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The Achuar of the Amazon: Their Struggle to Preserve the Rainforest.


The Achuar are a dream-based culture--that is, every aspect of their daily lives is lived through the interpretation of their dreams, and there is no sense of time, destiny, or fate in their beliefs. Every part of their lives, their existence, and their being is interconnected, and every object must be understood and interpreted within the context of the living jungle.


ACTIVISTS come in many stripes--from earnest youth wearing their ideals as slogans on their T-shirts and protesting at the G20 meetings, to those who protest the social mores and beliefs of society, to those who violently attack iconic buildings or institutions, and even those who assassinate leaders trying to bring about or resist change. But who thought that the stripes of activism would be encountered in the faces of the Achuar Indians of the Ecuadorian rainforest? These barefoot, curare-tipped-dart-blowing, decorated warriors of the Amazon forest are now waging a war against deforestation and exploitation, and recently we had the privilege of witnessing their struggle. This is an account of our meeting with these remarkable people and a plea for help to those who value the precious diversity of our planet.

IN a speech to the United Nations, German Freire, president of the Achuar Nation of Ecuador (Nacionalidad Achuar de Ecuador, NAE), spoke of a project, deep in the jungles of the Amazon, named Kapawi. (1) It is an ecocultural lodge experience designed to showcase the culture and habitat of the Achuar in a sustainable way:
    We, the Achuar, were born in the forest. Our traditions are still
   our land untouched by logging or oil companies and our skies covered
   flocks of colourful Macaws. Kapawi is an important part of our plans
   preserve our culture and conserve the rainforest for our children and
   grandchildren. We want a sustainable future, and we invite you to be
   of it. 

Through the Kapawi project, the Achuar are trying to manage and operate this lodge in order to create livelihoods for their people, share their culture, and raise money to defend themselves against the incursion of multinationals seeking to exploit their land. To understand this activism and their approach, it is important to know something of the history and culture of the Achuar and the reason for their fight against Western influence.

Ever since the first fateful expedition by Europeans into the upper reaches of the Amazon, this vast rainforest has captured the imagination of travellers and prospectors--for its beauty, cruelty, wealth of medicines, and wealth of natural resources. In February 1541, Gonzalo Pizzaro embarked on a journey to cross the Andes in search of Canela, the fabled lands of cinnamon and gold. Accompanied by 220 soldiers, 4,000 porters, and 2,000 pigs for food, he set off from Quito in Ecuador, scaled the Cordillera Mountains, and entered the Ecuadorian portion of the Amazon. Nearly a year and a half later, a very small contingent of starved, diseased, and naked men emerged on the east coast of South America, having successfully navigated their way from the headwaters of the Amazon across a continent to the sea. The survivors told tales of tribes of warring men and women, tribes where women captured men solely for the purpose of procreation, poisonous darts, and man-eating fish--tales so fabulous that they were discounted. In fact the journal of their sojourn, written by Dominican friar Gasper de Carvajal, was disbelieved and not published for another 350 years. The vastness of the Amazon, which is the size of the landmass of the United States of America, presented an expanse too large to comprehend.


Despite the scorn heaped on Carvajal, we now know that he was an accurate observer. Anthropological and archaeological evidence suggests that at the time of the first contact with people from the Western world, the forests of the Amazon were not only teeming with life of all kinds but were home to hundreds of thousands--and possibly millions--of peoples in different tribes, living along the banks of the Amazon River and its tributaries. From those first days of contact, the number of people living in the rainforest has declined as a result of illness spread from Western explorers, settlers, and missionaries, from the introduction of so-called "civilization" spread by the invading cultures, and through the exploitation and appropriation of the land.


THE Achuar (sometimes spelled Atschar) were among the last of the Jivaroan groups of people to be affected by Western culture. The name Achuar means "people of the aguaje palm," and--unlike many of the tribes encountered by the fateful Pizzaro expedition and other explorers--the Achuar were and are essentially peace-loving. Currently, there are an estimated 4,500 people living in dispersed communities on either side of the border between Ecuador and Peru. The land these people occupy holds resources that are immensely valuable to Western society, including a panoply of medicines and poisons, wood, oil, and precious minerals. In 1964 oil was discovered in the Amazon, and multinational companies moved in to exploit these natural resources, removing forest, habitat, and homeland in their wake.

