Pristine jungle and indigenous culture have long been huge draws for me. So last fall, when my brother Nicholas -- a professional opera singer and avid world traveler -- and I decided to go to Ecuador, an Amazon adventure was at the top of our list. We chose the pristine and little-visited southeastern part of the country, territory of the Achuar indigenous people whom we hoped to visit.
Nicholas emailed Pachamama Alliance, an organization whose mission is to empower indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest to preserve their lands and culture, to inquire about visiting the area independently. Pachamama Alliance responded that we'd need permission from the Achuar to visit, and put us in touch with Jaime Vargas, President of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador, to seek permission.
From Jaime and the Internet, we learned that Ecuador is planning to auction off millions of acres of the Amazon where the Achuar and other indigenous people live, for massive oil drilling. Jaime explained that the Achuar need help from the outside world to defeat the petroleros. He invited us to visit the Achuar to learn about their struggle and help spread the word.
We took a bus from Quito to Shell, Ecuador, then flew on a tiny prop plane to a remote village deep in the Amazon, where we met Jaime. The next day, we travelled up the Rio Pastaza in a dugout canoe to the village where he grew up. We spent the next 10 days living with the Achuar. In every village we visited, the Achuar were united in their opposition to the oil drilling and angry at the government for not consulting them.
A Promise Betrayed
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa campaigned on indigenous peoples' rights and rainforest protection; his proposed "debt for nature" swap and his speech to the U.N. Climate Summit inspired the world. So we weren't surprised to learn that the Achuar initially supported Correa. But now that his government is proposing to auction off their land to oil companies, they feel betrayed.
The government claims the Achuar are "poor" and that oil drilling will improve their way of life. But the Achuar believe just the opposite. They gave rousing speeches about how the jungle provides ample food, clean water, medicine, housing materials -- everything they need for "buen vivir" (a phrase we heard repeatedly that means, roughly, to live the good life). They talked earnestly about how drilling would poison their streams and destroy their rainforest home, while providing them virtually no economic benefit.
One day, I filmed Jaime describing the Achuar's struggle and how you can help. A huge storm rolled in, prompting Jaime to point to the sky and say, "This is nature -- you can feel the wind and the rain, and this comforts us. This is the power of the jungle."
The Threat From Big Oil and the Government
The Achuar, other indigenous groups, and their allies have organized protests in Quito, Paris, Houston, Washington, D.C., and Calgary. Indigenous people say the Ecuadorian government is violating international law and the Ecuadorian constitution by not obtaining their free, prior-informed consultation before auctioning off the land where they live. They point to the 2012 ruling of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in favor of the Sarayaku people penalizing the Ecuadorian government for failing to obtain proper consultation from indigenous community leaders before allowing oil drilling.
Their resistance has achieved some success: Thus far only 2 of 16 tracts proposed for oil drilling have been auctioned off, while the other tracts failed to receive bids. The government has also signed contracts with partners to develop a fourth block.
Now the Ecuadorian government is attempting to take down indigenous leaders for defending their territory from oil development plans. The Secretary of Hydrocarbons has filed a formal complaint against eight indigenous leaders who have dedicated their lives to defending the Amazon. One of them is Jaime Vargas.
Indigenous leaders -- including Vargas -- are being threatened with imprisonment for organizing indigenous communities to oppose Ecuador's plans to auction off nearly 10 million acres of the Amazon rainforest for oil drilling. Last December, Pachamama Alliance's sister organization in Quito, Fundación Pachamama, was dissolved by the Correa government for working with the Achuar and other indigenous groups to oppose the drilling.
Into the Jungle
In early December 2013, we took a bus from Quito, traveling through Baños and its steep surrounding mountains and waterfalls, followed by a spectacular descent to the town of Puyo on the edge of the rainforest. Jaime's brother met us at our hotel and explained that Jaime was already in the jungle organizing a formal gathering of Achuar leaders to adopt a resolution opposing the oil drilling. The next morning, we headed for the airport in the nearby town of Shell, named after the oil company, to catch a flight into Achuar territory.
We took a spectacular low-elevation flight in a small prop plane over pristine rainforest, up the Rio Pastaza, and landed on a dirt airstrip at an Achuar village deep in the Amazon. Jaime and other Achuar leaders were gathered in a big meeting area to discuss the threat posed by the petroleros. A video was projected on a big screen of President Correa and various government officials belittling the Achuar and their leader for opposing oil drilling. Jaime and other leaders gave rousing speeches in response.
