatives are referred to as the autoridades (authorities)2. Among other roles, the autoridades manage the distribution of land to community members for chacras and make requests to the government for new or expanded tenure rights.

It is well-documented that indigenous communities face immense bureaucratic hurdles to achieve formal land tenure rights ( Leal et. al. 2015, Monterroso et. al. 2017, Notess et. al. 2017, Monterroso, and Larson 2018). In Peru, communities must negotiate 19 federally mandated application procedures that can take upwards of 20 years to complete, and must undergo an additional multi-year planning process to secure use rights in additional to tenure ( Leal et. al. 2015: 183, Notess et. al. 2017: 7–8). In contrast, private companies typically receive title within four years (Notess et. al. 2017: 7–8). Native communities receive little support from the government, which under the Forestry and Wildlife Law (2011), prioritizes industry over smallholder or indigenous land rights. The law favors actors like corporations that are willing to accept temporary contracts for extractive activities, while delaying granting tenure rights to native communities, sometimes indefinitely (Monterroso et. al. 2017, Notess et. al. 2017, Larson, Monterroso, and Cronkleton 2018). Furthermore, often the receipt of title comes with a trade-off of customary rights such as access to forage and hunting grounds or the ability to move villages (Notess et. al. 2017).

These governance and tenure conditions form the backdrop for the environmental and economic concerns described in the following ethnography. Concerns about land tenure, access and use were raised by many informants. Overall, regulations on how Shipibo communities can govern themselves and restrictive bureaucratic processes that dictate land rights decrease community resilience.

Life in a changing floodplain

At the center of Shipibo livelihoods and culture is the Ucayali River. One of the largest meandering rivers in the world, the Ucayali flows for 907 miles from the Peruvian highlands north to the Amazon River, draining a basin of over 300,000 square kilometers in eastern Peru (Abizaid 2005; Wee 2017). The primary highway for local residents since 2000 BCE, this wide, flat river meanders past the city of Pucallpa and thousands of rural villages on its journey north. Shipibo identity is defined as being from the Ucayali river region, and the entire river basin is understood as Shipibo ancestral territory (Odland 2016: 35). When asked where they are from, Shipibo individuals identify themselves as being from Alto, Medio, or Bajo Ucayali (Upper, Middle or Lower Ucayali)3. Of the communities included in this research, two are located in Alto Ucayali, two in Bajo Ucayali, and the other three are Medio — close to Pucallpa.

Shipibo cosmology characterizes the river as a life-giving mother (Pacaya Romaina 2016: 86, Wali and Odland 2016: 2), and the Ucayali river certainly provides. Rich soils, replenished by yearly floods, support smallholder agriculture of plantains, rice, yucca, tree fruits and other crops (Kvist and Nebel 2001). Wild foods, like palm fruits and small mammals, supplement villagers’ diets and income (Padoch and Pinedo-Vasquez 1991: 5–6, Francesconi et. al. 2018). Fish from the Ucayali and tributary streams are an essential source of protein (Coomes et. al. 2010). For many Shipibo, living in rural communities is more secure than living in cities. One farmer explained:

Here [in the community] you sell your plantains when you want money… We are never lacking in money… But that’s because we are in the chacra, we are not in the city. Because in the city you need a lot of cash in order to eat, in order to do other things. But not here. Here you don’t need money because, look, we always have more buds on the candela [center stalk on a plantain plant]. And we eat fish as well. We just go leave our nets, we grab our fish, we bring them back…and the wife begins to cook them.

To this day, the flexibility of crops like plantains to both sell and eat, the right to use river fisheries, and guaranteed access to land, means that, for many Shipibos, living in rural communities is much more secure than living in cities.

