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 user 2005-05-07 at 10:55:00 am Views: 45
  • #9302


    Ecuador Indians embrace eco-tourism


    It is early morning in the jungle and a motorised wooden canoe glides
    slowly along the Capahuari river.

    Standing at the front is Ruben Shakay, a native Indian guide,
    sharing the secrets of his Amazon home with small party of tourists from around
    the world.

    He is using his keen eyesight and intimate knowledge of the rainforest to
    point out birds along the river bank: parrots and macaws, weaver birds, and the
    hoatzin – a leftover from pre-history that, like the pterodactyl, has claws on
    its wings.

    Mr Shakay is a member of the Achuar nation, an indigenous people who live in
    one of the remotest parts of Ecuador’s Amazon basin. He works for the Kapawi

    This safari-style collection of wooden chalets – accessible only by air – is
    in the heart of the tribal reserve.

    The Achuar granted the owners permission to build here in return for a
    substantial monthly rent and a commitment to train them to take over the running
    and management of the lodge by 2011.

    The forest is like a
    supermarket… It provides our food, our medicines and our tools. But if oil
    companies come here, they will build roads and bring diseases
    Though the tribe had almost no contact with the outside world a
    generation ago, today its members are keen to share their ancestral home with

    Beneath the forest lie vast untapped reserves of oil and gas, and the hope is
    that the more the world knows about the pristine rainforest the more difficult
    it will be for the oil companies to come in to exploit the reserves.

    “The forest is like a supermarket for us,” said Mr Shakay.

    “There is plenty to hunt and fish. It provides our food, our medicines and
    our tools. But if oil companies come here, they will build roads and bring
    diseases we have no immunity against. It would destroy the forest.”

    ‘Men must adapt’

    Today more than half the staff at the lodge – cooks, cleaners, waiters,
    boatmen and guides – are Achuar. It has been a slow process.

    Many of the Achuar have to travel several days by foot to get to
    the lodge. They work for a month, then have several weeks off at home.

    So far only men are employed and their wives stay at home with the children.
    Yet many of the jobs, such as cooking and cleaning, are traditionally women’s

    “The hardest part of the transition process is to change their way of
    thinking, their culture,” says the Kapawi Lodge’s Miguel Carrera.

    “The Achuar men never cook, never clean, never serve, but they must do all
    these things here. It took time but now we are about to select the best and send
    them away to learn English and management skills.”

    But what impact is this having on the Achuar’s traditional
    lifestyle and culture? It was Mr Shakay’s time to go home to his family, and he
    invited us to accompany him to see how a traditional community live.

    Instead of the usual two-day walk, we go by motorised canoe. After a six-hour
    journey along the Bobonaza river we arrive in a part of the rainforest few
    foreigners have visited before.

    Old and new

    Chichirota is a hamlet with half a dozen longhouses, home to some 80 people,
    many of them children.

    What greeted us was a mix of old and new: hunters in jeans and T-shirts, with
    spears and blowpipes. Several sported brightly coloured headbands of toucan
    feathers and many had painted faces.

    There are two leaders in the community: the traditional shaman or spiritual
    head, and the more modern position of the Sindico. This person is elected, and
    is chosen to organise the communal work and hunting rotas; the first signs of
    democracy at a local level.

    The Sindico, Hilario Kuja, said he was pleased that two men from the village
    work at the hotel. “They pass on their new skills and the money allows access to
    medicines and education.”

    One of the men, Felipe Wek, works as a handyman and gardener at the lodge.
    His wife was delighted at the help and new ideas he brought to her small plot on
    the edge of the hamlet.

    Learning to survive

    The community has a school built by missionaries.

    For the Achuar, education is seen as the key to controlling their destiny.

    The teacher completed his studies in the nearest town and, like many who have
    been away, he has returned to help the next generation prepare to deal with the
    outside world.

    Mr Shakay believes knowledge and tradition can go hand in hand.

    “In the future I want the children to have the same as me,” he said.

    “I speak Achuar, Spanish and a little English. I also want to teach them what
    I know, how to live off the forest, build homes and hunt with blowpipes. They
    mustn’t forget our language, our customs, our culture. Without these things we
    would no longer be Achuar.”

    It is a delicate balancing act.

    No-one yet knows whether today’s children, armed with 21st-Century skills,
    will still want to preserve their traditional way of life.