Indigenous Communities: Conservation and Sustainability

Otavalo Travel Blog

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“An important instrument of indigenous organizations to further both the quest for a communal territorial base and cultural survival, is a renewed commitment to environmental conservation.”
                        (Wesche 49)

    Indigenous movements in Ecuador are numerous and varied.  Most active efforts serve to preserve and to protect regional Indigenous tradition, including, but not limited to native languages, healing practices, and religious beliefs, as well as to protect and/or gain community intellectual property rights.  In Ecuador, our group was impressed to encounter so many structured organizations working for indigenous rights.
  Many of these organizations have already been successful in their respective struggles, but still, much work remains.
    One major demand of Ecuadorian indigenous communities is to respect and  uphold their cultural link to the land; many of the spiritual practices of these tribes, as well as a significant chunk of their native languages, revolves around their connection with nature.  They also request the maintenance of environmental conservation in order to safeguard their traditional lifestyles.  In opposition, some conservationists have disagreed with these indigenous pleas asserting that indigenous groups have, “increasingly adopted the exploitative practices of the settlers in recent decades” (Wesche 50).
    COICA (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica), or the coordinator of indigenous organizations of the Amazon basin, issued a declaration in 1988 claiming that the indigenous life styles, their accumulated knowledge, and their respect for nature, are key elements to preserving the Amazonian jungle.  They presented the argument that preservation of the regional indigenous cultures is a valuable combatant to environmental destruction and increased development in the region.  The declaration concluded that, “the most effective defense of the Amazonian biosphere is the recognition of our ownership rights over our territories and the promotion of our models of living” (COICA 1989).  
    In agreement with the 1988 COICA declaration, CONFENIAE (Confederation of the Nationalities Indigenous to the Amazon of Ecuador) took up the principals stated therein, and has become a self proclaimed guardian of the Ecuadorian Amazon.  Their commitment spreads not only to their recognized territories, but also to governmental nature reserves.  
    Still, some conservationist argue the need for nature reserves which exclude indigenous peoples.  They reason that, “the indigenous notion of conservation implies sustainable use, and thus differs from the notion of Western conservationists which implies preservation in a natural state” (Wesche 50).  This argument is certainly valid, but overlooks the fact that the 1988 COICA declaration is not so much meant to be an account of past practice so much as a new policy followed by a renewed commitment to conservation.  
    In 2002, at the International Indigenous Peoples Summit on Sustainable Development, COICA released another statement, called the Kimberly Declaration.  The declaration briefly examines many of the various grievances of indigenous communities world wide, demanding respect for and support of the self management of property and resources, the ownership of human and ancestral remains, collective intellectual property rights, the right to be free of the various repercussions of economic globalization and multinational corporations, as well as exploitation and abuse.  The report begins by stating that, “we have a distinct spiritual and material relationship with our lands and territories and they are inextricably linked to our survival and to the preservation and further development of our knowledge systems and cultures, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem management” (COICA 2002).  It goes on to explain that indigenous communities have the right (recognized or not) to determine their own methods of caring for their lands and territories, as well as their own strategies for protecting the property and its natural resources, citing foreign influence on their lands as one of the main obstacles in obtaining the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples.  The declaration explains that unsustainable extraction, harvesting, production and consumption patterns lead to climate change, widespread pollution, and environmental destruction.  In turn, evicting indigenous communities from their lands and creating immense levels of poverty and disease.  In the Kimberly declaration, conservation and sustainability are clearly defined goals of indigenous peoples on an international level.

“We reaffirm our mutual solidarity as Indigenous Peoples of the world in our struggle for social and environmental justice”                            (COICA 2002).