However, living in the Ucayali’s floodplain is perilous. Seasonal flooding is a fact of life. The same silty waters that generate rich farming soils sometimes flood people’s homes. The river is constantly changing. In a single rainy season, the Ucayali may conform to a new channel, creating oxbow lakes and leaving communities cut off from the aquatic highway (Abizaid 2005). Climate change is exacerbating these perils. Meteorological research links increased evaporation from warming seas to greater volumes and durations of precipitation and flooding in the Peruvian Amazon (Lavado Casimiro et. al. 2013, Espinoza et. al. 2016). Over the last two decades, winter-time flooding (typically experienced between January and April) has significantly increased in volume and duration, and flood events have also occurred during dry-season months (Espinoza et. al. 2013; 2016). Wet and dry seasons are becoming less predictable (Hidalgo Ayambo 2014), and floods are becoming more severe (Sherman et. al. 2016).

Observations from local residents tell similar stories. Informants reported that seasonal rains that used to end in April or May now persist into June, and large rainstorms happen seemingly out of nowhere. Unpredictable and severe flooding in recent years wiped out crops and destroyed homes. Entire villages are forced to move permanently when the river crests its banks and does not recede (Sherman et. al. 2016). One farmer pointed to the misalignment of traditional seasonal signals. She explained that when huito — a native fruit used to make hair dye—ripens, the river should be at its highest point. But now, the flood season and the ripe huito no longer align.

For farmers, unexpected heavy rains threaten their livelihoods. Several informants explained that excess rainfall in the dry season leads to crop failure because the fruit se malogra (rots, goes bad), while others described how dry spells during typically rainy seasons lead to lower crop yields for many species of plantains. Informants also said that rain makes their chacras muddy and difficult to access, and makes weeds grow faster.

Some informants described changes in the river. They noted that it was cresting at different times than in the past or that the river would recede and then flood again. In 2018, crops of rice and maize planted along the nutrient-rich banks when the floods receded in April were wiped out by flooding after sudden heavy rains came in normally-dry June. Also, in some places the flood waters no longer recede. Large flood events cause the river to change shape and eat into the territories of riverside communities (Abizaid 2005, Sherman et al. 2016). Several informants explained that they were forced to move away permanently from their natal communities by flooding that made their homes uninhabitable. Residents in another community explained to me that in 10 years they went from having a band of trees separating their houses from the river to spending the rainy season flooded up to the floorboards of their homes for months at a stretch, the trees now completely submerged. The rapid increase in volume and duration of flood events described by my informants is consistent with climate change studies of the region (Hidalgo Ayambo 2014, Espinoza et. al. 2016).

Informants also expressed concerns about contamination in the river. One woman explained:

We used to drink this water from the river, but now we do not drink it. We drink water from the well only…because…the water from the river is bad. It carries a lot of disease. We have to boil [the well water] when we want to drink; we have to cook it still…But it is far to carry water.

Carrying the water was a particular hardship for this speaker. Her garden bordered a tributary stream of the Ucayali River, but instead of consuming this water she walked a long way to reach the village’s communal wells. Residents noted that water quality is worse in the dry season because contaminants are more concentrated when a smaller volume of water flows in wells and streams.

Flooding, pollution, and stringent land tenure laws act together to create tension between communities and reduce the resilience of communities. Prior to laws dictating that communities settle in an allotted territory, Shipibo and other indigenous peoples moved their villages in response to the river—spending the rainy season on higher ground and relocating entirely when the river changed course (Padoch and Pinedo-Vasquez 1991, Soria Gonzáles et. al. 2006). Now, in order to move, communities must enter into a multi-year-long process to request expansions to their land title, with no guarantee that such additions will be granted (Leal et. al. 2015). Meanwhile, flooding may destroy farms and houses and force families to move to other villages or cities long before the governmental review is complete (Sherman et. al. 2016, Padoch et. al. 2008).

