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Jhuliño’s legacy: Life and death on the Marañon River (photo essay)

This is Alvaro Huaman, in the uniform of the ronda, with Jhuliño and his baby brother. Jhuliño's real name was Egler, but from a young age, he had been obsessed with Brazilian soccer, and so everyone had begun calling him after his favorite player. Before we went over big rapids, I would tease Jhuliño, asking him if he was scared. He'd laugh and say,
This is Alvaro Huaman, in the uniform of the ronda, with Jhuliño and his baby brother. Jhuliño’s real name was Egler, but from a young age, he had been obsessed with Brazilian soccer, and so everyone had begun calling him after his favorite player. Before we went over big rapids, I would tease Jhuliño, asking him if he was scared. He’d laugh and say, “Ni a la muerte,” (‘Not even of death’) or “Estoy en mi casa, waiki, como tendria miedo,” (‘I’m in my house, brother, how could I be scared?’). Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana.

If all goes according to plan, the village of Tupen Grande will cease to exist in a few short years. Tupen Grande rests on a cliff above the Marañon River, one of the main sources of the Amazon, an oasis surrounded by canyon walls a mile high. The straddles the transition zone between the Andes Mountains and Amazon Basin that Peruvians call “seja de selva,” the eyebrow of the jungle.

Unfortunately for locals, those steep canyon walls, and the fast powerful river that runs between them, aren’t just scenic: they’re perfect for dams. The Brazilian company Oderbrecht has secured a permit from the Peruvian government to begin construction of Chadin II, a 600 megawatt (MW) hydropower dam that will cover Tupen and its neighboring villages in roiling brown water.

The sport of rafting began to make the jump to Peruvians in the 1980s, and spread as local guides and rafting enthusiasts, with equipment donated or bought secondhand from foreigners, introduced their friends to the sport. Jhuliño would spend three months living at the house of Pedro Peña, pictured here by the Huaman family house in Tupen, chopping wood for the cookfire. The graffiti in the background says, “I definitively reject Chadin II.” Photo credit: Saul Elbein

In June 2015, a young Australian river guide and activist named Benjamin Webb led a joint Peruvian and foreign expedition down the Marañon to organize community resistance to the dams, and I came along for the ride. We arrived in town just as the threat of the dams forced Tupen’s people – including an exuberant young river guide named Jhuliño – to look outward.

Like the residents of most villages along this stretch of the Marañon, the people of Tupen are farmers, descended from highland migrants who came down out of the high Andes in the last century looking for land and freedom. “The river roars at our determination to live,” wrote Ciro Alegria in The Golden Serpent, which depicts the harsh realities of life in the Marañon Valley in the 1930s, a time when “cholo” colonists – people of mixed Indian and Spanish blood – built a rugged, insular world beside a river that regularly threatens to sweep it away.

For the last 70 years the people of Tupen and other river towns have lived much as they did in Alegria’s day, in a world that moved at human and animal speed. They eat chicken at dinner that had been alive at dawn; cook meals over wood gathered from local fruit trees; irrigate crops and get drinking water from hand-cut channels intersecting the creek above town; and regularly walk three hours to visit with friends and family in hamlets up and down river.

Traditionally, the people of the Marañon traverse the river rarely and with great caution. They use big rafts of balsawood logs tied together by wire to cross the river in “flat” spots – or, sometimes, on one-way trips downstream. These locally-built balsa rafts, beached in author Ciro Alegria’s hometown of Calemar, are the same as those he describes in The Golden Serpent. They are juxtaposed with the much higher-tech boats that Webb’s expedition rented from Contos. The advantage Contos, Webb, and other outfitters possess is modern rafting technology – with its light, strong boats and the hard-won lessons of Western U.S. whitewater rafting – making the Marañon safely traversable. Photo Credit: Saul Elbein.

The only intrusions of modernity are the omnipresent cell phones, charged by solar panels attached to car batteries; and the television in the front room of Cesar Chavez Romero’s shop. There the men of Tupen sit, drinking warm Guarana soda or beer and watching soccer, while their wives cook dinner and bathe or nurse children.

“Life is good here,” said Inez Huaman, who lives off the main square in Tupen. “It’s very natural. There’s no medicines in the food. We have everything we need, right here in arm’s reach.” The only thing the village lacks is a health clinic and a high school: Inez and her soft-spoken husband Alvaro, a coca farmer, sent their oldest boy Jhuliño to school in the city. Like most parents in Tupen I talked to, Alvaro didn’t want his son to be a farmer, but did “want him to know that he always has this place to come back to if he wants it.”

