People of the Amazon Rainforest - Achua Natives
By Mike Collis

Achua Elders
Photographs courtesy of Amazon Promise and Patty Webster

The Achuar Indians or "People of the Aguaje Palm" amount to about 18,500 souls straggling the border between Peru and Ecuador. About 12,000 live in Ecuador the other 6,000 in Peru. Untill the early 1940s and 50s the Achua had little or no contact with the outside world, although they were mentioned in journals dating back to 1548.

The religion practiced by the Achua is Shamanism and Animism and they use 2 languages Shuar and Achuar-Shiwiar both being dialects of the Jivaroan language.

Most Achua people build their homes near to a river or a lake. The house is oval shaped, with a thatched palm leaf roof but without walls for ventilation. Inside walls are temporary walls made out of thatched palm leaves. The size of the house reflects the man’s ego because a bigger house has room for multiple wives and lots of children. The house is usually surrounded by a large garden, these are usually cultivated by the women. The garden plays an important part in Achua women’s lives, they even give birth there. Women say they feel more at one with the world and the universe in a garden. The life of Achua people revolves around a family unit which often includes close relatives. Usually there are about 10 to 15 of these households throughout the area, close but not too close. Achua marriages are polygamous and quite often wives are related and can even be sisters. Sometimes other villages are raided and women carried away to be married to their captors. Arguments resulting in violence between the Achua people themselves are limited. However, the Achua are always in a fight with other local tribes at some time or another.

Achua youths brandishing their shotguns

Men and women carry out different tasks during the day. The women prepare meals, look after the children and sometimes weave baskets for fishing traps. The men fish, hunt and make weapons for hunting like blowguns and traps. Recently many Achua men have purchased shotguns for hunting.

All Achua people enjoy the spare time they set aside each day, men have more spare time than women. Men drink a local beer made from yucca and make handicrafts. Young men and boys have more spare time than most and do little all day while the girls struggle with their household chores.

In the 1980s oil was discovered in the Corrientes River region, part of the Achua tribal homelands. The oilfields provided employment for a few Achua men but the pollution caused many cases of cancer, genetic deformities and mental problems. The Peruvian Ministry of Health also discovered the children had alarming amounts of cadmium and lead in their blood. The Achua people found that the pollution was killing fish and destroying the rainforest on which they depended. It was also claimed that for every barrel of oil extracted 9 barrels of polluted water was emptied into the water course, that amounted to more than a million barrels per day. The Achua rose up, most with their bows, arrows and spears but many with newly acquired shot guns. They had already occupied oil company property a number of times. In November 2006 they again occupied oil company property for 14 days and the military was sent in. The Achua stood their ground and the Peruvian Government and Petroplus agreed to most of the Achua demands including paying 5% royalties to the Achua communities.

The Achua culture displays how closely their lives are linked to the nature around them. Everything they eat comes from the rainforest and the animals, trees and plants are spiritually important to them. Everything they see is linked to its own spirit. To hunt well means the hunter must respect the plants and animals. The ayahuasca vine is used in ceremonies for healing and to provide visions so they can understand the spiritual world. Hunters usually hope they have a good dream about a forthcoming hunt. If they do, they believe it to be a good omen and he will indeed have a successful hunt. The Achua women tend the garden and cultivate vegetables and fruits. All plants have spirits, both good and evil but the garden is considered a bad place for children to play alone. They are particularly frightened of the “Vampriric” an evil spirit which like a vampire sucks human blood, but is particularly fond of children’s blood. Blood is very precious to the Anchua because they believe it to be irreplaceable and to lose some brings you closer to death.

The typical funeral of an Achua involves the placing of the corpse in a hollowed out log like a canoe. When a headman dies the canoe like log is actually buried under the floor of the main house. Some body parts are removed and kept safe because they believe them to have a life of their own and can turn into animals.
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