The co-precarities of restrictive land tenure and increased flooding are evident in the case of a large community and small community living on overlapping territories adjacent to the Ucayali River. In the last decade, rainy-season flooding has increased in volume and intensity to the point where both communities are now nearly unlivable for several months out of the year. A former mayor of the larger community showed me maps outlining a plan for relocation to new territory further from the river that has been granted to the larger community by the municipal government. Detailed blueprints depicted lots for every family of the larger community but no space for the small community. When I asked the former major about new land for the smaller community, she shrugged and replied dismissively, “they like living in the floodwater.” Due to a variety of possible political and bureaucratic challenges, while the larger community had managed to secure new land, the smaller community had not. Historically, Shipibo communities responded to flooding by relocating their villages. Now, land tenure laws restrict their ability to move and foster a mentality of every person looking out for themselves rather than working together as a collective.

Subsistence livelihoods

Personal economics were the issue about which my informants felt the most precarious. Families are uncertain about their ability to subsist—to support themselves day to day, week to week, and year after year. Much of this precarity comes from depending on volatile agricultural markets for income while lacking access to social safety nets.

Plantains are not only a vital source of calories for informant households, but also the primary source of income for all of my interviewees. Farmers grow plantains in small monocropped stands in their chacras at a density of 300 to 1200 plants per hectare. Informants talked about growing eight different plantain varieties, and all farmers grew at least two types. At the time of this research, the largest market in Ucayali was for a variety called bellaco (English name: Horn plantain), which is eaten green and used in many local dishes as well as processed into packaged plantain chips called chifles. All of the farmers I interviewed primarily grow bellaco.

Income from plantains largely depends on negotiated bulk prices with rematistas (intermediaries, middlemen). Many informants lamented a recent change in rematista practice from buying bunches by par (pair) to buying them by monton (a pile of eight bunches or more). Yet, the rematistas will still refer to the monton as a par and offer the same price that they did before for much less fruit. Interviewees explained:

Eight bunches; here they say is one pair. But we know that two is a pair, right?” One farmer commented sarcastically. >“Before it was just two bunches, in a pair…now it’s 5, 10, up to 15 bunches that they put up! But that’s not how it should be. They win, but us? We do not win,” another said of the pressure to sell to rematistas.

On average, farmers sell plantains for less than $2 a bunch. In spite of the unpredictable market and supply chain squeeze, Shipibo farmers view plantain cultivation as a way out of poverty. Plantains grow readily, are easily replanted after floods, there is always demand for the fruit, and families can consume it themselves.

The river features heavily in the fortunes of subsistence farmers. Boats are the only form of long-distance travel for riverine communities. The water is their highway, transporting goods and people to and from communities. A number of my informants had moved from the more distant communities of their birth in order to be closer to the main river and within a day’s travel to Pucallpa. One farmer explained how he and his wife had decided to move from Alto Ucayali to a community on a tributary near the city:

We were looking for a place to live. There are lots of places in upper Ucayali, but, more than anything else, we were excited, in other words, I was in agreement with my wife, to move to this community…more than anything else, to be closer to Pucallpa. From here to Pucallpa is only 3 or 4 hours…In contrast, living [in upper Ucayali], the boat ride would be more costly, more expensive.

Living close to the river allows farmers to sell produce to passing buyers, and living close to the city means farmers can go to the markets themselves. Interviewees reported that they receive higher prices when they selling directly to consumers at Pucallpa’s port, rather than through the rematistas.

The seasonal changes of the river impact the price of plantains. During the wet season, plantains grow faster and larger, and more farmers are able to transport their produce from distant chacras to the river along tributary streams that are impassable by boat during the dry season. Wet season abundance lowers the price. In the dry season, farmers who are still able to harvest and transport plantains receive a higher price, while communities located inland from the river might be cut off from the market entirely. In the case of my informants — all from villages close the river — the dry season is the most profitable time of year.

