My thesis for the MSc Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University was in the emerging field of ethnoprimatology, which explores human-primate interactions through a holistic approach that considers both the ecology and the socio-cultural context in which they occur. In cooperation with Neotropical Primate Conservation, I carried out ethnographic work and biological surveys from May to July 2022 with a Shipibo indigenous community in the upper Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon. The Shipibo are one of the largest indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon and rapidly become integrated into Peruvian society.
During my stay in the indigenous community on Pueblo Nuevo del Caco and visits to nearby communities, which are about 7-9 hours boat ride from the nearest city of Pucallpa, I saw how plastic waste is becoming a big issue. Before modern materials filled with toxic chemicals were introduced, indigenous people used natural and organic materials for their livelihoods and daily tasks. But now a significant reduction in plastic consumption and waste management is an urgent need in all corners of the world. As packed goods are brought from the city by boats and traded locally, the waste doesn't make it back but creates multiple landfills. Plastic bottles, biscuits and snack packaging were the most common, littered in the village, by the river and in the forest. Plastic dumps along the river and the burning of plastic in this humid tropical environment are health hazards, especially as people depend on river fish and their crops for their nutrition. Peruvian authorities are aware of the trade with indigenous communities but don't provide a solution to all the waste accumulating there or care to enforce the law in these remote places while the people and the forest pay the price. The local people are concerned about the plastic problem and need solutions. It's time to start addressing plastic pollution in forest ecosystems and its impact on wildlife and indigenous peoples' lives.
As soon as I noticed the situation, I wanted to do some activities but I didn't even need to ask! The community assembly asked me to do environmental education as a part of my stay there and with my assistant Giovana, we gave classes to all grades in the primary school! We talked about responsible disposal, the difference between a banana peel and a plastic bottle, how plastic is eaten by wild and domestic animals and how we can upcycle plastic waste! We organised weekly cleanups and also collected bottle caps to create some trashart. As plastic bottles and their caps are a common type of litter in the community, we created a bottle cap mural inspired by traditional Shipibo designs, using nails and a hammer. We collected over 1,500 bottle caps and created this mural in the communal area where community meetings and activities are held. After the mural was finished we took old toothbrushes and cleaned the dust from the bottle caps we did not manage to wash to make it all shiny. The wood was so hard that a big part of the nails bent but Robin, who had the most steady hands, hammered the nails perfectly. It was a fun ending to our educational sessions and cleanups and a nice addition to the communal area. But still, a solution to the plastic waste in these villages is urgently needed as creative ways to reduce its consumption there to protect the people, the forest, rivers and the wildlife.
Despite removing the waste from the village and bringing awareness to the types of litter and the importance of keeping the environment clean there was no real solution or option to recycle. The community members are starting to realise the scale of this problem and are open to solutions and want to make it work! I am hopeful that this will open the door for waste reduction, creative solutions and waste management infrastructure to come!
As we go, we still have so much to learn from traditional societies.
Thank you Pueblo Nuevo for accepting me and sharing with me.