The small village of El Chino, located deep in the Amazon on the Tahuayo River, was once a place of good hunting and fishing, some twelve hours by river bus out of Iquitos, Peru. El Chino enjoys several different histories. One version is that about 130 years ago, a man with Asian features (common to many Peruvians although they are not of Asian heritage) began to hunt and fish regularly in the area. Eventually he moved here. Word got around about the bounty and others arrived, telling their friends and family that they were moving near El Chino, or the Chinaman. While it was technically inaccurate, the name stuck.
More and more people came, and the town was incorporated. By then El Chino was so commonly known as such there was no reason to change the name of the village to something new.
That’s the popular version of the story of El Chino.
The real story is that the village has been continuously inhabited for more than 1000 years, back in the pre-Columbian era, based on core samples studied by anthropologists. El Chino has been around for a very long time, a source of life and energy, shamanic practices, herbal remedies, farming, fishing and constantly changing village life for centuries.
It’s also a place of exciting change for many villagers, who are seeing their quality of life and economic situation improve because of the hard work, deep love and dedication of a woman named Dolly Beaver and the not for profit she formed called Angels of the Amazon.
Today El Chino’s population is a little more than 200 people. Most still farm, fish or hunt according to the season. Early in the morning if you are out on the river, you will see families paddling or quietly motoring out to fish or farm out along the many tributaries or deep inside the forest. These days, mothers and young women are gathering fibers to make baskets and other creative crafts, sustainable products, skills they learned from their elders.The average income ranges from sixteen dollars to as high as 116 dollars a month, unless a family member works at the Tahuayo Lodge, which was established by Dr. Paul Beaver, who first opened up the Peruvian Amazon for exploration by whites. There they are paid a living wage. Families who have a refrigerator or television usually are supported by working family members living in larger cities like Iquitos or Lima, or where a spouse sells crafts to tourists or gets enough tips to provide for extras.
Years prior, families had from eight to twelve children. Today that number has dropped to around four to six per family. The pressure for smaller families has come from the women. Since common law marriage is typical, men can and do leave women with kids, creating mixed families when the mothers create new relationships. The children by the previous father aren’t wholly accepted or supported in many cases by this new dad, leaving the mother to support these first children on their own while also caring for the new father’s kids.
Often one or more members of the family leave for Iquitos to find work. Depending on what they find in the city, and the mental and emotional capacity of that individual, they may find themselves completely swept away by the constant financial demands of city life or they may thrive. It’s not at all uncommon for those family members to create new families which can sometimes keep those people from sending critical funds home to El Chino, and the second family responsibilities can place pressure on the existing families back home. The reality of what happens to young girls sent to Iquitos to attend school or find work is all too real and is one of the many reasons why parents resist worry about sending their daughters to Iquitos to further their educations in private or public schools. They often send them anyway, as the parents fully understand that education is the only avenue to a better life. A few years ago, a couple of young girls got pregnant from local village men or recruiters who came to El Chino looking for young girls to work in the city centers of Lima or Iquitos. This was a shock to the village and to the Angels of the Amazon program which works hard to educate, train and protect the future of the children of the river communities.
The Tahuayo Lodge is one of the largest employers in the area, providing steady employment for any number of around seven local communities in this area. El Chino in particular benefits due to its close proximity to the lodge. Dolly Beaver, 45, wife of the founder, Dr. Paul Beaver, was born in Iquitos and long ago made a commitment to be deeply involved with the economic, educational, social and health issues of the river communities. Their needs led to the formation of Angels of the Amazon in 2006.
Today, El Chino sports a brand new high school, new teachers, and a lovely new Artesan Center which rises in the middle of the village. Angels, in partnership with Be the Change volunteers, funded the construction and some of the high school operations. The Peruvian government accredits and supplies the teachers. It also maintains a close relationship with those teachers to ensure that they are partners in the childrens’ education with Angels of the Amazon. This collaborative partnership is one of the ways that all parties support each other to improve the quality of education in El Chino.
With the help of Angels of the Amazon, Dolly’s hard work and the commitment of many in the village (especially the women), quality of life is changing.
While the current illiteracy rate hovers around 40%, that is rapidly changing as more kids are enrolled and engaged in kindergarten and stay on through high school. The Peruvian government also helps out by providing breakfasts and the teachers which keeps kids awake and engaged during their studies. Hunger endangered elderly also get breakfasts which eases the burden of very poor families. Angels of the Amazon sponsors also help those in need get food and breakfasts.
With more income available through sales of colorful plates, ornaments, vases and many other products to tourists at the Center, women have been able to improve their home lives and pay for their kids’ educations. The high school now offers more advanced schooling which provides increased opportunities for children- including girls- who see different futures for themselves other than marriage barely past puberty and immediately having kids.
Increased wealth, even a small amount of it, brought in by women has given them a sense of pride and accomplishment. This has given them authority in some cases over money spent on alcohol, which is a real problem in these river communities, and all too often leads to spousal abuse. Extremely cheap rum is widely available, and the distress of constant poverty can sometimes lead to alcohol abuse. The promise of increased income through the village’s women is a bright spot, for they not only become providers, but they also become the arbiters of how the money is spent. The wives are increasingly vocal about not being attached to “men who bring them down.”
Dolly has also worked to create better health care for villagers to prevent loss of life from neglect or lack of prevention. While Adolfo, the local shaman, and others like him can provide herbs and forest remedies, some illnesses like cancer must be screened. In the past those lives were simply lost. Today with Dolly’s help and government backing there are nurses who provide ob-gyn and other services within reasonable time frames and distances. In most situations, severe cases can be transported to Iquitos in an emergency. Hygiene and ignorance about basic health care are still issues but practices are changing slowly with education and new generations.
Social change in the Amazon is a delicate balance. The forest needs to be protected for future generations of villagers, and for the tourists who wish to experience it as the treasure it is. In addition it needs to be sustained for the posterity of the world at large as the tremendous biosphere it represents. El Chino’s challenges are representative of many river villages. What can be solved here can potentially be reproduced elsewhere. Peru’s macho culture, which can in some instances breed violence against women and a resistance to education and development for girl children, needs to change especially in remote communities if health and welfare are to improve. The most significant changes often happen through education of its women.
In El Chino, Angels of the Amazon has been among the biggest engines of those social changes, motivating and energizing the local women to learn new skills, support and help pay for education for themselves and their kids, and improve the lot of their families and their childrens’ futures through their crafts. Dolly Beaver, with her extraordinary energy, her intense love and respect for the way of life of these people and the need to protect the forests they love, is committed to ensuring the future of El Chino for generations to come.