The Pursuit to Save Their Land: The Achuarâ€™s battle against Oil Development By Kira Poncelet Every morning at sunrise, an Achuar Shaman interprets the dreams of the inhabitants of his village. In the Achuar culture, dreams are thought to be the guiding principles of life. Shamanism and the practice of interacting with the spirit world are central to Achuar life, and they are often included healing practices, gratitude, and prayer. The Achuar tribe is one of many indigenous, self-sufficient tribes of the Amazon Basin. This tribe nearing 6,000 people occupies nearly two million acres along the Ecuadorian and Peruvian border, mainly in the two Ecuadorian provinces of Pastaza and Morona (Pachamama). Each Achuar community consists of about 10 to 15 households, or huts, and each community has its own Shaman. Because they are a very spiritual tribe, they have a close connection and appreciation for nature. They live sustainably and harmoniously with the environment they live in, taking only what they need and blessing and thanking the spirits of the animals and plants that they kill. They call this outlook on life â€œancient wisdom,â€? which is not at all connected to formal education. They live off of hunting mammals such as boar and monkeys, fishing, and gathering. They also cultivate garden plots adjacent to their houses where they grow various types of roots and other foods such as manioc, a potato like food, coconuts, and bananas. Because the water from the Amazon is not sanitary, their principal beverage is Chicha, which the women of the villages produce by chewing manioc, spitting it out, and letting it ferment over night. Because Chicha takes so long to make, the Achuar consider it a sacred drink, and they drink it with great respect and appreciation. Also,
because they are an ancient tribe, the Achuar can find remedies for illness and wounds by using particular herbs and roots from the jungle. They can weave baskets and make their own blowguns out of wood and poison from plants. When they are young, Achuar men learn how to build their own huts and thatched roofs out of wood and woven leaves. They are completely self sufficient and proud of their lifestyle and culture. Remarkably, the Achuar had been able to continue their ancient way of life undisturbed until oil companies began threatening them and their land in the early 1970s. Although they have remained untouched thus far, the Achuar have recently received their greatest threat of exploitation and are currently facing a crisis of survival. While to some the Achuarsâ€™ lifestyle seems primitive and out of step with the twenty-first century, the Achuar themselves consider their lifestyle as simple, sustainable, and ideal in saving our Earth from collapsing under human activity. What, then, can we do to help preserve the Achuar culture and land? The fact rests that the Achuar need money in order to fight the oil companies, and currently a substantial amount of the Achuarsâ€™ income is obtained from tourism to the various communities. This past summer, I acquired first hand experience with the ups and downs of eco-tourism to the jungle. Last July, my family and I spent about a week with the Achuar when I traveled to Ecuador through a non-profit organization called the Pachamama Alliance .The Pachamama Alliance is a partnership between the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and empowered individuals all over the world inspired to help the indigenous tribes
preserve their culture and land. My grandparents, also contributors and supporters of the Pachamama Alliance, decided fly our entire family of eighteen to Ecuador to teach us about the Achuar culture and wisdom. To get to the Achuar villages, we flew out of the Ecuadorian city of Shell on the Achuar Airline Service Aerotsentak, owned by the NAE (Achuar Nation of Ecuador). Because there were so many of us, we were split up among three tiny jets. The kids were out of their mind with excitement to fly in the tiny planes, while some of the parents remained a little hesitant when they saw that some of the jetâ€™s wings had been repaired with duct tape. After a 45-minute long plane ride over the beautifully lush rainforest, we arrived on a landing strip running straight though one of the many Achuar communities in the Ecuadorian rainforest. We saw women eyeing us with round, curious eyes and babies wrapped in shawls over their shoulders. As the jet made itâ€™s way down the landing strip, naked children were running away, covering their eyes to prevent the dust from flying in, and giggling as if this was one of their favorite games. Large, open huts bordered the landing strip on either side, and a newly built school and church, which were imposed by missionaries, were at the end of the landing strip. We did not stay in the Achuar communities, however, because they donâ€™t have the space or the resources to house us there. Instead, we stayed in the Kapawi Lodge, a tourist eco-lodge recently built for the sole purpose of housing tourists. 65% of the workers there are from the Achuar tribe, and many are working there to provide for their families back in the villages. The Pachamama Organization helped build the tourist lodge in order to increase eco-tourism. As it turns out, the Achuar are waisthigh in legal battles against oil companies that are threatening to exploit their land.
