Lima: Indigenous community say they’ve been ‘abandoned’ following devastating fire


The devastation left by the fire is everywhere: on the ground, on the walls of the houses, but above all, in the spirit of the people. The Shipibo community of Cantagallo, a district in the north of Lima, is still dazed by what has happened to it.

On the night of 3 November, a huge fire broke out in the shantytown where this indigenous community lives, just 10 blocks away from the presidential palace and parliament.

According to initial reports, the fire was started by a candle and spread to the surrounding houses, mostly made of wood and tarpaulin.

Although there were no fatalities, one child was seriously injured with burns and at least 436 houses were destroyed. According to the authorities, over 2000 people – some two-thirds of the community – were left without shelter, clothing or food within hours of the fire breaking out.

The Shipibo originally come from the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon. The first Shipibo inhabitants settled in Lima in the 1990s before building their new homes in Cantagallo, a former landfill site, in 1990. They were fleeing from the militant communist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) which launched a guerrilla war in the rural highlands of Peru the 1980s.

Jonas Franco, 40, is one of the pioneers of the Shipibo settlement in Cantagallo. When Equal Times meets him, he is seated at a small table at the entrance of what looks like a refugee camp. In front of him, a queue is growing little by little. The members of the community are lining up, plate in hand, for food. To his left, a dozen or so young people are gathered around a power socket.

“The fire cut off our electricity supply. They have been telling us it’s going to be repaired for days now, but in the meantime, we are getting by as best we can,” he says, looking over at the makeshift generator installed a few metres away.


“We have lost everything”

One of people affected by the fire is 52-year-old Graziela. Since 4 November she has been living in a makeshift tent of around ten square metres, built with a few tarpaulin sheets and election posters. Six people are living there, including two young children.

“We have lost everything and we are getting no help from the Lima City Council. The water supply is expected to be back within a few days. We don’t know about the electricity. For the moment, we are trying to survive,” she tells Equal Times, pointing to the jewellery that she makes and sells.

It’s the uncertainty that’s causing the most distress. The fire victims do not know what tomorrow will bring: hardly anyone here has any insurance and so most of the Shipibos in Cantagallo – who are already surviving on low-incomes – have no idea how they will rebuild their homes.

At the time of publishing this article, the mayor of Lima Luis Castañeda had not yet visited the site. A prior agreement with the former city council was going to facilitate the community’s move to a new area of Lima under the Rio Verde project in a bid to reclaim green spaces around the Rímac River in Lima, and also to facilitate the construction of a US$700 million highway project. But the election of Castañeda in 2014 stopped the resettlement from going ahead.

Since then, Mayor Castañeda has been denying that an agreement was concluded and has since sold the land where the community would have been resettled to a private company. “Castañeda is a racist. During his first time in office [editor’s note: he was previously mayor of Lima from 2003 to 2010], he refused to talk to us, to receive us. He said the Shipibos had no place in Lima. Today, it’s the same. He won’t come to see us and does not want to help us find a solution,” says Franco.

Abandoned by the local authorities, the inhabitants of Cantagallo are, fortunately, able to count on civil society.

The support initiatives are multiplying on Facebook: appeals for donations, solidarity marches and concerts. But it is in the alleyways of the shanty that the support is the most striking.

Every day, several dozen volunteers come to the area to lend a helping hand. “The Shipibos have taken part in all the social movements, they have always been there for us. Now it’s time for us to help them, however we can,” explains Jorge, a young activist in his twenties, who is coordinating the on-site distribution of some of the food and materials donated.

The Shipibos want to hear no more about moving. They want to rebuild and are trying to look towards the future, as Franco explains. “We are not invaders. These lands belong to us. When we arrived here, the president of the Republic was here to welcome us. We will not let Castañeda drive us out.”