    In Otavalo, Ecuador, I had the opportunity to stay with an indigenous family at their home for two days.  Like many of the families that students visited, my home stay family’s lifestyle was almost entirely sustainable.  The family had an expansive garden; home to a great variety of vegetables and fruits.  The farmed cui (guinea pig), pigs, and chickens for meat, as well as eggs and cows and goats for milk.  Behind the garden was a medium sized crop of corn, mostly used for eating, but also sold or traded with neighbors for other goods.  Little garbage was ever produced because not a lot of products were brought in from the town.  The exceptions being toilet paper (which I almost assumed was only there for my own comfort), bedding and clothes, medicine only for very serious instances, and few luxuries.  The household operated on candle light and the cooking stove was wood burning; electricity is hardly needed, as the family woke up before the sun and went to bed soon after it set.  It was wonderful living with this family for a few days, working hard during the day, and relaxing over tea on the dirt floor of their dining area, four generations of family included.
    One morning the mother asked Nadia and I what we would like for lunch.  Hoping to get a taste of traditional cuisine, we responded that it didn’t matter much, and we’d like whatever they were having.  The young daughter used our response to interject her craving: chicken soup.  We all agreed that chicken soup sounded wonderful, and so the day began.  We first milked the cows at around four AM.  The family has a herd of about five cows which they milked twice a day.  The cows produced two large jugs of milk, more or less, with each milking, so there was plenty extra to sell or trade to the neighboring families.  We delivered the milk on horseback, and returned to the house.  
    There, we separated corn, leaving scraps for the goats and pig in one pile, husks for eating in another, and a third pile of the juicy stocks to press and collect the sugary liquid inside.  Nothing went to waste; even the occasional worm inside a husk was fed to a nearby chicken.  After separating the corn, we boiled it along with a few chunks of yuka we had dug up from the garden.
    Then it was time to turn our very plain soup into chicken soup.  We fed the chickens corn that had rotten and was inedible, but had been dried and was fine for the chickens.  When they were nearly full, we grabbed two larger hens by the legs, and took them out into the back garden.  We killed them each with a quick slice to the throat, then hung them upside down a few minutes to bleed.  Next we took the chickens inside and placed them one at a time into a large pot already prepared with boiling water.  After they had boiled a while, they were ready to pluck.  We pulled the feathers out in handfuls, clumsily trying to master the experienced technique of our host mom.  Eventually, and long after she had finished, Nadia’s and my chicken was feather free.  We then put the naked birds in a second pot of clean boiling water, head, feet, and all, and headed out to visit the community’s sacred waterfall.  The grandmother stayed behind to tend to the chickens.
    Though the day already felt abnormally long, when we returned to the house it wasn’t much later than noon.  We ate the chicken soup gratefully; it was the delicious product of a hard morning of work.  The chicken had been cut up into bite sized chunks.  There wasn’t much of the white meat we generally associate with “chicken”, but instead crunchy chunks of lung, gooey liver, and something mushy which may have been the kidneys.  I cant say that the flavor of these interestingly colored bits of meat were extraordinarily tasty,  but the gratification of eating a meal prepared entirely from the good of the family garden was completely satisfying, and the soup was therefore one of the utmost delicious meals of my life.  We ate it with tea, made from plants in the garden, with a splash of fresh milk, and some sugar from the corn cane.  
    In my experience, though it was only for two days, sustainability is clearly an important  part of the indigenous reality in Ecuador.  I felt that our relationship with the Earth and it creatures was whole and loving, and certainly lent itself to good health.  Though maintaining a sustainable lifestyle is a struggle, as is preserving the right to do so, I saw that it is a very important thing to fight for.  To the community in Otavalo, it was valuable both culturally and morally.

“Today we reaffirm our relationship to Mother Earth and our responsibility to coming generations to uphold peace, equity and justice”
                    (COICA 2002)

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Today I woke up tired.  Last night was a party: dancing, feasting, drinks; that’s a different story all together.  This Morning we made our way to the Jambi Huasi, la casa de medicina, the hospital here in Otavalo, whatever you want to call it; that’s not important to the story.  What is important is what I experienced within the four walls of the rectangular courtyard of the clinic.
    We first had a discussion with one of the founders of the clinic.  It started out light; we talked about the clinic and its goals.  The Jambi Huasi in Otavalo offers medical resources following a number of different healing traditions.  Patients may choose their treatment, occidental or traditional.  Today, we were mostly interested in traditional healing practices of those indigenous to the high Andean mountains of Ecuador.  We touched, briefly, the subject of birth control for the Indigenous, which shot like a bullet into a rapid-fire conversation.  The Indigenous traditionally hold a woman upside down from her ankles, shake her three times, and tie a band of fabric around a her right after she gives birth.  After giving birth, a woman’s intestines are loosely in their places and her abdomen has a lot of excess liquid.  Shaking her upside down sets her uterus high in her torso; the pressure of the belt holds it tight, preventing sperm from reaching it as often.  The practice has shown to be effective for up to six years after the women gives birth.   It is a process that the Indigenous have found very useful; with the belt, a woman will be less likely to be impregnated while she still has a young child to feed and care for.  This birth control practice was thought to be grotesque to some friends worlders, including the translator, Susana, who curled up her lips in disgust as she spoke.  Our conversation became more passionate, and even hot.  We talked about women’s rights, abortion, rape, and molest.

