Meeting the Achuar People

Part of the overall remit of the project is to take a longer term view and plan for future research that can draw upon the insights gained from the present project and build these into new research proposals. As work has progressed with MEDICINE, one of the overarching messages that have emerged from the research is the critical importance of protecting and promoting indigenous cultural heritage in a way that empowers local communities and allows them to retain a sense of their sovereignty over the relentless pace of modernisation that currently presents the most immediate threat to their world. Of this, as highlighted in ‘Concluding thoughts’, the impact of the global tourism market probably represents the most immediate and potentially damaging.
Comunidad Kapawi

Looking at innovative ways of addressing these problems is currently being developed using three environmentally and culturally distinct regions of Ecuador for study. With this in mind, in September last year before finally returning to the UK, I made a visit to Kapawi Ecolodge, Pastaza province, located close to the frontier with Peru in remote rainforest, on a ‘fact finding’ visit, to see the kinds of issues, challenges and potential of the region and learn something about the Achuar indigenous people whose home it is. I had last visited the rainforest back in March, when I paid a similar visit to Napo Wildlife Center and Comunidad Kichwa Añangu. I love the rainforest environment, which is one of nature’s wonders of the world. When you are there, it feels like you are as far from the modern world as it is possible to be. Importantly too, this visit allowed me to meet another indigenous group – the Achuar peoples – who are adapted to the lowland rainforest environment and still live for the most part in the same traditional ways that they have for centuries. They farm crops like yucca and cassava (manioc), plantains, and other fruits and vegetables, occasionally supplementing the diet with meat hunted from the forest, although in the region of the Kapawi community lands, hunting is now prohibited as of some twenty years, which is allowing a significant recovery of the regional fauna.

The journey there from Quito takes around seven hours, driving down to the oil town Shell, from whence you charter a light aircraft to fly the 50 minutes out into the forest and then another half an hour from the airstrip into the Kapawi Lodge.
Pastaza River, Ecuador

It was very instructive to visit the community itself, largest of several Achuar communities in the region, where the local school and high school are based that serves the entire region. Here the people are developing a real forward looking vision in terms of education of young people. Culture being essentially dynamic, there is a commitment to preserve and promote their indigenous cultural identity through maintenance of dress, customs and practices, but with the necessary flexibility of innovation that allows cultural growth and change, whilst still preserving the core sense of identity.

Here I was greeted by several young men and women who would be soon graduating (aged around 18 years) who sang traditional songs and performed traditional greetings and dances, dressed in traditional Achuar clothing, their faces decorated with beautiful painted tattoo-like designs typical of their culture. Finally, I was taken to meet some village elders, where I was offered the local chicha beer (a fermented beverage made from yucca) and watched the weekly flight from Quito bringing community members home and taking others out where they might, for example, be attending college back up in the capital.
Kapawi Community

The following day we tracked down a local shaman called Sumpa, one of the group of ‘vegetalist’ shamans in the rainforest who believe in the power of the spirits of the plants they use to teach them and to heal people.
Pastaza River fishing

Overall the visit provided a very important counterpoint to my experiences of Andean indigenous peoples and shamanism. We know that across many centuries there has been an extensive network of intercommunication between these regions, exchanging goods and ideas in the age old way that long distance exchange systems around the world always have. So hand in hand with ‘progress’ toward participation in the world of modern communication and technology, there is still a continuity with age old patterns, beliefs and practices that serve to keep the Achuar culture alive and well, but responsive and adaptive to change.
Achuar shaman

About this blog entry

This blog entry was posted on Saturday 2nd March 2019.
elizabeth.currie@york.ac.uk's picture
Dr Elizabeth Currie

Dr Elizabeth Currie is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Experienced Researcher and Global Fellow at the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York.

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