The Achuar protect Ecuador’s best kept secret

By Lance Steagall

Antonio, a guide at the Kapawi Amazon Eco-lodge and Reserve, is a man of many talents. He can guide you through torrid, seemingly impenetrable sections of the Ecuadorian Amazon without breaking a sweat. He can discourse on the cosmology of the Achuar, his people, in three tongues: Spanish, Quechua and Shuar. From a distance of 200 meters he can spot a chestnut-fronted macaw, and can identify a dusky-capped parakeet by the tenor of its voice alone. He can cure fevers, headaches and other common ailments with plants found in the rainforest. And he can pilot a single engine Cessna airplane.

When the Kapawi Lodge was founded in 1993, the Achuar people were at the heart of the endeavor. Founder Carlos Perez Perasso, Director of Ecuador’s prominent newspaper El Universo until his death in 2002, was passionate about preserving the ecology and protecting the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon. His passion guided the formation of a lodge built on two pillars: an uncompromising commitment to the environment, and an intimate business-relationship with the Achuar. According to the plan, the Achuar would gradually learn the skills necessary, and by 2011 would assume full responsibility for the day-to-day operations of an exemplary eco-lodge.

It builds each cabaña on stilts to avoid damage to vegetation, only uses materials the forest provides, operates on solar energy alone, and runs sewage through a 3-step drainage process. Eventually the sewage is dumped onto a section of the forest floor that’s been blanketed with yeast, which accelerates decomposition. Everything is going according to plan.

The Achuar’s first contact with the outside world was in the late 60’s, when Mexican missionaries arrived with the word of their God. That gospel, as well as the recognition of an outside world with intentions for their land, helped bring peace to the warring factions. The Achuar organized in response to the new threat the outside world posed, and embraced technologies they found useful. One example was the transistor radio. Each village-leader, or síndico, had one, and used it for nightly conference calls. During a hike along the banks of the Pastaza River, Antonio told a story from a distant night, pausing occasionally to slash down obstructions in our path.

As he tells it, representatives from Exxon Mobile arrived in a neighboring community with gifts. That evening the síndicos speculated on the motivations of the gift-bearers and decided it was an attempt to sow jealousy within the communities. They took immediate action, holding the Exxon representatives captive. The Ecuadorian army was eventually called in but the incident ended with no casualties. Antonio says a powerful message was sent to outsiders who wished to tap the virginal lands of the Achuar. To this day it remains free of logging and oil-exploration.

The financial success of the Kapawi Lodge has proven to be the Achuar’s strongest defense against outside developers and, once they assume complete responsibility for the lodge’s operations and will provide a steady, fully independent source of income. At that point, Pessaro’s vision will be realized. The Achuar are dedicated to making sure it happens.

Some community members are taking English language classes, some training in culinary arts, attending sales calls and trade shows, and studying aviation. Today they account for over 75% of a Kapawi staff whose attention to detail is evident in all aspects of the enterprise. Their warm hospitality, coupled with the marvels of the Amazon, ensures that a steady stream of foreign eco-tourists will continue to arrive in the small, single engine airplanes that Kapawi owns.

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