Amazon Indians

Travel to the community of the Shiwiar

Indigenous Shiwiar, hunting with a blowpipe

The territory of Shiwiar aborigines hides in the South-East of Ecuadorian Amazon. This zone of primary forest, only accessible by air, is the refuge of 750 natives who share their culture with that of Shuars and Achuars. Shiwiar people met "modern" world in 1941, during the war between Ecuador and Peru. Today, facing the pressure of the government and oil companies, the population fights to protect its lands from aggressive deforestation. For to weeks, Pancho and Nelly, young Shaiwar couple of Juyuintza community, received us in their humble dwelling and shared their daily life. Story of unparalleled immersion.

Flight to Amazon jungle

Puyo Airport, Pastaza province, Ecuador.

After waiting for two days, weather conditions improve. From the runway though, the weather seems rather tumultuous: the layer of clouds is too low, showers are frequent but, as we are told, there is a little window. An occasion not to miss. Finally, before boarding on our old crate, we weigh our bags with supplies and fuel cans. This old plane can take five people and there are just two of us. Thus, to make the most of our trip we load the plane as much as possible while keeping an eye on the balance at the same time, since every kilo is counted. Marie-Anne takes place behind, and stuck in the heap of our load she seems very restricted. As for me, my knees are tightly squeezed against the instrument panel. I am seated beside the pilot, three times larger than me. He is just closely fit between the back of his seat and the controls of the aircraft. He puts on his gloves, starts the engine and gets on the runway, ready to take off. Final check of flight controls seem to have been completed, permission is given on the radio. Our aviator says a prayer and presses on the gas. That's it, we are flying.

The town of Puyo becomes smaller as we go higher. In three minutes we immersed in a thick cloud saturated with rain. The aircraft is shaking all over, and because of the deafening noise I have to shout to talk to Marie-Ann, though at just several centimeters behind me. No visibility, a total whiteout. The pilot is coolheaded, with eyes glued to the on-board computer, which we don't know if really operating or not. Nobody feels safe and we know that accidents can happen very easily here. We are certain for one thing: no landing is possible before getting to our destination since below, as far as the we can see, there is nothing but Amazon.

River Pastaza, tributary to Amazon.

Reservoir of biodiversity

The immense size and natural wealth of Amazon forest go beyond words. It covers some 6 000 000 km² and contains more than a half of the surface of world tropical forests. At its heart, the Amazon mainstream and its tributaries: more than 6 000 km of streams and rivers. Brazil holds the largest part of this green mantle: about two thirds of Amazon jungle belongs to it. The rest is divided among Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, French Guiana, Surinam and Ecuador we are flying over.

To give an exact number of species living in this forest remains an international scientific challenge, but it is generally considered that one out of ten species described to this day lives in Amazon. The greatest diversity of plants, more than 100 000 species of invertebrates, 3000 species of fish, 1300 species of birds, more than 700 of those of reptiles and amphibians and about 400 of mammals can be found there. Bald uakari, jaguar, giant otter, Brazilian tapir, cock-of-the-rock, hoatzin, piranha are among symbolic and endemic species of these regions. Counting is far from being over since a multitude of live beings escape to the eye of a scientist. A recent WWF report ("Amazon alive, a decade of discoveries") enumerates some 1200 new species identified between 1999 and 2009: not counting thousands of invertebrates, 637 new plants, 357 fish, 216 amphibians, 55 reptiles, 16 birds and 39 mammals have been discovered. New multicolor dendrobates (Ranitomeya amazonica among others), a four-meter anaconda (Eunectes beniensis), the bald parrot (Pyrilia aurantiocephala), and a Bolivian river dolphin (Inia boliviensis) are some of the biggest surprise vertebrates of these studies.

The forest of Humans

The westernmost part of Amazon is situated in Ecuador where it covers more than a half of its surface, in all eastern part of the country. This region, called Oriente, is the most isolated and the least populated of the Ecuador, but among others Kichwas, Shuars, Shiwiars, Huaoranis, Cofans, Secoyas, Sionas, et Achuars are ethnic groups still living there. They give to the country a priceless cultural value. Oriente doesn't look very remarkable compared to the total forest ares of Amazon: it holds only 2% of it. However, many people tend to observe this zone, especially the Yasuni national park, a reserve of biodiversity of 9820 km² considered by the scientists as a place on earth of wealth of biodiversity.

An indigenous woman using a machete during yucca harvest.

