issue 211 - September 1990
In praise of idleness
An Indian from Ecuador's rainforest visits Europe - and is
not greatly impressed. Helena Paul discovers why.
He explained that he was wearing the head-dress - red, yellow, black and white toucan feathers - so that we would recognize him as he came through the arrivals gate at London's Heathrow Airport. He need not have worried. With his eagle's profile and shoulder-length straight black hair he was the only likely Achuar Indian from Ecuador.
Customs had asked him a lot of questions. Everything about him puzzled them - not least that his baggage for his six-week tour of Europe consisted of an exhibition banner and a small shoulder bag filled with papers.
Luis Vargas is President of the Confederation of Indian Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon. This includes many former enemies who have decided to bury the hatchet in favour of working together to defend themselves against the oil companies and cattle ranchers, coffee growers and colonists, whose greed threatens their best illustrated how good concerned with defending the rights of the Huarani Indians, as these are the most vulnerable group, having only recently made con tact with the outside world.
As with all native peoples, issue number one is land rights. To live in their traditional manner the Ecuadorian Indians need large tracts of undisturbed forest in which to hunt, fish and cultivate their gardens.
But there is a lot of oil in the forest - and that is the problem. The Government regularly carves up the land into concessions which are then sold off to the highest bidder. 'I don't understand this selling of land.' says Luis. 'It's like selling your mother.'
British Gas has a concession in Achuar territory. So a visit by Luis to the British Gas headquarters in London seemed appropriate. No-one was prepared to see him at first. He was advised to put his complaints in writing.
Finally, a Public Relations spokesperson was sent out to deal with this obstinate Indian who would not go away. Luis was unimpressed. He had heard the PR talk before. And besides, the PR man did not have to live in an Achuar village where people were being kept awake day and night by drilling machinery.
What struck Luis most on his trip to Europe was the loneliness of crowded European cities - and the uncaring treatment of the aged and disadvantaged.
Six weeks later I met him in Ecuador. At his home outside Puyo, I could see what he meant as I witnessed the warmth and mutuality of the community in which he and wife lived with their five children, turkeys, chickens, dogs and monkeys. On my first morning I awoke to hear the crackle of a fire being lit and Luis playing his flute.
Luis took me to the offices of the Confederation of Indian Nations, not far from his home. The people gathered there talked about their dreams of setting up an Amazonian University. It would function as a centre of Indian knowledge and contain a hospital where doctors would work closely with shamans and traditional healers.
These are dreams. For the time being, the people at the Confederation of Nations are working to provide bi-lingual education and primary healthcare. They are also making a record of traditional practices and knowledge.
We followed a narrow path into the rainforest and Luis's 10-year-old daughter taught me the names of the many fruits that grow freely there. But it was a small agricultural project, set up by the Indians, that best illustrated how good native people are at protecting their environment - especially compared with the plunderous methods used by the colonists. The latter - mainly urban poor encouraged by the Government to make a new start in the jungle - ruin the fragile soil with their slash-and-burn agriculture, often growing a single cash crop like coffee then moving on. The Indians, on the other hand, plant a mixture of native plants and trees together, selected for their ability to nourish the soil, create shade and leaf litter, hold moisture and lure native animals and birds to return.
Shortly after leaving Ecuador I learned that the Huarani had won the rights to 7000 square kilometers of their land. However the small print says the titles will be revoked if they interfere with oil or mineral exploration or extraction. To receive their titles from the President of Ecuador, the Huarani were issued with identical shoes and clothes and taken off to Quite, Confederation of Nations representatives were not invited because they were viewed as 'communists and agitators'.
Luis Vargas came to Europe as an ambassador not only for his people - but also for an ideology that is increasingly important in today's world. The Jesuits, when they landed in Ecuador, fired up with missionary zeal, described the Indians there as 'idle'. If idleness is the opposite of over-consumption, pollution and indifference to the poor and elderly, then maybe we in the North could do with a bit more of it.
Helena Paul specializes in the issues of environment and native peoples.