The Owners of the Land - Relive a DocuLatino 2014 evening!

The last evening of DocuLatino 2014 in Gent was a special one- film maker Juan Javier Rivera Andia had come to present and explain his four video installations that make up the documentary The Owners of the Land.

The region where the films are shot is threatened by mining and people are fighting against it. Juan is anthropologist and did research in order to understand  the people’s culture and encountered also their struggles, which he both portreyed in the films. The documentary also includes self-reflection about the work as an anthropologist.  Juan lived  around Cañaris from 2009-2011 and then left in order to make sense of masses of data gathered during that time. He works on that in research institutes in Bonn, The Hague and Genk. Juan Javier would like to work on a nature reserve and do more socio-cultural research at the same place. Meanwhile the threat from a open pit mine is increasing.

The film itself is done by the British filmmaker Peter Snowdon who earlier worked in the Middle East. Traumatised by anthropological documentaries, he was free to choose the setup films, while aesthetics was the guiding theme- not politics.

If you have a copy of the DVD The Owners of the Land you can take this report now in order to guide you from one film fragment to the other. If not, we hope that this report makes you curious enough to contact us or the filmmaker to get a copy!  We hope to organise a second film screening of The Owners of the Land in late spring 2014 with a slightly different concept, so stay tuned! 

Tuning into Cañaris 

The people in the film are called Cañaris- but it is not their name, they do not have a name. There is just a community called Cañaris. Identities are very local and the 60 000 people in the region are not very close, they do not identify them as a group. Only with external problems coming there comes a local identity in place. Although living in the Peruvian Andes they are not typical Andes people with their symbols and foods. They do not use of coca leaves for examples, but the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus. They also have very different instruments that are more amazonic than Andean. Both their music style and gender roles with playing music are distinct.

Also their history is different to other Quechua speaking peoples: more Southern regions experiences violence during the last 50 years. They have conserved their relict forests that contain habitats and flora and fauna not found anywhere else in Peru. Being unresearched the Cañaris seem strange and special.

However they are not isolated, still nobody knows them. Not the people that live 3hours away nobody knew they speak their own language. How come? Juan gives a few hints: Peruvians themselves have the tacit idea that indigenous peoples of Peru only live in the South of the country- and anthropologists especially do think that. In the North they could not get accepted as indigenous.

You might think that anthropologists might do something different than mining corporations. However, an anthropologist is not far from having the same project as a mining corporation. You are interested in digging into their culture and extract what has not been known before. The filmmaker told me that I as researcher was part of the problem. Indeed the modern world has this urge to discover shamanism, exotic things.


The second film is about how horrifying the experience of an anthropologist can be. Therefore I am critical of persons that think that anthropology can help people.


This is very innatural  and folkloric recordings are done like this indeed: by silencing people.

So when I was living in Cañaris I was only allowed to talk with men. As a new young man in a new city you are reckoned to be there to get a girl. However to talk with men you have to drink their strong alcohol, and drunk they normally play their music- for example on the Charanga guitar. Only a handful of men can play the guitar, and even less are able to build one.


On oft he first shoots shows a blockade; there are 500 policemen, the air is filled with tear gas. In fact an old man died intoxicated of tear gas, and none of these actions have been broadcasted on the TV. Only some info appeared on the internet, there are some Youtube videos. ‘People’ thought it was not a good idea to tell about has happened.

Road access to the area is very difficult, you have to travel around. But the mining company has their own road to the coast, yet it does not cross any town. People tried to cut this but then problems began.

The government reacted by forming a round table. Part of it was donating useless gifts; gas stoves while there is no gas in the region! There are promises made for roads and hospitals to be built. Yet nothing has been done so far.

The former community leader has disappeared, and the new one tries to fight the mining company as the old one did. Yet there is not sufficient access to services and that makes the struggle difficult. 


The resistance video just appeared on some Facebook page, the interview was broadcasted on TV. The films show a totally different discourse around one happening.

For the research team these four films are only the beginning and there are many more things to be done with the data. The Peruvian government has a big archive of those people’s patrimony and they do not allow anybody to release this data. It could contribute to the question:  “Are the people indigenous?” While yes from an anthropological perspective, the minister of culture has his doubts. This has implications on how to deal with them respecting their opposition to the open pit mine. Indigenous people do have other rights than people who have a farmer identity ‘only’.

