The Pastaza and Kawapi Rivers in Ecuador come together near the border of Peru. At their confluence fresh water pink dolphins rise to the surface and nod their heads as if to say hello. Nearby toucans and parrots land on an open bank of the Pastaza to eat clay that neutralizes the poison in the berries they have just eaten. These animals are a part of the ecosystem that is as pure and unadulterated as any in the world. The president of Ecuador is about to open up land to big machines that tear through the jungle looking for oil. This land is inhabited by the Achuar, the indigenous people of this area of the Amazon rainforest.
No one knows how long the Achuar people have lived deep within the Amazon rainforest on the border between Ecuador and Peru. They live there in harmony and in reverence of the rivers, trees, and animals that inhabit their spectacular surroundings. The rainforest is where the Achuar find their food, medicines, and raw materials to construct anything they need. It is their sacred place of worship.
The Achuar live without electricity. They have no automobiles or roads. They still hunt with blowguns and curare darts. The Achuar believe the dreams they have while consuming hallucinogenic plants all come true. They are self sufficient, needing nothing from the outside world. So why are they so frightened?
I recently spent eight days with the Achuar photographing and interviewing five families, including a shaman. I was fortunate to find a guide who spoke English and Achuar. All four villages I visited sat high on elevated banks above rivers. The scenery was breath taking.
My guide and I took a canoe up or down the Kawapi River to reach the four villages. Once near a village we would walk up the bank to where the Achuar huts were located. After arriving at the top of the bank my guide would go ahead. I remained back while he obtained permission for me to enter the family’s home. Their huts are tall impressive structures approximately twenty-five feet high. The huts have roofs made from palm fronds. The floors are dirt. For the most part the homes are open on three sides so friends can come and go. There are benches around the circumference of the hut for visitors to sit. Some of the huts have a small enclosed area at one end for sleeping. The cooking is done on an open fire. Chickens and dogs walk freely through the homes.
Once I was given permission to enter the home the guide would motion me to enter. I said, “Weinyaha,” as I entered, the Achuar word for hello.
The father of the family on all occasions sat on a special stool that has been carved to look like a turtle.
The wife hurriedly dispensed chicha, a slightly fermented white liquid, to her husband and visitors. Chicha is made from the root of the native manioc plant. The root is chewed by the wife and then spit in a bowl. It is then mixed with water and allowed to ferment for varying lengths of time. Saliva provides the needed bacteria for fermentation. The taste is sweet and varied from maker to maker. At first I hesitated to drink it. However, I knew I must drink it to help form a bond with the family acting as my host. It is an affront to Achuar to refuse to accept and drink the chicha. I did not want to offend my hosts. Plus on several occasions the jungle had left me dehydrated and out of water. I learned to like the taste of chicha.
Before I asked any questions my guide and the father of the family exchanged what seemed to be a set dialogue in which both talked at the same time. After a couple of minutes I was told by my guide to introduce myself and explain why I was there. I spoke in English. My guide would interpret what I had said into the Achuar language. I thanked the man of the house for the honor of entering his home and for allowing me to speak with him and take pictures of him and his family. The father would welcome me and thank me for visiting his family. The Achuar were beyond gracious.
After introductions I was given permission to ask questions. The questions were all answered by the father. My first question was, “What is your daily life like? What do you and your family do every day?” This would usually bring the first smile on my host’s face and then he would answer.
The Achuar have a set routine. They wake up at three in the morning and drink wayus. Wayus is like our coffee in the morning yet much different. Wayus is a bitter drink that causes them to vomit. Vomiting to the Achuar is not a bad thing. They believe the vomiting cleans them out to start the day fresh. The next few hours are spent telling stories with the entire family present. These stories provide guidance to the children and spread the history of their people. In the United States we would call it spending quality family time. They are never too busy. There is never an excuse to skip this time with their family.
After the sun comes up there is fishing, hunting, and gardening. The women do the gardening which includes harvesting the roots of the manioc plant to make chicha later in the day.
The men do the hunting and fishing. Fishing may be with a line and hook or a special basket. The basket is filled with a crushed vine. When the basket is shaken underwater, extracts from the vines diffuse into the water and the fish absorb it through their gills. The extracts weaken the fish causing them to float to the top and then they are picked up off the surface of the water. Hunting involves walking for hours with an eight foot long blow gun on their shoulders. Their darts are made from palm fronds. Their favorite game to hunt is peccaries. Peccaries are large hogs that inhabit the jungle. The peccary puts out one of the strongest odors of any animal on earth. The Achuar follow the peccary by tracks and smell. The darts they use are on thinner than a pencil lead. They penetrate only and inch or two. It is the curare at the tip of the dart that brings the sixty to eighty pound animal down.
As the discussions went on in front of the families smiles were even more forthcoming. The wife never lets any bowl go dry. The chicha keeps on coming.
One of my visits was to a shaman at his complex of huts where his entire family lives. It was on a very high bluff overlooking the Pastaza River. The conversation started similar to the others except this time I had much more to talk about. I am a physician and was interested in the medicines he used to treat his patients. Some of the drugs found on pharmacy selves in the United States have come from plant sources. Even curare that is placed at the end of the Achuar’s darts to paralyze animals was used in the United States for many years as a muscle relaxant during surgery. As an anesthesiologist I have used curare in operating rooms.
