The Shaman made me laugh.
The leader of his Achuar community, a revered elder in full regalia, was chuckling. Having met him earlier in the evening, I was enchanted. Sumpa introduced himself to me as I was admiring tables of beautiful handicrafts at a benefit for the Achuar foundation, IKIAM, and Cuenca’s Hogar de Esperanza, in their Minka restaurant.
The Achuar are one of Ecuador’s 14 indigenous nationalities. They existed relatively unknown, deep in the Amazon rainforest, until the 1960s. It was then a few missionaries entered the territory, promoting Catholicism and making the Achuar aware of other forms of development.
In the early 1990s, as outside interest in the indigenous group grew, the Achuar began to further organize themselves to protect their land and their interests. They formed the United Achuar Nation. They united in their decision to keep their land free from natural resource development, such as logging, mining, and oil.
The Achuar are a “dream people,” and their dreams warned them of the dangers of the Western World’s thirst for oil. Estimates of their dwindling population range from 6,000 to 10,000.
Tonight, Sumpa is dressed as if he was at home, thousands of miles away, in the wetter lowlands of the Amazon rainforest, east of the Ecuadorian Andes, near the Peruvian border. Granted, Cuenca’s cooler weather encouraged a layering under his traditional dress. Still he looked every bit the authority.
According to the event organizers, shamans are honored for their knowledge and their connection to nature. They serve their communities by attending to people who have illnesses or are experiencing problems in their lives.
His weathered face gave him a fierceness, accentuated by the black chevron markings on his cheeks and nose. A vibrant head ring of yellow, black and red feathers from three native birds, called a tawasap, crowned his graying head. He wore a wrap, called an itip, covering his lower body from wait to feet. His simple cotton shirt provided a canvas for crisscrossed white, black and red beads and seeds, and the intricate beaded turquoise pendant around his neck.
Sumpa was perched on a chair in the middle of the room, watching the performance of his countrymen who were dramatizing a tale of the hummingbird. The story involved a hardworking man and his lazy brothers and a father, portrayed by Sumpa, who lived with two beautiful daughters.
The Achuar women are, at the very least, beautiful. With long, black straight hair and bright eyes, they have drawn circles on their cheeks to indicate they are the keeper of the family. Some have added stars to represent strength. Two of them wear braided belts with seeds that shake as they walk.
The complicated fable – presented in the Achuar dialect – involved trickery, men turning into birds and women turning into frogs. While the drama was entertaining, Sumpa’s unmitigated joy watching the silly antics of the actors was infectious. I clapped as much for him at the play’s end, as I did for the rest of the cast.
But the evening produced a somber message as well.
The Achuar’s spokesman, Napoleon, or Napo, was in Cuenca to educate. It took the group 11 hours in a canoe and eight more on a bus to reach their destination. Born in the Amazon, he grew up with a dream of creating a force to fight for the survival of the rainforest. Now, serving as the president of Fundacion IKIAM, it is what he does.
Napo is dressed similarly to the Shaman, without the beaded adornments. His face markings are slightly different, with inky black design on his chin emphasizing the seriousness of his demeanor. At 26, he is an accomplished speaker of multiple languages and is passionate about his homeland.
While Ecuador currently is reducing the amount of oil drilling it is conducting in the rich southeast Amazon, the new president of Brazil produces a grave threat, Napo said. The newly elected hard-right Jair Bolsonaro has promised to roll back protections of the rainforest and the rights of indigenous people in Amazonia.
“Twenty percent of the oxygen we breathe around the world comes from the rainforest,” Napo said. More than half of the world’s estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in the tropical rainforests and one-fifth of the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon Basin.
He stops to give us a mini science lesson, explaining the relationship of the rainforest to carbon dioxide.
While humans continue to pump massive amounts of CO2 into the air by burning fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas, a major driver for climate change. Under natural conditions, plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorb it, then turn it into oxygen which is released back into the air. Without the rainforest, Napo explains, the greenhouse effect becomes more significant and climate changes will increase.
“If we lose the rainforest, we lose everything, wisdom, knowledge, culture…our lives,” Napo says. “It is our market, pharmacy, ferreteria (hardware store) and origin of life.”
His companions are nodding in agreement. I look at them and wonder, again, at the grand plan that placed me in a privileged home in El Paso, Texas, and located this passionate group in the wilds of the Amazon. I think about my passions for the border, for a reasonable and humanitarian answer for immigration, for the protection of women and children.
Napo and his neighbors are worried about their livelihood, their future, the global climate and health. We have the same hearts, the same drive for change, and the same fears. We live in different worlds, but share universal concerns.
“I was born in the rainforest. I feel the rainforest in my brain and in my spirit. Please protect the rainforest for our generation,” Napo says.
My heart aches for him and the future of the next generations. Yes. We have the same passions.