Another common income-generating activity for Shipibo residents — especially men — is fishing. Like plantains, fish are used both for personal consumption and to sell. Fishing is also important for cultural identity, especially for men. Men often introduce themselves as fishermen even when it is not their primary source of income. One young man praised his friends for their fishing prowess and commented on his own lack of knowledge, his words inflected with some shame:

My father is a great pescador (fisherman). All of my uncles are great pescadores because their father was. It runs in the family…They go [fishing] for 1 or 2 weeks and come back with lots of fish to sell… in [the city], or here, in [our community]. It is good business. But I only know a little about how to fish. I don’t know much.

This informant and other residents expressed concerns that fish populations are declining. The informant’s friend showed me little freshwater shellfish, called concha, growing along the edge of the lake by his community. Twenty years ago, there were really big concha with lots of meat, the friend said, but now there are only these small ones. He said that in a short time all the large ones disappeared. The observations that fish and shellfish are getting smaller, or can only be found in far-distant lakes and streams, is consistent with a 1992 study in which Shipibo residents described fish species significantly diminishing and crashes in populations of other wildlife (Hern 1992). The author writes evocatively of a changed river:

Twenty to thirty years ago, the traveler camping on the Ucayali found difficulty sleeping on the beaches at night because of the constant noise of fish and their predators… Now, the traveler’s sleep is not disturbed by the fish…Sleep is disturbed by the whine of the fishermen’s outboard motors (Hern 1992: 7).

The declines in key food species have only continued since 1992, a loss noted by local residents and scientists alike (Soria Gonzáles et. al. 2006, Hidalgo Ayambo 2014, Sherman et. al. 2016).

It was very common for Shipibo people I met to have many jobs: maintaining a chacra, fishing when they could, and finding other ways to make money. Men, and increasingly women, travel for work, hiring out their labor to timber companies, mining operations, or service jobs in the city. Many Shipibo women make and sell embroidered or beaded handicrafts in the style of kené — a traditional art form of geometric patterns and natural imagery that has been developed by Shipibo artists for thousands of years (Belaunde 2016: 81–82, Wali and Odland 2016: 4). In recent decades, many Shipibo shamans and their families have created ayahuasca retreat centers for foreign tourists. In my observation, most of this income stays within shamans’ families, but at least some tourist dollars flow out to shamans’ communities, as centers buy supplies, hire their neighbors, and the tourists purchase kené handicrafts.

The most common financial concern raised by informants was being able to afford education for their children. For many families living in Shipibo communities, income is primarily used to cover school costs. Many informants expressed that they do not want their children to be plantain farmers. Several emphasized that they work hard to sell plantains in order to support their children’s education. Two farmers, a couple with four teenage and young adult children, explained their goals:

we have to make our children study…we have to send them to the university so that they come out as professionals. This is our idea so that they do not grow up like us. I asked myself: the farm is not worth it. Lots of sun burns us. That is why we do not want our children to be like us.

Although all seven communities have preschool to secondary school available within their village4, many families want to send their children to school in cities. The majority of the teachers in community schools are themselves Shipibo, which usually means they are able to provide instruction in Shipibo and reside in the communities where they teach. While residents who spoke to me about education affirmed the importance of children being taught their native language, they also expressed concerns that focusing on teaching Shipibo comes at the expense of students learning English, computer skills and technical knowledge. The perception among Shipibo young people that they are disadvantaged by their Shipibo education is increasingly common, as more and more high-school graduates pursue higher education and city-based employment. One woman, who completed primary and secondary school in her community and recently graduated from a university in Pucallpa, described her experience:

The advantage of having Shipibo teachers at our high school is that we do not lose our own language. But the disadvantage is that they teach us Shipibo instead of teaching English or computer skills. I had one mestizo (non-indigenous) teacher. Mestizo teachers can explain technical concepts in Spanish; they know the technical words. When I went to the city [to go to university], I suffered a great deal… I was discriminated against because I did not know the right words when I spoke in front of the class. I was the only indigenous person… Shipibo children should be taught the technical words when they are young, since young children can learn language the best.