    “I’m sick of sitting through lectures of everyone bitching about women’s issues,” he said, and she broke down into a furry of tears.   Her pain and excitement exploded into a hyperventilation fit that could only be drown for seconds at a time by a glob of melted mucus.  Her head was like a lab experiment, two chemicals combined with a dangerous reaction.  I took her hands gently and pulled them to my chest.  I began to channel her energy through my body, from my hands and chest through my feet into the ground.  I pulled the anger and sadness from her body through her arms and tried to root it in the earth.  I saw myself as a little girl in her saddened face; her breath uncontrollable and her skin hot and moist.  Then it was time.

    I knew the number before it was chosen, before we were told to chose numbers.  My world was 56 for a few minutes, then all the students who were interested in receiving a cui diagnosis were told to chose a number between one and one hundred.  
    “Fifty-six,” I said.  I felt nervous because I knew what was to come.  I could still feel the sweat of Liz’s hands in mine.  I had read about the cui cleansing before, in writing class, and I knew what was to come.  I wanted to experience it, I almost felt as if I needed it, but still I was nervous.
    “It’s 56,” Shanti called; it was my number.  I was ready.
    I went to the bathroom to look in the mirror, but the tiny corner room held only a toilet, no mirror.  So I walked across the courtyard to the water fountain.  It was hot out, and cold, like a sunburn that feels like it’s sizzling, but still gives you the chills.  I rinsed my face at a tap and took of my sweatshirt.  I removed my shoes, belt, and bra.  I found a spot of ground outside of the group, the largest sprawl of un-cemented earth I could find, and sat down to prepare myself.  I was worried because I had just put so much energy into comforting Liz, and I wanted my cui to be a representation of me, just me.  So I meditated a while.  I thought about the cui that waited somewhere in a cage and tried to connect with it.  I brought Earth energy up through my feet and sunk a grounding cord like an anchor down deep.  I sucked in the energy of the sky and the gods through my nose, let the fresh air fill me chest.  I felt the saliva in my mouth and dreamed of water, rivers and the sea.  I pulled in support from far away places; I thought of my family and felt a safety net, my angels, the spirits of my ancestors, God, Goddesses, whoever it was, they came in close, comforted and hugged me.
    When the time came, I stood in the middle of a circle of students and spectators, in the middle of the courtyard of the Jambi Huasi.   The healer woman came up from down a flight of stairs holding a blonde cui from its neck.  I felt extraordinarily focused.  The woman’s skin was old, wrinkled, and leathery from the harsh sunlight.  She had young sparkly eyes, worn hands and feet.  A heavy black cloth covered her head and hair, and two long strings of sun faded orangey- red beads synched both her wrists giving them a strong and impenetrable appearance.  She had a medical-blue lab coat draped over her traditional dress, a white ruffled shirt, long thick skirt, colorful woven belt, and gold beaded necklace.  She was no taller than my chest.  
    She took the cui and lifted it above her head to my chest,  She mumbled something that I didn’t catch in a tiny raspy voice that crackled through a the tarnished teeth of her radiant smile.  I smiled back at her with love and apprehension.  I felt like she was the only one who could feel me or see me.  I pet the cui at my chest.  That cui and I were one, two parts of the same entity.  The healer joked that my shirt would get dirty, and I told her that I dint mind.  Then she began.
    She held the hind legs of my animal, and the head, and gently rolled in up and down my body, whispering prayers.  My physical contact with the cui became more and more rough as she continued.  She worked the cui over my torso, back, limbs, and head.  I never took my eyes off the animal.  I was entranced with the process.  I could feel the belly of the cui against my own; I could feel the liquid inside of it churning, our blubber bounced and squished off of each others.  She rolled the animal over my whole body almost furiously, spitting phrases in Quichua in a low voice.  
    Give it your illness, I told myself, let go.  I watched the cui.  I closed my eyes.  I took deep breaths.
    The cui squealed, but in a soft voice, almost a whisper; I felt its claws on my neck.  When the qui began to pee, and the woman giggled and held it away from my body.  She gave the cui a few short, rapid, shakes and then continued.  Now, she held the cui’s broken self from only it’s neck and flung its body around, hitting me.  She beat me with it.
    I could tell after some time that the cui was now dead and the healer slowed her pace.  Something inside me rose up and out, like tiny balls of weight that had been resting in my body were dissolved.  The weight was lifted like dust off of a dirt road, and blew away from me.  She held the cui at my chest again and I thanked it.  She said something more, rest the cui on the paved ground, and left the courtyard.  I lowered myself to my knees instinctually and locked my eyes on the cui.  It gave of a few weak twitches as the last remains of life left its body.  The cui reminded me of something, I don’t know what.  It was like the dead brought out from inside me; it rest in silence on the concrete.
    The healer came back with a knife and a small waste basket.  She lifted the cui and sliced it at the chest.  Her hands were strong; I could see the muscles in her fingers flex as she worked the knife through its tough fir and skin.  She pulled the skin back from its front paws and pulled the naked skull from its hide.  She dissected the cui slowly, examining all of its parts.  When the skin was pulled away from the top half of its body, the woman noticed a dark bulge in the cui’s neck.  It was something like a small dark marble trapped in mushy tendons.  She nudged it with her finger and it twitched.  We both stared at the neck quivering. Then I was startled by a flash from over my shoulder.
