Into the Amazon: Up Close with the Achuar People

Boat on the Amazon river

The Pastaza and Kawapi Rivers in Ecuador come together near the border of Peru. At their confluence, fresh water pink dolphins rise to the surface and nod their heads, as if to say hello. Nearby, toucans and parrots eat clay that neutralizes the poison in the berries they have just eaten. These animals are a part of the ecosystem that is as pure and unadulterated as any in the world.

These pristine surroundings are also inhabited by the Achuar people, who put on face paint to protect themselves from harm while moving through the rainforest. They live in harmony and in reverence of the rivers, trees and animals that inhabit their spectacular surroundings. The rainforest is where the Achuar find their food, medicines and raw materials to construct anything they need. It is their sacred place of worship.

The Achuar live without electricity. They have no automobiles or roads. They hunt with blowguns and curare darts. They believe the dreams they have while consuming hallucinogenic plants all come true. They are self sufficient, needing nothing from the outside world.

So, why are they so frightened?

In the spring of 2014, I spent eight days with the Achuar people, photographing and interviewing five families, including a shaman. I was fortunate to find a guide who spoke English and Achuar. All four villages I visited sat high on elevated banks above rivers, and the scenery was breathtaking.

My guide and I took a canoe up and down the Kawapi River to reach the four villages. Once near a village, we would walk up the bank to where the Achuar huts were located. My guide would go ahead, and obtain permission for me to enter the family’s home.

Their huts are tall, impressive structures, approximately 25 feet high, with roofs made from palm fronds. For the most part, the homes are open on three sides so friends can come and go. There are benches around the circumference of the hut for visitors to sit. Some of the huts have a small, enclosed area at one end for sleeping. The cooking is done on an open fire. Chickens and dogs walk freely through the homes.

close up of hands weaving a basketFirst, my guide and the father of the family exchanged what seemed to be a set dialogue in which both talked at the same time. After a couple of minutes I was told by my guide to introduce myself and explain why I was there. I spoke in English. My guide would interpret what I had said.

I thanked the man of the house for the honor of entering his home and for allowing me to speak with him and take pictures of him and his family. The father would welcome me and thank me for visiting his family. The Achuar were beyond gracious.

After introductions, I was given permission to ask questions, which were all answered by the father. My first questions were, “What is your daily life like? What do you and your family do every day?” This would usually bring the first smile on my host’s face and then he would answer.

The Achuar have a set routine. They wake up at three in the morning and drink “wayus,” a bitter drink that causes them to vomit. They believe the vomiting cleans them out to start the day fresh. The next few hours are spent telling stories with the entire family present. These stories provide guidance to the children and preserve the history of their people. In the United States, we would call it spending quality time.

After the sun comes up, there is fishing, hunting and gardening. The women do the gardening, which includes harvesting the roots of the native manioc plant to make “chichi,” a slightly fermented white liquid, later in the day. The men do the hunting and fishing. Fishing may be with a line and hook or a special basket filled with a crushed vine. When the basket is shaken underwater, extracts from the vines diffuse and the fish absorb it through their gills. The extracts weaken the fish, causing them to float to the top; they are then picked off the surface of the water.

Hunting involves walking for hours with an eight-foot long blowgun on their shoulders; the darts are made from palm fronds. Their favorite game to hunt is the peccary, a large hog that inhabits the jungle. The peccary puts out one of the strongest odors of any animal on earth. The Achuar follow the peccary by tracks and smell. The darts they use are thinner than a pencil lead and penetrate only an inch or two. It is the curare at the tip of the dart that brings the 60-to-80 pound animal down.

One of my visits was to a shaman at his complex of huts where his entire family lives. I am a physician and was interested in the medicines he used to treat his patients. Some of the drugs found on pharmacy shelves in the United States have come from plant sources. In fact, even curare that is placed at the end of the Achuar’s darts to paralyze animals was used in the U.S. for many years as a muscle relaxant during surgery. As an anesthesiologist, I have used curare in operating rooms.

Amazonian shamanI asked the shaman how he treats illness. The shaman’s facial expression became very serious as he told me how he cures everything from earaches to anxiety. He explained that all maladies of the body are produced by evil spirits that can come into a person without their knowledge.

His primary means of affecting a cure is a mixture known to the Achuar as “ayahuasca,” which contains a very potent hallucinogen. He went on to explain that it causes the taker to have “dreams” that purge the body of the evil spirits. The visual and auditory hallucinations last about four hours. He uses a mixture of two vines he grinds to powder and then turns into a liquid. The two plants used are “natem” and “yayi,” which are ground with a mortar and pestle and then placed in a pot to be heated over an open fire for approximately three hours. This powerful hallucinogenic mixture has been studied by doctors at UCLA and acts much like LSD.

The active chemical in ayahuasca is DMT, which has been known to western medicine since the 1960s. It is amazing that people with no knowledge of pharmacology discovered this mixture. Research at UCLA indicates ayahausca stimulates the production of serotonin receptors in the brain, which may be very beneficial for treating depression. The knowledge imparted to us by the Achuar could possibly even lead to a major new pharmaceutical for mental illness.

I found the families I visited to be uniformly happy, judging by the way they described their lives and by their expressions when they described their family and community.

I asked them if there were material things they needed. The universal answer was, “No, we have everything we want.” I asked what they would like for their children’s future. The answer was always, “What we have now.” My next to last question was always, “Do you have any fears?” With this question the expressions turned serious. Again there was a universal answer, “Oil companies.” They have been told there is oil under the jungle where they live.

They have also been told the outside world wants it.

Happy Amazonian childThe Anchaur know what has happened in other parts of Ecuador and Peru, where drilling has occurred. The petroleum industry has been in northern Ecuador and Peru for many years and has intentionally dumped extreme amounts of crude oil directly on the surface of the land occupied by children, plants and animals. The oil companies do not deny the dumping occurred and do not deny it was intentional. Litigation is ongoing to determine if they should clean up the mess.

The Achuar are not a part of this lawsuit and do not care who wins. The Achuar just ask that the same thing does not happen to their land. They love their children and want to protect them. This is why they are afraid.

Is their fear justified? Yes. If the past portends the future, at some point they will be driven off their land by oil pollution or the Ecuadorean government. In the past, when indigenous people of the Amazon have resisted the dictates of South American politicians they have been killed, en masse if necessary. The last question I always asked my Achuar hosts was, “Do you have any questions for me?” The answer was the same from all: “Will you help us tell the world what a wonderful place we live in and will you please help us stop the oil companies?”

I said I would.

Stephen Wallace ’00 (JD) has degrees in pharmacy, medicine and law. He wrote this story and took these photographs.