This yellow raft is the one I went downriver in: its owner, Edgar Ramos, is seated left. Jhuliño gives a thumbs up. He was proud to join the Peruvian raft guides that accompanied Webb’s expedition. Like most members of the Marañon river communities, the guides are tied together by shared loss – all have had friends killed by the river or in freak accidents getting to the river. Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana.

The arrival of Chadin II surveyors put that future in danger: dam engineers promised big money for land titles, and resettlement wherever the people of Tupen wanted to go. But people were unsure whether to believe them. “They came in with lies, telling us that they were just collecting animals,” said Emer Romero, a 22-year old farmer. “But they were going to destroy everything, and they knew we wouldn’t help them if they told us that.”

In the summer of 2014, another group of outsiders had came to town. American kayak explorer Rocky Contos landed on Tupen’s beach with a load of tourists and a sense of mission. Contos wanted to keep the Marañon undammed, partly for ecological reasons, and partly because he saw a potential tourism bonanza in the Marañon River Valley, which he referred to in his promotions as the Grand Canyon of the Amazon.

Since the river is so dangerous, the towns of the Marañon Valley don’t rely on it for transportation. They depend instead on roads for importing finished goods and exporting coca and coffee. Some towns are lucky enough to have a nearby road traversable by cars. Calemar is an easy cable-car ride to the other side of the river. But in Tupen, Mendan, and many other river towns, anything from the outside world – rice, beer, soda, tools – has to come down the same rough path on daily mule trains. Tupen’s reliance on horses and mules makes it a rare place where horsecraft is still a required skill; on one trip out of the canyon, Jhuliño’s family entrusted me with a horse that had to be returned to some relatives above. His name was Canelo, and he had not lived an easy life. Here he is at Pata de Gallina, “The Rooster’s Foot,” at the pass where the path breaks through to the mountain towns of Amazonas. Photo Credit: Saul Elbein.

When Contos first arrived in Tupen and Mendan, he was detained by the “ronda,” autonomous peasant patrols who believed that Contos’ tour group was a dam survey crew in disguise. The trip leader smoothed things over with a $200 donation to the ronda, which went – he learned later – to buy the green cop vests and truncheons that define the rondero uniform.

By the time Webb’s expedition and I got there this summer, Rocky’s name opened all doors, because, as I heard over and over, “Don Rocky supports the pueblo!”

Rocky Contos speaks a good deal about creating a model for village activism in which tourism will fund local organizing and support local control, to keep surveyors and dams out; a model that could, he hopes, be transferred to other “Grand Canyons” on the world’s great remaining wild rivers, like the Blue Nile and Yangtze.

Contos also wants to familiarize village kids with the business of rafting, so that they can, eventually, learn to guide.
To the Huaman family, and to village kids, tourism didn’t just sound like good money: it sounded like a good way to get people in faraway cities interested in the fate of their river.

The village of Tupen framed by the so-called Grand Canyon of the Marañon. The river divides the Peruvian departments of Amazonas (foreground) from Cajamarca (background), where Jhuliño’s ancestors came from. The rich green of Tupen contrasts with the sterile beige of the desert mountains: that’s partly because Tupen rests on a bed of rich silt from upstream, trapped by the river. This nourishing silt is one of the sources feeding the life of the Amazon River and its floodplain; its passage will be blocked if the Marañon is dammed, with likely detrimental impacts on soil fertility and biodiversity in the Amazon Basin. Photo Credit: Saul Elbein.

It was Alvaro Huaman’s 18 year old son, Jhuliño, who most bought into the dream of being a river guide. He left the valley and took the daylong bus trip to Lunahuana, a tourist town three hours south of Lima, learning to guide parties of weekending Limenos down the Cañete River. Then in 2015 he headed for home as part of the anti-dam organizing expedition run by Webb. The trip would cover 204 miles, descending from the desert mining town of Chagual, in the high sierra, to the very edge of the Amazon.

This was a revolutionary trip both for Jhuliño and the people of the valley – Jhuliño suddenly became the figure at the center of a new alliance between Tupen’s elders and gringo anti-dam activists. But he was also an 18-year old boy on the adventure of his lifetime.

