Achuar People: Guardians of the Amazon

Kapawi Eco-Lodge is part of a project belonging to the indigenous Achuar (ah-shwar) people who have lived in the Ecuadorian Amazon for hundreds of years. Their ancestral lands – nearly 2 million acres – straddle the modern borders of Ecuador and Peru, a remote area that has allowed them to preserve their way of life with little outside influence or colonization. Due to their location, the Achuar had limited contact with Westerners until the 1960’s, and so have preserved their culture, ancestral traditions and beliefs. Sumpa, an Achuar shaman has asked me to tell you about the Achuar people who live in the Amazon.

As the Achuar are the hosts of Kapawi EcoLodge, we were invited to stay at a local Achuar community for the night. Tents, torches and toothpaste packed, we got into the canoe and motored a few kilometers downstream to the community, built on a cliff above the river (great defensible views both ways). We went with our guides, Omar translating English to Spanish for Ilario who then translated Spanish into Achuar. I was introduced to the Shaman Sumpa as his grand-daughter served us chicha in cups made from gourds.

P1080173Chicha is a fermented drink made from maize which is chewed by the chicha maker, and then spat into pots so the saliva can continue to break down the starch in the maize into maltose. It is a pale yellow colour with a milky appearance and tastes, yes, like a sour fermented milk (to me). It is an acquired taste for sure. Luckily the big cups are used for Achuar guests, and we got small ones, but a few sips was enough for me.

After we introduced ourselves, Sumpa asked that we tell people about the Achuar people, so that the rest of the world knows they live in the Amazon, and that this is their home, so no oil companies try to drill in these lands. I mentioned I had a blog and asked if I could take some photos as well, and he agreed, but to only photograph just before we left the next day. Normally you are not allowed to take photos in an Achuar community so I felt very trusted (and hope these are OK).

Sumpa explained that the Achuar are the guardians of the rainforest. They have always lived in the Amazon. The rainforest is their school, their church, hardware store and supermarket. They do not want drilling or oil companies on their lands. This is their home, their ancestral lands and their backyard.

In the rainforest grow enormous kapok trees which are sacred to the Achuar. Boys will become men at their base after sharing ceremonial hallucinogenic drinks, and if you have questions, the tree will help find the answer, as Achuar believe that wise men are reincarnated and live in the tree. Other people may come back as jaguar, butterflies, otter, pink river dolphin or eagles among others. Therefore the rainforest to them is a multidimensional and complex thing, every living thing is linked to its own spirit.

Arutam, the God of the Forest gives the Achuar people power to overcome difficulties in life, the skills to become a good hunter and fisher – the abilities an Achuar man needs to provide for his community and family. A successful hunter must live harmoniously with the guardian spirits of the game he hunts by taking the animals respectfully and only with need. An Achuar man can have more than one wife, so being a good provider is important.

Night came very quickly after we had eaten, and we lay on our backs under an enormous starry sky – the milky way glowing as a dim band across part of the sky, and satellites and shooting stars keeping us entertained. As the Achuar follow the rhythms of the sun, it was completely quiet by 8:30pm. I climbed into my tent and tried to get comfortable on the hard ground as I had a 4am wake up call.

To be cont…

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