The tropical rainforest is remarkable in many ways, and one of its extraordinary features is the fine balance of its ecosystems. The slightest disturbance in this balance can lead to devastating and permanent loss of the forest. The constant high humidity, with temperatures hovering around 27[degrees]C, creates perfect conditions for rapid bacterial and fungal degradation of plant and animal matter as soon as it falls to the forest floor. The decomposition is so rapid, in fact, that the nutrients from the breakdown are recycled into new growth almost immediately. The consequence is that the root systems of plants in the forest are not very deep, and relatively little soil accumulates. It is a perfect cycle between decay and new life.

Removing the rainforest canopy has disastrous results: temperatures on the ground soar while humidity falls; the fungal matting across the forest floor shrivels and dries up; evapotranspiration is drastically reduced, and the remaining vegetation becomes unstable. Torrential rains quickly wash away the debris and soil, and the land becomes arid and barren. In the search for oil and minerals (the original Spanish explorers would be amazed to learn that there really is gold in the rainforest) the indigenous people are either persuaded to sell their homeland for very low prices or their land is expropriated.

Spurred on by the leadership of Freire, the NAE has developed a series of projects that support resistance to the encroachment by mining and logging companies. At the heart of these enterprises is the Kapawi project. Prominently featured by the Lonely Planet exotic places guidebook, (2) Kapawi was created as a partnership between the Ecuadorian tourism company Canodros and the Achuar. It was built and opened in 1996 and was conceived as a means to employ the Achuar and to provide revenue to combat the pressures of multinational corporations. However, the lodge has never been managed and marketed effectively. Neither the travel company nor the Achuar made a profit, and in 2008 Canodros transferred ownership of the lodge back to the Achuar. The future of this eco-jewel is now at risk.

THERE were eleven of us--ten students and a professor. We had travelled from Canada to Ecuador to engage in a field course on environmental issues that was to begin with a visit to Kapawi, but we had no concept that this sojourn would change our lives. Our journey to the rainforest was less harrowing than Pizarro's expedition, but it did entail two plane rides to get to Quito (the capital of Ecuador), a nine-hour bus ride from the Ecuadorian highlands to the perimeter of the Amazon, a single-engine plane flight over the transpiring jungle to the dirt runway of Wichirripas, a trip in a dugout canoe up one of the fast-flowing, silted tributaries of the Amazon, and finally a short walk from a wooden dock, nestled in a bend in the river, to Kapawi. Like a necklace of large seeds worn by the Achuar, the wooden accommodations of Kapawi, built on stilts, line the shores of an oxbow lake deep in the Amazon. Strung together by a cord of boardwalks, the main dining room and communal facilities of Kapawi hang like the central jewel of the necklace over the freshwater-stingray-populated waters of the lake. This was to be our base for the next five days. It was from here that we walked through the rainforest to meet the Achuar.

The walk to the Achuar settlements takes the best part of a day. Assisted by Achuar guides, we hiked up and down the undulating countryside, and meandered through the forest on trails that were really only visible to the Achnar. It was a magical tour of unique plants, nightmarish insects, thorns and prickles and, above all, rain. The torrential rain that falls in the rainforest is so dense that it fills wellington boots (worn to protect against snake bites) and backpacks from the top, and you are soaked to the skin within minutes. The creeks and gullies become muddy bogs, flowing streams, and rushing rivers that necessitate detours or the use of fallen logs to bridge the swirling current. No matter how strong your sense of balance, whether it is crossing on a log bridge or wading through the mud, at some point all the visitors find themselves spread-eagled, face down in the water, or worse, the mud.