I was there too, as part of a Men’s Journal and Mongabay assignment to see the river valley before it was flooded, and I spent the better part of three weeks in the front of a yellow rubber Hyside raft, face-to-face with Jhuliño, cracking jokes, memorizing Spanish pop songs, watching the river go by…

Silt isn’t the only thing the Golden Serpent takes downstream. It brings literal gold as well. During the coffee season, the Diaz Vega brothers – Rogelio, Julio, Edgar, and Segundo – harvest berries on a plantation in the highlands. The rest of the time they are artisanal gold miners. Gold-containing sediment is shaken up in a bucket with water, then poured over a ramp, which is lined with heavy carpets sprinkled with mercury. The gold particles sink into the fabric; later, the brothers wash the gold from the fabric in buckets full of mercury that they stir with their hands. They didn’t seem aware that mercury is toxic. “It will make your hands shake and make you crazy,” I said. “At least protect yourselves.” Rogelio, in orange, brightened. “Like gloves? We could wear gloves?” Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana.

Men in Mendan, a three hour walk upriver from Tupen, press coca leaf into a pallet to be carried on mules to the markets in Celendin, Cajamarca, where it will be bought by ENACO, the government coca-leaf monopoly. ENACO pays 370 nuevo soles – about $110 – per 100 kilograms; a paltry sum that has to cover planting, tending, harvesting, gathering, drying, pressing, and the shipping of the leaves. Coca farmers suffer price gouging from middlemen, as do local growers of coffee, small-time extractors of gold dust, and local producers of other “primary” and artisanal goods. The coca farmers told me that, by contrast, the illegal market that feeds the West’s taste for cocaine pays about twice as much as ENACO per kilogram. I didn’t ask where these freshly pressed coca leaves were going. “If you put these on the Internet,” the men told us, “please don’t put our names. We don’t want trouble with the police.” Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana.

Along the way, Peña and Webb talked to farmers from riverside communities, urging noncompliance with Oderbrecht on Chadin II. This woman, Doralina, told us that the engineers had come, promising. They had promised education for her children and vocational training for her, as well as housing wherever she wanted to live – in Chachapoyas, the provincial capitol; or Lima. “But I don’t believe them,” she said. “We don’t know what to believe and what are lies.” Photo Credit: Saul Elbein.

It’s hard to give a sense of the canyon, but this is a view of the gorge upstream of Mendan. In what’s called a “high erosion zone,” wind and water constantly scour the canyon clean. Photo Credit: Saul Elbein.

Jhuliño came from a culture of storytellers – some of the best I’ve heard. His family always seemed to be talking, telling stories of happenings earlier in the day or during the time of the Incas. These are the ruins of Talap, which sits by the pass in the mountains above Tupen. Long ago, Jhuliño told me, an old woman in Talap had a rooster that laid two eggs, out of which hatched two snakes. The woman fed them hot milk and pumpkin soup, and they grew to such great size that one day, when dinner was late, one of the snakes tried to eat her. In terror, she threw the soup on the snake, killing it. Days later, as the surviving snake was displayed on the church altar, the ground began to shake, the snake began to grow, and all of Talap vanished except for the old woman and the church bell, and the great snake slithered toward the city of Cajamarca, earthquakes in its wake. Photo Credit: Saul Elbein.

Jhuliño’s mother Inez Human, part of an extended family that spreads up and down the river valley. Here, in Tupen, she cooks food over the family cook fire. Except on special occasions, meals consist of rice and a small piece of chicken, egg, or canned tuna. Photo Credit: Saul Elbein.

Jhuliño entered Tupen and Mendan like a conquering hero; surrounded by adoring cousins and friends. Here he walks down from the path below the Mendan primary school, his arm around one of his cousins. Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana.

When the expedition visited Tupen, I went for lunch at the house of Emerson Chavez (center, in the black T-shirt). That’s his nephew (left), his close friend Jhuliño, and me (right). After a lazy Saturday meal of yucca and chicken stew, we relaxed in the shade to sleep it off. Photo Credit: Francisco Campos-Lopez

In Tupen, Jhuliño coaxed his cousins Ivan (left) and Henry (right) to join the trip downriver. Both were tense – unlike Jhuliño, they had not spent three months training on the river, and both knew people who had drowned. Ivan’s father had vanished on the river a decade before, his body never found. On the river, Jhuliño bragged to them about the money that could be made year-round on the Cañete. And he began teaching them, in the same way I had seen him being taught. “You see,” he explained, as we approached some high waves, “if the wave is open, lean into it. If it’s closed,” he made a fist, “lean back.” If you do it wrong, he explained, you can flip. “What if we flip?” Henry asked. Jhuliño smiled. “We’ll get to that. We have plenty of time.” Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana.

