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For the Aguaruna people's language, see Aguaruna language.
The Aguaruna (or Awajún, their endonym) are an indigenous people of the Peruvian jungle. Historically, they lived primarily on the banks of the Marañón River, a tributary of the Amazon in northern Peru near the border with Ecuador. Currently, they possess titled community lands in four of Peru's regions: Amazonas, Cajamarca, Loreto, and San Martin. According to Peru's 1993 Census the Aguaruna numbered approximately 45,000. World Census data for 2000 lists their population at just over 38,000.
The Awahún have the reputation of being brave warriors, standing out for their skills in war. They live in the geographical area of the Marañón river, that is to say in the banks of the Marañón river and of its tributaries, the rivers Santiago, Nieva, Cenepa, Numpatakay and Chiriaco.
My readers have no idea what that last sentence of anthropological barble is supposed to mean; but the Aguaruna are pretty normal folks. They get married, have kids, and live close enough to one another so that the kids can play together and have a good time.
In the cases in which exist a pattern of nucleate population, these towns, called in their native language yáakat, are not provided with streets, neither footpaths, nor squares, being constituted by housings of traditional construction. These houses are distributed in a kind of asymmetric form and the tendency is usually to be placed in a linear form along the river.
Another typical aspect of the Aguarunas consists on the fact that they have traditionally worked as a seminomadic population, due to the insuitability of the soil for agriculture and the extremely elementary agrarian traditional technology, which brings as a consequence the depletion of the ground in a short period of two or three years.
Major species of animals that are hunted include sajino, huangana, Brazilian Tapir (sachavaca), Little Red Brocket, ocelot and otorongo (jaguar). Species which are less commonly hunted include majaz, ronsoco, achuni, añuje, carachupa, otter, diverse classes of monkeys and birds.
Traditionally they used a spear perfected with pijuayo (palm tree of very hard wood) and the blowpipe for hunting. At present the spear has been almost completely displaced by the pellet shotgun but they also continue using the blowpipe.
From the animals that they hunt they utilize the meat, the leather, the skins, the feathers, the teeth and the bones. That is to say, with a double purpose: nutritive and, also, handmade, medicinal and a witchcraft purpose.
They gather wild fruits of some palm trees, like the uvilla and some shrubs. Also buds of palm trees, stems, barks, and resins. They extract the leche caspi and gather the honey of wild bees, eatable worms (suris) and coleopterous. Finally, medicinal plants and lianas. They use everything gathered in feeding, in some crafts, in traditional medicine, in witchcraft and as fuel, inside an ancestral pattern of self-sufficiency.
The principal crafts are masculine activities like the ropemaking, the basketry, the construction of canoes, the textile; feminine activities like the ceramics and the making of necklaces made of seeds, of insects' small wings and beads. The males make crowns of exquisite feathers as well as cotton ribbons in whose ends they places feathers and human hair. These adornments are kept in cartridges of bamboo.
Between the Aguarunas, there is the traditional institution of mutual help known in their language as ipáámu, which works principally in the construction of young couples' housing, in the cleanliness of the small farms and, with less frequency, in sowing the yuca and peanut.
Unlike many other cultural groups in what is now Peru, the Aguaruna were never successfully conquered by the Inca, although there are accounts of attempts to extend into the territory by Incas Huayna Capac and Tupac Inca Yupanqui.
The Spanish conquistadors first encountered the Aguaruna in 1549 when the towns of Jaén de Bracamoros and Santa Maria de Nieva were founded. Fifty years later, a rebellion among the indigenous people of the region forced the Spaniards out of the area. An agricultural colony was later established at Borja in 1865. Attempts by Dominican and Jesuit missionaries to convert the Aguarunas were largely unsuccessful.
Traditionally, the economy of the Aguaruna is based mostly on hunting, fishing and subsistence agriculture. However, over the last few decades they have increasingly become engaged in various market activities. Some communities now cultivate rice, coffee, cocoa and bananas for sale, either in local markets or for transport to coastal cities like Chiclayo. Maintenance of the transandean oil pipeline and the medicinal plant industry also play roles in the local economy.