Our objectif is at an hour flying distance, at the heart of Amazon primary forest, at Peru borders. We join Shiwiar village of Juyuintza, a totally isolated community sharing the cultures of Ashuars and Shuars. The territory, situated across the Pastaza River, is accessible only by air. All this adventure began with a meeting several days earlier with Pascual Kunchicuy in Puyo. Born Shiwiar and aware of future dangers to his people, Pascual decided to settle in the town to fight against the administration and politics of Ecuador government. Shiwiars met the western world during the war between Peru and Ecuador in 1941. Since then a few foreign interventions have troubled their life but oil exploration became so uncontrollable that it threatens the territory of these Indians. Traditional territories of Shiwiars have been recently legalized making a nation of these people. This is not enough though to protect them, their forest from the State, who aims at their forcible integration and which is ready to sell their lands to a multinational company unscrupulous in the exploitation of wood and oil.

So in 2000 Pascual, in agreement with the concerned community created a foundation "Shiwiar Without Borders" with an objective of nationalizing the whole Shiwiar territory, more than 1000 000 hectares. In this context he tries to develop a project of community ecotourism in order to internationally promote Shiwiar culture and the biodiversity of their lands. Before meeting him our ideas were clear on this point. We didn't want to oblige unknown Indians meet us, and even less to realize a disrespectful ethnological tourism where the Indian, prisoner of a system similar the zoo, is compelled to get naked or to carve a wooden mask to cherish fantasies of a western tourist. Pascal, after a sincere meeting and a long discussion about the projects he's realizing, invites us to live with his people for ten days hoping that their voice will be heard outside the borders. We accept and now are among the first to live Shiwiar adventure in an environment respectful of our convictions.

First immersion on the Shiwiar territory

After fifty minutes of fly the clouds have disappeared and sky became clear. All around us – Amazon as far as eyes can see. As its vastness is impressive, it becomes difficult to imagine that this environment shrinks little by little. A little farther a piece of grass is detached from the ground: our landing strip. As soon as we finish our fly without incidents, the children of the village, for whom an aircraft is a real attraction, surround us. Pancho and Nelly, a young couple of about twenty years old, parents already, receive us. Here the age does not have much importance. Young children, becoming rapidly independent, behave like adults and difficult conditions of life make their faces look old. As for life expectancy, without having exact data on this subject, is not certainly very high.

The Chicha, a local beverage made from chewed yucca, then fermented several days.

Shiwiars know the existence of unban world. Some of them visit it sometimes. Twice a week a contact by radio is established with the bureaus of Puyo foundation. Very quickly we count the objects and we associate ourselves with our "civilized" life. Some family clothes, rare boots, plastic water reservoirs, brushes, cauldron, some dishes, soap, torches with often battery missing. On the bank, a small boat, carved out from one-piece tree trunk: a motor bought recently for the community makes long trips easier, but sparing the fuel, since its financing and delivery is very limited.

We pitch the tent in the shadows of tree trunks and palms. Each family builds its house on the same model. Dogs, chickens, parrots or domesticated hyacinth macaws surround us. Pancho is one of the rare people to speak Spanish here. He will be our guide for the following days and together with him we discover the Shiwiar culture. As soon as we arrive, he takes us to meet neighbor families. Each time we are received with a terracotta bowl filled with the local drink "the chicha". This drink is made from yucca, a plant, which is their main diet. Its long tubers are boiled, crashed and then fermented in a large reservoir before adding water from the river. When seeing women chew then spit pound yucca, we realize that it is fermented by means of enzymes contained in the saliva. To make it short, this mixture, left to ferment for several days, diluted in brown water and served with muddy hands marks a break with the world we left behind. We drink several litters of it, more for a politeness than for the taste. The drink is horribly bad.

Step by step, we immerse in this life. With the women and their kids always on their backs, we go to work in the yucca fields, here called "chacras". An exhausting work with arms. We participate in pottery works as well, keep embers burning permanently under the roofs, and prepare the famous chicha. Men never do such daily tasks, and here too, we feel a certain machismo. Women permanently provide the service of chicha to the men assembly, every member of which is seated in line on a bench and will never move a finger to help a young girl particularly diligent in this mission. Sometimes, we accompany children at school in an atypical open-air classroom and share with them pleasant swimming in the river. Scenes of life unusual for our eyes of western people follow each other: in addition to these old women having lost half of their teeth who spit in the chicha bowls, we see images of children of twelve or thirteen years old returning alone from hunting with an agouti under his arm, of this woman who "mows a lawn" around her hut with machete or of this man fighting against a viper Bothrops Asper of two meters that came too close to habitations. Pancho teaches us principles of basketry and accompanies us to the forest to observe flora or fauna, to hunting or to fishing.

