Written by Milly Whitehead on 27 / 01 / 2015
Gap Year Advice
You might know a couple of things about Ecuador. The bananas you buy at Tesco are probably from there (it's the largest exporter of the fruit in the world per National Geographic). You probably read about their capital city Quito at school at some point too, which at 2850m is arguably the highest-altitude capital city in the world.
You definitely would have studied the country's Galápagos Islands, volcanic islands 960 kilometers off the west coast, whose unique reptiles, birds, and plants had a resounding impact on the formation of Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection (source).
For most of us, that's as far as it goes for Ecuador. And what a shame that is, because the smallest country in the Andes is also home to one of the most vibrant and diverse arrays of indigenous tribes in the world, whose history encompasses the past 11,000 years and reaches into the present.
A quarter of the country’s population is made up of these communities, of which there are just fewer than thirty – check out this list of indigenous groups for details of each one.
I've selected four tribes from Ecuador that fascinate me most. Today I want to share what I've discovered with you so you can see some of what makes them and the country they inhabit so unique.
The Achuar, also know as 'people of the aguaje palm', are an Amazonian community with a rich, ancient culture that have lived in and with the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years. Miraculously, they managed to avoid contact with the Spanish conquistadors until the 20th Century, as numerous military and missionary ventures into their territory proved unsuccessful.
Throughout their history, this incredible group of people have remained self-sufficient, with the men hunting and the women cultivating plants for spiritual, as well as practical, purposes.
According to the Achuar, every living creature is linked to its own spirit. For them, the plants and animals of the Amazon are spiritually significant. Women sing magical songs as a medium to communicate with their plants, but these songs are extremely personal and are always sung in secret.
Achuar religion claims entities possessing human souls have the ability to communicate through language and signs. This is sometimes experienced during soul journeys, known as arutam encounters, which represent an extreme state of self-awareness and are induced by the consumption of the hallucinogenic drink, Ayahuasca.
Dreams and the reading of dreams are essential for the Achuar as they are not only revealing, but also can be foretelling. Prior to engaging in any form of predatory behavior, whether warfare, hunting, or some forms of fishing, men often insist upon having a dream.
They also believe that gardens can be dangerous places at times, for they contain traits of vampirism, so children are not allowed to enter a garden without supervision.
Once semi-nomadic, most have been living in small villages since the 60’s, when the Ecuadorian government granted access to the rainforest for oil concessions. They now need money in order to fight the oil companies and a substantial amount of their income is obtained from eco-tourism to the various communities.
The more they interact with these communities, the more demand there will be to keep the Amazon rainforest a healthy and thriving destination. You can help by teaching English to the Achuar community as part of a project that aims to help people in the community run an eco-lodge independently.
The Huaorani, simply meaning ‘human’, people comprise almost 4,000 inhabitants on lands located between the Curaray and Napo rivers in Eastern Ecuador. Up until just two decades ago, they too had avoided contact with the rest of Ecuadorian society, with just a couple of groups still living on remote lands.
Over the past 40 years, this tribe has relied on the natural world and as a result, its members have developed an impressive knowledge of animals, plants and trees and are outstanding hunters.
Traditionally, the creatures hunted by the Huaorani were limited to monkeys and birds, though not birds of prey. There were various different taboos regarding the hunting and eating process too, for example deer could not be eaten on the grounds that their eyes looked too similar to those of human beings.
Two other animals, the snake and the jaguar, are of particular significance to the Huaorani – snakes are considered evil and the tribesmen believe that a snake stands in the way of the trail that leads to the afterlife.
Jaguars, on the other hand, are greatly respected and ‘jaguar shamans’ are supposedly able to “become or to become as or enact as a jaguar, when they can telepathically travel through time and distance to communicate with other Huaorani.” Seriously spiritual stuff!
Most of these communities welcome outsiders and there is even a Huaroani eco lodge, where guests can learn about their customs and traditions. You can help the Huaroani by visiting the eco lodge, which was created to allow them earn an income, whilst maintaining control of their territory.
Don’t have the cash to splash on a night in the lodge? Not to worry, you can purchase crafts directly from the community, which will also benefit them greatly.
The Awa, a tribe that was originally based on the coast of Ecuador, now inhabit the wet rainforests in the northwest of the country, where they fled to escape the Spanish colonists. They have a unique history and culture, with 4,000 residing in Ecuador and some 40,000 over the border in Colombia, who consider themselves to be ‘one big family’, irrespective of border policies.
Sadly though, this area is constantly affected by illegal activities, such as drug trafficking and smuggling of arms and weapons, making it a very dangerous place to live.
In 2009, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) committed several mass murders of Awá people, accusing them of working as informers for the Colombian army. In August, another twelve were killed by the Colombian Army. The Awa’s bad luck didn’t seem to end there and, today, they continue to suffer as their homes are at risk of being destroyed by logging, farming and mining activities.
Thankfully, Rainforest Concern has a "Sponsor-an-acre" program, which is raising money to buy back critical rainforest habitat to create wildlife corridors between existing reserves. They have already raised enough money to buy half the land needed to create such a corridor between the Cotocachi-Cayapas National Park and the Awa Tribal Reserve, and you can help them further by making a donation on their website.
Anyone who has travelled with The Leap will need no introduction to this tribe. Once named Los Colorados, they are now known as the Tsáchila, i.e. ‘true people’. It is believed that the Tsáchila numbered around 20,000 in the 18th century but, due to disease and the influx of foreign settlers, this number has dwindled greatly and now just 2,000 remain in seven small settlements.
They are primarily an agricultural community, who endeavour to retain their traditional culture and heritage, but are at risk of dying out due to the expanding influence of mestizo culture. One of the Tsáchila communities located near Santo Domingo has approximately 700 members, who dwell on previously rainforested land.
Men of this ethnic group are easily distinguishable for their helmet-like hairstyles, which feature a mixture of grease and seeds from a plant named achiote. This tradition supposedly came about when communities became exposed to smallpox, causing a Tsáchila Shaman to plead spirits for a cure.
He was guided to an achiote bush, where he and the rest of the tribe covered themselves with the red juices from the seeds, drastically reducing the number of deaths in the group.
Want to see the Tsáchila for yourself? Join our Ecuador program and take part in a volunteer and cultural exchange program. Whilst there you'll give the next generation reasons to learn and continue with indigenous practices, assuring them that they aren’t lost.
By demonstrating that that there is a bright future for the community and income to be made from tourism, you can help prevent this precious culture from disappearing.
Have you had been to Ecuador and seen how any of these tribes live first-hand? We’d love to hear about it! Inspire others to visit this wonderful country and help its indigenous peoples by sharing your experiences in the comments box below.
on 27 / 01 / 2015