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Defending their ‘Pachamama’

Justine Tyerman meets an indigenous community deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon who are making a courageous stand against mining, logging and farming companies . . .

It took nature millions of years to create the Amazon rainforest but, in the past 100 years, one third of it has been destroyed . . . largely by man. It's the largest tropical rainforest on the planet, covering seven percent of the world's surface, home to 50 percent of all the plants and animals on Earth.

Scientists describe the trees of the Amazon as ‘the lungs of the world', absorbing around 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, making it a vital component in preventing climate change.

Furthermore, the Amazon is like a vast pharmacy, the source of 25 percent of the current medicines offered today by Western medicine — only an estimated 1 percent of its potential.

But the rainforest is under attack from many quarters.

During a recent visit to the Ecuadorian Amazon, I met members of a small but determined community of indigenous people who are striving to protect their ‘Pachamama' (Motherland) — a 52,800-acre corner of pristine rainforest — against the aggressive onslaught of oil, logging and farming companies who are encroaching on tribal lands.

The Kichwa Añangu are a 200-strong community who live within the 2,500,000-acre Yasuni National Park. Regarded as ‘the most biodiverse place on earth', the park was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989.

Having voluntarily given up their traditional hunting, fishing and tree-felling activities 20 years ago, this 500-year-old community have invested huge effort, energy and manpower into the establishment of a sustainable eco-tourism project, Napo Wildlife Centre.

Deeply committed to sustainability and the environment, the community decided to adopt tourism as its primary form of livelihood, thus ensuring the protection of the ecosystem, preserving their traditions and teaching fellow Ecuadorians and visitors the importance of their culture.

Their mission is to “generate awareness of the importance of the tropical humid ecosystem and its social environment, to achieve its permanence and sustainable development over time, exceeding the expectations of our guests and collaborators”.

Guests now come from all corners of the world to experience the magic of this place . . . including me.

The centre is 100 percent owned and operated by the Kichwa Añangu who transported by canoe and on foot all the materials needed to build the remarkable eco-lodge on the shores of Lake Añangu. The absence of motor boats on the lake and its tributaries means the environment is tranquil and wildlife is not disturbed.

It took several months to construct the cabins and the main reception area, one of the few high-quality eco-lodges in Ecuador 100 percent successfully managed by the community.

Energy is generated by solar panels, industrial batteries and silent generators, an efficient system with minimal environmental impact. All waste water is processed to ensure the lake, creeks and swamps remain clean.

One particularly wet day, we paddled down a narrow black water creek in a dug-out canoe to visit the home of the Kichwa Añangu community. It was the peak of the July rainy season but the occasional heavy downpour did not disrupt our activities. You expect rain in a rain forest and our guides always had ponchos at the ready.

When we arrived at the village, a group of young women performed a welcome dance accompanied by music from drum made of tropical cedar with night monkey and wild deer skins, and a tortoise shell. They taught us the dance movements but we looked so clumsy by comparison.

Erica, the spokeswoman of the group, took us to one of their traditional communal houses made of capirona, local royal palm or chonta (ironwood), a wood so hard and strong it's also used for spears and tools. The houses are round with no corners so as to avoid trapping “negative energy”. The roof is made of royal palm or toquilla palm and is attached to the frame by vines. No nails are used in the construction.

The floor is “Mother Earth” and the cooking is carried out on an open fire enclosed by rocks in the centre of the room. Rocks to make a fireplace are often given as wedding presents because they are a rarity in this part of the Amazon. They are so precious they are named “Papa, Mama and Baby”.

Erica demonstrated how to start a fire using kapok and a special piece of wood. The smoke from the fire keeps mosquitos away and also helps to waterproof the roof.

She showed us her cooking utensils including a very effective grater made from a sharp, spikey plant.

Erica explained their lifestyle, culture, traditions, cooking and gardening practices and use of medicinal plants.

We learned about the daily activities of the Kichwa Añangu — harvesting bananas, coco and manioc, a starchy jungle root which is the staple food of the Amazonian people, and making chicha, a traditional drink based on cooked and fermented manioc.

The day starts early for the women of the household who wake up at 3am to dig up the manioc root to prepare a bowl of chicha for the family. They cut the roots using an ironwood blade and carry baskets weighing around 12kg with straps around their foreheads, often carrying a baby as well.

The manioc is washed, boiled and mashed by chewing. The saliva of the mastication process helps accelerate fermentation over a six-to-eight-day period. Chicha prepared for guests, however, is mashed with mortar and pestle, and fermented with sweet potato.

Adults working in the fields consume up to five litres of chicha a day but children only drink it in the early stages before it ferments.

The women operate a small gift shop selling hand-made jewellery, string bags and pottery. I bought colourful parrot earrings, a pottery bowl and a simple, lightweight string bag made from the fibre of a jungle plant called chambira which is also used to make fishing nets. They are among my most treasured mementos.

Before we left, Erica proudly introduced us to her little son. As I gazed at his earnest young face, I wondered what the future held for him with his home in the Amazon under attack from so many quarters.

Nine indigenous groups coexist in the Ecuadorian Amazon including two tribes — Tagaeri and Taromenane — who have no contact with the outside world. Some are losing their traditions, culture and language but the Kichwa Añangu are doing exceedingly well at safeguarding their way of life.

The success of their eco-tourism venture, Napo Wildlife Centre, is inspirational. The family-run Quasar Expeditions, with whom I travelled in Ecuador, seek out and support such sustainable initiatives, aiming to leave behind the smallest possible footprint.

'Preserving and protecting their ancestral territory'

Quasar Land Tour Manager Mariana Lanusse says: “We strongly believe that part of our responsibility as a local tour operator is to give back to communities and Mother Nature. We strive to promote sustainable projects with excellent quality service like Napo Wildlife Centre. For the last 20 years, we have witnessed the amazing work this community has achieved. They are constantly improving the meaning of responsible tourism; they are doing a great job preserving and protecting their ancestral territory; and also promoting and educating their own people and visitors on the value of the indigenous community.”

Later we walked through the jungle to the most accessible parrot and macaw clay licks in Ecuador, both in the Kichwa Añangu community's private reserve. The birds lick the clay to neutralise the toxins that coat some fruit seeds they like to eat. The parrots have a mental map of the location of the clay licks and fly up to 34km to get their daily dose of therapeutic clay.

The brilliantly-coloured parrots, parakeets and macaws are a spectacular sight when they arrive en masse at the clay licks observatories surrounded by rainforest.

We also spotted superbly-agile woolly monkeys flying from tree to tree in the forest canopy. Our guide Pedro said they were once the most hunted of monkeys due to their tasty prehensile tails. The species is recovering here now but they are still rarely sighted. We were lucky to see them.

I feel so privileged to have stayed at Napo Wildlife Centre and met the wonderful Kichwa Añangu people.

See also stories 1 and 2 in this series.

We were welcomed by members of the indigenous Kichwa Añangu community who own Napo Wildlife Centre. Picture by Napo Wildlife Centre
Kichwa Añangu spokeswoman Erica and her baby son inside the communal house. Picture by Justine Tyerman
Cobalt winged parakeets at a clay lick in the Kichwa Añangu community’s private reserve. Picture by Napo Wildlife Centre
We spotted superbly-agile woolly monkeys flying from tree-to-tree in the forest canopy. Picture by Napo Wildlife Centre
Napo Wildlife Centre is surrounded by rainforest on the shores of beautiful Lake Añangu in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Picture by Napo Wildlife Centre