In order to save their land and culture from oil development, they have turned to ecotourism to help pay for various expenses: legal services, travel expenses to the capital Quito, an office in a city called Puyo, and computers and other office supplies. One of the many wonderful things the Pachamama does to help increase eco-tourism and to spread awareness is helping to organize trips to Kapawi Lodge so people all over the world can visit the Achuar and other Ecuadorian tribes. The tourist lodge produces a significant source of income for the Achuar, and the money earned at the lodge goes to the NAE to help finance their political struggle (BBC news Eco-tourism). Granted, ecotourism exacts a toll on the environment it intends to preserve. Not only does the means of transportation pollute the clean rainforest air, but people make a lasting impression on the environment with garbage left behind, the resources and energy used to produce the food and water they consume, even sound pollution can have a large effect on wildlife (Pachamama Achuar). However, the benefits from ecotourism have made quite an impact as well. The funds of this ecotourism go to the Achuarâ€™s ecological and cultural conservation movement while tourists also reap the benefits of being educated on the Achuarâ€™s culture and wisdom. This money primarily helps the Achuar afford the resources they need to lobby the government and defend their territory. One of the things they have been able to build with this money is an office in Puyo. This office has turned into the headquarters of the Achuar Nation federation and is where many of the leaders of the different villages come together to discuss issues and organize plans of action. They have also been able to purchase computers that have been essential for communication as well as sharing information with the outside world. Additionally, the money is used for transportation to Quito,
which has allowed them to represent themselves at trials, as well as helping them pay for the various legal services with the oil companies they’ve been involved in. In addition to eco-tourism, in order to preserve their land and culture, I learned that the Achuar have had to make drastic changes to their way of life. They have changed what they hunt, they now have to deal with hard currency, and now many men and some women have had to find paying jobs including work at the tourist lodge where they have to spend months away from their families. Between the legal battle against the oil companies and the sacrifices they have made within their own culture, the Achuar are caught in a dilemma that will determine their future as well as the futures of many of the other Amazonian indigenous tribes also threatened by oil exploitation. To be sure, there is argument that the Achuar and the other indigenous tribes’ “primitive” ways of life are not worth fighting for and that they should instead adapt to a more westernized way of life. However, the force supporting the Achuar’s initiative, particularly the Pachamama Organization, is far greater than those actively opposing it. In fact, the Pachamama Alliance has proven to be quite a remarkable partnership ever since it was created. In the 1990s when oil companies began trying to expand into Achuar territory, the indigenous tribe reached out to the modern world seeking allies to help fight off oil exploitation. However, the Achuar's request was not a call for help. Rather, they wanted a partnership equally beneficial to both sides. They want to give back to the modern world by offering their wisdom about sustainability and living harmoniously with the natural world. In 1995, a group of Americans heard about the Achuar’s
dilemma and went to learn about their culture and their mission. When they returned home, John Perkins and Bill and Lynne Twist co-founded the Pachamama Alliance to carry out the partnership (Pachamama Origin Story). There are two branches of the Pachamama non-profit organization: one in San Fransisco and one in Ecuador. The Pachamama Alliance has adopted these values of sustainability and has hosted Awakening the Dreamer symposiums in 60 different countries. These workshops not only educate people on the importance of the indigenous tribesâ€™ wisdom on sustainability, but they also provide ways we can address our social and environmental crises. In return for their wisdom, the Pachamama Organization has helped provide the necessary materials to help the tribes preserve their land and culture from oil development (Pachamama About Us). The struggle between the Amazonian indigenous tribes and oil companies is not a new phenomenon; indigenous peoples have been engulfed in a vicious legal pursuit against oil companies for the past four decades. In 1967, men working for American