Even though many Shipibo young people are moving to urban areas to pursue university degrees, and in spite of profound challenges, nearly all the young people I encountered expressed desires to return to their communities and to support their families. Many hold a great deal of pride in being Shipibo and being bilingual.


The picture that emerges from the ethnography above is of lives that are precarious. Threats to community survival pile up: climate change-related flooding destroys crops and homes, property rights laws do not permit resettlement of villages, and the same capitalist politics that fuel climate change have disregarded the creation of any social safety nets. For centuries in the Americas, settler-colonialism and economic exploitation that have pulled indigenous peoples from their territories and subsumed their languages, cultures, and knowledges (Niezen 2003, Crosby 2004, Forte 2005, Kimmerer 2013, King 2013, and Whyte 2018b are a few sources that tell these stories). The current crisis of climate change is the latest permutation of the genocidal pressures that settler-colonialism imposes on indigenous peoples (Whyte 2017; 2018a). The concurrent co-precarities brought on by climate change may be too much for some Shipibo communities to survive. What can resilience look like in the face of unprecedented climate disruptions?

Resilience might look like kené, traditional Shipibo geometric designs. Kené have persisted in the Ucayali region for 4000 years, and have been constantly adapted to new meanings and mediums — once used to paint canoes and summon spirits; now sewn into handicrafts for tourist souvenirs (Belaunde 2016, Morales Chocano, Mujica Baquerizo, and Weber 2016). Many styles of kené disappeared over the years, but the essential design — the artistic knowledge — persists.

As stated in the introduction, the very existence of Shipibo language and culture in the 21st century demonstrates their resilience in the face of precarity (Whyte 2016, Varese 2017). Shipibo people have repeatedly adapted to the economic, social, and political pressures that would undermine their existence. The co-resiliencies of ecological knowledge, community support of each other, and pride in being Shipibo sustain informants and their families.

Knowledge of floodplain ecology enables Shipibo people to adapt agricultural and subsistence practices. Cultivating plantains in particular seems to be an astute choice. Informants told me that they grow plantains because the crop is ideal for the environment where they live, and this insight aligns with scientific literature. A study with over 100,000 farmers in Peru found that the productivity and value of plantains are likely to increase under most climate change scenarios while other crops become less profitable (Galindo, Alatorre Bremont, and Reyes Martinez 2015). As described by interviewees, plantains lend themselves well to smallholder subsistence farming, because plantains require little maintenance, can be harvested relatively soon after planting, and once established, easily reproduce themselves (Trouillot 1988: 126, Coq-Huelva et. al. 2017). The fruit can then be either sold or consumed. This flexibility provides modicum of security: if prices fall and other food becomes unaffordable, farmers can still eat their plantains. Plantains thus are a key resource for the resilience of Shipibo communities.

Similarly, the widespread knowledge and practice of fishing confers resilience. During major flooding events, fish are a readily available source of food (Coomes et. al. 2010, Sherman et. al. 2016). Floodplain fisheries are the single most important source of food in enabling rural communities in the Ucayali to recover from shocks (Coomes et. al. 2010). However, informants observed that fish stocks in the Ucayali appear to be declining. Contamination and dredging in the river impact the quality and availability of many fished species (RPP Noticias 2019, Moore Foundation and Wildlife Conservation Society n.d.).

Shipibo residents are also finding new sources of income that enable them to continue living on their indigenous territory. Shipibo communities are now attracting tourists by offering spiritual retreats led by shamans and selling medicines made from native plants and kène. For some Shipibo families, monetizing traditional medicinal and artistic knowledge has been lucrative.