We reached the Pongo de Rentema on June 9th, the last day of the trip. This is where the Utcubamba and Chinchipe rivers join the Marañon, upstream from the town of El Muyo. “Muyo” and “Pongo” are both Amazonian Spanish for “whirlpool.” Downstream of Rentema, the Marañon river gets very big and powerful; the currents bounce off each other to create enormous whirlpools.

It was at El Muyo that things went terribly wrong. After lunch, some of the team decided to kayak down El Muyo’s quebrada, or creek-fed gorge. “Creeking,” as this is called, is risky, and in the process a kayak was lost. Jhuliño took off downstream with a village boy on the back of a motorcycle in search of the kayak. They found it caught in the current of the quebrada. Jhuliño stripped off his clothes and dove after it. He went without helmet or life jacket. “Jhuliño was last seen by the boy with the motorbike, on top of the upside down kayak, paddling it like a surfboard,” Benjamin Webb stated later. The 18 year old rounded a bend, and the boy lost sight of him.

Jhuliño was a strong swimmer, but what he didn’t know as he tried to maneuver the flooded kayak is that around the next bend was a line of fierce sucking whirlpools. “In a boat you might be okay,” Webb said. “Even with a life jacket, maybe you’d have a chance. But without it …” Photo Credit: Creative Commons.

Jhuliño’s parents and aunt made the hard hike up out of the canyon and came to the market town of Bagua Chica to help with the search for Jhuliño’s body, and to bring it back once it was recovered. Here is his aunt, in her kitchen in Mendan, Tupen’s sister town. Someone had told her that there were anacondas in the jungle, and she had dropped to her knees and prayed. “I prayed to God,” she explained to me, “that if he is alive, please keep him safe. But if he is dead please watch over his body, and lead him into the hands of some boatman.” Photo Credit: Saul Elbein.

There are, along the Marañon, specific eddies where bodies turn up two to three days after a drowning. Jhuliño’s was found two days after he disappeared, near the town of Chiriaco. There was, among those gathered, a visible sense of relief: at least he had not vanished; at least now everyone knew what to do. Alvaro Huaman went off to find funeral clothes and arrange a coffin; Jhuliño’s aunt went off to buy 40 kilograms of beef for funeral meals. On the evening of the day on which Jhuliño’s body was found, we travelled on foot with his family to escort his body home – carrying the coffin by hand in the dark down to the valley floor. By sunrise the next morning, after a full night of travel, we crested the ridge above the Marañon at Pata de Gallina, near the lost town of Talap, to find dozens of people from Tupen waiting, silently, to help carry Jhuliño’s body home. Photo Credit: Matt Primomo.

The funeral began with a quick Spanish Lord’s Prayer and Ave Maria; then Pedro and three villagers lifted the coffin. They took it to the church and bowed to the Virgin; they bowed before the school; and then they bore it uphill to the village graveyard; the townspeople streaming behind like a river, so many we overflowed the narrow path and had to cut through the coca fields. As soon as the coffin was in the grave, the entire town descended on it and began throwing clods of dirt in with their hands. The moment the last clod was thrown onto the grave, a wind whipped through the valley; blowing a sandstorm through town. “If I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Henry Mayorga, the guide, said. Two old men, Inez Huaman told me, had watched the sandstorm twist into a whirlwind, and then saw Jhuliño’s face. “They said he was smiling.” Photo Credit: Matt Primomo.

Benjamin Webb, on the long hike out, blows a conch shell in memory of Jhuliño. It was “destiny,” everyone told us after the funeral. Destiny had caused him to dive into the river without a life jacket. Destiny had given his mother and aunt bad dreams before he left; destiny had made Jhuliño ignore them. “You shouldn’t feel any guilt,” Inez told us rafters. “He always did what he wanted. He never listened to me either.” But destiny, too, had perhaps led the strangers to help protect the Marañon. “My son cared about protecting the river more than anything,” Alvaro Huaman told Rocky Contos in the days after the funeral. “It would be a good legacy to him if that could continue.” There was, he told Contos, a cousin interested in learning to be a guide. Would it be possible for him to learn? Photo Credit: Matt Primomo.