The Achuar are a remarkable people. Their small communities lack hierarchy, intense specialization, or overt political leaders. They marry among themselves, and life centres on the domestic household. The Achuar have astonishing gifts--they can detect animal urine at forty paces in the forest and can distinguish between the odours of different species. Through observation (and presumably trial and error), they have learned to manipulate plants: short-acting plant poisons help them hunt and fish, and hallucinogenic preparations, such as ayahuasca, demonstrate a level of chemical ingenuity that Western science is only now beginning to appreciate.

The Achuar have honed the practice of living in the forest to a fine art. The centre of life is the longhouse or maloca--a marvel of architectural design and construction. These can be enormous; up to forty metres in length and perhaps twenty metres wide with vaulted ceilings, the symmetrical structures rest on eight vertical posts of bamboo spaced evenly in two rows. The posts support the crossbeams and the thatch woven over the grid of rafters. In some cases, the house posts are decorated and named after ancestors. The internal space is divided by gender: the front of the maloca is reserved for men and visitors, for official greeting, the place for the morning Guayusa (pronounced why-ussa) Tea Ceremony, and the place for social events such as smoking large quantities of tobacco or imbibing hallucinogenic drugs in the evenings. The opposing end of the maloca is the domain for the women and children, where the daily tasks of preparing food and creating and painting pots is carried out. Beneath the hardened mud floor, their ancestors lie buried in coffins made of broken canoes. The Achuar of today literally walk above the physical remains of their ancestors.


THE Achuar are a dream-based culture--that is, every aspect of their daily lives is lived through the interpretation of their dreams, and there is no sense of time, destiny, or fate in their beliefs. Every part of their lives, their existence, and their being is interconnected, and every object must be understood and interpreted within the context of the living jungle. The forest is the realm of men, while the garden is the place for women, where they give birth both to their children and the variety of plants and crops that they cultivate. The process of harvesting and preparing the food is a gesture of procreation, but nothing can be eaten unless it has passed through the hands of an elder and been blessed and spiritually cleansed by the shaman. Food is power. It represents the transfer of life from one individual to another and is an allegory of the transfer of energy in the life cycle of the jungle around them. Chicha, the fermented product of manioc root chewed up and spit into a bowl by the women and gifts of the family, is a staple that is symbolic in Achuar life. The Achuar are polygamous, and each wife has a special recipe for fermenting manioc root, although generally the length of time it is left to ferment determines its alcoholic content. The starchy, milky fluid is seen as female blood that sustains the family and is often consumed warm like mother's milk.

Although the members of each household have a series of regular tasks that have to be performed to support the community, each morning the head of the household interprets dreams from the previous night and determines whether or not these tasks are permitted by the spirits. Depending on your dreams, you may or may not be able to hunt or fish, collect staples from the forest, or prepare eating bowls or food. When men go to the forest to fish or hunt, the shaman must first travel in a trance to negotiate with the masters of the animals for a safe passage. There is a sacred contract forged with the spirit guardians of the world, and there must be a reciprocal exchange. Meat is not the right of a hunter but a gift from the spirit world, and to kill without permission would be to risk death by a spirit guardian--usually in the form of a jaguar, a tapir, an anaconda, or an eagle.

The most remarkable manifestation of the link between the spirit world and the world of the living Achuar is the Guayusa Tea Ceremony--a cleansing ceremony performed each morning. Guayusa tea is a highly caffeinated drink traditionally consumed by hunters before dawn to improve alertness, but it is also used to prepare the body for the day. The principle of the ceremony is simple--the warm, slightly astringent tea is consumed in large quantities, in fact in sufficiently large quantities to distend the stomach and induce a vomiting reflex. In due course, each person quietly slips outside the maloca to stand in the grey light of the impending dawn and vomit. There can be no greater bonding experience for students and their teacher than vomiting in unison on the virgin floor of the Amazon rainforest. And the reward for successful cleansing is more chicha--that slightly sticky, white, stringy, masticated manioc root liquefied with saliva. Once each member is cleansed, the head of the household sets about determining the meaning of dreams and allocating tasks for the day.

