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Empowering Maijuna Youth through Film for the Defense of their Ancestral Lands

A Creative Advocacy Practicum implemented by indigenous youth in the Peruvian Amazon

Six Maijuna teens perch silently behind their recording equipment, their rapt attention and cameras trained on Doña Neyda as she tells of how she learned to harvest palm fibers and weave them so deftly between her fingers. The youth are in the midst of filming a documentary short about Maijuna life, celebrating their culture, their peoples’ knowledge, and their intimate connection to the land.

The Maijuna are an Indigenous people living in the Peruvian Amazon. Like many Indigenous people in the Amazon, the Maijuna are at risk of disappearing. However, with only 500 members left, the Maijuna are resolved to conserve their culture and land and to combat the loss of language and cultural practices. Compounding the struggle against cultural erosion, the Maijuna face the acute threat of a planned international highway that, if built, would cleave the heart of their ancestral land. The Bellavista – Mazán – Salvador – El Estrecho highway would open access to colonists, the conversion of ancient rainforest to pasture and plantations, and unrestrained hunting and logging. While the Maijuna currently maintain their ancestral territory through titles and the Maijuna-Kichwa Regional Conservation Area, the highway would systematically strip the Maijuna of their land. The Maijuna elders are looking to younger generations for leadership to defend their territory and culture and carry their people forward.

In September 2022, youth hailing from three Maijuna indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon convened for this film workshop as part of our Creative Advocacy Practicum (CAP). Our partner, One Planet, has been a long-time participant in our Creative Environmental Leadership Program. The program strengthens the capacity of grassroots organizations to use collaborative processes, creative tools, and advocacy skills. The Creative Advocacy Practicum (CAP) is an opportunity for program participants, like One Planet, to put their learning into practice. Creative Action Institute (CAI) provides guidance in the creation and implementation of each CAP, the support of an artist facilitator, and a small grant to cover the project costs. In this CAP, One Planet worked with 25 indigenous Maijuna youth and a documentary film-maker to create four short films that showcase their traditional culture and connection with the land, in order to defend their ancestral lands.

Over several days, the youth went through a creative facilitation and brainstorming practice, utilizing CAI’s methodologies to unite the group, share experiences, analyze the threats to their culture and land, and utilize tools to spark their creativity. Out of this collaborative and creative process, the youth wrote, acted, directed, and filmed these inspiring and beautiful short films.

The film project – part of a broad effort called Proyecto ICARO – serves to strengthen first peoples’ identity and culture through the tool of community film.

In collaboration with the Maijuna Federation FECONAMAI, Sacha Cine, Grupo Tábano, and our partner organization, OnePlanet, this ten-day community film workshop was implemented to reinforce cultural identity with young Maijuna as protagonists..

The Workshop

During the first days of the workshop, a multifaceted and multicultural team of facilitators created space for team building and reflection on their identities. They lead exercises to prepare the participants to be imaginative, expressive, and to collaborate with their groups. During the reflection and creation process, facilitators used Creative Action Institute's methodology to employ dance, song, script-writing, painting, collage, and theater to stoke the participants’ creativity.

The workshop proceeded to explore narrative modes and unpack the tools of visual storytelling, including the use of video cameras, microphones, lighting. In a flurry of four days, groups of Maijuna youth swooped throughout their community, river and forest to film four video shorts. They interviewed elders, orchestrated dances, and collected sounds, images, and information to enrich their unique films demonstrating Maijuna land and culture and the inherent connection between the two.

Finally, the youth designed posters advertising the screening and a radio spot to invite their neighbors. On the night of the screening, the 25 participants projected their films under the stars. The Maijuna of the Yanayacu River saw in each of the shorts the appreciation of their forest, knowledge, cultural expression, conservation practices embedded in Maijuna tradition, and the renewed intergenerational transmission of it all.

Cultural and community identity, engagement, and empowerment are the foundation of strong land defense and are at the heart of the resistance against forces eroding indigenous culture.

Results Beyond Film

The results of this effort stretch far beyond the 24 minutes of film crafted by the Maijuna youth. Through 10 unforgettable days in Nueva Vida, this cohort nurtured a lively, shared identity and formed relationships to sustain it. While reflecting on the experience, participants conveyed new interest in local nature, their culture, and discovered artistic expression. One 14-year-old girl spoke of her growing confidence and leadership in guiding her group of peers. And in the words of another participant, “I feel like the Jhoslin of 10 days ago and the Jhoslin of now are different people. He has learned a lot and sees things differently. I’m now more engaged.”

The intention is to share these films broadly to create awareness of the Maijuna people and their fight to protect their ancestral lands and traditions. There have already been three film screenings in Peru and we hope to share these films to an even wider audience.

Learn more about the project and watch the four short films here.

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