Oil Company Texaco discovered crude oil two miles beneath the jungle floor of the northern Oriente region in the Amazon rainforest. Initially, drilling was only possible with the help of helicopters flying in equipment over the thick, vast jungle. Over time, however, bulldozers and machetes were used to create paved roads that would allow workers to truck materials from the brand new airport they built nearby (New Yorker). Although there was no oil exploitation or logging in Achuar territory in spite of all the threats, many other tribes were not so lucky. The plaintiffs from the 1993 trial say that for the 23 years that Texaco was in full operation, it dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater, which often ended up in waterways used for
drinking, bathing, and fishing, and spilled 17 million gallons of crude oil in the rainforest, poisoning the soil (BBC news). When Texaco left in 1992, the state oil company Petroecuador took over operations. Texaco, however, left behind hundreds of bits filled with toxic oil along with other environmental devastations. While the environment suffered from the oil endeavors, including the transportation to and from the Amazon, Texaco's oil operations also resulted in cancer deaths, miscarriages, birth defects, sick fish and livestalk, and the removal and extinction of several of Ecuador's northern indigenous tribes (New Yorker). A year later in 1993, the tables turned when a group of Ecuadorian activists, residents, and tribe leaders filed a lawsuit against Texaco for environmental destruction of the Oriente. Protests and demonstrations continued for 18 years until the Ecuadorian judge, Nicolas Zambrano, finally made a decision on February 14 of 2011. He ruled that Chevron, who inherited the lawsuit when they bought Texaco in 2001, was responsible for vast environmental damage and ordered them to pay 18 billion dollars, the largest amount ever awarded in an environmental lawsuit. Although Chevron, America's third largest corporation (who’s annual revenue —two hundred billion dollars—is nearly four times as much as Ecuador's economic output) is now out of the picture, oil threats are now coming from Chinese and other South American companies. Recently, the Chinese government has loaned huge sums of money to Ecuador and has asked to be repaid in oil and minerals. In 2009, the Chinese oil company PetroChina agreed to lend one billion dollars to PetroEcuador, and the China Development Bank agreed to lend an additional one billion dollars to
the Ecuadorian government in exchange for oil deliveries (MSNBC). To keep its economy growing, China has set aside about three trillion dollars in reserves to invest and loan to Latin American countries in exchange for commodities, particularly oil. In the past couple of years, China has already secured a decadeâ€™s worth of oil in countries such as Venezuela and Brazil. In 2010, a May report by the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean found that China invested more than 15 billion dollars in Latin America and the Caribbean alone (MSNBC). With these significant foreign debts, the Ecuadorian government is becoming more and more motivated to expand extraction. Since 2010, the Ecuadorian government has been promoting the 11th Oil Round plan, which calls for the development of 21 oil blocks in the south central Ecuadorian Amazon. Although oil exploitation has been concentrated in the Northern areas of the rainforest, the 11 th plan calls for oil development in approximately 7.4 million acres of southern Amazon land. The south central Amazon region has fortunately remained untouched by oil development because of its law conserving 80% of Ecuadorâ€™s rainforests as well as protests from the seven indigenous tribes, including the Achuar, that live there. If the 11th Oil Round commences, 76% of indigenous land will be at risk. In the 1960s-1970s, the oil development in the northern Amazonian regions resulted in ethnocide and genocide in the various indigenous tribes living there, and the same fate is equally possible for the tribes in the south (Fundacion Pachamama). This is the greatest threat the Achuar have received since oil companies invaded in the 1960s. As mentioned earlier, to combat these threats, the Achuar have made various