Perhaps the most significant source of resilience described by my informants is the ability to live in exclusively Shipibo communities on collectively owned territory. Emerging “eco-social work” scholarship has identified that communal ties to geographic and cultural traditions are essential “collective survival strategies” for indigenous peoples (Bell, Dennis, and Krings 2019). This appears to be true for the communities in this ethnography. Interviewees explained that access to land means a guaranteed place to live and to produce food. Many proudly pointed out that their system of land ownership distinguishes Shipibos from neighboring caseríos (non-indigenous villages) in which all the land is individually owned. One farmer explained:

[In the caseríos] you depend on what you produce. If you don’t produce anything, you don’t have anything, right? Land in the caseríos is split up, individually owned. But in the [native] community one is not alone. Here, we share everything.

Living in communities not only provides material security but social and cultural security as well. Informants proudly identified as indigenous people and strongly claimed the rights to choose where they live, to cultivate the crops they think are best, and to have multi-cultural education for their children. The strong sense of Shipibo cultural identity and attachment to their home community persists even though many Shipibo people today are part of multi-sited households (Padoch et. al. 2008).

Frequent movement between settlements has long been a part of Shipibo livelihoods (Soria Gonzáles et. al. 2006: 16). However, as environmental, economic, and social resources become more scarce, Shipibo people are moving away from their communities to seek employment in cities and are not returning to their villages (Soria Gonzáles et. al. 2006, Sherman et. al. 2016). For many rural Peruvians, connectivity to broader Peruvian society is the key to prosperity for their families (Harvey and Knox 2015). Informants reported feelings of tension about this trend. The perspectives varied largely by age, even though old and young people had many of the same concerns. Peruvian anthropologist Oscar Espinosa captures the debate:

Many Shipibo elders believe that young people are more interested in migrating to the city, becoming professionals, or engaging in the same cultural activities as white or mestizo people, and that they will sooner or later forget their roots and traditions. However…younger generations also worry about the ways in which they should or could carry on their cultural heritage (Espinosa 2012: 452).

Families do not want their children to be farmers, and they send their children away for education that will hopefully result in a higher-paying “professional” job (Informant interviews, Padoch et. al. 2008, Espinosa 2012, Pinedo 2017). Young people question the quality of the education available to them in Shipibo communities. Yet, informants noted that moving to cities may accelerate the loss of Shipibo language, culture, and territory (Soria Gonzáles et. al. 2006, Espinosa 2012).

The most significant sources of resilience for Shipibo are their wealth of knowledge and strong community ties, and the greatest condition of precarity is the rapidly changing climate. The unpredictable and increasingly regular flooding events on the Ucayali are forcing families to relocate permanently, usually with the result of scattering a community. Flooding in 2010, 2011, and 2012 pushed the Shipibo community of Panaillo past the point of recovery (Informant interviews, Sherman et. al. 2016). The co-precarities of insufficient incomes, no government safety nets, food insecurity, and post-flood employment in extractive industries away from the village caused every household to leave Panaillo permanently in the years following the flood (Sherman et. al. 2016). Six of the seven communities I visited (excluding the largest and closest to Pucallpa) are at risk of an environmental disruption similar to Panaillo.


There is no final certainty of surviving happily ever after in this narrative. Although Shipibo people have shown generations of resilience, adapting to millennia of the Ucayali River’s ebbs and flows and centuries of European colonization, new precarities continue to emerge and layer on top of existing pressures. The Shipibo informants profiled this ethnography are facing the latest permutations of the existential threats that their ancestors endured. The survival of their communities is at stake. Knowing how to survive is insufficient when laws, borders, and constraining economies inhibit self-determination.

Indigenous scholars argue that indigenous communities are uniquely equipped to adapt to climate change as they have already survived the dystopia of settler-colonialism and therefore possess the knowledge to weather this current threat (Kimmerer 2013, Whyte 2018a). Shipibo residents know how to live and care for each other with few resources. My informants demonstrated their knowledge of how to read the river to choose a good spot for a village or predict the next flood, construct a home, cultivate and forage for food, and treat disease with native plant species. They know how to live with precarity. Their knowledge and resilience is the inheritance from every previous generation that endured existential threats.