These customs and beliefs seem strange and peculiar to the Western mind. But, in the midst of this ancient place, surrounded by the sounds of the awakening forest, as the host interprets dreams and speaks so powerfully in defiance of multinational exploitation, the ceremony seems particularly poignant and meaningful. The lives and customs of the Achuar are unique and precious. They are an integral part of the cosmos of this living land, and being present at the ceremony brings a sense of deeper understanding of their way of life and the need to preserve their culture: it emphasizes the magnitude of the threat looming from outside. To the Achuar, any intervention without regard for the need to negotiate reciprocity with the spirit guardians seems shallow and hollow. It was as if our journey itself had been a dream: a dream that was being interpreted for us in the context of the struggles of the Achuar.


There are a number of eco and wildlife lodges in Ecuador, and Kapawi is competing in an increasingly aggressive market. The concepts behind these projects are fraught with ethical and philosophical challenges, but what right have Western eyes to make judgments on whether or not these shifts are to be tolerated or accepted? Perhaps our role is to listen to the dreams of a nation under threat and a people that want to retain at least some of the elements of their customs and lifestyles and must make the difficult choice between the subversive effects of community-based indigenous tourism and wholesale exploitation and expropriation of their homelands and their way of life.

In this dreamlike swirl where cultural values collide, there is one critical element to consider. If the Achuar have decided to attempt to preserve their culture and their land through the business operations of Kapawi, it must be financially successful. In close to twelve years since its inception, apart from providing some employment and training for members of the community, the project has not resulted in any substantial profit that could be used in the defence of the Achuar against multinational intervention. The immediate viability of the lodge requires a consistent and reliable source of fee-paying guests. But the longer-term success requires what Freire asked for when he made his passionate plea to the United Nations: to preserve the dream of the Achuar, they need supportive and sensitive partners. "We want a sustainable future, and we invite you to be part of it." To support this mild form of activism, Kapawi needs business partners who can help develop sustainable business practices and models through working with the Achuar and sharing their dreams. The Western world must appreciate that the land is not a commodity and understand the Achuar view that the land is a living organism.

In a remarkably prescient introduction to his Sand County Almanac in 1949, Aldo Leopold wrote, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we begin to use it with love and respect." (3) This is a lesson that we need to learn again from the Achuar, and we need to respect and honour the precious resources of land and community everywhere. And there are signs of hope. Recently, the government of Ecuador suspended mining in the country until sustainable mining practices are adopted, and sanctioned the sale of one of its largest mining operations to a Canadian company--Kinross Gold--that has a reputation for effective sustainable mining. Perhaps the activism of the Achuar, through their peaceful insistence that they have a right to live in close communion with their land, is finally having an impact.

BUT the Achuar still need help. They need visitors to fill Kapawi Lodge; they need voices to speak out in support of sustainable, culturally sensitive use of the land, and they need business partners (from industry to academic institutions) to support their aspirations empathetically.



(1) See

(2) R. Field, "Ecuador--Kapawi: Meet the Achuar and Feel the Amazon," in Code Green: Experiences of a lifetime, edited by K. Lorimer (Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 2006), pp. 196-197.

(3) Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. viii.

For the members of the class that spent time with the Achuar and the memories we share. We are grateful to the Achuar and to Amber and Oswaldo Freire, who generously spent time educating us, and to Kate Revington for her close reading of the manuscript.

GAVIN ARMSTRONG is an undergraduate commerce student at the University of Guelph who is interested in sustainability. He served as the Communications and Corporate Affairs Commissioner of the student union on campus, and is currently the convener of the Sixth Annual Summit on Universities Fighting World Hunger (

NATHAN LACHOWSKY is a doctoral student in Population Medicine at the University of Guelph. A past student leader, Nathan is currently working on HIV/AIDS and sexuality in aboriginal communities in Canada and New Zealand. In 2011, he will be a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in New Zealand for a year.

ALASTAIR SUMMERLEE is the seventh president and vice-chancellor of the University of Guelph. An internationally renowned researcher for his work in endocrinology and an award-winning teacher, he has served for six years on the Board of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC).
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Author:Armstrong, Gavin; Lachowsky, Nathan; Summerlee, Alastair
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:3ECUD
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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