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FROM HEAD-SHRINKERS TO ECOTOURISM SHAKERS
THE ACHUAR OF KAPAWI ECOLODGE & RESERVE

by Dominic Hamilton

Snaking along the lumbering River Kapawi, buzzing from thickly-clad bank to wooly bank, a hoatzin bird puts on a display for the newly-arrived tourists. From its low-hanging branches, it rears up on its hind legs and flaps its brown and yellow wings, screeching and hissing. As we motor past, it turns, as if to make sure we've acknowledged its presence. It is a fitting welcome to the Kapawi Ecolodge: the hoatzin, also known as the 'stinky turkey', is the lodge's symbol, adorning all the staff's T-shirts and the lodge's literature.

Kapawi lies in southeastern Ecuador, close to its border with Perú. It's a long way from anywhere. To get to the nearest airstrip, you fly in a small jet from Quito for an hour, transferring to an even smaller plane for a further 45 minutes. From there, it's another 40 minutes by motorised canoe.

Kapawi stands at the bleeding-edge of green-building tourism. The 20 cabins and social structures are built in traditional Achuar Indian style; solar energy provides around 65% of the lodge's power; all solid waste is recycled or flown out; cleaner four-strokes are employed as outboard engines; all sewage is laboriously filtered; hot water comes from five-gallon bags left out in the sun - the list goes on.

The beautiful thatched and cool cabins girdle one side of a small lagoon, walkways interconnecting the various parts of the lodge. Wooden pegs pin floorboards and walls, and twine binds the functional yet elegant roofs. The decoration in the social longhouse is Spartan yet stylish, halogen lights on rails running between beams, hammocks and chaises-longues overlooking the tranquil lagoon, table games sculpted from vegetable ivory dotted about on coffee tables that look like ant-eaters. Incredibly, there's nary a nail in the whole place. But Kapawi, admittedly a laudable low-impact tourist lodge with a stunning jungle setting, is much more than that.

VISION OF THE FUTURE

At a time when concerns regarding the equitable relationship between tourism operations and indigenous people are greater than ever, Kapawi offers a vision of co-operation and understanding. The lodge lies in the heart of Achuar territory, an Indian people of the larger Jívaro linguistic group. Jívaro land is the size of Portugal. Belgium would fit snuggly into the Achuar's share alone, although its 4,500 inhabitants would make little impact on the population of a Brussels suburb. The Achuar's back yard is one of the few parts of Ecuador's slice of the Amazon to have escaped, thus far, the depravations of oil exploration, mining and logging. With no roads for hundreds of miles, the forest is primary, pristine.

Under the agreement drawn up by the company which took on the Kapawi project, Canodros, the entire tourist infrastructure will be handed over to the Achuar in 2011. Canodros never bought the land, but agreed to lease it. They pay a monthly rent, which increases by 7% a year and currently stands at nearly $3,000. In addition, each tourist pays a $10 community fee. Fees are expected to have totalled $150,000 over the project's 15-year course. By 2011, Canodros will have trained the local Achuar communities in all aspects of the running of the lodge, from manager down to barman. Even now, around 60% of the staff are indigenous, with outsiders only holding posts until they've trained their protégés. Only a handful of lodges in the world run on this basis.

UNENVIABLE REPUTATIONS

Although very few people had actually met them, the reputation of the Jívaros and particularly the Achuar preceded them. Fierce fighters and defenders of their lands, the Jívaro were known chiefly for their predilection for shrinking their enemies' heads. These grisly totems were occasional bartered, and found their way to the markets of Ecuador's highlands, and even as far as traders on the Panama Canal.

In the late nineteenth century, the Dominican Abbé Pierre provided one of the first accounts of these "ferocious savages entirely devoted to the pleasures of warfare and the works of Satan." When the tour guide and adventurer Daniel Coopermans paddled his way down the River Kapawi in the late 1980s, the Achuar were still among the least known of Ecuador's Amazonian tribes. Only in the 1960s had Salesian missionaries managed to penetrate their lands successfully, and begun to pacify them. In the 1970s, the French anthropologist and pupil of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Philippe Descola, spent many months with them. His experiences are recounted in his excellent The Spears of Twilight (1996).

Daniel and his friends were looking for the best location for a jungle lodge. One day, they came round a bend in the river, and entered a beautiful, secluded lagoon on its left bank. The place proved ideal. There's a subterranean well nearby for drinking water, with the mission and airstrip of Kapawi only an hour's paddle away. All perfectly straightforward, if a bit eccentrically remote. No matter how good the intentions, however, the cultural, economic and spiritual impacts of Kapawi on the Achuar were going to be inevitable. As Lévi-Strauss, whose work with Amazonian Indians is still regarded as seminal, himself has pointed out "The people for whom the term cultural relativism was invented, have rejected it."