Reactions from the audience

  • Did you select the crew for music recording?

 During my fieldwork sometimes some TV guys appeared. Once a folkloric program arrived with their recording crew. But the guys I worked with were sent by the minister of culture. The idea was; the music is a) unknown and b) will be lost soon, as the players are 50+. Younger people are into Cumbia, Vallenato, Salsa. We thus made a deal. I introduced them to the people, and I also got the recordings. But I never had experienced before this necessity of total silence! This means that we only worked together for this project.

  • By working here in Europe you bring this material back to the colonisers. What do you think about this?

I heard somewhere that I do not have the right to do this BUT there is no funding for research in Peru. Peruvian money is going into football stadiums, not into research. I taught in the universities in Lima. It is there as if they do not WANT people to learn. There is barely a university infrastructure, there are no libraries etc.

But an important part of my research is that the material that I have- they have it too! Every person that appears in the film has also the copies. I was like a machine giving back things. I did it also as there was nearby an institute that translates the bible in all indigenous languages SIL, Summer Institute of Linguistics. They have been banned from many countries, yet not from being active in Peru. They have so much knowledge about grammar etc., and they were also in Cañaris. Everyone had the bible that was translated for them into their, yet nobody reads it. Sometimes it is used as amulet. What counts is that I have been compared with them. They actually recorded everything for years, and shared nothing. So I took this as a message- that if we do not share, they would have a bad memory of you. So there is another level- the destructive power of anthropology. The following question remains; is it possible to do anthropology without extracting things?

  • Could it be possible to search for the exact history? Why would they not get recognized as indigenous?

I originally went to the region as in the past it was crossed by an Inca road. I should see what nowadays was around there- and there are 60 000 people. So anthropologically speaking no doubt they are indigenous. Yet from a political point of view in the 1970's, it was declared that there were no indigenous people left here in the North, they are peasants. For some reason this narrative nowadays is strong in Peru, different from Bolivia. In Peru they do not define themselves as indigenous. It could be that the narrative changes if an NGO comes telling them that they only have projects for them if they define themselves as being indigenous.

  • Where is the mining company from?

 The Canadian mining company has Peruvian capital in it. Yet the way that the people are organized nearly nothing of the revenue goes to the district level, quasi nothing to the community. The Cañaris are most illiterate. So is it a policy to keep the people ignorant?  It looks like a complot. Yet we could see things more differentiated: There was also a war between then Maoist group and the Peruvian military. They captured universities and this conflict had influence on educational infrastructure. But indeed the Cañaris are deprived of access to claim their rights.

Children of the Jaguar

After The Owners of the Land, the Amnesty Award winning documentary Children of the Jaguar was screened. It shows how people can act, resist, refuse and struggle successfully when they know their rights. Do not confuse it with an old film with the same title that Juan would call a traumatizing anthropological documentary! You get an impression of Children of the Jaguar here  and watch the documentary in full lenght. You are invited to read more on similar struggles and about the dangers of activism against land-grabbing by extractive industries!

A warm 'thank you'  to Juan Javier for coming and sharing thoughts about his research, of which The Owners of the Land results fromand to Amnesty International for making the documentary Children of the Jaguar available! 

The filmmakers

Juan Javier Rivera Andia is Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Alexander von Humboldt Foundation) at the Department of Anthropology of America of the University of Bonn and Lecturer in the Catholic University of Peru. He holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the Universidad Complutense of Madrid.  His research examines rituals and oral tradition among indigenous groups of the Andes of South America, particularly Quechua-speaking people of central and Northern Peruvian highlands. If you want to know more about the film or his research, you may contact  Juan Javier.

Peter Snowdon studied French and Philosophy at Oxford University, before moving to Paris where he worked in publishing and journalism, and as a consultant to UNESCO. He lived in Egypt from 1997 to 2000. On his return to Europe, he started making agit-prop documentary films in collaboration with activist groups and local communities.Over time, his work has evolved beyond the purely political to engage with the experimental and avant-garde traditions, and to address wider philosophical issues, while remaining firmly rooted in the documentary moment. Peter holds a Master in Transmedia from Sint Lukas Hogeschool, Brussels (2010). He is currently an LSM research fellow at the aptly-named MAD Faculty (PHL/UHasselt), where he is preparing a practice-based PhD on documentary film practice after the Arab Spring.