Return to the roots in the Amazon rainforest in eastern Ecuador



Other SCI experience

Written by Sandrine Matthieu from Belgium

October 2021

Return to the roots in the Amazon rainforest in eastern Ecuador

During my trip around the world, I wanted to do volunteering projects to live it more intensely and to be immersed in the local customs… A project in Ecuador attracted me because it took place in the “selva” (the jungle), far from civilization.

First impressions

Cesar, coordinator of the ecological project “Selva y Vida”, comes to pick me up in Macas, in the province of Morona Santiago. He is part of the indigenous Shuar community. We go to the market to buy fruit and vegetables for the whole week. “If someone offers you food or a drink, you have to accept it or it will offend them,” he told me. We then leave the city by bus, direction Yukaip. We arrive after a 2h30 drive. There is nothing around us except a wide and red road, mountains with tropical vegetation and a path that descends… which is the one we take. Cesar lives down there at the confluence of two rivers. The cabins are made of wood or bamboo. The floor is on stilts or rammed earth and the roofs are made of palm leaves. The family has chickens and a dog. There are dry toilets, no electricity (except at the school) or running water. We do everything in the river: we wash ourselves and we wash the dishes and clothes. In this jungle, we rub shoulders with tarantulas, cockroaches, scorpions, snakes… Most of the meals are vegetarian. We eat in the evening by candlelight. I thank Cesar for the delicious meal. He replies: “You can’t say it’s delicious until you’ve eaten the best part of the fish: the head!”. After the silent meal, Cesar tells us his exciting stories of the jungle and his life. We then tell him “cashin” (see you tomorrow in shuar) and go to sleep. The sound of the river rocks me at night.

Not quite what I expected!

The day I arrive, against all odds, Cesar tells me that I will be teaching English to children. The school principal is the only teacher for 24 children aged 5 to 11. She gives me no advice and leaves me to myself. After two days, I want to quit because one of the classes is unmanageable but I sleep on it and decide to continue for them. A parent tells me that English is very important for the future of their children. I want to make them happy. So I agree with the principal to teach two small groups of four students of the same age (8-9 and 10-11) and to teach them vocabulary that seems important to me. I then feel more useful.
I do not know what kids this age are capable of and what the best learning technique for each age group is. I have no idea about the psychology of children aged 8 to 11 and it is difficult for me to adapt the English course according to the ages but I am learning and adapting. I manage to get their attention by having them actively participate in lessons (talking, drawing, guessing, writing, etc.). On the last day of class, I had to give a presentation about the English class to parents. After a month, all of my students had learned new words. It was my great satisfaction. I was proud of them and the parents too. I always say there is no such thing as chance. If I had this experience, it was because I had to live it. I am happy with it, even though it has confirmed that I’m not made to be a teacher!

A typical day in “Selva y Vida”

After breakfast, I go to school on foot, in boots because the road is cut by a river. I love this 30-40 minute morning walk. It restores me completely. I observe nature: the colourful birds fluttering, the raptor watching me, the bright butterflies quenching their thirst in the puddles, the pink wild bananas along the road, the soothing tropical vegetation, the song of the birds, and I listen to the sound of the river below… I arrive completely zen at the school.
I teach English all morning. During the break, the children receive cookies and milk donated by the government and then play football. The goal is for everyone to participate. Around 1 p.m., I walk back home. The hardest part of the day is over! We have dinner and then I do various tasks such as: washing the dishes (with Uñu, the dog, who keeps me company), cutting and folding large palms and repairing the roofs of the huts with them, preparing my English lessons, building a large roost in the henhouse, clean the harvested yucca, clear the paths, redo the stone stairs, plug the holes in the henhouse… I like these tasks, I find them interesting and soothing. Then I have some free time. I take the opportunity to bathe in the cool water of the river while admiring this dream landscape. This bath at the end of the day is pure happiness, each time. It is something that I miss even now. I put on my sweater, gaze at the starry sky and go help cook dinner. Then it’s time for the candlelight meal. All those simple things give me real well-being!

When Mother Nature goes wild…

During this project, I saw one of the biggest floods the community has ever seen! The water from the rivers suddenly rises and covers the lower part of the land. This torrent of brown water sweeps away everything in its path. Torn trees pass through the tumultuous river. After this deluge, everything is ransacked, the rocks displaced and the edges of the rivers redrawn. The water has created other passages. The vegetable gardens of Cesar and his neighbours are devastated, the bananas uprooted and the yuccas severely damaged. Cultures are largely lost. We will have to reseed and wait 8 months to harvest the first yuccas, and 2 years before the first bananas. Three horses died. It is huge losses for the community!
What I learned about the Shuar community
At the time, the Shuar people practiced the ritual of Tsantsa (shrunken head) when they killed their enemies. People live in community, help each other and decisions are taken together during assemblies. Community members meet on Sundays in the common “room” to eat together, chat, and play volleyball or soccer. The community counts several shamans who performs ayahuasca ceremonies. Waterfalls are sacred places. They hunt with guns (sometimes they hunt protected animals such as armadillos), fish, gather and farm. They eat almost all parts of the animal and with their fingers. Their main tool is the machete. Yucca is the basic food. Their favourite alcohol is shisha. The honour goes to the women who prepares it. The trade secret: they chew the pieces of yucca and then spit them out… into the pot. Everyone drinks it, even children, anytime during the day. They used to be polygamist. Nowadays, they speak Shuar and Spanish. During the shuar community festival in Yukaip on January 31, football matches between students from different schools, traditional dances and the election of Miss Yukaip are the highlights of the day.

A daily battle for their environment

The shuar are fighting to protect their Amazon rainforest where they live. The government has given the mountain “Bosque de vegetacion protector Kutuku shaimi” to China to mine for gold and cobalt. Until now, the indigenous communities have succeeded in blocking the entrance to prevent the destruction of this more than century-old forest. The indigenous communities would like to live in self-sufficiency and not depend on the government, which acts without consulting them. Certain decisions and laws, about their territory, are taken or voted without the consent of the indigenous populations. Since a few years, the NASHE organization (Nación Shuar del Ecuador) has been representing all the indigenous Shuar communities living in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and fighting for them. Cesar would like to open the place to tourists to bring money to the community and be able to protect the forest. For him, the “selva” is an open-air biological library. He wants scientists to study there and tourists to learn about the jungle, so that they can enjoy it by hiking in nature. I hope his dream will come true one day…

My take on this experience

This month lived in the Amazon rainforest was very refreshing, interesting and emotionally intense! Between teaching children, going through this huge flood, accepting that Cesar kills bats, tasting unfamiliar foods, knowing the lack of food, having allergic reactions after being bitten by insects, getting bitten in the skull by bees, not washing on certain days because the river was muddy, discover another facet of this jungle, attend the shuar community festival, share and discuss our beliefs with Cesar, feel the energies of the people, waterfalls, places… I reconnected with nature and the simple things in life. I learned that I need nature to feel good, that I need to be in connection with it and to protect it. In summary, I learned a lot about the Shuar culture, about life in the selva, about the profession of teacher (it really is a vocation!). And I also learned a lot about myself.
Even though life in the jungle is very basic, I haven’t missed our luxury at all. It was a magical and unforgettable experience!

Sandrine Matthieu
Volunteer at SCI Belgium

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