When Two Worlds Collide

Reviewed by Gerardo

Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel, When Two Worlds Collide,Yachaywasi Films, Newport (UK), 2016.

On April 9, 2009 the calm that follows the rainy season in Peru's Amazonian jungle regions was broken by protests aimed at closing down both road and river traffic, and shutting down oil and gas pipelines. Led by AIDESEP (Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest), an organization composed of 96 local political federations representing 64 indigenous communities, the mobilization gained the support of the region’s mestizo population and the endorsement of national labor organizations, peasant federations, highland (Andean) indigenous organizations, human rights groups, youth collectives and student organizations. Not since the Juan Santos Atahuallpa rebellion (1742-1752) had Peruvians witnessed an Amazonian mobilization such as this one. As such, the uprising – which lasted fifty-four long days until June 18 – brought to the fore the deep divide between Peru's urban populations and the politically and culturally marginalized Amazonian indigenous peoples whom many Peruvians view as "uncivilized." In this sense, the protests marked the public appearance of Amazonian peoples as savvy and skillful political actors.

As a result of the uprising, AIDESEP and its President, Alberto Pizango, gained visibility and support among Peru's broad constellation of anti-neoliberal social movements. In the days that followed, these political forces coalesced to oppose a legislative package known as the “Law of the Jungle.” The legislative package had been decreed in 2006 by then president Alan Garcia, who made use of the extraordinary powers granted to him by his APRA party-controlled Congress to enact legislation that would allow for compliance with the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement that entered into force in February 2009. The controversial package included provisions that would privatize indigenous collective property; open “uncultivated land” to forestry corporations; grant private investors control of water and other natural resources; ease government control over protected areas; and allow the use of GMO (transgenic) seeds. In response to the government campaign of demonization and its threats to criminalize the protesters, indigenous groups escalated their direct action campaigns, and popular organizations staged local “civic strikes” in support of AIDESEP demands.

It was in this context, on June 5, 2009, that national police forces fired live ammunition into a large group of Awajun and Wampis protesters gathered at a blockade near a stretch of highway known as the Devil’s Curve in the northern Peruvian Amazon province of Bagua. In the nearby town of Bagua, police snipers fired at protesters from rooftops. Natives and mestizo townspeople responded by fighting back against the police in a confrontation that extended into the late afternoon. By the end of the day, twenty-three policemen and between ten and forty natives (depending on the sources) were reported dead, and at least two hundred wounded. Public outrage against Garcia’s decrees and the violent repression reached its climax with a national day of protest on June 11. In the capital city of Lima, a huge march – the largest since the July 2000 mobilization that led to the fall of then president Alberto Fujimori — reached the steps of Congress, where protesters demanded repeal of the Law of the Jungle.

The documentary film, When Two Worlds Collide sets out, in a spirit of truth-telling, to reconstruct the causes and consequences of the bloody confrontations of June 5, 2009. The filmmakers contrast archival footage of spear-carrying indigenous protesters wearing feathered crowns at the Devil’s Curve with an account of Garcia's efforts to exploit Amazonian rainforest territories and natural resources in conformity with the country’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States. This testimonial and journalistic account of the June 9 events at the Devil’s Curve – dubbed the “Baguazo”—and its aftermath contrasts sharply, however, with the idea put forward by the filmmakers that the violent clash somehow stems from the indigenous peoples' location "between two [separate] worlds." This script of two "opposing ways of life" resonates not only with the tired Enlightenment ideal of the "noble savage" but also – and more importantly – with the myth, popular among some environmentalists and indigenous rights advocates, of the “ecologically noble savage." Such images clash not only with the long history of indigenous modification of ecosystems through domestication of landscapes or, more recently, with their adoption of western crops and “modern” agricultural techniques; they are also directly contradicted by the political and legal context of the Baguazo itself, as well as by the principles and practices of the very organization that the film portrays (AIDESEP).

The film’s most important contribution lies in its brilliantly edited reconstruction of the June 5 events at Bagua. Drawing on original footage shot by participants, witnesses, policemen and local news outlets, they offer a compelling narrative that effectively challenges official and media representations of the Baguazo. As opposed to the official narratives of "irrational" natives, we see protesters who retaliate only after being fired upon, and mestizo town supporters who are compelled to act only after witnessing the massive tear-gassing of markets and daycare centers. At the same time, the film does not shy away from showing – in one its most dramatic sequences – the extremely violent and terrifying circumstances under which indigenous protesters executed ten policemen. Such scenes offer a useful tool for understanding an event whose political complexity and violence have been reduced by corporate and government elites to the obstinate refusal of Amazonian indigenous peoples to integrate into civilization.

In addition to providing new information on the events of June 5, When Two Worlds Collide also offers a convincing portrayal of how the corporate interests behind the "Law of the Jungle" have impacted Amazonian environments and peoples. In harmony with the racialized images of "uncivilized" savages that fueled official reconstructions of the Baguazo, the “Law of the Jungle” conveniently ignores the fact that indigenous peoples have constitutionally guaranteed rights to their territories, and instead offers investors an image of the Amazon as an open, empty, bountiful and underdeveloped frontier. Through a judiciously selected set of images from congressional debates and Garcia’s public speeches, and the producers' own conversations with AIDESEP leaders, government officials, and industry representatives, the film succeeds in showing us the very deep divide that separates indigenous peoples from the country’s political and economic elites. But do Amazonian politics really unfold in an unnamed space "between" these "two worlds"?

Among the most arresting scenes in the film are the long shots panning across the Amazonian rainforest in all its splendorous beauty. In one highly staged scene, we see the AIDESEP President, Alberto Pizango, taking a dip in the pristine waters of a rainforest pond, which the voice-over tells us is in Pizango's "ancestral territory." The scene provides a visual climax to a film in which Pizango is consistently portrayed as the official voice of AIDESEP and as a "leader" whose abilities are somehow rooted in his return to an “ancestral land.” Indeed, in a close-up shot that ends the pond scene, we hear Pizango's disembodied voice telling us about how his father taught him "the Earth is borrowed by its inhabitants" and that “for us, our land can never be sold.” This attempt to reduce the Amazonian indigenous movement to the tired trope of the "noble ecological savage" and Amazonian politics to the work of a single "leader" or individual, however, runs against the nature of an indigenous organization, such as AIDESEP, that gives primacy to collective decision-making and leadership, and which is the product of a long history of sometimes violent engagements with the Peruvian state and capital.

What the film doesn't tell us is that by the time that the Amazonian mobilization erupts, the leadership of Pizango was under question among an important sector of AIDESEP's membership. In question were Pizango's alleged top-down style of leadership and the manipulation of the electoral process that led to his re-election for a second consecutive term (2009-11) as president of AIDESEP. Under these circumstances, Pizango's rushed exile to Nicaragua – and his seeming disregard for the fate of the other fifty-one AIDESEP members charged with him – stoked internal tensions within the ranks of the indigenous organization. The fact that the fifty-four-day mobilization took place under such critical circumstances highlights the importance of the grassroots in organizing and sustaining the most important Amazonian indigenous uprising in the modern history of Peru. Yet the film provides us with a one-dimensional narrative in which the story of an indigenous "political awakening" can be reduced to a neoliberal fairytale of individual heroics, "leadership," and martyrdom.

Reviewed by Gerardo Renique City College of New York g.renique2@gmail.com