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"Amo el Río": The youth movement in the Peruvian Amazon that defends rivers with art, culture and raising awareness between people

In early 2020, WWF Peru gathered young people in the cities of Iquitos and Pucallpa to defend the Amazonian rivers. This invitation, to imagine and create collective actions to protect nature, expanded and became a movement.

The Peruvian Amazon extends over 68 million hectares of floodplains, lagoons, navigable rivers - such as the Amazon - and a vast rainforest that benefits the world. It is home to diverse indigenous and local communities; the home of the largest population of indigenous groups in isolation and initial contact in Peru. This grandiose ecosystem - shared by Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela - plays vital roles for the planet, such as climate regulation and water generation. For this reason, the Peruvian Amazon is said to be a natural solution to climate change threatened by deforestation, the expansion of gold mining, dams, cocoa and oil palm monocultures, expansive cattle ranching and highways. 


In the middle of this immense jungle are two cities that have a close relationship with the jungle and the river, essential to preserve the natural balance of the Peruvian Amazon: Iquitos and Pucallpa, capitals of the departments of Loreto and Ucayali, respectively. Historically, Amazonian communities have taken advantage of the jungle's resources for subsistence and, at the same time, have been responsible for conserving them to maintain a balance. They know that their survival depends directly on the health of nature. Their knowledge, values, beliefs, behaviors and attitudes are essential for the management and conservation of the rivers and the rainforest, as recognized by WWF Peru.


However, this balance is collapsing. Cities continue to expand, pressure to exploit the Amazon continues to increase, and there is no collective awareness of the incalculable value of this ecosystem. The inhabitants of Iquitos and Pucallpa are fundamental for the cities to join in confronting these threats and conserving the balance. And the youth is essential in this mission, for their innovative and creative, for their ability to act and raise awareness, for their commitment to sustainability and care for nature. Moreover, because young people will be the leaders who will make future decisions to preserve the life of this ecosystem.


Young people as agents of change


WWF Peru understood that the youth of the cities of Iquitos and Pucallpa should be the protagonists of "Amo el Río", a movement to imagine and create collective actions in defense of the Amazonian rivers from the cities. This initiative seeks the real, full, and effective participation of young people in Amazonian cities, who have historically been a vulnerable group without representation, in spaces of communication and artistic creation. In early 2020, WWF Peru gathered young people between the ages of 18 and 24 from these two locations to create a network that would work to: strengthen the emotional ties between the cities and their rivers; foster public awareness that recognizes the importance of the Amazon as a source of life; empower youth about their crucial role in conservation; and strengthen their leadership.   


At this moment, Amo el Río has connected with more than 350,000 people through social networks and has gathered more than 1,000 people of all ages in face-to-face activities in Iquitos and Pucallpa, extending to Tarapoto and Puerto Maldonado, in San Martín and Madre de Dios, respectively; and around 150 young champions who are key to generate the multiplier and replicator effect of Amo El Río.


Thus was born the network of young volunteers from Iquitos and Pucallpa "Amo el Río", which has used awareness and artistic creation to build bridges between communities and public and private entities, and bring them together around the essential: the conservation of rivers and the rainforest, which are life itself. The "Amo el Río" initiative today has the support of more than 15 allied institutions, including the Decentralized Directorate of Culture of Loreto, Ucayali, Madre de Dios and San Martin; the National Water Authority (ANA), the Amazonian Council for Aquaculture and Fisheries Development (CADAP), the Amazonian Land Environmental Group (GATIA), CREA, the Technological University of Peru (UTEC), Iquitos Bike, the Biodiversity Volunteers of Ucayali, Ciudad Saludable, WCS Peru and WWF Peru. 


The voices of young people


Arantxa Valentina Babilonia Nolorbe is one of those young women. She is from Iquitos, 23 years old, an engineer in environmental management. Her mother grew up on the banks of a small town called Juancho Playa, next to the Napo River, in the province of Maynas, department of Loreto; and her father is from the city of Iquitos. His parents had three children whom they raised by talking to them about the need to plant and harvest their own food, encouraging them to love plants, teaching them to live with animals. Thus her passion for protecting nature was born. Passion that led her to choose her profession, to join the environmental association "Interpretando el Ambiente para la conciencia Iquiteña" and to become an environmental leader. 