Ecuador enjoys the grim fame of the Amazon Basin's highest rate of deforestation. The Achuar only need to look to the north to see their fellow indigenous cousins being wiped out by the environmentally-catastrophic oil industry. Faced with the prospect of the oil industry eventually working its way south, with new roads inevitably drawing ill-prepared colonists, the Achuar chose the lesser of two evils. Huge effort has gone into channelling change towards this once-feared people's survival. The ultimate goal of Kapawi is to prove the tourism industry can be a viable and competitive - not to mention un-destructive - force to protect this untouched piece of rainforest and its people.

THE FOREST COMES ALIVE

Spending time with the Achuar, you realise how inseparable the latter two truly are.

"The big trees of the forest are very powerful," claims my Achuar guide Gilberto, standing in the shadow of a mammoth ceiba tree. "All plants and trees are people, but you can't see them normally. The tall ceiba earns great respect, but is also dangerous for newly-born children. It whispers to them and makes them ill. When you take the hallucinogens naatam (commonly called ayahuasca, Banisteriopsis caapi) or wanto, the forest comes alive."

 

Walking through the forest with Gilberto, the green and brown morass of decay and destruction, in turn, springs to life. Gilberto's encyclopaedic knowledge, of plants, flowers, animals, myths and customs, is enough hallucinogen for most people. After an hour on a trail, the putative impenetrable mass of life and death instead becomes a forest of revelation.

"The shishin speaks kind words while you are in a hallucinogenic trance," he explained pointing to an arrow-leafed plant carpeting the forest floor. "It is very friendly. The shamans brush it over the body of a patient, chasing bad spirits." Another plant, chirikiaspi, gives the hunter strength and fortifies the lungs to be able to shoot monkeys high in the canopy with a blow pipe. It also anaesthetises the body, making you feel numb and able to walk for days without much food. No bad thing when you've got to trek the equivalent of Brussels-Antwerp to visit your granny.

Gilberto had taken the hallucinogen wanto twice. When he talked about it, his dark eyes glowed, and his usually nervous smile and laugh came more readily. Although the missionaries have done their best to banish the Achuar's animist beliefs, shamans and the use of the forest's hallucinogens, they are still integral to the older generation of Achuar. Gilberto claimed that after taking wanto he was left raring to work and hunt and spend more time in the forest. In the Amazon they're banning it. In New York they'd kill for it!

Just as these drugs are woven into their daily life, their oneiric world decides most of the next day's waking activities. The Achuar extract symbolic meanings from their dreams. If a man dreams of fighting with his brother and drawing blood, it in fact means that if he goes hunting he'll come across a herd of grunting peccary.

AMAZON MENAGERIE

We didn't happen across any of these scary boar-like creatures that terrorise forest paths, nor any jaguars or large mammals- despite Kapawi ranking among the best lodges to see such beasts. We found the tracks of a young ocelot, spotted troops of howler monkeys and gaggles of toucans, and early one morning, observed a mother caiman crocodile only slightly longer than my notebook herd her twelve mewling offspring around the shores of a lagoon. On a visit to a local family, we were introduced to their pet anaconda, kinkajou and cute coati.

At dawn on another morning, we took a launch to a saladero, clay lick . Here, flocks of iridescent parakeets, parrots and macaws come to gnaw on clay banks. The clay aids their digestion, but the morning ritual also serves as a mating ground. The young birds come to meet their partners here, squawking and flapping and swooping their way to life-long married bliss. In this respect, the saladero is not dissimilar to the youth club discos I attended in my teens. Just without the finale bent over a toilet.

On the morning of our departure, the hoatzin was there to flap us goodbye. We weren't sure if it was the same one. But having read up about the bird, it seemed more appropriate than ever that it should guard the entrance to this remote and intriguing lodge.

The baby hoatzin is the only bird to boast a set of claws on its wings. If it falls out of the nest, it employs them to clamber back up to its parents' perch. The Achuar are, to my mind, the young hoatzin, acquiring the tricks of the tourist trade, and developing the skills to deal with the outside world on their own terms, under the tutelage of the people at Canodros. In the fifteen years of the Kapawi project, the Achuar will have gone from flailing about on the ground, through learning to haul themselves up on their own, to finally greeting their guests with their very own display. Just don't call them stinky turkeys.


Kapawi Ecolodge & Reserve TEL (022) 256759 or 445639 email eco-tourism1@canodros.com web site www.kapawi.com

Pachamama Alliance: Works with the Achuar on various community programs, and also organises special tours to the lodge.

 
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SMALL PRINT: On the request page, you must state you came from Ecuadorial to benefit from the airport transfer offer.
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