Over the cloud drenched Cutucú mountains where the Shuar dwell, Selva Vida is a private park tucked discreetly between the Macuma River and one of it’s many small tributaries. It is an idea that coordinator César Tucupi Sandu has cultivated nearly all his life. While he has been at this site only a little over a year, the concept has been growing since Tucupi returned to the Shuar landscape in 2008 after training in various trades for many of his 49 years, including technical production and tourism.
I spent a week with Tucupi and his family at Selva Vida in October 2016, following his footsteps around the mountain, and also with the schoolchildren and artisans of the Yucaip community.
ABOVE: OVERLOOKING THE CUTUCÚ MOUNTAINS. PHOTOS MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT CONSENT FROM THE SITE’S OWNER.
The 20 hectare plot is nearly indistinguishable from adjoining land. Smoke rises from the thatched roof of the building that houses the kitchen and dining area. The elegant traditional design disperses the smoke from the cooking fire throughout the thatch, exterminating insects and sending a sign to the community that it’s inhabitants are home.
ABOVE: A SHORT WALK DOWN THE CUTUCÚ SHAIMI REVEALS SELVA VIDA. PHOTOS MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT CONSENT FROM THE SITE’S OWNER.
ABOVE: TRADITIONAL SHUAR CONSTRUCTION HOUSES THE KITCHEN AND DINING AREA. SELVA VIDA’S BOLD PUP SUSU GUARDS THE DOOR. PHOTOS MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT CONSENT FROM THE SITE’S OWNER.
ABOVE: COOKING LUNCH OVER A TRADITIONAL THREE LOG FIRE. PHOTOS MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT CONSENT FROM THE SITE’S OWNER.
When we arrived from Macas, Tucupi’s extended family was fishing using barbasco root, pulverized and placed into a chankin, a traditional basket made from kaap’ roots. Kaap’ is a philodendron that grows high in the trees. It’s tenuous roots descend to the forest floor, easily cut, dried overnight and woven into sturdy burden baskets. Fishermen drag the baskets full of barbasco through the water, releasing the paralyzing juices on fish in the vicinity where they are then easily harvested. When the fishing concluded, Tucupi’s cousin released a 5 foot long boa constrictor that had been captured earlier in the day.
The fish was prepared for lunch along with yuca and plantain. These staples of Amazonian diets are plentiful and maintain well in the high humidity.
The Shuar people are fiercely independent, yet at Selva Vida interdependence is paramount, both in the language of biodiversity and the way Tucupi is building the idea. His broad experiences enable him draw ideas about conservation and connections into the project. Western volunteers to Selva Vida played a major role in constructing the buildings you see in the photos, volunteers share their time and efforts as they learn about conservation and traditional Shuar culture. Tucupi and the volunteers have reforested the site with tree species that had been long ago taken by loggers. Nevertheless, his vision is a for a self-determined Shuar cultural space. As we traveled the mountain path each day Tucupi would share traditional knowledge about specific species. The Shuar practice a concept called ‘minga,’ whereby neighbors contribute their time to communal projects, with the understanding that the neighbor will one day be available to help another. Minga seems to permeate Selva Vida. There’s nothing conventional about it and as the week went on my appreciation for his work grew.
ABOVE: CASCADA DEL RIO COLORADO. PHOTOS MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT CONSENT FROM THE SITE’S OWNER.
Maybe the most difficult thing I encountered at Selva Vida was the silent question of what ecology, climate change, and consumption really mean. According to Tucupi, the petroleum industry is the most serious threat to Shuar lands and people. The government of Ecuador has already labeled and divided the lands in ways they did not permit, but the specter of petroleum looms over the deepest parts of the province. “If the water is contaminated,” he says, “what will we have?”
Down the pipeline, burning petroleum is of course one of the biggest causes of climate change, another unpredictable force already visible in the Oriente. During my time at the school, the students had already been learning about climate change and it so happened that the older students were due to give presentations during my days with them. I was heartened and devastated. The teacher did not teach that the West is responsible for the crisis. She taught that tires, petroleum, deforestation and a list of other things familiar to the students is responsible. One by one the students bravely got up and stood in a circle of their peers, and repeated what they had learned. In their young hands the world is still fresh and beginning. Below is a picture one of the 7 year old students drew for me. You see the mountains with flowing rivers, a warm smiling sun, a nest with eggs, and, so beautifully marked, trees with roots. Trees with roots, fruit, and a nest.
César Tucupi is actively looking for volunteers to spend time at Selva Vida and with the Shuar community at Yucaip. The following organizations will assist you with arrangements:
Please support indigenous cultures in the Amazon Basin here.
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