By Megan Monteleone
Morning fog obscured all but our immediate surroundings as César Cerda, former president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP), navigated his white Ford pickup truck along the winding, paved road toward the town of Arajuno. It was the summer of 2015 and the first day of my three-month ethnographic research trip in the central Ecuadorian Amazon.
César drove silently with his eyes fixed on the road, his hands and forearms stained with black achiote paint (plant dye). He had used the dye the night before to paint faces and dye hair in celebration of his eldest son’s birthday—a part of Kichwa tradition. Disappearing in the distance behind us was the bustling capital city of the Pastaza province, Puyo, where César lives full-time with his wife, Margarita López, and four of their five children. Margarita’s family has roots in Arajuno going back to its founding. She is the only one of her siblings who moved out to the city, though she and César go back quite often. This morning, César was headed to a meeting at the headquarters of the Association of Indigenous Communities of Arajuno (ACIA), where he had just become a director.
As the sun rose and the fog cleared, a landscape came into focus that did not resemble the Amazon I had imagined. Cattle grazed in pastures on both sides of the road. Trees had been cut down and vegetation was sparse. Small, dilapidated houses were disrupted every so often by out-of-place, Spanish colonial-style homes. New roads to extraction sites turned off in both directions. As we rounded the hillside, César broke the silence and pointed excitedly over my shoulder, exclaiming “Look there! That’s the monte!” An expansive landscape was appearing far in the distance: a rushing river, a dense forest referred to as the monte, and endless hills where birds were diving in and out. César told me that not so long ago the whole area was pure monte. A walk that usually took days could now be done in two hours by car. César seemed to be discontented and excited at the same time, emblematic of the deep tension posed by development.
Arriving in Arajuno, I felt the palpable tension between “old” and “new.” On my right was a long, empty field where the runway for small airplanes had been before the road came. Farther ahead, a bus stop had replaced the airplane waiting area. On my left was a sea of concrete buildings: two new high schools, the district education office, general stores selling produce, packaged foods, baked goods and meat, three restaurants, two internet cafes, a printing shop, multiple hardware stores, a bed and breakfast and a gas pump for refilling motorcycles. Dispersed amongst the concrete were chozas, wooden houses with traditional thatched palm roofs. César alerted me that before the road existed, only footpaths and one small shop serviced the whole area. Now, the road had produced a center of commercial activity.
We eventually arrived at the headquarters of ACIA, the largest and most active indigenous ethnic federation of the four in Arajuno, its members primarily Kichwa. That day’s meeting had been called to outline goals for the coming year. ACIA directors each had a chance to present their plans, in accordance with the mission statement: “ACIA exists to defend the sustainable management of the territory it governs, guided by the worldview of sumak kawsay.” Sumak kawsay is Kichwa for “in harmony with nature.”
Luisa Pauchi Padilla, ACIA’s Director of Women and Families, jumped at the opportunity to go first. She presented an idea to create a monthly “Huayusa Upina,” a traditional tea drinking ceremony, that would be organized by ACIA women. In the past, drinking huayusa tea was an integral part of the Kichwa lifestyle for both practical and spiritual purposes: it was high in caffeine and was also traditionally regarded as one of the drinks of nearby forest spirits called supai (See Ted Macdonald, ReVista’s current edition). Families consumed huayusa at 3 or 4 in the morning, sharing time together, telling stories of the past and preparing for a day of work in the gardens or forest. The ritual of daily tea drinking was becoming less common as a result of economic development. Families were staying up later and working in jobs that did not require them to rise before dawn. Luisa hoped this community-wide ceremony would help people to remember and value their culture. At the end of the meeting, the group set a date for the first Huayusa Upina to occur in the choza behind the ACIA headquarters.
While I was intrigued at the time, I did not yet know that the public Huayusa Upina event would come to exemplify a highly interesting trend occurring in Arajuno, where active and empowered women were creating and sustaining an innovative form of indigenous culture through, rather than in tension with, development.