The Aguarunas traditionally believed in many spirits and mythological figures, among them: Etsa, or the Sun; Núgkui, or mother earth, who ensures agricultural success and provides the clay for ceramics; Tsúgki, water spirits who live in the rivers; and Bikut, or father shaman, who transforms himself into hallucinogenic plants that, mixed with ayahuasca, allows one to communicate with other superior worlds.
Young men would traditionally take drugs including ayahuasca to help them see visions. The visions were believed to be the souls of dead warriors, and if the young man showed no fear he would receive spirit power known as ajútap. A man with such spirit power would be invulnerable in battle.
In the past, the Aguarunas engaged in the practice of shrinking human heads to make tzantza.
Evangelical missionaries began contacting the Aguaruna in the mid-20th century, and today many Aguarunas have converted to Christianity.
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In the latter half of the 20th century, the arrival of Protestant and Jesuit missionaries, the building of roads, and the construction of an oil pipeline created substantial tension between the Aguaruna people, poor agricultural colonists, state agencies, and profit-seeking corporations . In response to new threats to their way of life the Aguaruna began to organize a political and social response to defend themselves on the basis of principles consistent with other rights of indigenous peoples. The most historic organizations of Aguaruna communities include the Organización Central de Comunidades Aguarunas del Alto Marañon (OCCAAM), founded in 1975, and the Consejo Aguaruna y Huambisa (CAH), an organization founded in 1977 that represents the Aguaruna and a closely related ethnic group, the Huambisa. Since then, Aguaruna community organizers have founded more than 12 local organizations (including an Aguaruna women's federation), although not all "local organizations" attain the same stature.
The Consejo Aguaruna y Huambisa is widely regarded the primary political entity representing the Aguaruna (and Huambisa) peoples. The Aguaruna, through the Consejo Aguaruna Huambisa (CAH), played an absolutely central role in national level indigenous movements in Peru and in the founding of the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), which represents Amazonian peoples from all over the South American continent.
In the mid 1990s Aguaruna were involved in negotiating a novel bioprospecting agreement with a US based pharmaceutical multinational, G.D. Searle & Company (then part of Monsanto), and a group of ethnobotanists from Washington University. The project involved a controversy over violations of the Aguarunas' rights over their genetic and cultural resources and to an equitable share in the potential profits derived from pharmaceuticals based on their traditional knowledge of medicinal plants. The US National Institutes of Health froze funding to the Washington University scientists,
Negotiations that began between Washington University and CAH on a bioprospecting agreement failed when Washington University's Walter Lewis collected Aguaruna medicinal plants and knowledge without a benefit-sharing agreement in place, leading to claims of biopiracy. The CAH terminated its relationship with Walter Lewis, Washington University, and their US government sponsors.
Subsequently Washington University entered into negotiations with OCCAAM as well as their national representative organisation the Confederación de Nacionalidades Amazónicas del Perú (CONAP). One of the first demands of these organisations was that all material and knowledge previously collected by Washington University be returned. They also demanded that a traditional meeting in the form of an IPAAMAMU be held on Aguaruna territory. At the IPAAMAMU attended by over eighty representatives of sixty Aguaruna communities particiapnts approved continuing negotiations and called upon CONAP, its legal adviser and a representative of the Peruvian Environmental Law Society (SPDA) to provide them with advice and support in the negotiations.
The SPDA legal advisor, the Irish lawyer Brendan Tobin, had repeatedly offered his legal services to the Consejo Aguaruna Huambisa (CAH), and had repeatedly been turned down. In significant measure, this was due to SPDA's tight relationship with the corrupt and human rights violating government of then Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori.
The negotiations with OCCAAM and the other participating organisations led to the conclusuion of a group of agreements including a "know-how license" which was entered into by the participating Agaurauna organisations CONAP, and Monsanto's pharmaceutical arm Searle and Company. The licensing arrangement was designed to give the Aguarunas greater control over the use of their knowledge once it left their direct control.
The "know-how license" concept as applied to indigenous peoples' knowledge is a legal first, according to Professor Charles McManis of Washington University School of Law. Professor McManis worked for the same university profiting the arrangement and, in any event, the license earned nobody any money or fame except the SPDA advisor. For the Aguaruna, it earned them exactly nothing.
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