Stephanie Boyd on the making of a groundbreaking indigenous film about the pandemic in Peru’s Amazon.
Leonardo’s voice is drowned out by the steady thump of electronic music in the background and his cell phone keeps cutting out. At last he finds a quiet corner at the radio station where the wifi signal is stronger and we’re able to speak. He’s having trouble recording the narration for a short film we’re producing about the impact of Covid-19 in Peru’s northern Amazon.
‘My voice is muted,’ he says quietly. ‘I keep breaking up.’
This doesn’t sound like the robust baritone announcer I know so well. But these are not normal times.
It’s just after 9 am at the end of May and Leonardo Tello has been on the air since 5:30 hosting a news program on Radio Ucamara, an indigenous-run media outlet on the banks of the Marañón River. The Kukama journalist has spent hours talking with callers who have lost loved ones, or can’t afford to buy
medicine and oxygen for family members who are gravely ill.
When Peru’s government announced a national lockdown in mid-March, Radio Ucamara set up a network of a dozen correspondents to report on the pandemic from their isolated villages along the Marañon and Corrientes rivers. By May nearly all were reporting Covid-like symptoms in their communities, but since most are hours by boat from the nearest health center, where test kits and medication are scarce, the real number of cases remains unknown.
At least 17 doctors in the state have died from the virus and public hospitals lack oxygen, medication and beds. Black market prices for oxygen and even simple medications for headaches and fever have skyrocketed
Even government health officials question the official statistics. The regional health director in the state of Loreto estimates that at least 60 per cent of the nearly half million people living in the capital of Iquitos have been infected and the number of dead is at least nine times the official total. Since then the virus has spread to towns like Nauta, where Radio Ucamara is based, and to remote villages far from medical facilities. And yet, as of 11 June the government had only recorded 7,000 cases in the entire state and 311 deaths.
The pandemic has laid bare Peru’s systemic abandonment and mistreatment of its indigenous population, especially in the Amazon region. Decades of abuse, dating back to the rubber trade era and progressing to contamination from oil exploration and gold mining, combined with a lack of basic health care and clean drinking water, have left native communities especially vulnerable to Covid-19. By early May the health system in Loreto had collapsed. At least 17 doctors in the state have died from the virus and public hospitals lack oxygen, medication and beds. Black market prices for oxygen and even simple medications for headaches and fever have skyrocketed as supplies dwindle – the region is only accessible by plane.
Peru’s government did not announce an emergency plan for the country’s indigenous populations until late May, and only after intense pressure from human rights groups. Now, in June, the government is casually sitting down to discuss possible actions with indigenous leaders.
‘If they really cared about us they would have sent helicopters and planes with medicine and oxygen,’ says Mari Luz Canaquiri, president of the Federation of Kukama-Kukamiria women. She and other leaders had a virtual meeting recently in Iquitos with government officials. ‘And I said to the Minister of Health, “It’s been three months and what have you done? Nothing! I’m only here today because I cured myself with my own plant remedies. Your hospital didn’t have any medicine.” I said this to his face… well, to the big screen on the wall. They had a projector.’
Mari Luz was trapped in Iquitos when the quarantine began, far from her native village and beloved plantain trees. Her grown-up daughters have a small house in a squatter neighborhood of Iquitos with no water and infrequent electricity, but Mari Luz considers herself luckier than others who have been on the streets or in crowded isolation centers. In late April she fell seriously ill with symptoms of Covid-19. ‘I couldn’t breathe,’ she told me. ‘I thought I was going to die.’
She recovered and is now channeling private donations of medicine and equipment to the 28 villages she represents on the lower Marañon River. But she stresses that the Amazon’s medicinal plants are key to combatting the virus. As soon as she was well enough to use the phone, she began calling the other women leaders with the recipes for the plant medicines she and her family took. ‘Prepare them now, before you get sick,’ she told me.
Mari Luz and other indigenous leaders in Peru reacted quickly to the virus, in stark contrast to the government’s less than stellar performance. Communities adopted self-isolation and closed smaller rivers to outsiders. This system has been developed over centuries of deadly epidemics, from smallpox brought by the first explorers to more recent plagues like measles, cholera and flu.
But indigenous leaders say extractive industries have not honored these rules – oil, timber and mining operations continue to operate on indigenous territory, exposing local populations to risk. Medical professionals have also been accused of bringing the virus into the isolated areas and a mayor from the Corrientes river gave Covid a helping hand when he and his infected staff delivered food aid to indigenous villages.
Radio has become a lifeline for the many without access to television. Radio Ucamara’s new correspondents from distant villages take their duties seriously. On that same morning when Leonardo had trouble with his voice, he received a call, on the air, from a correspondent who reported that his own grandson had just died with symptoms of the virus. The interview was spent discussing the reporter’s next move: should he isolate his family? How would they fetch water or wash their clothes or gather bananas and yucca or fish to eat? Is it possible to isolate when one lives in a communal village, where all the houses are connected, everyone is family and the entire physical space is home?
‘The government doesn’t understand our reality,’ Leonardo tells me, adding that urban areas have also found the quarantine law impossible to uphold. Under Peru’s state-of-emergency, all citizens who do not work for essential services are supposed to remain at home. They’re only allowed outside to purchase food and medicine and must wear masks and respect social distancing. But the majority of the Amazon’s urban population survives on their daily earnings: driving rickshaw-like taxis or selling food and other products on the street and in open-air markets. For them the lockdown meant choosing between dying of hunger or risking the virus.
