The Maijuna people of Peru

The Maijuna: Introduction to the Ancient Culture of the Amazon Rainforest

The Maijuna people of Peru

*All Photos of the Maijuna Tribe are Credited to Nature & Culture International

Do a Google search on the Maijuna people of northeastern Peru and you’ll be surprised by the relative dearth of information about these indigenous natives of the Peruvian Amazon.

You’ll find a smattering of articles from non-profit organizations and academic studies done by ethnologists and cultural anthropologists (most of which describe the Maijuna using adjectives such as “vulnerable,” “endangered,” and “marginalized”). The only mainstream media coverage of note is a 2012 Huffington Post piece written by an NGO’s program coordinator, which describes them as “a fading culture.”

But, in our eyes, the Maijuna deserve better. They descend from the Western Tucanoans, who inhabited the Amazon River basin for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years before the scourge of colonialism gradually decimated the population and its traditional culture.

So here’s a look at the long, disturbing history of the Maijuna, as well as how the creation of the Maijuna-Kichwa Regional Conservation Area in 2012 is helping to empower this indigenous community and transform their lives for the better.

The Maijuna people of Peru


The history of the Maijuna is one colored by near-constant struggle and strife. The Maijuna people have always been based in the northeastern section of the Peruvian Amazon. Their ancestors were among original inhabitants of the Amazon River basin in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

When first contacted by Jesuit missionaries in 1682, they lived in the area between the Napo and Putumayo Rivers. The Jesuits referred to this area as the “Provincia de Payahua,” so the indigenous people of the region (which numbered around 16,000 at that time) came to be known as the Payagua.

The Jesuits and Franciscans tried to convert the Payagua during the early 18th century, but were rarely successful. Unfortunately, the Maijuna population gradually declined due to epidemics, poor living conditions in the mission camps, and internal fighting among the various tribes.

By the end of the century, some of the Payagua had settled in the area between the Ampiyacu River and the Tamboryacu River (which is where all four Maijuna communities are located today).

It was also during the 18th century that the Peruvian government began to actively promote European colonization of the Amazon region. The exploitation of the Payagua and other indigenous people only intensified after Peru established its independence from Spain in 1821.

The Maijuna people of Peru

CC Image: Photo by Nature & Culture International


During the rubber boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Peruvian government installed colonists of varying nationalities (known as patrones) to oversee areas of land. These patrones were also granted the right to control the indigenous residents by force, using them as slave labor to supply steam ships with wood and carry rubber between the Napo and Putumayo River basins.

By this time the people were commonly known as the Orejón (or “big ear,” a reference to the large wooden ear disks Maijuna men traditionally wore) or Koto/Coto (the Quechua word for the red howler monkey). The latter was apparently a reference to the old Maijuna custom of painting their bodies and faces red. But those names eventually came to be considered derogatory, and Maijuna is the name the people use and prefer today.

After the rubber industry collapsed in the 1920s, the Maijuna were used to extract vegetable ivory and rosewood from the forest and hunt animals for their furs and skins. When Peru went to war against Ecuador in 1941, the government used them to carry weapons and supplies to the front lines. But as soon as the fighting ended, they were back under the brutal thumbs of the patrones.

Many Maijuna died, while others fled deeper into the forest. Those that stayed and survived were subjected to Protestant missionary teachings, which only served to further their undermine their traditional beliefs and customs. The focus on schooling Maijuna children in Spanish led to a rapid decline in their native language.

Fortunately, by the end of the 1970s Peru had begun to officially recognize the rights of its indigenous peoples. The government gave them portions of their ancestral territories, and the Maijuna were finally able to remove themselves from the forceful domination of the patrones. But, in some ways, their struggle had only just begun.


The Maijuna people of Peru

CC Image: Photo by Nature & Culture International

The earliest research on the Maijuna culture appears to have been that of German anthropologist Günther Tessman. He spent considerable time doing field studies of the ethnic groups of Peru from 1921 to 1926, before returning to Germany to complete his doctorate in 1928.

As cited in the work of noted ethnologist Irène Bellier, Tessman spent time in communities along the Zapote River and Sucusari River, where around 500 Koto/Orejón people lived. When he encountered them, the Maijuna men were largely naked (other than typing up their genitals), while married women wore red shirts made from bark cloth.

Adornment was common in both sexes. They often blackened their lips and painted their bodies with elaborate designs, using achiote and the unripe fruit of the Genipa americana tree. Liquid from that fruit was also used as an insect repellant, as well as for light facial tattoos. Both men and women had long hair, but they removed all other hair from their eyebrows, armpits, face, and pubic area.

Only the men of the tribe wore ear disks, which were made of balsawood and adorned with a black palm seed. Maijuna boys had their ears pierced once they reached puberty, in a coming-of-age ritual that coincided with the season’s first peach palm fruits. The piercing signified that the boys had become men, and the size of the disks were gradually enlarged as they aged. But this tradition (among many others) started dying out in the 20th century, due to criticisms from the patrons and other outsiders.