Arajuno’s Changing Economy
Before the road was built connecting Arajuno to Puyo in 2001, the Kichwa community relied on a subsistence economy, based in hunting, fishing and gardening. Gardening was central, especially as population growth throughout the 20th century pushed hunting and fishing farther from the main town and depleted animal and fish populations. Kichwa families typically kept a garden close to their home where they grew small crops like fruit trees, huayusa leaves and chili peppers. They also had two or three large plots called chacras, located outside of what is now the populated area of the town. Women were the primary laborers in the chacra, taking on daily planting, cleaning, weeding and harvesting, and performing rituals, often related to connecting with supai, to influence a productive harvest. Men were involved earlier in the process, clearing the plots and delineating the perimeter with palm trees and plantains. They would also help out with daily maintenance when not busy with other tasks like hunting, fishing or, later on, cattle raising. It was a natural “division of labor” (see Emile Durkheim, 1893).
Women also cooked what the chacra produced. The most abundant crops, yucca (manioc) and plantains, formed the basis of a typical Kichwa meal. If meat was available, it would also be prepared, but a family could survive adequately from the chacra harvest alone. From yucca, women would prepare a traditional beverage called chicha, made by chewing boiled yucca tubers and allowing it to ferment over a period of days. The chacra and chicha—women’s responsibilities—were fundamental in sustaining Kichwa life in Arajuno, even through spurts of irregular market economies like cash cropping and cattle raising in the 1970s. Margarita López said, “A strong Kichwa woman never lacks yucca or chicha. If a Kichwa man is lazy, there may be no meat, but if a Kichwa woman is lazy, there will be no life.”
The Arrival of the Road
After the road was built, life in Arajuno changed significantly. The road brought electricity, internet, new businesses, a municipal government headquarters and new settlers, shifting the landscape and transforming a once small and isolated town into a central commercial zone with more than 8,000 inhabitants.
Although the road had some negative effects such as increased crime rates and alcohol consumption, it also provided newfound access out of Arajuno for the local community. Many people, especially young people, began to attend universities in cities as far away as the capital, Quito. They became active participants in the evolving economic sphere, taking on new jobs, or at the very least, new responsibilities.
Yet the new market economy was not sufficient to sustain Kichwa life entirely. Despite increased education, not every person could find work in a paid job at an institution and many, even those who were educated, went through periods of unemployment, worked in unpaid political positions or did occasional paid tasks to earn a small, irregular monetary income. Even in full-time, “paid” positions in government institutions, months would go by with no paycheck as a result of lagging government bureaucracy. For most people in Arajuno, money continues to be an illusory reality. When there is money, whether earned from intermittent paid tasks or a full-time job, it will be used for new expenses like sending children to universities instead of paying off debts or buying food, which keeps money from circulating regularly in the economy. Families do not want to risk dependency on money, and as a result, continue to maintain the subsistence sphere – primarily, the chacra.
Women’s Complex Work
Today, Kichwa women in Arajuno work in wage-earning jobs and participate in politics, but make time for sustaining subsistence work in the chacra. Isabel López and her family, my hosts in Arajuno, were prime examples. Isabel worked full time as a teacher and ran a sewing shop out of her downtown home, but spent many weekends, vacations and late afternoons in the family’s chacra sites in Arajuno’s interior. On rare occasions, she would hire day laborers to do urgent maintenance, but money to hire outsiders was often lacking.
Isabel’s daughter, María, was not employed full time, but still felt pressure to make money doing irregular tasks or selling cash crops like cacao, which equally complicated her ability to make time for daily work in the chacra. María had also just taken charge of managing the López family’s land in the interior of Arajuno, an unpaid, but nevertheless demanding and important role that required her to host meetings with all descendants of Pablo López (María’s grandfather) to make decisions about land use and gardening and discuss related ongoing issues.
Despite increasing challenges, the majority of women I met in Arajuno, much like Isabel and María, maintained highly complex and demanding daily schedules that allowed the chacra work to get done. Families continue to depend on the chacra as a reliable source of food, and at the same time, rely on the harvest to maintain central aspects of the Kichwa identity like consuming chicha and huayusa tea. Isabel, her daughters and granddaughters (most of whom lived in the house together) made a constant effort to prepare chicha, get up for huayusa in the mornings and speak the Kichwa language. In the post-road context, women’s ability to manage the “old” and “new” simultaneously in their daily lives has become integral in carrying forward the Kichwa identity.
Local “indigenous” politics
With a changing economic sphere and the construction of the road, local politics in Arajuno were taking shape and gaining strength. Early politics revolved around inter-family marriages and kinship ties that delineated competition for land and resources. But as the economy developed and the local community came in increased contact with non-indigenous Ecuadorian colonists beginning in the 1960s, a heightened awareness of ethnic differences, even between “indigenous” groups, began to emerge and create a new sphere of “ethnopolitics.” By the 1970s, indigenous communities began to organize themselves into federations and began fighting collectively—as “indigenous people”—for land rights and political power. In 1979, ACIA formed in Arajuno and became highly active in the fight to gain control of ancestral territory.
This local movement in Arajuno was happening alongside major shifts in international law, which local people in Arajuno knew about and used to their advantage. During the 1940s and ‘50s, when human rights first emerged in international political discourse, indigenous people’s unique status was not actively addressed, meaning that groups did not yet have the legal recognition to claim their territory from the state, as former UN Rappoteur James Anaya has detailed. In 1957, the first international convention on indigenous rights was held by the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO), establishing Convention Number 107. While this first law did not recognize indigenous people’s rights to “collective land ownership” or “customary laws,” two important components of the indigenous lifestyle in places like the Amazon, it did establish a platform to discuss and improve the legal status of the communities, creating a new and rapidly developing discourse that used and defined the term “indigenous” and led to a far greater indigenous participation and requirements for their consultation in the later ILO Convention Number 169.
As indigenous groups began mobilizing on their own throughout the 1970s and 1980s in places like the Ecuadorian Amazon, the international system began to consider indigenous groups as having distinct rights to contiguous and communal “territories” and the right to practice their own form of government. The international sphere, in this sense, both informed and responded to the transformation happening on the ground in the Amazon, providing a useful discourse and legal basis for ethnic federations to demand rights to land, particularly territories, or lands of traditional use and occupancy. In 1989, after years of debate with indigenous leaders, the ILO presented ILO Convention Number 169 which, among many articles, said that indigenous people have a right to their own system of living and a right to their own territories, as well as regular participation in policy making.
The influence of international discourse was particularly strong in the famous case of Sarayaku, a Kichwa town just south of Arajuno, where a U.S. oil company called ARCO had begun exploratory extraction tests in the late 1980s. When ARCO went to negotiate the project’s next steps with the local community in 1989, representatives from the regional indigenous federation known as the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP) demanded compensation for trees lost during the testing and the depletion of fish in the rivers. Drawing on its political strength as well as the international dialogue on indigenous rights, OPIP was able to effectively negotiate with the company to have their demands met, leading to the creation of a now influential document called the “Sarayaku Accords.” The Sarayaku Accords requested that the government end colonization, grant land to indigenous communities and suspend oil exploration until there was mutual agreement. This document also sent a broader message to the national government that the indigenous communities were demanding their rights. While the response from Ecuador’s government was slow and little action was taken, the accords established that indigenous communities had valid claims, grounded in international law. Local governments like ACIA were well aware of the indigenous success in Sarayaku, which became a motivating factor for widespread movement in the 1990s.
In response to the few government actions taken following the Sarayaku Accords, OPIP organized a march to Quito in 1992 to demand land rights from the national government. The march drew thousands of indigenous people from different ethnic federations, including both men and women from ACIA, to the capital, in what is still recognized as one of the most significant and influential indigenous mobilizations out of the Amazon. Although “contiguous territory” was not fully acquired after the march and the government still retained the right to subterranean resources like oil, the march did grant land-use rights to indigenous governments in the Amazon region. ACIA gained control of roughly 40,000 hectares of land, equivalent to 150 square miles.
By 1992, energy around the “ethnopolitical” movement was fervent throughout the Amazon, and while local people in Arajuno still considered themselves “Kichwa,” there was a growing sense of importance around identifying as part of a collective “indigenous” identity for the sake of political gain. Elario Tanguila, former Mayor of Arajuno and active participant in the 1992 march to Quito, reflected on ACIA’s “ethnopolitics” and acceptance of international discourse in our conversation during the summer of 2015, stating:
We have learned to speak as they do. We have learned to understand the laws as they do. We have learned to write as they do. We have given up parts of ourselves to become ourselves, to fight back, and to negotiate.
Through understanding international laws, learning Spanish and learning to read and write, ACIA members were able to participate in the burgeoning sphere of international and national indigenous politics and gain strength as an ethnic federation, successfully negotiating its rights and defending itself in the face of new influences.
In present day Arajuno, ACIA is an influential political force that has successfully maintained control of land, resources and ethnic identity. Supported by Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which broadened indigenous rights and established “plurinationality” for indigenous groups in Ecuador, ACIA continues to make claims to practice traditional medicine, teach the Kichwa language in publicly funded schools and use its own legal system to settle disputes.
More recently, ACIA has begun hosting and supporting events that serve to reinforce the Kichwa identity and fundamental Kichwa practices: community-wide festivals, handicraft fairs, traditional food markets and a Kichwa radio station. These kinds of activities represent a new trend in indigenous politics in Arajuno, one that responds to the threat of economic development by formalizing practices and positioning them within the new economic system through commodification. It gives new value to aspects of life that were once normal, everyday experiences. Interestingly, this new space of culture creation relies predominantly on work historically and still done by women, and women have been the primary organizers of such events. Women who are at once highly educated and politically motivated, and continue work as householders, chacra workers, traditional food makers and handicraft artists, have demonstrated their strong desire to maintain Kichwa culture within an era of development that might otherwise erase the “traditional.” It’s in this space that the Huayusa Upina event fits.
The Huayusa UpinaAt 3 a.m. on the day of the inaugural Huayusa Upina, a tambourine sounded in the streets, calling guests to the event space where plastic chairs formed a large circle around a podium and microphone. A group of ten ACIA women had been working the entire night in preparation, boiling an enormous pot of huayusa leaves over a fire and preparing chicha, yucca, and plantains.
To this first Huayusa Upina event, ACIA invited the leaders from the other political organizations and indigenous communities in Arajuno to promote a sense of unity. Once the guests were seated, some women stopped their preparations and began serving huayusa to each person, one by one, in traditional wooden bowls called macawas. Leaders then took turns giving speeches. Pedro Tzerembo, a Shuar leader, said:
Thanks for bringing forth this process of Huayusa Upina and continuing the fight. The national government is trying to move us toward another system, another type of organization. We have much more power than we once did. I ask you that our wisdom be used to create unity and true development we are proud of. The town is the power and an organized fight will bring us great things.
This kind of provocative phrasing—a common thread throughout the speeches— produced strong emotions from the crowd, in some cases, tears or audible weeping. Luisa Pauchi, invited to discuss her role in creating the event, told the crowd that while other communities had been including Huayusa Upina as a part of their festivals since 2013, ACIA had yet to successfully institutionalize the practice as a part of a monthly routine. She suggested that the community-wide Huayusa Upina event be continued once every month in the foreseeable future, declaring:
Now that we have the town and the road, we cannot live like we lived before. We need to get involved in a new fight. Keeping our identity and keeping our land is not possible if we do not remember where we came from.
Luisa echoed a sentiment shared by many, of the importance of maintaining indigenous culture for the sake of remembering ancestors, the fight they went through to bring Arajuno to where it is today, and for future generations to maintain an understanding of what it means to be Kichwa, or otherwise indigenous. As the event continued, more huayusa and chicha were served by the ACIA women. They then laid out large palm leaves on the floor and delivered plantain and yucca, as well as stacks of meat – a traditional setting for a communal meal, in this case, the concluding breakfast at 6 a.m.
Innovative Culture Creation
Huayusa Upina, during the time I spent in Arajuno, was taking hold as a new tradition, publicized to the community through social media and the local radio station, and widely discussed at community events. By doing ethnography—observing the intricacies of daily life and the hearing the stories of more than 80 townspeople—I found that Huayusa Upina illustrated a broader trend toward innovative culture creation, advanced by women in particular, that integrates and adapts to, rather than contests, challenges posed by development.
I have watched Arajuno progress from afar for the past five years, and have seen practices like the Huayusa Upina continue, with photos from events posted on social media sites and discussed by political leaders. Remarkably, people’s sense of being Kichwa in Arajuno appears to be getting stronger, rather than fading, in the face of increasing economic development and change.
Megan Monteleone graduated from Harvard College in 2016 with a B.A. in Social Studies. Her thesis on indigenous rights in the Ecuadorian Amazon was awarded the Hammond Prize for best undergraduate thesis on Latin America. She currently works as an Associate in the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, where she has published op-eds and articles related to human rights in Nicaragua, Chile, and Ecuador