hot peppers as natural Christmas tree ornaments
Its name means healing water or “Medicine River.” The Ampiyacu, one of hundreds of minor tributaries of the Amazon, shines silver in the imposing afternoon sun. The etymology of the river’s name is open to speculation: whether due to curative properties possessed by the water or for a concentration of medicinal plants along the serpentine course of its densely vegetated banks, perhaps we will never know.
At the mouth of the Ampiyacu, its confluence with the Amazon proper, the brilliant surface of the water is punctuated by porpoise fins – here both pink and gray river dolphins are present in abundance. With an extensive folklore of enchantment similar to Western myths of sirens, the dolphins hold a place in the local imagination that is magical, seductive, and somewhat sinister. Fishermen complain about them as competitors for the catch, a perception that has led to senseless killing of these unique freshwater mammals.
Let’s imagine we’re making a trip upriver on the Ampiyacu. After turning off from the world’s largest river near Pijuayal, we go against the current of the medicine river heading north toward the border with Colombia. Lining the banks and submerged in the water are wild bushes of camu camu, the most vitamin C-rich fruit in the world, a kind of Amazonian swamp berry from the guava family. Further along we encounter the spiny trunks of chambira palms, whose new leaf shoots provide the best fiber for making hammocks and other useful crafts. Medicinal trees called huacapurana dangle with oversized seed pods that look like Christmas tree ornaments.
Before long our journey brings us to the mouth of the main tributary of the Ampiyacu: the Yahuasyacu, after the Yaguas natives who have inhabited the area at least since the river’s naming. Turning off from the main river, the course of the Yahuasyacu quickly becomes even more curvy and tightly wound than the Ampiyacu. In the flood season, when these rivers run their banks each year and great swathes of forest are underwater, we are able to cut miles off the trip via floodwater shortcuts, darting between trees on narrow channels that will disappear in the dry season, allowing us to skip long stretches of river following the highwater’s path of least resistance.
By now we are in deep jungle. Though we pass by the occasional dugout canoe with a single person or a couple of youths sitting in a shaded eddy fishing, for the most part the river is quiet and still. Coming around a bend we see flocks of black crow-like birds and the surface of the water sliced by darting kingfishers of several colors. Vines as thick as a human torso act as improbable vectors for the stacking of life on top of life. Spindly wild passionfruit vines drape over a scaffold of leguminous bushes as if they were placed there for that purpose alone. Around each bend we now see towering lupunas, one of the spectacular emblematic trees of the Amazon with massive fin roots and a swollen trunk reminiscent of a pregnant belly.
Perhaps it’s time we cut the motor and glide along in silence for a few minutes. Morpho butterflies of an impossible stained glass blue lope along on the motions of a barely perceptible breeze. A Noah’s Ark of insect life buzzes and hums all around us and occasionally on top of us – the rainforest idyll seemingly pays little homage to human comfort. In the midst of this kaleidoscope of green shapes and flowers of unexpected sizes and colors, the jungle appears inviolable and eternal. It almost seems to be a land outside of time, a place outside of history.
This is of course false. The recurring perception of the Amazon and its people as existing outside of progress, a kind of primitive time capsule at odds with the modern world, has been perennially disastrous both for ecosystems and for human communities here. In the case of the Ampiyacu basin, a microcosmic example that is representative in many senses of the past of the Amazon as a whole, the human history these last several centuries has been one of cataclysmic exploitation and diaspora. Despite the river named in their honor, the Yaguas Indians are now confined to a single village in the basin, their lands having been colonized by rubber tappers who imported slave labor in the form of “docile and desirable” tribes like the Bora and Huitoto, who had previously inhabited areas to the north across the Colombia border.
Though considered good workers by their sociopathic bosses, the Bora and many other tribes were subjected to unimaginable atrocities as part of the rubber boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many visitors to the Amazon today see what they think of us as a quaint or “authentic” primitivism among people who use handmade tools and have little conventional capital wealth. These visitors would do well to remember that many native communities in the Amazon are the fragmentary remnants of cultures that were intentionally divided and scattered while experiencing extremes of abuse that call to mind a Holocaust. The ongoing duress experienced by native people under the current neoliberal economic system speaks to just how strongly the forces of history continue to influence the Amazon.
The present makeup of the Ampiyacu basin includes Bora, Huitoto, Ocaina, and Yagua communities, over a dozen villages in total joined together in alliance as the Federation of Native Communities of the Ampiyacu, a small organization that gives the tribes a collective voice at the table in matters of local governance and regulates internal relations among the communities. In 2010, the efforts of the Federation and several allied institutions resulted in the creation of the Ampiyacu-Apayacu Regional Conservation Area (ACR, by its initials in Spanish), a 434,130 hectare conservation area protected and managed directly by the native communities and the regional government.
The seemingly impenetrable forest that lines our virtual river journey is not untouched, though it is a wilderness. This forest landscape is a mosaic of hunting grounds and abandoned farms returning to forest, plus actively populated areas shoulder to shoulder with islands of intact primary forest. Similarly, the ACR is a protected area under active use by the local population, a model that confounds the hands-off approach of many national parks and protected areas, but which paradoxically ensures that the forests will be cared for with thought to permanent use and sustainable production.
At this point in our voyage we are undoubtedly bugbit and sunburnt, and it’s a welcome sight when we round a bend and arrive at our final destination for now – Colonia, the most distant community in the federation. On a promontory surrounded on 3 sides by the Shumón River, small tributary of the Yahuasyacu, the village center of Colonia is home to just a dozen families from a single extended clan. First cousins to the Boras of Brillo Nuevo, the next community downriver, the chief of Colonia and his followers set up camp at a site that had been farmed and occupied by a previous generation. If you look closely at the vegetation here, overgrown fruit trees of umarí begin to emerge from the tangle as a clear sign of past inhabitation.
But we’ve come looking for a different sort of tree. In an area that to an untrained eye looks almost indistinguishable from a primary forest, rumor has it that there’s a rosewood tree that was planted over 40 years ago by the farmers of a generation ago. Leading the way to see if the tree is still there, don Oscar snaps thin tree branches as we walk, marking the path so we won’t get lost on the way back. Despite the lack of actively used trails, Oscar should know where the tree is – after all, it was his father who planted it.
We tie up the canoe and navigate the muddy banks up to the village grounds. Tree calabash (Crescentia crujete), aguaje and wasaí palms line the grassy village green. Don Oscar’s cousin is the apu or chief of Colonia and we greet him at the maloca, a communal house under the chief’s care. He seems pleased that we’ve come to ask for dialogue and permission from the community to visit a tree within their territory. After hearing a quick summary of our work planting rosewood trees in the area – including over 300 trees in active production downriver in Brillo Nuevo, trees that are now 5 years old and some of which are over 25 feet tall (7 m) – an impromptu party is formed with several of the neighbors to visit the rosewood tree.
After another half hour in the canoe and a 20 minute walk, we’re there. The tree is thick and robust. And we’re in luck: a few seedlings and a few old seeds on the ground show proof that the tree is productive. This year when the tree goes to fruit we can be there in time to gather the fragile seeds and grow them into trees in Colonia and communities just like it.
These are a few of the challenges in planting some of the world's most endangered trees. And this is just a little bit of what you’ve helped us accomplish in 2017. Happy 2018 to you! We look forward to sharing more in the New Year.