Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Don Gustavo and Don Camilo

Written on 9 August 2011

The rivers to either side of the Kampankis range have been inhabited for centuries by indigenous groups in the Jivaro linguistic family, mostly Wampis and Awajun. Today they live in dozens of small communities along the Santiago and Morona rivers – small meaning with typically fewer than 200 residents. Many basic goods are brought in from other areas of Peru – batteries, sugar, clothes – but the rest of Peru is a long ways off and accessible only by river and what satisfies a large portion of their daily needs is the forest. To cite just one of a hundred examples, the leaves of one of the palms that is common on the high ridge at camp two make especially resistant thatch roofs, which can reportedly keep out the rain for up to 20 years.
In the 19th century, a cartographer in a capital city somewhere drew the border between Ecuador and Peru in such a way that it split Wampis territory in two. For many years the line caused no one any problems, because outsiders hardly ever visited the area. Then, in the 1940s, Ecuador and Peru fought to a stalemate over this section of border, army bases were established on the Santiago River, and people could no longer travel freely as they had in the past. Parents and children, brothers and sisters were separated for about 40 years, which is how long the restrictions lasted. Today people on the Ecuadorean side prefer the name Shuar, while those on the Peruvian side prefer Wampis. Ecuador and Peru signed a peace treaty after fighting flared again in the late 1990s, and travel across the border is now common and easy. (One of the guides in camp, though, has a t-shirt that says “Never touch or play with landmines!”) Asked independently about the war that they were on opposite sides of not long ago, both Camilo and Gustavo hang their heads and say the same thing: “It was very ugly….”
I mention this history because apart from a biological inventory, this trip is also a family reunion. Camilo Kajekai, who’s one of four botanists on the team, is an Ecuadorean Shuar who was an adult before he ever met his uncles on this side of the border. He hasn’t come across any family yet on this trip, but it’s probably just a matter of time – the guides know one uncle. In addition to knowing all the plant names in Shuar, Camilo is expert in Linnaean taxonomy, having worked for several years in a Missouri Botanical Garden program with David. In the field he’s efficient and reserved, and now and then he gives us a quiet reminder of how much closer to home he is than the rest of us. The other day David and I were walking in front on the trail and Camilo was bringing up the rear. David and I slogged up a steep hill and then struggled sweatily down the other side, and at the base of the hill we found Camilo winking.
Botanist Camilo Kakejai pressing a Mabea at camp three
Foto: A. del Campo
The Wampis host we’ve spent the most time with in the field is Gustavo Huashica. Gustavo is about ten years older than Camilo – old enough to have several adult children. He lives in a community on the Rio Santiago named Soledad, which means something between solitude and loneliness in Spanish. (It got that name because it was founded by a rubber trader who lived there by himself for several years in the early 1900s. Now there are some 300 inhabitants.) On the trails Gustavo wears shorts and rubber boots and a Lionel Messi jersey; the first time I worked with him his machete had gone missing, so he wore a kitchen knife under his belt. He has an extraordinarily kind and trusting face, and he’s always interested in hearing what you’ve seen, or showing you something he’s seen, or explaining which plants are good to eat, or good to treat burns or snakebites with, or good to clean your underarms with (which might have been a gentle hint), and a hundred other bits of old, hard-won botanical knowledge that are gradually disappearing across the tropics.
Gustavo has never, as I understand it, been out of the Santiago and Morona watersheds – which means he’s never seen a city in his life. The cultural distance between him, Camilo, the other Wampis hosts and the rest of the team is vast, and the challenge of triangulating among those differences is sometimes overwhelming, but it’s understood that we’re all here to learn about the cordillera and we do our best with the short time we have together.
One night at the first camp, where we had been discussing this region’s complex geology, I remembered the story about the Inuits’ 50 different words for snow and asked Camilo how to say rock in Shuar. 

“There’s just one word,” he replied. 

“But what if it’s a white rock that’s really hard?” 

“Well, then we’d call it _____.” 

“Two! And what if it’s a river stone that you can break in half?” 

“Those we call _____.” 

“Three! And what if it’s the kind you use to sharpen your machete?” 

“That’s a _____.” 

“Four! And what if it’s one of those rocks you can use to make sparks to light a fire?” 

“Oh yeah – we call those _____.” 

“Five! And…” etc.
One day Gustavo showed me an herb he used to treat headaches. “You mash up the leaves, add a little water, and then smell it – no more headache….” An hour or so later he mentioned that he did, in fact, have a headache, and at the next stream he did just as he had described, except that at the end, instead of smelling the crushed-up plant, he snorted it energetically. 

“Ah,” I said. “You’ve got to do more than just smell it.” 

“That’s right,” said Gustavo, giving me his kind look, tapping his forehead. “You’ve got to get it all the way up here – next to your brain….” 

A few minutes later he said he felt better.
Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful writing, wonderful stories! Keep 'em coming.