I asked the shaman how he treats illness. The shaman’s facial expression became very serious as he told me how he cures ailments from earaches to anxiety. He explained that all maladies of the body are produced by evil spirits that can come into a person without your knowledge. His primary means of effecting a cure is a mixture known to the Achuar as ayahuasca. Ayahausca contains a very potent hallucinogen. He went on to explain ayahuasca causes the taker to have “dreams” that purge the body of the evil spirits. The visual and auditory hallucinations last about four hours.
He uses a mixture of two vines he grinds to powder and then turns into a liquid. The two plants used are natem and yayi. They are ground with a mortar and pestle and then placed in a pot to be heated over an open fire for approximately three hours until it is a brownish liquid. The final potion is ayahuasca. This powerful hallucinogenic mixture has been studied by doctors at UCLA.
This mixture of drugs acts much like LSD. The active chemical in ayahuasca is DMT. DMT has been known to western medicine since the 1960s. When used alone DMT must be given by injection to be active. The shaman’s mixture is a bit more complex than simple DMT as it actually contains other chemicals that inhibit the DMT’s metabolism. This makes the DMT active when taken orally. It is amazing that this mixture was discovered by people with no knowledge of pharmacology. In this case western medicine is learning from the Achuar. Research at UCLA indicates ayahausca stimulates the production of serotonin receptors in the brain which may be very beneficial for treating depression. The knowledge imparted to us by the Achuar may led to a major new pharmaceutical for mental illness.
A few thrill seekers from the United States have found the experience of drinking ayahuasca a frightening experience. Many find it life changing. Most find it at a minimum a wonderful experience that should not be missed. I met backpackers that had taken ayahuasca and told me I must try it.
The shaman asked if I wanted to come back later that evening and take ayahuasca with him. I told him the next time I come to see him I will. And I will.
Before I left the shaman took me a place on the edge of the jungle to show me the plants he used in his preparation of ayahuasca.
The shaman was the oldest Achuar I saw. I would estimate he was seventy-five years old. He expounded on how wonderful his life had been and his only wish was to leave this world a good place for those that come after him. This was a common theme of all those which I spoke.
I found the families I visited to be uniformly happy as judged by the way they described their lives and by their expressions when they described their lives, family, and community.
I asked them if there were material things they needed. The universal answer was, “No, we have everything we want.” I asked what they would like for the their children’s future. The answer was always, “What we have now.” The Achuar would smile and look quizzical as to say why would anyone ask those questions. It was as if the emotion of envy was nonexistent to them.
My next to last question was always, “Do you have any fears?” With this question the expressions turned serious. Again there was a universal answer, “Oil companies.” They have been told there is oil under the jungle where they live. They have also been told the outside world wants it. Why are they so afraid? Because the Anchaur know what has happened in other parts of Ecuador and Peru where drilling has occurred. The petroleum industry has been in northern Ecuador and Peru for many years. Texaco dumped millions of gallons of crude oil directly on the surface of the land occupied by other indigenous tribes. In addition, they intentionally dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and streams. No one denies the dumping occurred. Chevron, which merged with Texaco in 2001, has never done meaningful cleanup.
Litigation has been going on for years to determine if Chevron should clean up the mess. The clean up involves soaking up the oil from the surface of the land. There will be no getting it all back. Some of the damage will have no remedy such as the cases of cancer, still births, and birth defects that are well documented in the area of the spills. Children in oil spill areas have been studied. They have elevated blood levels of lead.
The Achuar are not a part of this law suit and do not care who wins. The Achuar just ask that the same thing does not happen to their land. They love their children and want to protect them.
Is their fear justified? Yes. If the past portends the future at some point they will be driven off their land by oil pollution or the Ecuadorean government. In the past if indigenous people of the Amazon resist the dictates of South American politicians they are killed. In mass if necessary. It is terrible what insatiable wants of a handful of nations can do to the people that least deserve the anguish.
The president of Ecuador, Raul Correa, has attempted to stifle dissent and quiet those in Ecuador that speak for the Achuar. He has ordered the breakup of a group named “Funderacion Paccamama.” This group was the voice of the Achuar in the capitol city of Quito.
After a week I had to leave. I took off in a small plane from a dirt air strip. As I looked down on uninterrupted jungle I was thinking about what it is to be happy and how little is really needed to find deep satisfaction in life. The Achuar find felicity possessing a net worth of almost nothing.
Is it when you know of no one better off to compare yourself with that you can find contentment? Or is it something hardwired in the limbic system of our brain? If that is the case the Achuar truly won the genetic lottery.
All you have to do is turn on the television and watch “The Housewives of Beverly Hills” to know possessions and consumption does not buy happiness but seems to buy discontent and the want for more. Why can’t we get the message? Stuff does not bring happiness.
Will fundamental fairness ever raise its deeply buried head, spit the dirt out of its mouth, and say, “It is not right to take the land of people that have lived there since the beginning, have harmed no one, and ask for nothing?”
The last question I always asked my Achuar hosts was, “Do you have any questions for me?” Again the answer was the same from all families, “Will you help us tell the world what a wonderful place we live in and will you please help us stop the oil companies.?” I said I would.
Stephen Wallace has degrees in pharmacy, medicine, and law. He is an award-winning photographer. He currently practices law in San Diego, California, at Mulligan, Banham, and Findley.