Landing in Pumpuentsa is a village affair
Because of its location near the border with Peru the Ecuadorian Military uses Pumpuentsa as a jump off spot. The 1000 foot long airstrip can accommodate some larger planes and there is a barracks building for the soldiers. From there they enter the rainforest and patrol the border with Peru . For communication the village is equipped with a loud speaker, radio/CD player, short wave radio and generator. The loudspeaker broadcasts music and village news from the radio/CD player that is located at one of the barracks. Radio Achuar begins it broadcasts at 3:30 am for tribal news, information, schedules and music. There is an afternoon broadcast at 6:00 pm and runs through the evening meal. A short wave radio is located in a room at the end of the barracks and is the radio link between villages, their federation office in Puyo and Areotsentsak the Achuar supply and transport service. The Achuar Federation FINAE has been supplied with two small single engine planes that fly supplies to and from the villages. Areotsentsak also transports the sick, village leaders to and from assemblies, meetings and fulfills other transportation needs. The villages, Areotsentsak, FINAE and other groups such as hospitals and service groups listen to the village signals between 7 and 9 in the morning and between 4 and 6 in the afternoon. It is during these hours that general news, messages and announcements are relayed between the people. Many of the hospitals leave their radios on all day for medical emergencies. Some of these hospitals have their own planes or work with different missionary groups to fly the sick for treatment at their hospital. Village life has changed because of the airstrip and the Achuar are becoming increasingly dependent upon outside supplies and transportation.
Pumpuentsa is considered a large community by Achuar standards, at approximately 200 people. They do not keep an exact census and no birth records (unless the child is born in a hospital) and precise numbers of Achuar, or their communities, is very difficult to obtain. Currently it is believed there are somewhere between 5 and 6 thousand people that inhabit 2.5 to 3 million acres of the Ecuador and Peruvian Amazon rainforest. Achuar communities are very dispersed with plenty of forest screen between homes each with its traditional garden. Not all Achuar communities want contact with the modern world and refuse to have airstrips built in their villages. Other villages recognize that in order to survive the industrial onslaught a certain number of them must learn English and have contact with "the North". There is a desire to learn about the rest of the world among the Achuar and specifically the desire to speak English. Villages, like Pumpuentsa are working hard to learn and provide the leaders necessary to lead their people and protect their rainforest home.
The Village is built around the airstrip and in the village center is the main meeting building, community cooking area, the volleyball courts and the children's soccer field. Across the airstrip and before the row of school buildings lays the soccer fields for the older boys and men. There are homes spread around the area in a haphazard fashion with no more than a narrow path indicating its direction. Their gardens are the woman's domain and have several varieties of yucca, corn, peanuts, yams, pineapples, bananas, plantains, herbs, medicinal plants, chili peppers and a variety of other plants used by the household.
Trail Leading to Achuar home
The Achuar wake up around 3:30 am and prepare a large pot of Wayusa tea, a shrub grown in their gardens, and listen as Achuar radio begins to blast across the still morning air. Each morning is started by purging the stomach in order to be clean and fresh for the new day. The families gather to drink a larger quantity of the Wayusa tea very quickly which extends their stomachs and makes them vomit. They say they are getting rid of that which does not serve them and yesterday's food does not serve them. After purging the people drink sweet chicha, the relatively unfermented manioc (yucca) paste mixed with water and the women and children eat a small amount of food. The men will not eat at this time but will drink several bowls of chicha. The chicha consumed at this time is called sweet chicha because it has only fermented for a day and is sweeter than milk. Stronger chicha that has fermented longer is slightly alcoholic and drunk at the mid-day meal, while hunting and in the evenings. Chicha that has fermented for seven days, or more, can get quite intoxicating and is served at gatherings and special occasions. Sweet chicha is a major part of the Achuar diet and an adult male may drink three gallons or more per day. Many adult males do not eat a regular meal until the evening choosing instead to forage while working and hunting. They drink chicha, their main food source, throughout the day. Women also tend to eat while foraging, and cooking and drink much less chicha than the men. Drinking chicha after the morning purge is said to make one healthy and strong, ready to work hard during the day.
Small family home with room to grow
The family remains together during the hours before dawn to share their dreams and tell their cultural stories. The Achuar are historically an oral tradition and only recently have developed a written language. The dreams are interpreted to ascertain the course of action of the day. In this way the Achuar are a dream based society and live active lives in direct contact with the supernatural worlds. For the most part the dreams are interpreted on a personal level but the village leaders are always watching for prophetic dreams that bring news to the village. The leaders will get together to discuss the dreams the community receives and how they relate to village life and safety. Information that led the Achuar into making contact with the outside world came from their dreams.
When it is light enough to work the family separates and goes their individual way and much of the work is done before the heat of the day. The woman and girl children go into the garden or out into the forest to forage for food while the men go out to hunt, join in one of the village workgroups, gather firewood or tend to the livestock. At mid-day the family members in the village gather again at the home to eat. The afternoons are spent resting and avoiding the mid-day heat. Some return to the forest to continue to work while many of the younger men gather at the main meeting building to play volleyball or soccer. The women will spend time in the home preparing the evening meal, teaching the young girls or doing craft work. There may be a short burst of work just before dark if something is very important but usually the late afternoon and evening is for games, talking and making music.
