Dr. Michael Gilmore is an associate professor in New Century College at George Mason University. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Colorado State University in 1995 and a Ph.D. in Ethnobotany from Miami University in 2005. In 1999, Dr. Gilmore began working on conservation projects with the Maijuna, an indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon. In 2004, their joint effort led to the establishment of a Maijuna Indigenous Federation, FECONAMAI. The federation essentially allows the Maijuna to have a voice against government policies that would otherwise oppress them. The federation also makes it easier for the Maijuna to collaborate with groups like Rainforest Conservation Fund to fight against unfair policies together. Dr. Gilmore continues to work with Maijuna. Currently, they are trying to establish a protected area to preserve Maijuna’s lands and resources for future generation. He is also working with the Maijuna to solve issues pertaining to drinking water and sanitation.
I chose to interview Dr. Gilmore because most of his activist work took place in Peru, my home country. It is not often that someone from the U.S. academy takes interest in my country, especially regarding the indigenous people within the Amazon. Thus, I wanted to gain some insight from someone who developed a sustained collaboration with an indigenous group in Peru and helped them in their endeavor to secure a better life. I am very thankful for the aid that Dr. Gilmore has provided to the people of my country and for taking the time to answer my questions.
Montoya: Given your academic career, what inspired and motivated you to reach out to the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon?
Gilmore: I had always wanted to go to the Amazon and my Ph.D. advisor has deep ties in the Peruvian Amazon so it made sense for me to work there. Since starting my work, I have really fallen in love with the people and the area and cannot imagine working anywhere else. I have definitely found my life’s passion.
Montoya: Given that you are based in an urban center where you work as an academic, was it difficult to establish a communicative and working relationship with members of the Maijuna? How did you first make contact?
Gilmore: I first visited one of the Maijuna communities on my first trip down to the Peruvian Amazon with my Ph.D. Advisor. During that trip, I made some very basic contacts with some members of the community. On my second trip down (my first solo trip), that is when the real adventure started. It took me several months working in the community to really begin to develop close and deep relationships with people due to language and cultural differences. Now, some of my best friends in the world are Maijuna.
Montoya: What are the central political challenges faced by indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon, like the Maijuna? Are these similar to or different to the struggles of indigenous peoples of the Andes? How would you compare the challenges of the Maijuna to other indigenous struggles around the globe?
Gilmore: The Maijuna, like most other indigenous groups in Peru and around the world, have been incredibly marginalized and disempowered since first European contact. They also experience racism from broader society. Due to these reasons, the Maijuna have been silenced and not listened to over the years. So, the central political challenge is getting people in power to listen to groups like the Maijuna and to treat them equally.
Montoya: Do indigenous people in the Amazon consider themselves Peruvian? Why or why not? Are these associations, or the lack of them, problematic?
Gilmore: The Maijuna consider themselves Peruvian but this has obviously not always been the case given their history. However, I do think that they consider themselves Maijuna first and Peruvian second. That is, they identify themselves at their core as Maijuna.
Montoya: Given your research experience, who or what (whether institutions or organizations) do you consider the most powerful allies of the Maijuna and other indigenous peoples in the Amazon? What do the Maijuna think of these groups and their strenngths or possibilities as allies?
Gilmore: To be honest, I think that the Maijuna have learned that it is important to build broad coalitions that pull in a variety of allies each with different strengths. That is, some allies do great community-based work, others work very effectively on the political level, and still others have expertise in doing more science-based work. So, for the Maijuna work we pulled in a wide variety of allies and really played to the strengths of each organization. The successes in Maijuna lands would not have been possible by working with only one ally or organization.
Montoya: How influential, or helpful, are international efforts to advance indigenous rights in the realization of indigenous people’s goals?
Gilmore: I think international efforts can be extremely helpful in elevating indigenous rights on the global stage. That being said, it cannot happen solely on the international level and must also happen on the community, state, and national levels if we are to make serious change.
Montoya: What are some common misconceptions held in Peruvian society and the academic world about indigenous peoples and indigenous struggles? What do you consider the basis for these misunderstandings?
Gilmore: In Peruvian society, I think that many people view indigenous people as backward, ignorant, and unworthy of consideration. And, this really boils down to racism and other deep rooted prejudices in society. By the way, I think that many people in the US feel the same way about Native Americans so this is not a uniquely Peruvian misconception. Also, I should note that I do think that things are starting to slowly improve in Peru and move in the right direction even though there is still a long way to go.
Montoya: What specifically would you recommend to scholars seeking a better understanding of the indigenous groups that they are interested in researching?
Gilmore: I think that it is really important to ask indigenous communities what is important to them and to actually spend the time to listen to what they have to say. This can help academics do more applied work that can help to solve some of the challenges in the communities where they hope to work. I think that doing applied and community-based work, and not purely extractive research, is absolutely critical.