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          Out of the 176 Shipibo-Konibo communities identified on the database of the Ministry of Culture, [1] the Peruvian State officially recognizes 132 as entities with juridical personhood. Only 120 are also granted with a land title, often corresponding to just a small portion of the customary territory at stake. Coshikox the representative body of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo People states that, even though the titling of communities has been a strategic goal of the indigenous federations and many NGOs, in this form it breaks up the territory and the populations, overshadowing existing local governance structures and networks of exchange and diminishing the possibility of self-determination as an Indigenous nation. This has become even more problematic since the neoliberal reforms of 1993, as the individual communities have been exposed to legal and illegal encroachment without the united ability to defend themselves.

           The establishment of legally recognized Indigenous communities goes back to the first agrarian reform law passed by the revolutionary military government of Juan Velasco in 1969. The immediate institutionalization of agrarian reform aimed on the one hand to dislodge the long-standing colonial oligarchy from their extensive, exploitative and inefficient land ownership titles – the big haciendas or fundos of the latifundio regime – and on the other to encourage the development of the country through agricultural production. [1] Velasco recognized that “campesiños”, who had been forced to work the land without proper compensation or ownership, [2] were largely indigenous but considered the term ‘indigenous’, or ‘nativa’, a racist appellation from the past and hence resorted to the leftist nationalist idiom of the time, calling them “Comunidades Campesiñas”. That law mostly affected the coast and the highlands [3], since the Amazon region was still by and large outside of the legal registers of property established through the colonial period. Nevertheless, this first reform established some important precedence for the governance of communal property and of Indigenous groups. Additionally, it was part of a vision of economic development, which included the settling of land by mestizo campesiños and/or ‘colonos,’ a movement that had already been underway in the Amazon since the 1940s under various formal and informal calls for ‘guided colonization’ («colonizaciones dirigidas») or ‘spontaneous colonization’ «colonizaciones espontáneas». [4]


          The 1969 reform provided a basis for land claims and the recognition of communal lifeways which became the basis for the law of 1974 aimed directly at the Amazon (selva y ceja selva) and the establishment specifically of ‘native communities’ [7] with claims to land. Those reforms came in response to a context of political effervescence and social mobilization forefronted by Shipibo activists that led the way to the first major indigenous unionization efforts and political shifts of the 70's [5]. Importantly, the new law made the community’s territory ‘inalienable, inembargable, inprescrible’ (inalienable, unseizable, untransferable) – in short, beyond the reach of commercial or even state interests. That status was changed in the following years and essentially revoked in the neoliberal reforms of the 90s and specifically the 1993 constitution under the liberal-corporate rule of Alberto Fujimori. Through an invocation of national interests, which include economic ‘development’, and minimal consultation with the communities, with the Ley de Tierras of 1995, the state can now lay claim to what is below and above ground in titled communities, opening the way to extractivist encroachment. In other words, the settler colonial history shifted from coercion to legal takeover, which has provided companies and individuals legal means for land grabs, deforestation, displacement and environmental destruction [8], for which a legal theater of prior consultation (consulta previa) has been consistently used as cover and justification. [9]

           At the same time, in order to be recognized and be given the right to manage their own territory, the law required that new native communities organize themselves according to a new legal and administrative structure – a new form of communal governance [6] taken from the cooperative model of the 1969 law. Amongst other things, they had to present a socio-economic plan (plan de trabajo) and elect a community council (junta directiva) with a community chief (jefe) and two other governing members (teniente gobernador and agente municipal). For many indigenous activists and leaders, the establishment of the 1974 law first appeared as a welcome reform based on recognition of native claims as native claims. [10]

         Less discussed has been the shift in structures of authority and power with the imposition of the asamblea structure. As horizontal and communal as the asambleas are, the structure has given elected community chiefs increasing power, especially in relation to negotiations with the state and private corporations. And this has come at the expense of older lines of authority - matriarchal and uxorilocal society organized around an extended family, with communal authority running through sabios and onanyabo with their knowledge of the forest and skills of subsistence. Those who were elected as community chiefs after the law and the establishment of the communities were those who spoke Spanish and had exposure to interactions with the state, companies or NGOs. [11] In short, the state-led titling and recognition process of communities had a strong impact on breaking up indigenous unity and diminishing traditional authority within Shipibo politics.

          In the years since the original law, 120 communities have successfully registered themselves  (titulado). To earn titling in Peru, Indigenous groups must submit a formal request and clear 27 bureaucratic steps. The process is both costly and drawn-out, further complicated by communitiesʼ limited access to the legal system because of linguistic barriers and geographic separation. Oftentimes, efforts prove ineffectual, as in the case of Korin Bari in Río Callería, which has waited nine years for a land title— just one of 1,200 Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon whose applications have not been approved. The communities retain and exercise communitarian principles such as collective decision-making through an elected junta; collective work, or akinananti, a concept that is similar to the Quechua notion of minga, for cleaning and maintaining the community and its structures; and communal ownership, such that living or subsistence lots are not individually owned but ‘granted’ to families and workers by the community itself through collective decision-making and on an egalitarian principle (per family).