The Maijuna were historically renowned for their ability to imitate the call of the red howler monkey. They were also noted for their unique music, which often involved singing a single monotonous melody for hours. Today their traditional crafts include mask-carving, basket-weaving, and jewelry made with seeds from the Amazon rainforest.


Despite the near-constant threats to their health, cultural traditions, and ability to live on their ancestral lands, around 500 Maijuna people still live in four communities in northeastern Peru today. In the 21st century, the biggest threat to their survival has been the encroachment of development in the Amazon region.

Back in the 1990s, the local government attempted to construct a major highway between Puerto Arica and Flor de Agosto, which would have connected the Napo and Putumayo basins. Fortunately the project was ultimately abandoned for both financial and technical reasons. But still the area was exploited by loggers, hunters, and fishermen.

“The loggers demolished everything– the woods, the animals, the fish. They even hunted frogs. We were left with nothing but our hunger and out poverty,” said Maijuna community leader Sebastian Rios.

Around 10 years ago the Peruvian government began planning another highway through the ancestral territory of the Maijuna, this one stretching from Iquitos to El Estrecho (near the Colombian border). The plan was put together without consulting the area’s indigenous people, and without a thorough examination of the road’s environmental impact.

Finally, the Maijuna had had enough. In 2008, Maijuna chief Romero Rios Ushiñahua walked into the Iquitos office of Nature & Culture International and asked them to help establish a conservation area that would protect the remaining Maijuna villages as well as the Amazon rainforest they called home.

Working in conjunction with other NGOs (including the Rainforest Conservation Fund), the tribal leaders established the Federación de Comunidades Nativas Maijunas (FECONAMAI) to represent the interests of the four Maijuna villages. Their primary goals were to conserve their indigenous culture, protect the environment, and improve the overall organization of their communities. But in order to do that, they first had to stop the construction of the proposed highway.


The Maijuna people of Peru

CC Image: Photo by Nature & Culture International

After six years of lobbying and negotiation, the Regional Council of Loreto, Peru unanimously approved the creation of the Maijuna-Kichwa Regional Conservation Area in February of 2012.

Encompassing nearly 1 million acres (that’s larger than Yosemite National Park!) of relatively pristine rainforest, the reserve serves to protect the ancestral lands of the indigenous Kichwa and Maijuna peoples. It will also help to conserve the area’s tremendous biodiversity, including iconic Amazon rainforest animals such as big cats (including jaguars and ocelots), giant river otters, several species of monkeys, peccaries, tapirs, and more.

The reserve serves to illustrate the important role local indigenous communities play in nature and wildlife conservation, by underscoring the deep connection between those communities and the ecosystems in which they live. Where industrialized areas allow people to live lifestyles that seem largely disconnected from nature, natives of the Amazon Basin depend on the health of their environment for their very survival.

To that end, Nature and Culture International has been working with the Maijuna Indigenous Federation on projects that include the management of aguaje palms, chambira reforestation, fish repopulation, and turtle breeding. Other NGOs have also collaborated with the Maijuna to develop a system of bee-keeping, bee conservation, and sustainable honey collection, which provides an ongoing source of income without damaging the forest.


Guests on International Expeditions’ Amazon tours may have a unique opportunity to learn more about the interconnectedness of societies, cultures, and environments first-hand. The 10-day, 9-night educational adventure includes daily field sessions involving service projects, the collection of scientific data, visits to indigenous villages, and more.

Perhaps none of these is more impactful than the four days spent in the Maijuna-Kichwa Regional Conservation Area.

Travelers will make their way down the Sucusari River to the ExplorNapo Lodge, where they’ll be based for three nights as they learn more about the conservation of the Amazon rainforest and the culture of the indigenous people who inhabit it.

Here’s a look at a few of the informative experiences that will be offered along the way:

• Get hands-on with the cool creepy crawly critters of the Amazon during a session with naturalist guides. Guests will have an opportunity to spend time up close and personal with a variety of centipedes, crustaceans, millipedes, spiders, and other insects. In the end, they’ll have a better understanding of the important roles these anthropods play in the rainforest.

• Exploring the ACTS Research Facility and its 10-story Canopy Walkway. Guests will get a bird’s-eye view of the rainforest canopy, where they may see some of the estimated 20 million insect species that call the Amazon home and see trees covered in up to 2,000 epiphytes (non-parasitic plants, including a broad array of bromeliads, ferns, and orchids).

• Soaking up ancient wisdom from a traditional Amazonian shaman at the ReNuPeRu Ethnobotanical Garden. Tended by the shaman and his apprentices, this teaching garden features more than 240 species of plants used for medicinal and other purposes by the local indigenous populations.  

• Visiting the Maijuna community, learning more about how they protect and conserve the natural resources of the Amazon rainforest. Guests will spend an entire day with the Maijuna villagers as they share their traditional knowledge, ceremonies, songs, and stories. They’ll also learn more about their sustainable projects, including honey production (using a strain of stingless bees) and using GPS and camera traps to track hunters and mammals.

• Learn about sustainable agriculture from the Maijuna people, who use a mixture of traditional and modern farming techniques to cultivate cacao in the rainforest.  

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Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.