However, for indigenous knowledge to be a powerful tool for resilience, indigenous people must have the ability to plan and govern themselves based on their knowledge (Whyte 2016; Bell, Dennis, and Krings 2019). This means that truly secure and unassailable property rights, based on historic practices and grounded in social relations, are essential for the survival of the Shipibo and other indigenous peoples (Cronkleton and Larson 2015, Finley-Brook 2016, Whyte 2016, Notess et. al. 2017). Such policies must not be attempts to “protect” or “develop” native communities but rather to ensure their agency to live based on their own knowledge and power.

Whyte (2016) emphasizes that indigenous knowledge is far more than supplemental observations to scientific study. Indigenous knowledge has “governance value”: it is the basis by which indigenous people self-determine and innovate (Whyte 2016). Climate change is caused by settler colonial societies, and recently climate scientists are looking to indigenous knowledge-holders for guidance. Yet, indigenous people are not granted to ability to use their knowledge for themselves. Indigenous people possess resilience strategies because they have faced precarity again and again. Indigenous knowledge is only a climate change solution if indigenous people have the power to innovate and govern for their own survival (Whyte 2016; Bell, Dennis, and Krings 2019). Then, perhaps, they could guide others out of the settler-colonial dystopia.


This research was supported by grants from the Yale Tropical Resources Institute (TRI); the Yale Center for Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration; the Yale Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies; as well as the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Summer Fund and Carpenter-Sperry Fund. Special thanks to field research assistants Jhomar Wicler Maynas, Humberto Agustin Valles, Marangoni Urquia Huayta, and Ruth Mahua Urquia, as well as to Glover “Charita” Mori, who passed away in May 2020 and whose advice and insights inform this paper. My advisors Amity Doolittle and Michael Dove provided essential feedback and critique, as did Peter Ludwig in workshopping and editing this paper for TRI. Thanks also to the farmers, community residents, and members of the Shipibo Council who shared their homes, perspectives and knowledge with me. All errors and discrepancies are my own.


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Dyck, M. 2020. Precarious resilience: An ethnography of Shipibo communities. Tropical Resources 39, 1–10.

  1. Melaina Dyck (Yale MESc 2019) is an environmental researcher and writer focused on climate justice and indigenous rights. Dyck spent her 2018 TRI fellowship learning about the livelihoods of smallholder farmers belonging to indigenous Shipibo communities in the Peruvian Amazon. In 2019, she returned to work with one of those communities as a Global Justice Fellow with the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation. Dyck investigated indigenous intellectual property rights protections available to the community in support of their “Indigenous Living Pharmacy” project, an effort to conserve and develop native medicinal plants.↩︎

  2. The particular number and titles of the autoridades vary by community and include jefe de la comunidad (the chief of the community), gobernador (governor), teniente gobernador (lieutenant governor), gerente de la municipalidad (municipal manager), alcalde (mayor), and juez de paz (judge of peace). Community members (in most cases men) campaign to hold these offices. In one community, residents described how candidates for various positions mount campaigns in the months leading up to an election, going door to door and playing announcements or even jingles over the community loudspeaker. In a different community, locals told me that they used to have campaigns, but tension in the community got out of hand, so now they do nominations and elections on the same day, with every man and woman over 18 years old crowded into the Local (town hall) to vote. The responsibilities of the autoridades vary by community. Their activities may include getting solar-powered lights installed in homes, hiring teachers for community schools, advocating community interests to larger indigenous organizations and the Peruvian government, organizing community events, managing visitors, extracting taxes, or ensuring farmers are paid fairly for produce they send to market.↩︎

  3. Because the Ucayali River runs north, Upper Ucayali refers to areas south of Pucallpa, Lower refers to communities in the North, and Middle refers to the section of the river near Pucallpa.↩︎

  4. A village of about 1500 residents had 25 teachers working in its two preschools, two primary, and one secondary school. The Peruvian government provides Spanish-Shipibo curricula and instructional materials.↩︎

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