Vivienne Westwood Is Cool In Peru

Back in November, Vivienne Westwood and her husband, Andreas Kronthaleris, spent a week in the Peruvian rainforest, where she’s helping to protect 20,000 acres of endangered forest through the environmental charity Cool Earth. The epic trip to the Rio Ene Valley, where they stayed with the local indigenous community, came about after Westwood donated £1 million to Cool Earth to help fund their work with tribes all over the world whose rainforest is threatened by loggers.

Would you like to read her diary from the trip? Of course you would…

Saturday, 17 November: Andreas and I left the house at 6 am, having had 3 ½ hours’ sleep. We met Cynthia and Mark Ellingham at the airport and flew to Lima via Amsterdam. We were on our way to the rainforest with Cool Earth to visit the Ashaninka people. Mark, a Trustee of Cool Earth, published the “Rough Guides” and had contacted Cool Earth when it began and offered his help.

The Cool Earth team were waiting for us in Lima – just six people, including Matthew Owen, the director (who used to be a banker), who was introduced by Mark to Dilwyn Jenkins. Dilwyn is an anthropologist who first visited the Ashaninka about 30 years ago and has also written the “Rough guide” to Peru. Dilwyn spends about half the year in Peru with the forest people and, in addition to Spanish and English, he speaks some of the tribal languages. The point I am making is that if you start something you will get help.

Of the other members of our party, Carlos and Raphaelle are based in Lima and work with Dilwyn on their NGO, Eco-tribal, which supports the work of Cool Earth. Jemma and Kitty work with Matthew at Cool Earth – based in Cornwall but travelling to Peru two or three times a year. A good thing about our trip was that we were all great company; everybody so kind, so sweet – clever, intelligent, funny; we became good friends.

Lima is a big town, perhaps bigger than London – population 8 million. We stayed in a vast and decrepit hotel in the old centre. Andreas and I were tired; we hadn’t slept on the plane. I slept now but Andreas, hardly at all. We had the choice of gurgling water and an air conditioning plant in the rooms at the back or traffic noise at the front. We chose the traffic – a main street with horn-beeping driving “culture”.

Sunday – Wednesday, 18 – 21 November: We set off for the forest early in the morning: taxi, a small plane, jeep and finally a four hour boat ride. Moving down the river, Andreas became happy and forgot his troubles and worrying about leaving our work on the collections. He had a nap. We arrived at Cutivireni in the Rio Ené Valley where people of this Ashaninka community were waiting for us on the river bank. The Ashaninka are the second largest indigenous group in Peru (25-45,000 people).

Cesar Bustamante is just about the most important person in the community. It was he who got in touch with Dilwyn (in Wales!) when the community needed help. They were under threat from loggers wanting to move in and from drug traffickers wanting to use their little airstrip. Fortunately, by then Dilwyn knew Cool Earth and they helped the Ashaninka to start protecting and controlling their own forest. They were the third community Cool Earth worked with.

From 1980 – 1994 there was war in Peru and in this part of the rainforest. A movement called “The Shining Path”, led by a messianic leader, Abimael Guzman, who saw himself as the political heir of Mao and Stalin, tried to take over. Cesar and the Ashaninka fought them – 10,000 Ashaninka were displaced, 6,000 killed and 30-40 villages disappeared. 

Although most of the Shining Path fighters gave up in 1994 after the death of Guzman, pockets still exist which are at the moment mixed up with drug trafficking.

The Ashaninka we visited in Cutivireni and neighbouring Tinkareni have gardens around the villages and around that the immediate forest is a mix of low and high canopy. Matthew said that this depends on the type of ground, rocks and soil. It is a paradise. The staple diet is manioc and maize. They have fish and wild game and lots of fruit. Because three of us were vegetarian, our party ate vegetables which we brought with us and we ate fruit: papaya, mango, banana (many delicious different kinds), grapefruit, oranges, coconut.

In the future, it would be better to build and maintain the links between people who live in cities and those of the land, to exchange our values and culture and reconstruct our civilization. The Ashaninka are now entering the market economy (exporting coffee, chocolate, some of their jewellery made from seeds and bows and arrows which Dilwyn will sell on eBay). The coffee and cacao grow wild among the forest trees. Participation in the market economy is called “development”. I guess trade is the first connection between cultures.

The government is bringing electricity to the Ashaninka but Dilwyn says that because there are many high waterfalls in their forest, the communities could generate their own electricity and sell the surplus to the national grid. A road is proposed. If they accept it, they will police it – quite easily, at certain points. Many more neighbouring indigenous communities who are queuing to join the Cool Earth scheme are committed to their forest. They fought the “Shining Path” and they will not allow loggers to ruin their forest – their way of life and their livelihood. The Ashaninka will control their lives.

Chabuca took me to see the plant whose seeds they grind for their red make up. She speaks Spanish as well as Ashaninka and the children learn Spanish at school. She stopped often on the way to sweep her arm over the landscape, saying “Bonito (beautiful), Senora Vivienne”. They are the most casual people. Some of the men and women wear makeup, some not. They rub the red paste on their faces or make little marks and patterns which express their dreams and visions from the native drug, ayahuasca, or simply their present state of mind. Perhaps this natural pigment could have a commercial use in make up or in dye. 

They have one house to sleep in with a bed which is a wooden table, two or three changes of clothes; they have another house, open sided, which is the kitchen and “women’s house”, with some pots and pans and a bag for collecting. They wash in the river, walk barefoot, put their head through a giant banana leaf to protect them when it rains. 

The women’s hair is the chicest on earth, ragged thinned-out cut. I noticed on a film Dilwyn made in 1970 that their hair was more of a fringed bouffant bob and the men’s hair was long, whereas now it’s short. They keep up with the times. 

