Achuar Fight for Survival

The Achuar people are native to the Amazon, spanning the Ecuador-Peruvian border. The Achuar people place a high value on nature, utilizing plants for nutrition, healing, medicine, and ceremony. For this reason, they are highly concerned with the level of outsider’s intrusion on land. Non-indigenous people do not understand the sacredness of the land, and have been tapping into the 4.7 billion barrels of crude oil reserves under the northeast Amazon region for decades (Isaacson 1). Drilling oil in the Amazon region “ultimately affects their [natives] well being, as most groups’ ultimate livelihood still depends on a healthy ecosystem (Fadiman 2). The Achuar are trying to figure out how to reduce negative impacts of oil exploration in the Amazon.

There are between 3,000 and 6,000 today with approximately two millions acres of land. They are nomads, hunting, fishing, and gathering for survival. Due to their slash and burn style of living, they relocate and establish new homes every few years to allow for new growth. The Achuar’s culture revolves around dreams; they integrate dreams into their daily lives. Sometimes they understand dreams to predict future events and may alter activities based on dreams. Other dreams, though, are less concrete, and can only be understand after certain events take place. While some dreams are personal, others can have a purpose for other people. All dreams possess energy, which encourages and empowers the dreamer (Schlitz 3).

The Achuar people base their lives off of vision-dreams, which create purposefulness. People who have positive vision-dreams maintain confidence that they will be empowered for an extended period of time. If the dream is unacceptable, the Achuar must dream again. When the vision-dream is fulfilled, the Achuar feels a lack of drive or direction; this is when a new vision-dream is generally developed. In order to develop vision-dreams, the Achuar man typically ingests a maikua, a local plant. Maikua is an individual sacred ritual. The participant must fast for a day, travel to a sacred location at least an hour away from home, and reflect on his/her life. In order to have a successful vision-dream, the Achuar must believe in the power of maikua and arutam, the vision-dream energy; this is the protective spirit that gives him spiritual power. Arutam is “embedded in natural places, especially places with large trees or waterfalls which are considered sacred place” (Schlitz 5). Arutam is visually expressed and seen in different forms (often a jaguar or boa) but is in everything (Schlitz 5). The Achuar finds energy and sacredness in nature. One Achuar man says “The tree makes a house for you. If you are sick, the tree becomes and doctor and it cures you. This is the house of the jungle where the ancestor spirits live (Fadiman 8). They may cease to exist in the Amazon if trees and plants are being destroyed.

Achuar native showing us the uses of various trees for medicinal purposes

Non-indigenous people overlook the importance of nature, not understanding the roles nature plays in the Achuar daily life. Over the past century, oil companies have destroyed much of the native land for economic profits, but it has ultimately failed to improve Ecuador’s economic situation. Since the 1960s, the oil industry has impacted life in the Amazon (Orta-Martinez 211). In 1964, the Ecuadorian government granted oil concessions, allowing further access to oil companies such as Texaco-Gulf and Petroecuador (Fadiman 2). Texaco released 30 billion gallons of toxic waste and 17 million gallons of crude oil into the environment (Center for Economic and Social Rights 90). While Texaco was drilling oil in over 5 million acres of land, the Amazonian ecosystem was suffering. They did not adhere to international health standards. Wastewater was mixed with toxic liquid substances, rather than being reinjected underground. Additionally, Petroecuador utilized oil-based drilling muds instead of water-based ones, adding to the contamination levels. They neglected oil spills and failed to properly maintain pipelines and production facilities (Center for Economic and Social Rights 90). When the 20-year contract ended, few measures were taken to ensure safety in the lives of the Achuar.

There are a huge array of health consequences as an outcome of exposure to crude oil. Crude oil can enter the human body through skin absorption, ingestion of food or drink, and an inhalation of the particles. It can cause skin loss, dryness, or change in pigmentation, and in extreme cases, can cause cancer. The oil contamination in the Amazon region infiltrated water supplies, depriving local tribes of fish, game, and crops (Center for Economic and Social Rights 87).

The Achuar finally initiated contact with the outside world, despite the 5,000 years of chosen isolation prior. Because of their ceremonies and their elder’s dreams, they knew they would face grave dangers after the year 2000 if they failed to develop relationships with the North, especially the oil companies. The Achuar wanted assistance in saving their rainforest, hoping Westerners would be less consumptive. As one Achuar elder says, “This [ceiba] tree is important. The oil companies cannot come into this area, because this where the tree lives, and the tree is sacred” (Fadiman 8). They hope to see outsiders be less destructive and live in more harmony with nature and the earth, as the earth is sacred.

Belden Lane discusses the importance of the whole environment as the foundation of sacred ceremonies and beliefs. He stresses the importance of “giv[ing] voice to place, recovering a sense of the highly embodied and imaginative way that the natural environment participates with us in the creation of meaning and the mystery of experience” (Lane 56).

Because land is used for various purposes by a multitude of people, there can be conflict as to how the land should be used and worshipped. The Achuar have placed high value and meaning on the Amazon region, but outsiders have an opposing drive to pursue the land for economic gains.

The Achuar have initiated resistance methods in the hopes of reducing trauma to the region, but still, they struggle to maintain their rights. In 2007, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted, understanding the link between territory and rights. They claimed that “control by indigenous peoples over developments affecting them and their lands, territories and resources will enable them to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures and traditions” (Orta-Martinez 213). They recognized territory as a source of life for the Achuar, both physical (food, water, medicine), but more importantly for their cultural and spiritual traditions.

Local communities are at high risk for survival, as contamination is not being monitored and companies fail to acknowledge the destruction of natives’ sacred homes. While it is clear Ecuador needs to exploit natural resources for economic reasons, human rights have been violated due to the irresponsibility of oil companies. Oil exploration has caused a loss of biodiversity as well as negatively impacted human life and cultural diversity. The future of the Achuar tribe is unfortunately unknown and dependent on the degree to which oil companies utilize this sacred land for economic gain.


 Works Cited

Center for Economic and Social Rights. “Rights Violations in the Ecuadorian Amazon: The Human Consequence of Development.” 1.1 (1994): 82-100. JSTOR. The President and Fellows of Harvard College. 1 Nov. 2012.

Fadiman, Maria. “Amazonian Oil Exploration: Contradictions in Culture and

Environment.” American Geographical Society’s Focus on Geography 52.1 (2009): 1-10.

Lane, Belden C. “Giving Voice to Place: Three Models for UnderstandingAmerican     Sacred Space.” Religion and American Culture 11.1 (2001): 53-81.

Orta-Martinez, Marta, and Matt Finer. “Oil Frontiers and Indigenous Resistance inthe Peruvian Amazon.” Ecological Economics 70 (2010): 207-18.

Schlitz, Marilyn. “The Achuar Dream Practices.” Mystic Mountain: Center for Healing Arts. 01 Nov. 2012. <>.









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