Hunting, fishing and traditions

An indigenous using his blowpipe.

When he goes on hunting, Pancho is dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and boots. In his right hand he holds a machete. If it is useful for clearing the way, it is all the more necessary to find one's way around, since in the woods one may get lost. Cutting the vegetation regularly at the height of his knee thus he leaves marks to show us the way back. So he doesn't make loops blindly in the jungle but cuts, by instinct, which will guide him back home. In his left hand, a blowpipe, his hunting tool. A piece of wood of three meters, carved out all along, that he bought from neighboring Peruvian community. Around his neck, a quiver made of bamboo with an empty calabash hanging on it, full of cotton fiber. The quiver contains arrows from palm stalks. Their tip is covered with a poison from plant and is slightly notched with piranha jaws: a simple method aimed facilitating breaking of an arrow at the moment when the point enters the animal flesh. Preparation of the poison, probably made from curare, is kept secret and Pancho has to swap peccary leather and turtles for a few spoonful of this precious mixture with Peruvians.

Pancho hunts far from the village, once or twice a week. When he goes deeper in the forest, he is guided by sounds of animal that he perfectly imitates. His favorite meal the one made of the wooly monkey but Shiwiars eat all kinds of meat from tatou or giant Armadillo to little birds. Hunting with a blowpipe has a big advantage compared to that with a rifle since it is being noiseless. Before our departure Pancho taught us how to use it. Our target was a yucca root fixed at one-meter height on a wooden stick. From the distance of several meters we managed to pierce the tuber two or three times. But now, in haste, the prey is at more than twenty meters and above our heads: to control and balance the weight of the blowpipe held vertically and the strength of blow needed has nothing to do with our tentative efforts. Pancho, furtive like a cat and with unbelievable precision hits the target each time. His first preys are little birds, which is not enough for him: these will be used as baits to catch piranhas. Pancho wants to eat monkey meat. After long hours, he ends with killing two monkeys; afterwards he will climb barefoot on tall trees to get his preys and will carry them in a bag made up in ten minutes with barks and palm leaves found in close areas. Brought to village, the primates are a real delight for the whole family who enjoys them on several meals. Together with them we taste a soup and a barbecue of the monkey. A much better memory than that of the chicha.

A traditional fishing with the poison of barbasco roots.

Fishing has remained traditional as well. There are several ways of fishing, with or without a net, but we remembered one of them particularly. It is carried out with barbasco roots, a shrub cultivated in the "chacra". Its long roots are pulled out from the ground and taken to the bank of the river chosen for fishing. On muddy bank they are crashed with a big stick then dipped into the water. A viscous whitish liquid leaks and is dissolved in the river like flows of the milk. This preparation needs much effort and several people fish together: women participate in it too. The poison thus leaked, with disabling effects, "beats" all the fish of the river which lacking oxygen come on the surface. Pancho and others fishers, all they have to do is go down the river and gather the fruit of their fishing. An excellent way to understand the diversity of fresh water fish!

The part of our life shared for ten days with the Shiwiars is undoubtedly the strongest experience in our two years passed in the neotropical "selva". Never had we seen the jungle like this. Comfort, waste, necessities imposed by overconsumption of our communities were forgotten for some time. This is a day-to-day life, following the difficulties of daily life. To understand that the community of Juyuintza, like other communities in Amazon and the whole world, is threatened by our intrusion, is heart-breaking since what dominates here is an economy of nothing. Today, the pride of Shiwiars in their culture, their refusal of modern world and the fight of Pascual and his close relatives deserve our attention. Maybe their voice is not strong enough to cross the borders, so let's hope that this narrative will echo their views…

Marie-Anne and Sylvain Lefebvre
for the association Exode Tropical

For more information, please refer to the project Ikiam

Village of Juyuintza, on the bank of the river Pastaza

Gathering of yucca roots, the main diet of indigenous Shiwiars.

Women carrying the crop to the village.

Majestic trees of the primary forest of Ecuadorian Amazon.

Indigenous quiver. A poison-covered extremity of the arrow, notched between two piranha teeth,
breaks in the animal flesh at the first try to pull it out.

Cooking on the wood fire after a day of hunting.

Pottery from clay gathered by the women near the camp.

Indigenous children playing in the river.

Indigenous children playing in the woods.

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