        Nevertheless, indigenous leaders have come to understand the titling law as an insidious strategy to break up the unity of Indigenous nations by granting land titles to local, small native communities under the politico-juridical structure of a settler colonial state, without recognizing the indigenous nations or their ancestral territories as a whole, thereby sabotaging any true possibility of exercising a right to political and territorial self-determination.


• BDPI Base de Datos de Pueblos Indigenas u Originario of Ministerio de Cultura

• AIDESEP and Forest Peoples Programme. 2015. Revealing the Hidden: Indigenous perspectives on deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon - Causes and Solution


[1] Mensaje a la Nación con motivo de la promulgación de la Ley de la Reforma Agraria. Reproduced in

[2] Masterson, Daniel. 2009. The History of Peru. Greenwood Press: Peru had one of the lowest per capita rates of land ownership in the world. (162)

[3] Distribución de las tierras adjudicadas según tipo de tierra y región natural en miles de héctareas simples y estandarizadas (al 30 de setiembre de 1979)

non netE


                                  COSTA          SIERRA          SELVA                TOTAL

                                       Miles       %   Miles       %    Miles       %        Miles       %

                                       has.                has.                has.                     has.

Riego                             397.9       77.  112.9       22.  1.3         0.3        512.1      100.

                                                       7                     0                                               0

Secano                          36.2         5.1   539.0      76.  131.8     18.        707.0      100.

                                                                              2                   6                          0

Pastos Naturales          406.0       6.8   5,429.0   90.  155.0      2.6    5,990.0      100.

                                                                              6                                               0

Marginales                    218.9       20     828.0     76.   40.1        3.7   1,087.0      100.

                                                       1                     2                                               0

Total de Has. Simples  1,059.0    12.  6,908.9    83.   328.3      4.0   8,296.2      100.

                                                       8                     3                                               0

Total de Has.                411.1        58.  250.0      35.    41.2       5.9    702.3        100.

Estandarizadas                             5                     6                                               0

Fuente: Caballero, José María y Elena Alvarez, "Aspectos cuantitativos de la reforma agraria 1969 - 1979". 

Instituto de EstudiosPeruanos, 1980. (from

[4] Espinosa 2010 Espinosa de Rivero, Óscar. 2010. Cambios y continuidades en la percepción y demandas indígenas sobre el territorio en la Amazonía peruana

ANTHROPOLOGICA/AÑO XXVIII, N28, 2010, Suplemento 1, p. 239-262

[5] Morin, Françoise 1998. Los Shipibo-Conibo. En F. Santos Granero y F. Barclay, eds. Guía etnográfica de la Alta Amazonía, v. 3 (pp. 198-303). Quito: Abya-Yala, STRI, IFEA.

[6] José Villalobos Ruiz. “La creación de la comunidad nativa y sus efectos en la vida política de los pueblos awajún y wampis”. En Revista Argumentos, Edición N° 4, Año 10, Diciembre 2016. Disponible en ISSN 2076-7722

[7]The Peruvian constitution of 1993: 

Artículo 89.- Comunidades Campesinas y Nativas

Las Comunidades Campesinas y las Nativas tienen existencia legal y son personas jurídicas.

Son autónomas en su organización, en el trabajo comunal y en el uso y la libre disposición de sus tierras, así como en lo económico y administrativo, dentro del marco que la ley establece. La propiedad de sus tierras es imprescriptible, salvo en el caso de abandono previsto en el artículo anterior.

[8]Victory for Indigenous territories and forests in the Peruvian Amazon as law promoting land grabbing and agro-industry expansion repealed. Forest Peoples Program.

[9] Molleda, Juan Carlos Ruiz. Problemas Jurídicos en la Implementación de la Consulta Previa en el Perú:o los «Pretextos Jurídicos» del Gobierno para Incumplirla. Derecho & Sociedad. 42:179-192.  

[10] See eg Alberto Chirif,

[11] Information from independent interviews with former leaders. Also see Espinosa, Oscar. 2012. To Be Shipibo Nowadays: The Shipibo-Konibo Youth Organizations as a Strategy for Dealing with Cultural Change in the Peruvian Amazon Region. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 451–471.  A parallel process was documented by the anthropologist Thomas Moore for the Arakbut. According to Moore, the Arakbut had a loose horizontal structure of communal authority lodged in the figure of the wa’iri. With the advent of asambleas young Spanish speakers became community chiefs. However, Moore maintained that these jefes really only had authority to interact with the exterior world and thus were more like foreign ministers than presidents. Moore, Thomas. N.d. Visiones y Prácticas Políticas de los Arakbut. Unpublished paper.

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