"To Get the Gold, They Will Have to Kill Every One of Us First” Tribal Leaders Fight Gold-Hungry Investors
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Most people have heard of the Shuar, even if they don’t realize it. They are the storied Amazonian “head shrinking” tribe. Each of a long succession of enemies have learned firsthand of their tzantza ritual, in which the heads of slain invaders are removed at the collarbone, relieved of their skulls, and shrunk by seasoned boiling in a multi-day ceremony. Tzantza is just one of many rituals rooted in a cosmology of animist spirits. Collectively, these spirits are known as Arutam, a shape-shifting pantheistic godhead whose name loosely translates as “soul power.” Atop a bridge leading to Shuar territory in the southern province of Zamora-Chinchipe, I encountered an oversize statue of Arutam in human form wielding a staff astride a giant toucan, redolent of the dragon-like beasts of “Avatar.”
If James Cameron’s fictional Na’vi of “Avatar” reflect the essence and predicament of one real-world tribe, it’s the Shuar. While they do not expect an action-hero savior to fall from the sky, they recognize that avoiding further bloodshed and protecting the Condor ultimately depends on getting the attention of the wider world, and quickly.
“The world needs to know what is happening in Ecuador, because the destruction of the Condor will have effects for the Amazon, and what affects the Amazon affects the planet as a whole,” said Ankuash. “The world must understand the Condor is not an ordinary patch of jungle.”
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The biologist Alfredo Luna walks with a limp and a cane, the legacy of a plane crash in the Condor that killed two of his colleagues nearly 20 years ago. The plane was carrying a team assembled by Conservation International to conduct the first and only systematic study of the Condor’s hydrological system and the abundant flora and fauna it supports. The team’s findings catapulted the Condor into the elite ranks of global hot spots as ranked by conservation significance. A synopsis of these findings is the subject of a slideshow Luna gives around the world in an attempt to catalyze the conservation community. “The Condor combines the diversity of the Andes and the Amazon in the middle of cloud forest,” Luna said one evening at an NGO office in Quito, pausing his presentation on the image of a marsupial species recently discovered in the Condor. “There is more diversity of life in one hectare of the Condor than all of North America combined.”
Luna stresses that his slideshow only hints at the majesty of the Condor’s biodiversity. “Researchers have just scratched the surface,” he said. What is known is that the Condor breathes with more than 2,000 vascular plants and flowers, including 40 unique varieties of orchid. It is home to hundreds of endemic species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, dozens of which were new to science when first cataloged by Luna’s team. “Unleashing industrial-scale mining in the region is a catastrophe equal to using the Galapagos Islands as a bombing range,” said the biologist. “Its flora has enormous potential to benefit man. So much of it, we’ve only seen from helicopters. Before we even know what’s there, they’re going to destroy it.”
The Condor’s ecological riches are a consequence of unusual wetness. The mountains of the Condor sit on massive aquifers containing a fair chunk of the continent’s fresh water. This water trickles out of innumerable crevices and pours forth from countless cascades. The streams feed famous rains. The volume of rain produced in the Condor’s water cycle is enormous, says Luna, thanks to a unique commixture of altitudes, endemic soils, and solar and wind patterns. The heavy rainwater feeds dozens of small rivers that wind east into the Rios Zamora and Santiago, which sustain the region’s agricultural economy. These eventually merge with Peru’s Marañón River, a major tributary of the continental Amazonian watershed.