On To Guarani
The next day, we traveled with Jaime and his wife in a dugout canoe with an outboard motor five hours up the Rio Pastaza, then hiked through the jungle to Guarani, the village where Jaime grew up. We entered a thatched-roof hut with a small fire in the middle and a number of hunting dogs sitting around, and ate a meal prepared by Jaime's grandmother. Typical of the meals we ate during our stay with the Achuar, it consisted of chicken soaked in broth with manioc, plantains, and yucca.
The Achuar obtain most of their food by hunting and gathering. We ate fish caught from the Rio Pastaza, wild pig hunted from the forest, chicken and eggs, always served with heaping quantities of manioc, plantain and yucca, tasty salsa gathered from the beautiful gardens tended by the Achuar women, and an abundance of fruit from the surrounding trees.
Always, we drank lots of chicha, a fermented, lightly alcoholic beverage usually made from manioc, but also from corn, pineapple, and other ingredients. The women prepare the chicha by chewing the manioc and spitting it into a bucket where it ferments. Each preparer serves her chicha with pride out of a beautiful, intricately painted clay bowl, often tipping the bowl three or four times for each drinker. In village gatherings, chicha is served continuously.
Finding the Village Leader
After dinner, Jaime explained that although he is president of the Achuar, we would need to meet with the village leader -- his father, as it turned out -- to explain the reason for our visit and to obtain permission to stay. So the next day we went in search of Jaime's father, but on arriving at his home, we learned that he was in the jungle building a new dugout canoe. Jaime showed us how to use a blowgun, which the Achuar use with curare-tipped darts to kill birds. Then after a lunch of wild pig and manioc, we set off in search of Jaime's father.
After hiking through the jungle for a couple hours, we found him carving a new canoe from a huge tree that had fallen next to the Rio Pastaza. Jaime introduced us, and we agreed to meet formally later that evening, back at the village. Then we went down to the river to go fishing.
Jaime pulled some long strips of bark he'd brought with him from a bag woven from jungle vines, and he and his brother then began pounding rocks against the bark. After pulverizing it a bit, Jaime put the bark back into the bag and waded out into the river, where he soaked the bag of pulverized bark in the water, swooshing it back and forth.
The bark turned the water a milky color, and a few minutes later we began collecting fish that apparently had been anesthetized by a toxin in the bark. (See video.) We gathered dozens of fish, and Jaime's wife cooked them by covering the fish with leaves from a plant she collected along the river and steaming them. We ate the delicious fish -- along with the ever-present steamed plantains -- with our fingers, picking the tiny bones from our teeth as we ate.
A Wayusa Ceremony
That evening back at the village we ate dinner with Jaime, his father, and his grandfather. Jaime's father explained that the Achuar make important decisions after drinking wayusa, which he encouraged us to drink with village leaders the next day to discuss our visit. For a wayusa ceremony, the Achuar wake up at 4 a.m., gather together, and drink a tea made from wayusa leaves, which are strong in caffeine, and then vomit extensively to purge themselves and free the mind.
We explained our desire to learn about the Achuar way of life and their struggle against the oil companies. I showed the Achuar leaders photos of mountaintop removal coal mining and described my work with residents of the Appalachian Mountains where mountaintop removal is devastating the landscape. Jaime's father told us that we were very welcome to stay in the village, and that the Achuar wanted us to inform others in our country about their struggle. He asked for one favor only: that we buy a new $240 battery for the village solar panel so they could use their radio without having to walk to the next village. Naturally, we agreed.
Honored by the Achuar
One day we went hiking with Jaime in the jungle, where we visited the sacred waterfall where the Achuar take ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew of various plant infusions. Along the way, we learned to eat live ants from a leaf, and grubs, an Achuar delicacy.
Another day, Nicolas sang "Go Down Moses" for the Achuar, and we were then treated to the beautiful, traditional songs called anent -- charms with the power to heal and ensure that things work out favorably.
Throughout our stay, the Achuar were wonderful hosts and always friendly. Although the children were very afraid of us at first, and we were often unsure how the Achuar felt about us invading their village, over the course of the ten days we were there, the Achuar became increasingly accustomed to our presence and we began to feel part of the village. Nicolas and I were given traditional headbands made in the village, and his girlfriend received beautiful feather earrings. We were especially honored to receive Achuar names. Mine is Narancas.
For more information about the struggle of the Achuar and other Amazonian indigenous people to protect their land, visit the websites of Pachamama Alliance, Amazon Watch, and Rainforest Action Network.