The Achuar: Culture
The Achuar live in the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon. The name Achuar means 'the people of the aguaje palm', which shows how closely linked their identity is with the habitat of the Amazonian rainforest. In addition to living from the resources of the rainforest, the plants and animals of the Amazon are spiritually significant to the Achuar. Every living thing is linked to its own spirit, and a successful hunter must live harmoniously with the guardian spirits of the game he hunts by taking the animals respectfully and with moderation.
Plants such as the ayahuasca vine have a ritual use for healing and are used to give visions that provide understanding and power over the self and the external world. For the Achuar, dreams are omens and if a hunt is to be a success it is usually necessary to dream this beforehand.
Men hunt and women cultivate plants in small gardens. As plants also have spirits, the Achuar believe that gardens can be perilous places, particularly for children as they are the potential victims of the manioc spirit - a vampiric, malevolent spirit, which sucks the blood of the young. This is particularly dangerous for the Achuar, as they see blood as finite and precious; blood can never be replaced and to lose it brings you closer to your death.
[Reference: Descola, Phillipe, In the Society of Nature 1994]
View the Achuar slideshow.
The Achuar: History
Though there are written records about the Achuar that date to 1548, the Achuar avoided much of the contact between Amazonian Indians and the Spanish conquistadors until the 20th century. Numerous military and missionary ventures into their territory failed. In the 1940s and 50s, however, both Christian missionaries and tradesmen became established in the area, and exported timber, resin, hides and meat.
In the 1970s logging became an increasingly pervasive industry in Achuar land and in the 1980s the petroleum industry began work in Achuar territory, which continues today. Though the Achuar have received wage payments for their participation with the timber and oil industries, their interests are often in conflict with industrial companies - outsiders have brought high levels of disease to the Achuar, and depleted resources, leading to conflicts between communities.
Petroleum operations have also led to significant environmental pollution and health problems for the Achuar: recent governmental studies have shown extremely high blood lead and cadmium levels in Achuar communities and negligent actions from the Peruvian state and petrol companies have been identified as the cause of this. [Martí Orta Martínez et al 2007]
The website of the Achuar people in the Peruvian Amazon (available in English).
A Death in Sion, a film about the Achuar made by Racimos, Amazon Watch, FECONACO and US filmaker Adam Goldstein about the impact of petroleum in Corrientes.
The Corrientes Region, where Bruce and the crew filmed oil extraction, provides 60% of the oil consumed in Peru. The industry undoubtedly brings employment and some infrastructure to the region, but FECONACO (The Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River) claims that for every barrel of oil produced, nine barrels of contaminated water are produced as a by-product - more than a million barrels a day. The water contains high concentrations of hydrocarbons and heavy metals, like lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic.
Read Steve's blog on oil extraction 'Devastation and Contamination'
It is acknowledged that high levels of these substances can cause serious physical and mental health problems, including cancer and genetic deformities. A survey carried out by Peru's Ministry of Health in 2006 found that cadmium levels in the blood of more than 98% of the Achuar exceeded safe levels and more than 66% of children had levels of lead in their blood which exceeded the maximum permissible. The Achuar people also say that the water is killing fish and wildlife and destroying the forest eco-system in which they live.
Watch Bruce's video blog 'Oil spill'
The Achuar have held numerous peaceful occupations of oil industry property in protest against oil extraction. In November 2006, following a 14 day occupation by the Achuar, the Peruvian government and Pluspetrol agreed to most of their demands, including the re-injection of formation waters back into the ground and the dedication of five percent of oil royalties in the state of Loreto to Achuar community development.
See Bruce's video blog 'The aftermath of an oil spill'
Ayahuasca, a Quechua word meaning 'vine of the soul', refers to a concoction of plants that are used by Amazonian shamans, and which have long been used medicinally by people of the Amazonian basin. To prepare the liquid, apprentices study for years with an elder shaman, getting to know the properties of the different plant ingredients that allow the chemicals of the plants used to circulate throughout the body. The training is hard. An estimated 100 species have been used in ayahuasca brews and each plant has its own spirit that the shaman needs to learn to harness for the plant to be effective in ceremonies.
Academic study of ayahuasca has shown a link to remission (without recurrence) of addiction, depression and anxiety disorders (Grob 1993). The brew is drunk in the presence of the shaman and it provokes a profound state of altered consciousness that is thought to allow a person into the depths of their unconscious mind. The person experiences visions, which can occasionally be terrifying. Sometimes the experience becomes a lengthy journey to a personal hell to meet long-forgotten demons. Usually the visions are followed by sickness, which the shaman believes is the physical purge of toxins.
Peru: Hell and Back. Read a National Geographic account of the shamanistic medicine ritual that Bruce is to experience.
The word shaman is an umbrella term, which has replaced the word 'witch doctor' - a phrase that unites the two stereotypical functions of the shaman: magical knowledge and the ability to heal. Many cultures, throughout history and across the world, have a role analogous to that of the shaman: from the necromancer of Greek mythology who raised the spirits of the dead, to the Siberian shamans who take the form of birds to travel freely across the skies.
Most shamans act as mediators between worlds - communicating with the dead, or with the consciousness of animals. A quantum theorist supposes a universe of many parallel worlds, and similarly for an Amazonian shaman, there are an infinite number of realms of consciousness - each inhabited by different beings. So there is not only a heaven and hell but many versions of each; there are not only angels and devils but numerous spirits, some protective, some malign. To become a master shaman, one must not only learn to negotiate these worlds but also to harness the powers of the beings that inhabit each realm.
Nuns of the Mission in Wijint
The nuns are a permanent Catholic presence in Wijint, where a group of nuns oversee the secondary boarding school. They do not do all the teaching, there are many teachers employed by the State, but they manage it. They appear to have a deep respect for Achuar culture.
The nuns place an emphasis on teaching about indigenous rights and are trying to get some of their students involved in the patrolling of Achuar territory to ensure the petrol company working on the Morona does not cross over to carry out seismic testing on their lands.
One of the nuns (Berta) is an expert in medicinal plants and is carrying out a programme to build the capacity of Achuar adults and students in their use to cure a variety of diseases including malaria and snake bite.
[Aliya Ryan: The Achuar of Paztaza and Corrientes 2007]
Father and daughter
The nuns at the mission in Wijint encourage the Achuar to pursue their education after they leave the mission school, and a few years ago they helped one of the Achuar girls to get a place training as a nurse in Lima, and arranged for her to stay with the order at the mission house.
Her family have been unable to see or even speak to her for years due to the expense and difficulty of travelling between Lima and Wijint. Almu got to know the girl's father and suggested he ring the mission house in Lima using the crew's satellite phone. He had never used a phone before, and he needed help to hold it in the right place.
This picture shows him hearing his daughter's voice for the first time in four years. It was a strange and emotional experience for him and the family, and they are looking forward to later this year when their daughter is expected to come home to Wijint to work as a nurse for the community.