Visiting The Shuar of Morona Santiago

In my earlier 3-part Guaranda postings I mentioned that I have been exchanging casual English lessons for Spanish lessons with my Ecuadorian friend Jefferson. We often meet at the SAEX clubhouse and talk over the days events. With the Club being what it is, namely a conduit for information transfer, I have received an invitation to teach English in El Oriente. This isn’t a formal offer, but rather a chance for cultural exchange.

A group of people, some from SAEX, most not, are leaving this weekend, the final one in April. The plan is to fly to the very south of the country, to Catamayo, and work our way northeast by bus and van.

Before I arrived in Ecuador I had already known that I would visit the Amazon Basin, but I had no clear plans as to just how to carry this off. What I did know is that I wouldn’t be staying in an eco-lodge paying several hundreds of dollars a day to hang out with other tourists, dress up like “natives” and play with blow-guns. So once this invitation reared up, I knew my chance had arrived.

For 18 days I will be traveling in one of the most undeveloped areas of Ecuador: the Province of Morona Santiago, in the southeastern borderlands fronting Peru’s Amazonia. This is the land of the Shuar, the only people on this planet who collected the heads of their enemies.

Una Cabeza Reducida

Una Cabeza Reducida

Known by the Shuar as Tsantsa, this “head-shrinking” practice which is agreed upon by many as having ceased, was done to acquire the warrior spirits, Arutam, of the enemy and to prevent these spirits from causing further harm to the Shuar. I believe that there is a good chance that I will return from this trip with my head still attached to the rest of me. The contents of my head however may not be the same as what I started out with.

There are 17 of us plus Paul, the leader. The majority of the group hails from Europe, with the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland among those countries represented. We will gather on Saturday the 24th to the south of Loja, the largest city nearby the farm where we will begin. Each of us joined this group to take part in 8 days worth of Natem ceremonies and to attend the workshops necessary to prepare for those ceremonies.

These are Shuar-derived ceremonies, evolved through millennia and developed as an intimate and participatory examination of human placement within, rather than imposed upon, this Amazonian environment. The Shuar are, as are all localized indigenous peoples, masters of the knowledge necessary to be fully integrated into this life. They know the plants, the insects, the animals, the land, the rivers, the skies, and of course the gods who weave each of these parts into the syncretic whole.

By taking part in these ceremonies the group will be exposed to the cosmology of the Shuar and how this unique apprehension of the universe is vitally relevant to the existence of the planet. There is a very real and immediate threat to not only the Shuar and their ancestral lands, but, as the “lungs of the world” this land’s endangered future is a threat to all of us.

The Ecuadorian government has doubled back on its promise to protect indigenous lands, allowing the Chinese, the Canadians, and others access to this vital Amazon watershed for surface mining, with plans to permit the largest surface mines in the world. These mines will destroy hundreds of thousands of hectares of unique drainage basins that feed the headwaters of the Amazon.

These watersheds are among the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world and once they are removed from the Amazon’s life-cycle the entire planet will be adversely affected. Such an environmental violation will not have simply a small ripple effect, but rather an immediate and enormous negative impact on how the world breathes.

By inviting us to take part in such ceremonies the Shuar hope that the knowledge and experience that we gain will help us to help them tell the world of this most critical series of events. The Shuar, the Achuar, the Siona/Secoya, the Cofán, and others live in an ecologically unique part of our planet.

Just off the Ecuadorian coast, the large El Niño clockwise current from the north collides with the even larger counterclockwise Humboldt current from the south. Coupled with this phenomenon is the equally important and  constant collision of prevailing winds, both easterlies and westerlies.

All this occurs both near and above a small (about the size of Colorado) but topographically varied land that ranges from sea-level to 20,000 feet above the ocean. What results are more species of flora and fauna per square mile than almost anywhere on earth, only rivaled by Colombia just to the north.

The Shuar intermontane lands lie between the snow-covered Andes and the low flood lands of the Amazon itself. This area of hundreds of rivers, waterfalls, and jungle forests is home to an unknown number of species where new discoveries happen virtually year-round. So that they might protect this land, and that they might reverse an impending ecological disaster of immense proportions, the Shuar invite outsiders to their home.

After 8 days of ceremonies and workshops, approximately half of our group will continue on, further into Shuar territory, to live with 2 separate families. While with these families we will observe additional healing ceremonies among the families themselves. And I have been invited to teach English to the children from both of these families and meet with teachers in a high school near Gualaquiza. We will stay directly in the homes of these families, with the first family near the pueblo of Gualaquiza, then with the second family near the city of Macas for another several days, finally heading back to Quito by bus.

With Spanish as their second language, many Shuar believe that their children should pursue English to better position themselves as a voice to the outside world. They are now actively working to create a formal English language program and in the meantime welcome any preliminary help that they can find.

I have been told to expect a lively recruitment response to my visit, and look forward to conversing with them in what is a second language for both of us. What a fantastic chance to waltz through the linguistic minefield of subjunctive verbs!

There is a far better than fifty-fifty chance that I will be offline for the entire 18 days, so this could well be my last post until mid-May. Though unable to post, I will continue to write while traveling in Morona Santiago, capturing some to the wonder of this area, and I hope to convey some of that wonder when I re-connect.

3 thoughts on “Visiting The Shuar of Morona Santiago

  1. nalomacs

    From wikipedia: “In the Oriente the land itself has become toxic and the entire water system contaminated. Almost any kind of food from this region… is unsafe to eat.” This is half of Ecuador’s land area. Seems the environmental catastrophe has already occurred. Reading here “So that they might protect this land, and that they might reverse an impending ecological disaster of immense proportions, the Shuar invite outsiders to their home” reminded me of a report I came across months ago about a certain group of South American shamen (don’t know if the Shuar were included) had sent envoys to el Norte to introduce ayahuasca to more people thereby expanding the cosmic consciousness that might deter rapacious, disastrous exploitation of the continent’s land and water, flora and fauna.

    So amigo, at least you’ve educated me beyond where I was an hour ago. Hope you don’t have to suffer dysentery or worse having done so.

    Looking forward to your next post in May.

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    1. kmalivuk Post author

      Not sure what you Googled, but in the “nature preserve” of Cuyabeno, which is in the northeast, there is an enormous amount of petroleum pillage going on. There are decades old lawsuits against the big names in oil and it is a true disaster. I’m in the southeast where there is no oil extraction going on. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but down here it’s all about surface mining.

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