Dilwyn is great friends with Jaime Pene whom he has known since he was a child. Jaime has visited Dilwyn’s home in Wales. He said he was glad to get back to the forest again. He’s now able to locate his home on Google maps – which helps them protect their forest.

Communal meetings are very important and seem to be several men making very long speeches and then when they’re finished, the same men getting up to speak again.

Chabuca has four children and is married to Daniel who was teaching at the school, but I think he stopped because he didn’t like the headmistress trying to boss him about. Chabuca is Anna’s eldest daughter; Anna is married to Cesar and has four children and two or three adopted children. Anna’s mother is Noemi who is my age, a village elder who is one of the few remaining female shamans in the area. There is no marriage ceremony – the kids build a new house and the couple move in together. When people die they used to lay them on a rock in the river so that the bones are picked and then, I guess, they just dispose of the bones in the forest. Since the 60s they bury people in unmarked graves in the forest – but they know where the bodies are. 

We fell in love with Cladys, so elegant, a little queen of five or six who is Anna’s adopted daughter (her mother left her father and set up with another man and, as she had a boy with epilepsy, she found it hard to cope). The girls wear the same envelope of cloth as a dress as their mothers do – always drops off one shoulder. Cladys looked at and listened to everything we did and said; she seemed the last to go to bed. One day, I was sitting in the river when she came and splashed me to have a game, often she was shy but her curiosity got the better of her; the expressions on her face from serious to laughing went full circle through the whole range of human beauty.

Anna’s youngest child, Coakiti, is three (the name means “Little Hawk”; they have Ashaninka and Spanish or English names). There are the most wonderful butterflies, especially down by the river where we were. We admired a black, white and iridescent green beauty. Andreas saw Coakiti catch it and with triumphal glee ripped it apart. Andreas had to kill, with a stone, the half that was still left flying. Andreas saw this as an example of children’s natural cruelty. I told Coakiti off. He always holds his hands to his check, wringing them when he doesn’t know what to do. This little naked thing. I shook his hand and patted his head and said seriously that he was forgiven, miming the poor butterfly.

I should have got Dilwyn to take me to the school so he could translate, but I didn’t. Next to the school is a boarding house for children who live far away. It can take them as much as six hours to walk to school and they go home at the weekends. I asked a girl or about ten to show me her exercise book; it was history and geography with beautiful writing, maps and drawings. The teachers are supplied by the state – all teaching is in Spanish and they discourage the taking of ayahuasca. Dilwyn said that in this altered state the Ashaninka experience a universal continuity which they think includes their ancestors. I might have asked Noemi to give me the chance of this experience but I was feeling a bit rough – my legs were still swollen from travelling and I felt a bit sick, maybe from our malaria pills but probably from a three hours walk in the sun between two villages for a special celebration where the two Ashaninka villages came together to mark the end of the fighting with the “Shining Path” and also in our honour. I missed most of it because I was lying down. Cynthia said there was a very dramatic poetry recitation by the school teacher, the children did a traditional dance about life in the village and there were archery competitions (they laughed at Andreas for going too near the target and cheating). 

Thursday, 22 November: At our point of departure from Cutivireni, Anna brought a feather headdress she had made for me. I felt I had to give a present so I picked on a boy of 11 or 12 who was one of the kids who was always around, wanting to know everything, and I gave him my AR badge. I explained through Dilwyn: AR means Active Resistance to Propaganda, means don’t always believe what you’re told – especially by the government – think for yourself; the man with the beret on the badge is Rembrandt, a great artist and figure of culture. This means that knowledge is power, so take advantage of your education and learn as much as you can. The women were all nodding approval and he was grinning all over the place to receive this honour.

Half our party had already left by boat but a few of us were privileged to go in a tiny airplane. By the time it touched down on the short runway, all the children from the school were there – they came running down the path through the high gardens to send us off with their lunch still on a plate. We flew over the wonder of the rainforest to a small town, Satipo, then joined our friends for the flight back to Lima. The air conditioning on this plane was extremely cold and Andreas caught a chill.

Friday, 23 November: Back in Lima, I went with Cool Earth, Andreas and Cynthia to see the Vice Minister of the Strategic Development of Natural Resources for Peru, Senor Acosta. He sat there listening, understanding English, sometimes replying in Spanish. When I asked him questions designed to discover his commitment to saving the rainforest, he lit up with enthusiasm. I said, “Having spent the last few days with the Ashaninka, I am convinced by the solidity of their deep commitment to preserve the forest. If they keep the loggers out they have control of their own lives.” (Their confidence has been achieved in part by the support of Cool Earth.) Acosta gave warm support. We felt he would do everything he could and that Cool Earth – in the persons of Dilwyn and Carlos – had established a friendship for continuing a dialogue. Matthew hopes the support of Acosta will help Cool Earth’s application to the World Bank for some finance.

Saturday, 24 November: In the Chinese horoscope, Andreas is a horse (I am a snake). Like a horse, a draft enflames him. That night, the chill had transformed into a raging fever. He burned and I applied ice cold cloths to his forehead (wet facecloths placed in the fridge). He was two days in the hotel bed and on the second day the fever broke into a sweat.

Sunday, 25 November: On the third day, he was still weak but we went to the wonderful Museo Larco. At night we caught the plane home. We should have gone to Cusco, then Machu Picchu. Cynthia and Jemma went with Dilwyn who is an experienced guide. 

Monday, 26 November – Saturday, 1 December: Got home from Peru Monday night. 

Tuesday, Wednesday, at home worrying and jetlagged. Couldn’t do anything. Certainly you must suffer to travel. Obviously, if you stay long enough the ration of experience to suffering is better. Andreas says, “I feel very privileged to have met the people of the Ashaninka, people whose values are different from our own. I think in 10 years’ time it will be different.” I, too, am glad.

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