changes to their culture in order to better promote eco-tourism to the rainforest. One of the biggest changes the Achuar have had to make is their drastic change in diet in order to enhance the wildlife. The Achuar are a hunting tribe and get the majority of their protein and meals from monkeys, bore, and fish. Recently, however, a lot of the wildlife has been killed or scared off and donâ€™t roam near the communities anymore. Because the wildlife and biodiversity of the Amazon is an essential tourist attraction for the Achuar, they have had to remove monkeys and bore from their diets in order to draw the wildlife closer to the communities. As a result, the Achuar now completely sustain themselves off of fish and crops despite centuries of hunting mammals. The Achuar are caught in this paradoxical dilemma of having to make radical changes to the culture they are trying to save. In addition, the Achuar now have to find jobs in the city in order to make money, something they have never had to deal with up until this point. While the profits are going towards a good cause, many individuals are negatively impacted by jobs, especially those having to operate the Kapawi lodge. The trek from the villages to the Eco-lodge is an astounding one. In fact, it is a 20-day walk from Kapawi to the nearest village (BBC news Eco-tourism). As a result, many of the workers work months on end, even whole seasons away from their villages and families because it is not worth it to make the voyage more than once. Our two main guides named Rueben and Mateo, for example, are brothers living in two different tribes, and they had to leave their wives and children for months to host us at the lodge. In addition, like many other Achuar working there, they had to learn Spanish (they have their own Achuar language) as well as become acquainted with our customs. The maids need to learn
how to make beds and clean rooms. Our chefs had to learn how to set the table, how to prepare food we typically eat (such as fish, chicken, soup, and salad), and how to serve the food. While eating these extravagant meals, I wondered how the chefs felt to serve us giant plates of food when their families at home may not have even had dinner that night. While I knew that these hardships existed, when we visited several of the Achuar villages, I noticed that they seemed generally happy. Their pursuit to protect their land seems to be a universal mission, and they all have to make sacrifices to reach that goal. In fact, I doubt the Achuar even consider these changes “sacrifices” at all; instead, they should be considered “means to their end.” I like to think that some of the money I spent at the Kapawi lodge will help them in this very crucial time in their fight. In fact, since my trip to Ecuador, active protests against the 11th Oil Round really came into full swing. In February of this year, the indigenous leaders of the seven southern tribes came together and delivered a statement to the Office of the Ministry of Hydrocarbons (the office in charge of where drilling occurs) demanding a moratorium, or legal suspension, on drilling (Fundacion Pachamama). Despite these efforts, this March president Rafael Correa signed a contract with the Chinese mining company Ecuacorrientes allowing the construction of a large-scale open mining pit in the south Zamora Chinchipe province despite it’s violation of Ecuadorian laws, primarily its effects it will have on water sources. The National Comptroller General said that this project was approved through oversight by technical and environmental authorities (Fundacion Pachamama March). This project and many other projects concerning oil development have been
permitted despite the constitutional violations. In response, the CONAIE (the national indigenous representative organization) organized a national protest demanding that the principles of the Constitution be upheld. Although the demonstration was planned since the December of last year, the march finally took place this year from March 8 th to March 22nd. The march started in Zamora Chinchipe and passed through important Amazonian communities, picking up followers on its way to the capital Quito. By the time the march reached the capital, there were more than 50,000 people peacefully demanding the demonstrationâ€™s objectives. The objectives emphasized the defense of water and indigenous territories and also included protesting the current extractive development model of the government (Fundacion Pachamama March). The Achuar are in the midst of what could be the most important battle in the history of their tribe. And while the Achuar could be nearing the climax of the their campaign, the controversy of oil development in Ecuador could also be far from over. While the fate of the Achuar is impossible to determine at this point in time, their purpose and their determination is stronger than ever, and they definitely will not go down without a fight. If the Achuar win and protect their land from oil exploitation, how will the Ecuadorian government pay off the huge amounts of debt? If the Achuar lose their land, where will they go and what will happen to their culture theyâ€™ve worked so hard to preserve? Only time will tell.
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