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An indigenous group under threat

Recent history has not been kind to the Ashaninka, the largest indigenous group in the Amazon rainforest.

And that’s putting it mildly.

Many Ashaninka were displaced from their homes – some even enslaved or killed - during the “rubber boom” of the early 20th century. Foreigners swarmed the region to extract rubber from trees found throughout the rainforest, and indigenous people often suffered as a result.

Later, in the 1980s, Ashaninka found themselves in the crossfire between the Peruvian army and the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso, or “Shining Path.” Again, thousands of Ashaninka were forcibly removed from their homes, and many were killed.

“Our history is a series of constant abuses,” said an Ashaninka statement in 2010. “We were enslaved during the rubber era, robbed of our territories and subjected to cruel atrocities during the social violence since the 1980s. … Now that we have returned to our lands, we hope to live in peace and tranquility here.”

But even today, their lands are at risk. A recent energy agreement between Brazil and Peru called for several new hydroelectric projects, including the Pakitzapango dam in Peru’s Ene River valley.

The Ashaninka say the dam would cause more displacement while gravely affecting the area’s biodiversity.

“The Ene River is the soul of our territories,” the Ashaninka said in the statement. “It feeds our forests, animals, plants, seeds and, most importantly, our children. … We consider these violations of our territory yet another violence that attacks directly our lives and our existence as a people.”

Peruvian photographer Musuk Nolte visited some of the Ashaninka last year in the Ene River valley.

“When I was a child, I traveled many times with my anthropologist mother to native communities in the jungle and also in the mountains,” Nolte said. “Because of this experience, it was important for me to know more about them.”

There are an estimated 30,000-40,000 Ashaninka dispersed in Brazil and Peru, Nolte said.

“Many years ago, the Ashaninka people used to be nomads,” he said. “Some of them still are.”

His photos aim to show the simple, secluded lives that these Ashaninka still choose to live. Hunting and fishing are the primary sources of food, which is cooked over an open fire. Bathing is done in the river.

“We all live inside the Peruvian territory, but very little is known about them,” Nolte said.

With approval of the Ashaninka community, Nolte’s photos were included in a recent exhibition in Lima, Peru’s capital.

“The exhibition was called Memoria Ashaninka (Ashaninka Memory), and it sought to integrate these communities to the Peruvian society so they can take part in political and social decisions that affect them - a first step to respectful and dignified coexistence,” he said.

There are signs that people are now starting to pay more attention to the Ashaninka’s plight.

In 2010, the Pakitzapango dam project was put on hold. Plans for another dam were canceled in 2011. And the Ashaninka people have carved out some protected lands over the past decade, including Otishi National Park and the Ashaninka Communal Reserve.

- Kyle Almond, CNN