For some years now, a group of Comboni Missionaries has been present among the Ashaninka and Nomatsiguengas indigenous peoples in the Central Selva of Peru. In the area, there are also powerful Drug traffickers and terrorists.
San Martin de Pangoa is a district of the province of Satipo, located in the Central Selva of Peru. The majority of the Pangoinos include members of the Ashaninka and Nomatsiguenga indigenous ethnic groups and a smaller number of settlers who moved into the region in the eighties from various parts of the country.
The main occupation in this area is agriculture and coffee; cocoa, oranges, pineapples and other tropical fruits are also cultivated. The land is fertile and irrigated by large rivers. This region is known as the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro rivers (VRAEM).
Father Percy Carbonero, a Peruvian Comboni, tells us: “The parish is dedicated to St Martin de Porres and covers practically the whole region of St Martin de Pangoa. Our work consists mostly of accompanying the Christian communities scattered throughout the territory. This involves the formation of leaders and the preparation of children for the Sacraments”.
Fr. Percy shows us a map of the territory, saying: “The sheer size of the parish is a huge challenge in itself. The district of Pangoa includes 300 villages spread all along the Valley. The Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro rivers has an area of about twelve thousand square kilometres. In the valley of the Ene River, for example, there are inhabited centres and indigenous communities that we can reach only after an eight-hour journey by boat. The right bank of the river belongs to the Rio Tambo district”. Nevertheless, the missionaries from Pangoa visit the Christian communities on both banks of the river, since there is no parish able to assist the other district.
“This is considered an emergency area because of the drug trade and the continuing existence of the terrorism of Sendero Luminoso”, Fr. Percy comments. “This is the reason why there are so many military bases along the rivers”.
Father Randy Recalme, a Filipino Comboni, continues: “According to a 2015 report by the Office of the United Nations for the Control of Drugs and the Prevention of Crime (UNODC), this is the second largest area of coca cultivation in the world. The activity is controlled by drug traders. The farmers prefer to grow coca because it requires very little labour, unlike tropical fruit that is often attacked by parasites that destroy the fruit completely”.
In the eighties and nineties, terrorist groups like Sendero Luminoso entered this territory, burning houses, killing the local authorities and abducting boys and girls. A large number of religious people were ordered to leave the area under pain of death. There were also martyrs among the Christian leaders who gave their lives for the faith.
Fr. Randy describes the situation today: “Sendero Luminoso continues its presence in various remote areas of the region. It is the only terrorist cell active here, killing indiscriminately and abducting people. We have the testimony of people who managed to escape from the group and their accounts are horrific. The Sendero people offer protection to the drug traders to control the cultivation of coca and the production of cocaine. In exchange, they receive arms and communication systems”.
“Another problem is that of the environment”, Fr. Randy continues. “The valley of the Apurimac River produces a lot of cocaine and the river is badly polluted. When the coca leaves are soaked in tanks and the chemical has been extracted, the water enters the small streams that become loaded with heavy metals. These streams reach the river Apurimac River and contaminate it”.
Given their experience of violence and death, it is easy to understand some Ashaninka groups who have lost confidence in the local authorities and are inclined to mistrust people from outside, such as the missionaries. The Nomatsiguengas have reacted differently,however. Even though they’ve suffered much violence, they have welcomed and accepted the presence of the missionaries. From the point of view of evangelisation, this group has made significant progress in the past ten years. This progress is confirmed by the fact that the New Testament has been translated into the Nomatsiguengas language.
Fr. Percy points out: “There is no cultural difference between the Ashaninka and the Nomatsiguengas; their languages are quite similar. The Ashaninka are more numerous than the Nomatsiguengas and inhabit the Central Selva. The more time we spend with them, speaking their language and coming to know their traditions, the more we are convinced that these two ethnic groups, despite their long drawn-out sufferings, are open to the Gospel. It is up to us to present it in the ways and times of these two peoples. We must not be in a hurry, but we must walk with them. We must walk at their pace also in condemning the abuse that these two peoples are suffering at the hands both of Sendero Luminoso and the military”.