Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Deep Attachment to Place

Written 3 September 2011

I always anticipate the end of the inventory when all the teams come together to share their findings.  In this case, I had to wait two years.  The inventory had originally been planned for summer of 2009, and the social team was going ahead of the biological team.  As luck would have it, after we had been in the field for two and a half weeks, we postponed the inventory because of massive on-going protests by the indigenous people of the region against new laws the government had passed.  Indigenous peoples across the Amazon felt that the laws directly affected their control of resources in their titled lands.  The Awajún and Wampis peoples took a leadership role in the protests, and we felt that given their preoccupations and the regional turmoil, we should halt the inventory. 

Two years later, after more negotiations with local leaders, and bringing on the Instituto del Bien Común as a collaborator, we were able to resume the inventory, and successfully complete it.  From the social team’s perspective, this has been the most complicated inventory of our 24 rapid inventories to date.  The Awajún and Wampis are different from other Amazonian societies we have worked with in the past.  Their reputation as warrior peoples is long-standing. Having successfully fended off the Incas, over the centuries they also resisted successive attempts by the Spanish Crown who came in search of gold and other treasures. The Spaniards, witnessing their ferocity, called them (and others of the same linguistic family spread out across Ecuador and this section of Peru) the “Jivaros”--- the Savages or Barbarians.  But their own name for themselves was “aents”—the people of this place. 

Field Museum scientist Tita Alvira in Papayacu talking about
mammals with a local Wampis woman
Photo: R. Tsamarain
Indeed, their willingness to put their lives on the line derives in part from their deep attachment to this landscape whose breathtaking geology and natural history we are just now beginning to understand through the inventory.  For the Awajún and Wampis, mountains are not mere mountains but realms of spiritual beings and home to sacred waterfalls. For them, animals of the forest are not other species—separate from humans, but rather act just as humans do, creating social relationships.  In Awajún myths, recounted to team member, Filip Rogalski, the animals can become humans.  In one such myth, a man who has over-hunted the tapirs encounters a strange looking man in the forest, who takes him to see his yucca garden, and his house.  Finally he reveals that he is in reality a tapir and he pleads with the hunter not to kill his kind, but to greet them as his uncles and aunts.  This myth resonated for me when Debby Moskovits told me that on the last day of the inventory, she was walking the trail and encountered several tapirs—they stopped, seemed to be looking around, smelling and then ambled on.  Surely, they recognized a sister in her.

Another myth is about the "mono blanco", Cebus albifrons or the White-fronted
Capuchin monkey. The Awajún and Wampis believe this monkey can talk to
supernatural beings, kind of like an intermediary between the spirit world and them.
Photo: T. Alvira
This deep attachment to place found in the myths and stories was also reflected in other aspects of daily life that we investigated during the inventory.  We found that both men and women travel frequently, for example, across the mountains and forests, and up and down the rivers, to visit kin and friends in other villages.  We discovered that social relations criss-cross the region, from the Santiago to the Morona and Marañón Rivers.  

Woman singing traditional Awajun songs known as anen.
Photo: M. Pariona

Although community members rely most on word-of-mouth to share information, they also have incorporated new technologies such as short wave radio and public telephones when they are available.  Efficient communication is a key factor in how people organize across large distances.  However, given that verbal forms dominate, we found that there is a lot of “miscommunication”, gossip, and rumor that is part of the information stream. 

Carmen Pirucho, female leader of local indigenous
federation, and master artisan.
Photo: T. Alvira

 When we all got together at inventory’s end, August 2011, in Tarapoto,  I finally got to hear what everyone else found, and as at other such moments in other inventories, I was left deeply moved at the awesome character of this landscape.  To hear a region characterized in this way is really mind-expanding.  It gives you in encapsulated form (every team only has five minutes) the almost incomprehensible power of nature--the processes that have shaped the Amazon over the millennia.  We start with the geology—the birth of mountains, the flow of the rivers and the characteristics of the soil.

Gustavo Tsamarain, one of the six local scientists on the rapid inventory.
Photo: K. Swierck

We learned about the diversity of plants, reptiles, fish and mammals—new records for Peru and some species new to science. What stands out is the robust health of the forest and rivers and their inhabitants.  This despite the fact that team geologist Bob Stallard had also researched oil company documents and maps and uncovered the extent of their past seismic explorations. But we understand that the habitat is fragile and further intensive extractive activity is a major concern for conservationists and local people alike.

Children in Papayacu community spellbound by a map of
important historical and cultural sites for the Wampis and Awajun.
Photo: A. Treneman
When all of this is considered together, we can make really strong recommendations for ensuring that the landscape that our indigenous collaborators care so deeply about will be safeguarded far into the future.   

Post by Alaka Wali, Conservation Anthropologist


  1. Whoa, 2 years of holding inventory sure sounds like a long time, and expensive!
    -Jackie @ Inventory software

  2. inventory is the perfect solution and tracking system
    inventory management

  3. Our Amazon Waterfalls Assoc. has been working with these natives of Condorcanqui for many years, going throughout their zone last year getting permission with all major chiefs (Apus) to start our sustainable infrastructure project to benefit this zone and keep Peru's goverment at bay from exploiting it. Early next year we hope to get a large pontoon boat and complete getting everyone on board to go with our project.

    I can give more details with "a human" as with these sites, it is usually like "talking to a stone wall". I have been working with communities in the Dept. of Amazonas for 25 years, before it was accessable to most, and almost the first gringo here. The people of Condorcanqui asked me to help protect them from "progress". This after they protested the government attempt to exploit this zone and a protest that resulted in 70 of them being murdered, many by helecopter gun ships. I took bedding to those in a freezing prison afterwards, sleeping on a concrete floor with the thinest cotton clothing.
    Charles Motley www.amazonwaterfalls.org charlesmotley@gmail.com