5 Facts From This Harrowing Doc on Indigenous Activists Who Died Fighting for Peru’s Rainforest

Lead Photo: 'When Two Worlds Collide' Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
'When Two Worlds Collide' Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
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In June 2009, Peru experienced one of the most heated political events in its modern history. A confrontation between the police and a group of indigenous protesters erupted into a violent altercation. The “Baguazo,” as it came to be known, was the result of a months-long battle between president Alan García’s government and a number of indigenous groups. The dispute came about after politicians decided to lease out land in the Amazon rainforest to multinational corporations. This would be done at the expense of the wellbeing of the ecosystem and the long-held constitutional laws that had left indigenous populations with sovereignty over their land. It was a fight that cost many their lives.

The film When Two Worlds Collide finds in “El Baguazo” its centerpiece. It delivers a tour-de-force overview of this battle over the cost of so-called “modern progress.” Filmmakers Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel had originally wanted to anchor the fight over the Peruvian rainforest in the figure of Alberto Pizango. The leader of the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva (AIDESEP), Pizango would later be charged with counts of sedition following the violent aftermath of el Baguazo. Crafting a broader portrait of the conflict around him, Brandenburg (who grew up in Peru) and Orzel ended up with a damning document of the lengths the Peruvian government went to sell the rainforest and demonize those who questioned the legality and ethics of their decisions. Its gruesome scenes of brutality and its disturbing images of a rainforest contaminated by oil are enough to make this a must-see doc.

Ahead of the film’s release, we called up Pizango to discuss the film. He admits the documentary has far exceeded his initial expectations. “I thought it’d be this small scale affair, you know?” he said, having never imagined it would travel so widely. Instead it went on to play Sundance where it won a Special Jury Prize for Best Debut Feature. Pizango was very much looking forward to attending the Park City premiere of the film. That is, before he learned his U.S. visa had been revoked when he attempted to board his flight. It’s another reminder, he told me, of the way he continues to be singled out for his leadership role all those years ago.

Below, find five things we learned from that chat and from the Sundance-winning doc about the fraught relationship between the Peruvian government and the native peoples living in the Amazon.

When Two Worlds Collide opens Wednesday, August 17, 2016 in New York at Film Forum.

UPDATE 7/28/2017: When Two Worlds Collide is now streaming on Netflix.


Over 1800 Indigenous Groups Came Together To Protest The Peruvian Government’s Actions

In 2009, Pizango and the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva (AIDESEP) received notice that the Peruvian government had passed 102 regulations in accordance with the newly signed Free Trade Agreement with the US. 35 of those directly affected the indigenous people and land the AIDESEP was tasked with safeguarding. “Sadly, in Peru,” Pizango told Remezcla, “the rights of indigenous peoples aren’t really upheld. And that’s what led to the unfortunate violent events that followed.” It explains why the film opens with Article 14 from the UN ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, No. 169, held in 1989: “Measures shall be taken in appropriate cases to safeguard the right of the peoples concerned to use lands not exclusively occupied by them, but to which they have traditionally had access for their subsistence and traditional activities.” This is precisely what Pizango and AIDESEP were fighting for ahead of the violent events in 2009.


President Alan García’s Tone Deaf Approach To The Issue Only Made It Worse

“When we have resources like oil, gas and lumber and abundant fishing in the Amazon that can give work to many people,” he tells a crowd in Lima in archival footage seen in the documentary, “That doesn’t belong just to the group who had the good fortune to be born there.” That type of thinking — what Pizango calls “mezquino” (mean, petty, small-minded) is in keeping with the bad deals the native peoples were given whenever these contracts were discussed. As he told Remezcla, while the negotiations often rested on the promises of improving the lives of all Peruvians and the indigenous people in particular (with pledges to offer them better schools and better infrastructure) they rarely became a reality. And even if they did, he points out, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which Brandenburg and Orzel show in the film, cannot be undone.


Peru Basically Played The #BlueLivesMatter Card

In a taped interview presented in the doc, we see then Minister of the Interior, Mercedes Cabanillas calling the recent deaths of 10 policemen during el Baguazo as proof that they were dealing with “savages.” When the interviewer interjects, pointing out that 15 indigenous men had also died, she quickly points out that she can’t believe it’s that many, eventually saying that it doesn’t matter either way. She fights back against this image of policemen brutalizing indigenous people who are weak and abused — it’s quite the opposite! It’d might have been easier for her to say “Blue Lives Matter,” a sentiment you can tell the government played up when they kept using these policemen’s deaths as rallying cries for their own moral high ground. As the then-Prime Minister of Peru, Yehude Simon put it, “Don’t let anyone tell you that the natives are the victims. It’s the police who are the victims.” (Both later stepped down.)


Hurtful Rhetoric Abounded When Speaking About Indigenous Populations

Cabanillas isn’t the only one on record using racially charged language when speaking about the indigenous people involved in the conflict. Speaking at the airport where Pizango was returning from his exile in Nicaragua (after being charged with murder and sedition charges for those dead in June 2009), an anti-Pizango protester doesn’t mince words when speaking to the camera: “I consider them third-class citizens, uncultured people.” It was a sentiment stoked by the dismissal of native peoples and their rights, not to mention in line with endless colonial ideas that still remain in modern day Peru — and, as Pizango points out, in other Latin American countries as well.


At Its Heart This Was a Conflict About The Meaning Of Progress

Much of President Alan García’s rhetoric revolved around issues of progress and development (“desarrollo”) — it’s what led his government to pursue the FTA with the US and to court oil and natural gas companies to come into the Amazon. But as Pizango explains it, the native people have a very different way of understanding that way of life. “By ‘desarrollo’ we understand living life with dignity, living life without contamination. We don’t really understand the concept of ‘conservation’ — it’s never been about conserving anything. It’s about managing our resources and doing so in a harmonious manner, respecting nature and in so doing, not letting it be contaminated or stripped down.” That’s what Pizango hoped to explain to the Peruvian government who works under the Western belief of ‘desarrollo’ in terms of progress. But as Pizango notes in the documentary, it’s a “desarrollo salvaje” because in aspiring to wealth (and oil and multinational contracts), man is killing the rainforest, hurting nature, and killing cultures.