Another issue is the fear of hospitals and isolation centers. Family members don’t want their loved ones to die alone and be wrapped in plastic and buried in a mass grave with no burial rites.
‘People decide to stay at home, and the family agrees,’ says Leonardo. ‘They know that everyone could die, but at least they’ll be together and able to see each other.’ The cultural importance of accompanying and burying the dead is something the doctors have failed to understand – it gives us peace and tranquility, explains Leonardo.
It’s early afternoon now on that same endless day that began with Leonardo losing his voice. He found it again, mid-morning, and sent us his narration for the video report. We’re in a bizarre three-way conversation on Facebook Messenger, making changes to a rough cut with our editor, who lives a few blocks from my house in Cusco but must work remotely because of the quarantine. The wifi connection at the radio station in the jungle isn’t strong enough to use Zoom or even Skype.
Leonardo is only a two-hour flight from us – a bit west and straight down through dense, green forest, following the winding rivers until you reach the Andean mountains. Right now it feels like another planet. We met seven years ago at a festival of censored films (I was showing a movie critical of an American mining company’s operations in Peru). After the Q&A, Leonardo asked me to give video training to his radio staff and told me about the incredible spirit world beneath the Amazon’s rivers led by the Karuara or ‘people of the river’.
One moment – one irresistible story – and my life took an unexpected turn. Since then we’ve made several short films together, published a book of indigenous legends and are now co-producing a feature film about the struggle to save the Amazon’s rivers and the spirit universe below.
When Covid-19 reached the Amazon, it was only natural for us to make a video with Radio Ucamara. Today is a particularly hard day, though. Leonardo disappears from our virtual editing session for a few minutes and returns to say he’s just learned that a childhood friend has passed away. (Leo is only in his mid-40s).
‘I don’t know what to say to his family,’ he says.
A few minutes later there’s a pause again and Leonardo returns, apologetic. ‘Someone just called to say another close friend has died in one of the isolation centres.’
Shortly afterward he hears of a third friend’s death. Our editing session becomes a kind of therapy – Fabricio, the editor, and I in our chilly mountain homes and Leonardo in the humid, sweltering heat of the radio station. So far, he’s lost seven people to the virus, three in the same day and nearly everyone he knows has been ill and needs help with food and medicine. His partner gave birth to a healthy baby just over a week ago, but she suffered complications and had to be rushed to Iquitos, the virus’s epicentre.
Finally, Leonardo asks if he can stop for the day. It’s 5:30 pm and he’s been going straight for 12 hours. I tell him to rest, but he says he needs to take care of his partner, who is still recovering, and their baby.
While Fabricio and I debate the artistic merits of each shot, Leo’s been a living witness to the horror. Each morning when I call him, I wonder if he’ll answer or if he’s succumbed to the virus. It’s as though we’re working with a war correspondent in a remote land, hoping he’ll survive long enough to file the next report.
Later that night I receive frantic WhatsApp messages from Ronal, one of Ucamara’s reporters. He’s been trying to upload footage from his cell to a file-sharing program since early morning but the strain is too much for the radio station’s weak internet connection. I feel his desperation through the phone lines.
‘Just send it with WhatsApp,’ I tell him. The image quality will suffer, but at least we’ll get the video.
Ronal is relieved. ‘I’ll send it as soon as the thunderstorm stops,’ he promises. (Wifi is notoriously weak during the Amazon’s violent storms). Shortly after midnight my phone starts beeping as Ronal’s videos come in.
The correspondents who live in secluded villages along the river have even greater difficulty sending their material. I’m able to buy data for their cellphones, but they must contend with hopelessly poor internet signals. In some locations, reporters have to stand at the edge of the soccer field – the largest cleared space – arm raised to the sky, leaning in just the right way to catch the strongest signal. Or take a canoe out to the middle of the river.
The idea of working with the correspondents came from necessity – no one is allowed into the isolated villages to film. Even Ucamara couldn’t send one of their indigenous reporters from Nauta. Unwittingly we ended up with a much deeper and more profound short film than a slick production by outsiders. The camera often shakes and it’s not HD, but this is their story, their images and words, filmed with love, patience anger and hope.
How else would we have ended up with the title Two Demons, from Leonardo’s artful metaphor? ‘Among the Kukama people,’ he writes in his introduction, ‘we use the word maisangara (demon) for all the evils that affect us. Over time, the word has come to represent the invasion of our lands, pollution, the government’s indifference, and the arrival of new illnesses, such as Covid-19.’
The film exposes the historic abuse and neglect of Amazonian people that paved the way for the virus’s disastrous rampage. But it’s also a tale of strength and resistance: the correspondents have never worked in radio or film before. The most practiced is Edson Hualinga, a member of the Achuar community from the small town of Trompeteros, who broadcasts local news from a loud speaker to everyone within hearing range. He became our star with his clear, thoughtful video reports, filmed as selfies, and beginning with the proud tagline: ‘Reporting from Trompeteros for Radio Ucamara.’
‘We’re going to survive,’ he vows, ‘to tell the world that we were able to communicate and live and help others live.’
Watch Two Demons and Many Amazonian Communities at Risk for free: