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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Can This Tribe Be Saved?

Air Date: Week of July 30, 2004

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In the extremely remote region of the Ecuadorian Amazon the Zapara tribe, much reduced in numbers, tries to revive its language and culture just as the oil industry is approaching their territory. From the Homelands Productions series, “Worlds of Difference,” Alan Weisman reports on the tribe’s uncertain fate.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The Zapara were once one of the largest tribes in the Amazon region of Ecuador. But by 1980 anthropologists considered them extinct, their culture erased in less than a century by disease, assimilation, and violence.

What the academics didn’t know was that about 200 Zapara remained hidden in the jungle. Among them were five people who still spoke the native language. And after Peru and Ecuador resolved a 60-year border conflict in 1999, a few more Zapara were discovered in Peru. This group had already lost its language but among its numbers was the last living Zapara shaman.

In 2001, the United Nations declared the Zápara a "masterpiece of the intangible heritage of humanity” and awarded them $70,000. As part of the series, “Worlds of Difference,” producers Alan Weisman and Nancy Hand traveled to Ecuador to see if one shaman, a few aging native speakers, and world recognition can save a dying culture.

[FOREST-RIVER AMBIENCE, BIRDS WHISTLING]

[SOUND OF MINGA BEING CALLED, POUNDING ON DRUM]

WEISMAN: A young man, his face cross-hatched with red paint, circles beneath a thatched roof, beating a drum made from a hollowed palm trunk.

[FLOCK OF PARROTS APPROACHING]

WEISMAN: The dawn mist rising from the forest canopy carries his drumbeats to neighbors up and down the winding Rio Conambu, tributary to the Upper Amazon.

[ROOSTER CROW; SOUND OF DRUM CLANGING]

WEISMAN: He’s calling the neighbors to his village. The occasion is a “minga,” the Amazon equivalent of a barn raising.

[BANGING OF MINGA DRUM IN BACKGROUND; CHICKENS PEEPING, MEN CONVERSING AND DRINKING IN FOREGROUND]

WEISMAN: Today, the men will clear a field to plant cassava. But the minga must first begin with food and drink. Off to one side, Zapara women are frying catfish and perch. From a stew pot jut several boiled monkey paws.

[COOKING SOUNDS OF MONKEY MEAT; FRYING, HOT OIL, KIDS FUSSING]

WEISMAN: Everyone is served a ceramic bowl filled with a milky, alcoholic brew. This is chicha, prepared from cassava pulp the women chew first to make it ferment. Rarely do Zapara drink anything else, including water.

[SOUND OF BABIES, WOMEN, LAUGHTER, SINGING]

WEISMAN: While her granddaughters sip chicha and weave flowers in her long hair, Ana Maria Santi sings in the old language. She recalls that when Zapara ruled these forests, they considered monkeys their ancestors. But Quichua people who invaded from the highlands now dominate the Amazon. It was the Quichua who taught them to eat monkeys. And it is the Quichua language she must use with these children.


Ana Maria Santi (Photo: Alan Weisman)

[SANTI SPEAKING IN QUICHUA]

[VOICEOVER]: After Tsitsano escaped the turtle’s house, he went to the house of the jaguars.

WEISMAN: Ana Maria tells them the legend of Tsitsano, the first Zapara shaman, who traveled through the forest learning from all the animals, always escaping before they could eat him.

[VOICEOVER]: There were many, including a sick jaguar cub. Tsitsano said to its mother, I am a shaman. Give him to me. Tsitsano saw his mouth was full of thorns. He took them out. The jaguars invited him to dinner.

[SANTI TALKING, MINGA FULL BLAST]

WEISMAN: It’s a tale the old ones want the young Zapara to hear. Because today their people inhabit a modern jungle populated not just by bats, jaguars, and piranhas, but also bureaucrats, anthropologists, oil companies, tour operators, evangelicals, and other indigenous groups. Get too close, they warn the children, and the Zapara could get devoured.

[CHOPPING, TREE FALLING. RHYTHMIC CUTTING, TWO MACHETES]

Clearing land to plant cassava. (Photo: Alan Weisman)

WEISMAN: A few gallons of chicha later, the men take up machetes and attack four acres of copa palm, laurel, and magnolia trees. Afterward, they’ll burn the stumps, then plant cassava and banana. Each plot is good for just one harvest before the forest soil is exhausted.

[TREES FALLING]

[USHIGUA SPEAKS]

VOICEOVER: It’s for Cesario, my uncle. Just enough for one family. You eat maybe three or four months, then drink more chicha and have another minga.

WEISMAN: Gloria Ushigua is the daughter of the last Ecuadorian Zapara shaman, keeper of their wisdom, who died in 1998. As the forest crashes down, she and the women gather palm fronds to weave baskets. Gloria explains that her hunter-gatherer people didn’t always slash and burn the forest.

[CRASHING TREE]


Gloria Ushigua (Photo: Alan Weisman)

[USHIGUA SPEAKS]

VOICEOVER: Before we only ate only forest fruit and hearts of palm. We made chicha from palmito. But when my father was about ten, Quichua people came and said, What do these people eat? The next time they brought cassava, banana, corn, and gave it to us to try. We said, Where do we get it? So they showed us how to clear the forest.

WEISMAN: The Quichua brought more than cassava. In the early 1900s, Zapara were enslaved by rubber companies with Quichua collaboration. Thousands were chained to trees and forced to tap latex until they died. As Zapara numbers depleted, Quichua invaded their lands and slaughtered many more. War between Ecuador and Peru divided them further. Finally, to survive, the remaining Zapara adopted the language and customs of their enemy. Many married into the Quichua and other tribes. But a few kept their Zapara identity hidden.

[FALLING TREE, FLUTE PLAYING, CRICKETS IN BACKGROUND]

WEISMAN: Cesario Santi, Gloria’s uncle, sits on a log near a fire pit. He plays a two-holed flute made of pinguyo, a hollow vine his people fashion into blowguns to hunt tapir and peccaries. At 78, he’s too old to hunt but, suddenly, his people are depending on him again. The fate of the Zapara world has come down to him and three others.

[C. SANTI TALKING ZAPARA]

VOICEOVER: Yes, only me and my sister alive and two others. All my grandfathers are dead. We’re the only pure Zapara left.

WEISMAN: So Cesario, his sister Ana Maria and the two other remaining Zapara speakers are trying to hand their knowledge to the next generation before they die.

[TEACHER DOING LESSONS AT BLACKBOARD]

WEISMAN: UNESCO has given the Zapara funding to rescue their culture, beginning with their language. There’s now a school, where the old ones are advisors.

[CHILDREN SINGING IN ZAPARA]

WEISMAN: But the only trained teachers available are Quichua. To preserve their life within the forest, Zapara are now faced with learning the world outside of it.


Cesario Santi (Photo: Alan Weisman)

[SINGING, FLUTE PLAYING]

[OFFICE RADIO, POURING RAIN]

[B. USHIGUA SPEAKING]

VOICEOVER: That night I heard a bird come. It sounded like a flute, like the old men play. It was very sad music. I knew my father had died.

WEISMAN: Bartolo Ushigua, brother to Gloria and son of the last Ecuadorian Zapara shaman, listens to rain drench the city outside his office. Just 26, Bartolo is now the leader of his people.

[B. USHIGUA SPEAKING]

VOICEOVER: Our old ones tell us that the first Zapara who created the world -- air, insects and plants by shouting them into existence -- explained that one day the Zapara would disappear – the language, the people, the territory. When my father died, the people said the culture had to die now. There’s nothing to maintain it.

[FLUTE PLAYING; SOUND IN RAINY OFFICE, TYPING, RADIO]

WEISMAN: But Zapara are guided by their dreams and years before his death, Bartolo’s father dreamt that the prophecy could be defied on two conditions:

[B. USHIGUA SPEAKING]

VOICEOVER: We had to defend our territory and save our language.

WEISMAN: To do that, he knew, the Zapara must learn the ways of those who could destroy them. So he built an airstrip in the jungle, knowing it would attract missionaries but also that his children would be able to reach the city to study. And, someday, lead.

[B. USHIGUA SPEAKING]

VOICEOVER: The night I dreamed he was dead, he told me: Here are the things that have to happen. You have to take the responsibility. Don’t stand still. Go as far as you can.

WEISMAN: Bartolo had already gone far. In Puyo, capital of Ecuador’s Amazon region and the center of its oil industry, he studied Spanish, learned to eat city food and to tolerate cola in place of chicha. His knowledge of the forest won him work as a tourist guide, then a scholarship to France to study botany. Then, in 1998, a man was found walking in the forest. He was a Zapara shaman from Peru, he said. He was looking for his relatives.

[B. USHIGUA SPEAKING]

VOICEOVER: So we knew there were others in Peru. The old ones kept saying the culture had to die now. But we said: Why can’t we try to keep it going? If we lose culture and identity, we’ll be a world without history. In a dream my father told me he’d talked to the ones long dead in the spirit world. They agreed.

(Photo: Alan Weisman)

WEISMAN: Peace with Peru had revealed the Zaparas’ existence. Other indigenous people in Ecuador now recognized them. But Bartolo Ushigua realized the Zapara needed to form their own organization, lest they be swallowed by their neighbors yet again. They had no money for offices, for telephones, for travel. But then came the UNESCO prize.

[JUNGLE AMBIENCE]

WEISMAN: For a week now, the forest monkeys have grown noticeably fat, and the favorite Zapara delicacy – live grub worms – are now abundant: both signs that the rainy season has arrived. But this night is clear.

[SOUND OF LOUD BLOWING, THEN BREATHY WHISTLING]

WEISMAN: Bartolo Ushigua’s sister Gloria sits by the fire in the Zapara village of Jandiyacu, facing a young woman. The woman is pregnant and has a migraine.

[BLOWING]

WEISMAN: The woman closes her eyes. Gloria holds here head between her palms, and blows tobacco smoke over her face and chest.

[SPITTING, COUGHING, PATIENT TALKING]

WEISMAN: She repeats this until the woman’s migraine vanishes. Gloria also went to the city to study. But now she is one of three Ecuadorian Zapara training with the Peruvian shaman.

[SOUND OF WATER – A RIVER CROSSING]

Blas Santi (Photo: Alan Weisman)

[BLAS SANTI SPEAKING IN QUICHUA]

WEISMAN: Her 15-year-old cousin, Blas Santi, who lives across the river, is another shamanic apprentice. He has just completed his tobacco training, and next will study Ayahuasca, the sacred hallucinogen of the Amazon.

[BLAS SANTI SPEAKING IN QUICHUA]

WEISMAN: Blas says he doesn’t mind the discipline, like fasting on tobacco tea for five days, then eating only green plantains. But something else worries him.

VOICEOVER: Pretty soon they’ll probably kill me.

WEISMAN: In the past, many shamans have died – killed by rival shamans from other tribes, who bewitched them. Every Zapara knows that Bartolo and Gloria’s father died that way. That’s not supposed to happen anymore. In recent years, Ecuador’s Indians have united against their common adversaries. But there’s one that no tribe has been able to resist. And the tiny Zapara are about to meet it.

[SOUND OF OIL RIGS]

WEISMAN: Among the Indian peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon, oil has often brought sorrow. In barely two decades, the Cofan Indians were nearly wiped out, and the Secoya and Siona reduced to a fraction of their numbers. They blame disease and the poisoned water and soils left by Texaco and Petro-Ecuador. But in recent years, oil has become more of a tradeoff.

[MAYANCHA SPEAKING]

VOICEOVER: These days, we are oil men. We are working with foreign oil companies for our community’s benefit.

WEISMAN: Eusebio Mayancha heads a Quichua development association.

VOICEOVER: We realize they may be deceiving us. But we have no other choice. We are forced to continue with the oil companies. We want to civilize ourselves like any human being. We’ve accepted that to get jobs and money, the only way is oil. But if there were a foreign foundation that supported us to preserve the forest, we’d finish this business with oil. We’d say, No to oil! No to oil! No problem. If foreigners come here and say ‘We’ll protect 100 or 300,000 hectares,’ we’d be so happy knowing that they were going to pay us preserve the forest, and to leave poverty behind.

[SOUND OF WHISTLING CREATURE IN BUSHES, CRICKETS IN BACKGROUND, FAINT PEOPLE SOUNDS]

WEISMAN: In exchange for drilling and building roads into their forest, the oil companies give his organization $700,000 a year. The Zapara got one-tenth that amount, and just once, from UNESCO to preserve their language, people and culture. But there is also their territory, and one reason they’ve survived until now was that their land along the Rio Conambu was the only place in Eastern Ecuador without an oil concession.

[G. USHIGUA SPEAKING]

VOICEOVER: But the world is coming into the forest, to us. With nothing, what can we do when they attack? Just words won’t be enough.

WEISMAN: Ecuador’s official indigenous groups, including the newly-rediscovered Zapara, all have autonomy over their land – over the surface, that is. What’s below it belongs to the nation. The Zapara have won recognition but they now live atop a drilling agreement with an Italian oil company.

[G. USHIGUA SPEAKING]

VOICEOVER: They have power and money. They don’t care about us, so we want to raise awareness and money to stop them. There’s no other way. Some tribes have taken up arms when they didn’t have enough money, but we’re so small they’d kill us in no time.

WEISMAN: The road that runs to Eusebio Mayancha’s Quichua oil village is now headed their way.

[FOREST BIRDS]

[G. USHIGUA SPEAKING]

VOICEOVER: The highway is already very near. We’ll have to make a stand. It’s come to that point.

The Zapara School (Photo: Alan Weisman)

WEISMAN: The United Nations has designated the Zapara a world cultural treasure. It gave them a small sum for that honor, then left them to see whether four old native speakers are enough to resuscitate a culture. But Zapara leaders wonder whether another kind of treasure the world prizes so highly – petroleum – will engulf them and their forest home before there’s time to find out.

[CHILDREN SINGING IN ZAPARA]

WEISMAN: For Living on Earth, I’m Alan Weisman.

[CHILDREN SINGING IN ZAPARA]

CURWOOD: Our story on the fate of the Zapara in Ecuador was co-produced by Nancy Hand.

[MUSIC: Chacareru “Flor Azul” MUSIC FROM SOUTH AMERICA: CHILE (Laser Light – 1991)]

CURWOOD: Coming up next week on Living on Earth: in northern Idaho the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to make the best of a bad situation. The EPA has paved over an old mining rail line - turned it into a bike trail - and some folks are pleased with the results.

MALE: We've been on rail trails all over the country and this is the best rail trail I've ever been on.

CURWOOD: But others don't think attracting tourists to an environmental hazard is such a good idea.

FEMALE: It's beautiful, but it's contaminated and this is a Superfund. It's not a recreational trail.

CURWOOD: Turning poisoned land into a playground, next time on Living on Earth. And remember you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.

[SHEEP AND BIRD SOUNDS]

 

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