Monday, December 19, 2011

How Rain Forest Indians Kept Invaders At Bay

In Ecuador, as in other Amazon countries, people cannot call themselves the owners of a patch of forest until they have “developed it.” In the Amazon, to develop the forest means felling it and turning it into agricultural plots or cattle pasture. The same goes for the rain forest covering the Pacific coast of Colombia and northern Ecuador.

This is bad for the forest and bad for the climate. And it can be deadly for the Indians who have lived there since time immemorial, wisely leaving the forest intact for future generations. The poor Indians are now seeing their forest invaded by outsiders in ever greater numbers. For the Indians, losing the use of their forests is losing the means to a dignified survival and traditional way of life. Unfortunately, paved roads are now opening the forest to the modern world, with oil, mining, logging, and mega agricultural and cattle companies following.  Armed with axes and machetes, thousands of pioneers also follow, cutting trails deeper into the forest and battling the Indians.

This is bad enough when the newcomers only wish to grow some manioc, corn, plantain, and bananas and raise a few chickens. But when the invaders come in armed like commandos to mine gold or plant coca, whole Indian clans can be sent packing to the other world. Survivors will eventually die from new illnesses against which they have developed no natural protection or from drinking from rivers poisoned by mercury.

Twenty years ago, International Wildlife magazine assigned me to photograph the Awa Indians of Ecuador’s coastal rain forest near the Colombian border. The Awa had made news by having devised an ingenious way of keeping settlers out of their vast forest. Over more than 100 miles, they had axed a 50-feet-wide corridor around their territory and planted it with fruit trees. They had effectively cut off access to their forest by taking legal possession of that buffer zone, which trespassers would have to cross illegally to get to the forest on the other side. Signs planted at regular intervals warned potential invaders away from private property.

I don’t know whether the Awa have been able to keep invaders away all those years, but I very much hope so. Whatever the case, their story is certainly another proof that tribal people are our world’s forests best custodians. And we should not forget that they know the curative properties of hundreds if not thousands of rain forest plants and trees that could someday save humanity from some of its worst diseases. Many of our drugs already originated there.

The following photographs attempt to give an idea of the Awa Indians’ world. 

Awa hamlet, as seen from the communal house, where community questions are discussed.

Awa community house.

Awa Community leader urging his people to fight for their rights.

Using machetes to weed orchard corridor 

Leaving the orchard corridor they opened and planted with fruits all around their vast forest to protect it from the incursions of mestizo colonists.

Ecuador. Pacific Coast rain forest. Awa Indians build fence around seedlings to protect them from foraging pigs. They will be planted in an agricultural corridor around the Awa's rain forest to mark it as private property.

Using a machete to cut sugarcane.

Carrying sugarcane from the family's forest garden. Large leaves protect the women from the rain.

Carrying plantain from theiir forest garden.

Carrying home plantain (cooking bananas) from forest garden.

Burning capybara's hair to roast the animal with is slin on, as is done with pigs.

Playing soccer in the rain 

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