Just as the "Amo el Río" movement was consolidating, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. The confinement ended with plans to paint murals around Iquitos to tell the population about the river's wounds and threats, about the need to coexist with wildlife, about the urgency of caring for the river that gives them food and life. When the pandemic began to subside, the network was reactivated with a group of young activists who moved around on bicycles to carry out clean-up days in the rivers. Arantxa was part of that group. 


She dreams of becoming an environmental educator; of working hand in hand with children and young people to transmit their knowledge and love for the Amazon. "Here we don't have much environmental culture. One of the biggest problems is solid waste. Some people throw garbage on the banks of rivers because they think it is easier. How can you change that? Mainly with education, with creating a culture of care for the environment," she says. Arantxa feels that the "Amo el Río" movement has allowed her to strengthen her leadership, learn communication skills, connect with other leaders more fluidly, return to photography as a conservation tool and, also, challenge her shyness. Arantxa assures that she loves the river: "Before it was very difficult for me to relate to other people," says Arantxa. She also explains that this process has taught her to "get along better in working with the communities. When you work with groups it is important to show confidence in yourself and in what you are going to express... This allows people to understand more the message you want to give," says Arantxa. 


Some 500 kilometers from Iquitos -- a week's journey down the river, or an hour's flight -- is Pucallpa, a city located in the department of Ucayali, in the central-eastern Amazon that also plays a vital role in the conservation of that ecosystem. Gustavo Adolfo Carrasco Zúñiga, 29, a biologist and member of "Amo el Río", lives there. Gustavo says that this city, called "the youngest in Peru", was formed with the arrival of foreigners, "people from the capital and other places who came to take advantage of the territory". The local communities, who lived around the rivers, began a process of miscegenation that changed their idiosyncrasy. 


There were also changes in the territory. Resources began to be depleted; there was less hunting and less fishing. "The region focused on the extraction of natural resources and on generating growth. Wildlife was displaced," Gustavo says. This situation awakened in young people like him the need to organize, prepare, and work to face these threats. While in college, he created the ecotourism company Viridis Tours. "I wanted to bring scientific tourism, recover ancestral indigenous knowledge linked to nature, mainly with the Shipibo indigenous, especially for the local communities," Gustavo says. He also dedicated himself to photograph those places and unique expressions and cultures he was discovering. In 2017 he created, together with other young people, "Volunteers of the Ucayalina Biodiversity" and, thanks to that leadership, he came to "Amo el Río".


Gustavo Carrasco says that this initiative has been "an opportunity to make visible the work we were doing, to show the environmental leadership we have developed". His proposals and actions in "I Love the River" have been focused on campaigns against wildlife trafficking, on teaching habits and alternatives to reduce the impact on Amazonian rivers, and on cleaning up rivers.  


For Gustavo, one of the greatest achievements of this movement has been to encourage, nurture and foster youth leadership. One of the actions he treasures the most was curating an exhibition that invited local and indigenous artists to express their cosmovision of the Amazonian rivers. At the same time, he says that one of his biggest challenges is to get environmental authorities to look, be convinced, and work together with young people and their commitment to "approach conservation in a new way." "In the case of private companies we have maintained good relations, they highlight this type of work and initiatives, unlike public institutions that, due to more bureaucratic issues or other priorities, do not make it visible", Gustavo assures.  


Gustavo and Arantxa still do not know each other and the work of each area is independent, but part of Amo el Río's plan is to create a meeting where leaders can get to know each other and exchange experiences.  "The impact of these change agents will be lifelong," says Marcia Cruz, the Head of the Amo el Río initiative from WWF Peru. Arantxa Babilonia and Gustavo Carrasco are also convinced that their role in this story is definitive, as young people, as environmentalists and as inhabitants of this vast jungle that needs their creative and protective force. 

© WWF-Peru