Saturday, September 29, 2012

Finding a Tree

An aging Ashaninka canoe, artfully still on the Pichis River.

Three days east of Lima, across high mountain passes of the Andes, past the ¨Jungle´s Eybrow¨ and far up river on the Rio Pichis from Puerto Bermudez lives small communities of Ashaninka natives. One of the largest and most diverse tribes of the entire Amazon, the Ashaninka communities are a resilient band whose knowledge of the jungle and reliance on it remains alive to this day. This is despite cultural attacks, political marginalizing and even ethnocide in the recent Shining Path terrorists of Peru´s 90s. For the last two weeks, I lived in the village San Pablo and built a traditional dugout canoe with an Ashaninka elder.


A canoe of eight meters supports a family for transportation between villages. A radio resting on the bow shows the intense edge between very old traditions and very new ones.
 
 A canoe of eight meters supports a family for transportation between villages. A radio resting on the bow shows the intense edge between very old traditions and very new ones.

Medicines, an intricate diet from forest products and fish, beautiful building materials such as bamboo, are all examples of the Ashaninka material culture in which their long knowledge, and balance with, the ecosystem have allowed an ample existence in the rainforest. Yet this is changing. For example, the animals that sustained a supple protein diet, like capybara, are radically more scarce, leading to a near, and recent, extinction of traditional hunting culture with bow and arrow. Deforestation in the region, with the rise of the agricultural frontier and logging has made large trees difficult to find and use sustainably.

Lioncio as we enter a path deeper into the jungle to find our canoe.

I met Lioncio Yossa, an elder in the San Pablo community and master builder of the dugout canoe. The first and crucial step in building the canoe is finding the tree. Not only is deforestation a negative force on the sustainability of the canoe building tradition, finding a tree the right size, the right location (near water for a good exist route) and right type, has become factors more difficult. 
 
Into the rainforest we hiked, across streams, through beautiful steamy jungle and community cultivation areas until we reached a magnificent Cieba tree at the edge of a small tributary to the Pichis. Felled just six months before by Lioncio´s brother, this was the first of six small canoes to be cut from the incredible trunk. The Cieba (or Kapok) tree is a mother species to many in the rainforest ecosystem. A home, often uniquely, to bats, birds, epiphytic plants, insects, and monkeys, the tree is literally a life sustaining element in the forest. The same applies to human beings. The tribes of the amazon use this tree in the form of the canoe to navigate the jungle waters, find food, and communicate. It is truly important to life and culture to this day.

The Cieba tree to use for our canoe

Standing over the one hundred foot beauty felled for this canoe was a mixed emotional experience. I was excited for the canoe I was to build with a true master, yet felt heavy hearted with the responsibility that comes with taking the life of such a forest being. A culture of wise use, I believe, can exist with a healthy ecosystem, such as the one the Cieba tree exists within. Yet our immense impact cannot be avoided. We found our tree, with great respect, it was time to build the canoe.




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