    A man stood close behind me, and had just taken a photo.  I saw him and wasn’t sure what to do or how to react, as I had not noticed, then, that anyone had been watching me.  This was the first time I looked up, and I saw that I was surrounded by students and visitors, all staring at me there in the middle of the yard.  I saw twisted faces and cameras.  I saw impatience, intrigue, disgust, humor, a lot of things.  This was that first time I dint feel completely calm and relaxed, but it was all only for a second because I felt hot tears in my eyes, and lowered my head again.  I looked back to the cui in the woman’s firm hands, and nothing else.  
    Now, with tears running down my cheeks, the healer looked back to me, pointed to the lump and asked me something.  She spoke softly and I couldn’t hear her.  There was too much in my head already; I couldn’t understand her words.  Shanti came from somewhere behind me crouched down into a squat and translated a few words.
    “You have a pain in your neck she said,”  Shanti repeated in a inquiring voice.
    “Yeah…. I do.”
    From the audience I heard someone say, “yeah, she always talks about something in her neck hurting.”
    At this point I felt like a show, like a spectacle.  Shanti spoke again.
    “So the woman has found something in the neck of the cui, and Lily has confirmed that there is something there.”  I grabbed Shanti’s hand.  I was crying.  I was fragile, and I wanted her to understand.  I needed comfort at that moment.
    I think she understood, because then she took a half step back, but I held her hand there tight.  I pulled her closer and she stayed by me.  She looked concerned and I told her I was okay and that she should stay, so she did.
    Really, I’ve had a lump in my neck for what seems like an eternity, years at least.  I’ve always just assumed it was a swollen gland, really I don’t know what it is.  Like a marble stuck in a few layers of tendons.  It hurts sometimes, but is mostly just very sore.  
    The healer cut more skin, and could eventually peel the skin and fur off completely.  She started at the head, my neck had the lump, but my shoulders were fine.
    “Good heart, good lungs, good kidneys, livers, good stomach,” she said.  “Your small intestine is fine, fine large intestine.”  I stared still.  She flipped the cui over and looked at its back.  There was a place in the spine where a white lump protruded, and the spine curved.  It was really less of a curve and more of a sharp angle in the spine.  She told me that this was not good, and Shanti repeated in English, but this time in less of a yell.  The healer asked me about my back, and I told her that I’ve had problems with it for a long time.  One of my legs stands taller than the other and it makes my back crooked.  It has been fixed in the past by a chiropractor who pulls the shorter leg back out and cracks me back into place, but the problem is reoccurring and I often have brutal pain in my back.  Bad posture.  She tapped the curve with her forefinger and shook her head.  I was still crying.  Not because I was worried, sad, or disgusted, or anything.  But I was certainly crying.
    The diagnosis continued.  The healer saw that there were veins connected to the tendons in the knees in a weird way.  The tendon had a tear and the vein ran right over the patella.  She said that this wasn’t normal, and when I told her that I had tibial tendonitis, she said that was what she saw.  A result of growing tall, quickly and hard exercise before my body was done growing.
    My cui also had what is called “espanto.”  The word cannot be translated into English, but is described as a terror.  They are the remnants of trauma in ones life.  Someone might have espanto after a nightmare, espanto could be a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or a traumatic event or situation that a person faced as a child.  My cui showed a lot of espanto.  It’s legs and chest shook vigorously.  She said the espanto was trying to come out.  The muscles twitched and shivered for a long time.  She held the dissected cui in her hand and we both stared at it.  It was strange watching the cui sit there quivering in her hand, not knowing what espanto was, or why I had so much of it.  She kept telling me how bad it was, and must of thought I was terrified because I sniveled and cried so relentlessly.
    “Don’t worry child,” she said, “I can cure it.  Don’t worry.”
    “You can fix it?” Shanti asked, and she nodded like it was no problem.  She threw the dead cui body into the trash can and I followed her, knife in hand, to her room.  I sat down in a wooden armchair, Shanti sat near the door on the medical bed.  The healer rustled through the cupboards and pulled out a bottle of olive oil.  She worked it into my neck and back, massaging me and praying.  It hurt when she touched my neck even though she was gentle with her fingers.   She rubbed the oil into my skin and then added some sort of flower extract.  When she lay the bottle on the table, I tried to read the label, but it was hand written in Quichua, and I didn’t understand what it said.  But it smelt brilliant, like an orchard full of wild flowers in Spring.  I stopped crying as she massaged me.  She asked me to roll up my pants, but they were too tight so I had to take them off completely.  I was worried at first, because I didn’t know if my underwear were appropriate to show off.  The healer assured me that at was okay with a comforting smile.  She giggled and told me that we were all women, and that it was fine.  I was happy to hear her acknowledge our presence as women.  She stretched out my leg and pulled on it, cracking the joint in my knee and rubbed a new liquid into my knee, thigh and all of my leg down to my feet.  Her touch was firm and it hurt a little; she massaged my leg, following the line of the tendon exactly.  Then she told me it was time to cure the espanto.