West trail to the village of Taisha
Many of the Achuar now own cattle as a source of money and the rainforest is being cut to make pasture space. The cattle are considered a savings account and are butchered when the family needs money. The impact of cattle on the standing forest and the soil is devastating. Trails that are used by the cattle can have mud too deep to walk through and stream banks are beaten down by the hoofs of the large animals. Cattle in the Amazon are a high maintenance endeavor and they must be tied to keep them from wandering off. They must be moved every day, protected from predators and they have a high rate of sickness and infection. The monetary return per hour for raising the cattle is pennies while the burden on the forest is high. There are three main trails leaving Pumpuentsa, each to a neighboring community. Access to hunting areas and the cattle pastures are also accessed with these trails. A few of the families have a horse or two. These animals are short, more a pony, but are surefooted and strong. Travel between the villages or the Macoomba River is much quicker on horseback and they are capable of carrying a heavy load. Horses and cattle are tied out in the pastures near the village with dogs and chickens, the only other domesticated animals, live in near the family home. Some Achuar communities have cats to help control rats in the village but there were no cats in Pumpuentsa.
Vegetation is cut to provide pasture for livestock
The day after I arrived in Pumpuentsa the men of the village got together and repaired an unused structure, which ended up being a chicken coop, to be my home. It was small with all of the living space I needed. Having been unoccupied for a year the insects and other critters had settled in for long term occupancy. I had a fire in the beginning so the smoke would repel the insects but the home was so small the heat was unbearable so I let it go out. It was a constant battle for territory with the previous occupants and they felt fine about eating my clothes, books and whatever part of my body that happened to be exposed. I slept on the traditional bamboo platform under a mosquito net protected from the tiny flying bugs and the bat droppings falling from the roof above. I finally acquired a hammock and suspended it from the main supports of my home and got better rest. Even though the mosquito net did not fit the hammock I was able to make it work and my bug problems were diminished. They still ate everything, mildew grew on what they left behind and we settled in to a daily routine. In time I grew to enjoy all of the nocturnal coming and going of my housemates. When the bats started returning to roost I knew the village would come alive and Achuar radio would soon come alive. The night insects would go to sleep and the kids would soon be at my door letting me know it is time for breakfast. The quiet of the mornings after the changing of the guard between day creatures and those of the night, were soft and sleepy. Many days started with the trees and village shrouded in mist, silent, tranquil and somewhat surreal.
Casa Del Mundo- my home in Pumpuentsa
The World House was my home while I lived in Pumpuentsa and even though it was a chicken coop it was all I needed. Being the only white person within an hour plane flight I doubled as the village entertainment and my home was usually surrounded by children. Everything I did was new and seemingly exciting for them and they never tired from watching my every move, and I mean every move. I had to get used to this and for the most part it was bearable. There were times though when I did not want to be watched, like when answering nature's call, but they wanted to know and they were adept at hiding. I was amazed at the places where I would see a little face watching me from the dense rainforest foliage, or between the slats of my little home.
Inside Casa del Mundo
The evening is when the rainforest wakes up. Just as the sun is setting the night birds, bats, crickets, frogs and many other forest inhabitants begin their nightly song looking for food or a mate. My little house provided me with a close and intimate connection with the forest. It was built near the edge of the forest where the land drops off to the little stream below. There were many mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and birds living in the riparian habitat surrounding the stream. This stream supplied the village with water and bubbled to the surface a short walk from my home. I had the pleasure of going to sleep to a symphony each night and the concert made waking in the middle of the night a pleasant experience.
There were many nights that I went out to stare up at a night sky void of clouds and light pollution and marveled at the beauty of the southern hemisphere sky.
Sunset over Pumpuentsa
Pumpuentsa has built an education program that is very impressive given their isolation and lack of financial resources. The grades are broken by learning level more than age so the classes are diverse with ages. The program is K-12 in concept although some classes are combined, as with the 4-5 grades. The children begin by learning their own language, Shuar-Chichim, which has only had a written form for about a decade before learning Spanish, which is their second language. The program included mathematics, geography, social science, history of the world and more. I was there to teach English, help with village projects and have a cultural exchange with the community. While I was teaching their school was tri-lingual and I was very impressed by what they had accomplished with so little. I am hoping to establish a student exchange program with Pumpuentsa and the school as well as helping with their health clinic, sanitation and drinking water.
Students willing to suspend the game for a photo
Condor People is working to establish a student exchange with other indigenous groups such as the Shuar and Quichua. Issues important to the long term survival to groups such as the Achuar are education, cultural preservation, land preservation and sustainable economic development. Pressure to sell their oil and timber resources to meet their growing economic needs is very strong and villages struggle to maintain their lifestyles and culture. Feeding a rising population, increasing education and medical expenses, including air transportation, are driving their economic problems. Indigenous communities such as Pumpuentsa are striving to create alternative economic sources and preserve their rainforest home. As pressure to sell their resources increase and the economic needs of the communities rise it becomes harder for these people to live in their ancestral way. Young people are not learning the collected knowledge of their ancestors and cultural information is being lost at an alarming rate and those who leave for an education seldom return to the village. The preservation of cultural knowledge, rainforest biodiversity, sustainable economic development and keeping the world's large governments and corporations from destroying their homes are the main issues of the Achuar, as they are for many indigenous peoples around the world. The destruction to their lives and homes is driven by consumer capitalism, greed and short sighted politics. Our habits and lifestyles here in the north make it profitable for companies to go to the rainforest to exploit its abundance in order to supply us with cheap stir sticks, hardwood floors, tin roofs and petroleum. Without a change in the lifestyles of the industrialized nations the lives of people who have existed for thousands of years will be lost along with their rainforest homes. There is no technological fix for this situation. The sickness that drives world destruction is a spiritual one and kept in place by our disconnection with the Natural World. We will not change until we realize we are a part of Nature and not separate from it and that these people are our relatives. We only protect what we love.