    Continuously the woman prayed in Quichua, hardly taking breaths.  She brought out large stones, smooth from years of use, soaked them in flower water, and hit me with them.  She banged them against all of my joints and bones; on my head, neck, shoulders, tail bone, hips, knees, ankles, and toes.  She splashed the flower water on my face and body, sometimes even pouring it on me.  And still she prayed.  From the cupboard she took strings of beads and swung them in the air, chanting, she slapped them against my head and body.  This continued for a long time.  She used several different rocks, strings of beads, and a rosary.  
    When she first brought out the rosary I was apprehensive, but trusting.  I am not Catholic, in any sense, and wasn’t sure if I wanted her to be using crosses to cure me.  I was afraid that the energy of the cross might hurt me, confuse me, or throw me off balance.  I didn’t know for sure, and I let her continue without saying anything.  As it turns out, everything was fine.  I didn’t feel like my space was invaded by the Catholic influence.  After the cleansing, I still felt like Lily, agnostic or other.
    After a lot of praying, liquids, massaging, beads and rocks, I was cured.  I was still crying a tiny bit as she finished, and the healer held me.  She said, “don’t worry child, you’re cured.  You’re cured; it’s okay.”
    I thanked her and we hugged.  She was smiling that explosive smile, and I was sniveling.  I was happy and felt relieved.  I left the room back into the rectangular courtyard and saw that many of the students had left.  A few stuck behind to receive me, and there were some patients waiting on benches around the building.  I was greeted at the middle of the yard by Cam, who embraced me in his arms, and I hung there a while drying my tears on his shoulder.  Cam was going to be the second student to receive the cui cleansing, but later, and in private.  I had requested to go first, in order to experience the cleansing without preconceived thoughts.
    Then I walked to sit with Nadia and Freddie.  I liked that they didn’t ask questions.  We just sat together and hugged, told jokes, and made small talk.  Eventually Nadia asked something about the ritual and I told her, jokingly, that I needed to “reflect” first, and that was the end of it.  We walked slowly back from the Jambi Huasi, around the crafts fair for a little while, and then ate some pizza and went to bed.  The meeting that evening was canceled because we were all so exhausted.  Tomorrow we will go to host families.  A whole other adventure awaits.

481 km (299 miles) traveled
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photo by: Ils1976