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On the move in shifting times: A story of Kichwa culture

Jaime Tapuy has worked with Medwater since the inception of the projects in the Amazon. He and his wife currently oversee seven Medwater project sites deep in the jungle. Here, he sits down to share a bit of his life and the history of his Kichwa community.

"My wife and I met when she was 15 years old and I was 21. She is from Arosemena Tola right outside of Tena, and I was born in Coca which is in Orellana Province. The day we met was the day we were wed in our culture, and we wed in the church one year later. I guess that means we have been married for 32 years now? We have three daughters and three sons, all born at home. I have a couple of grandchildren, one grandson who was just born in November.

Our family ended up in Runashitu because the areas we lived in were being settled and developed. Tena turned into a city. Puerto Napo began to develop. I remember the first time I saw a doctor give a 20-year-old Kichwa man a shot. I was six. The man was so scared, he had never seen Western medicine. We used all natural medicines from leaves and plants. The man was so scared, he preferred to die before getting a shot. When it was given, he fainted.

The towns began to develop and this pushed us further into the jungle. We are a solitary type, and the more people who came, further into the jungle we would go. We followed the fish, the animals, and the gold. Back before, we lived off the land and panned for gold. There used to be so many fish in the rivers, so much hunting, and the gold...the gold glittered off tree leaves, the dust turning everything golden. Back before, the Kichwa people were nomads. We lived off the land and moved as we needed. We would move to a location, a group of maybe 12-15 people, and settle. We built wooden houses and cultivated the land, living off the harvests, the fish in the rivers, and the animals we hunted. We knew the land was rich for cultivation but was good for only a few harvests. After that there were no nutrients left in the soil to produce a good crop. Land was plentiful, so once the soil was depleted we moved on. As a child, I must have moved about every three years, living in five different places by the time I was fifteen.

Then in the 70's the Ecuadorian government demanded that the land be zoned. If we were using it, it had to have an owner. I had to own the land. The Kichwa people had no concept of land ownership. We saw the vast jungles as our home, and we didn't understand the idea of living in one place. Those among us who had a better understanding and larger vision listened to the government and claimed vast tracts of land of around 2000-3000 hectares. Others didn't believe that the government would truly interfere nor follow through with these new 'laws,' and saw no reason to legalize their lands. My family doesn't have much land now. We have about 35 hectares, and even this my father had wanted to sell. My brother and I stood firm and would not let him, asking him where we would live if he were to sell our land to new settlers. It caused a lot of conflict in the family, and I was there for him when he died of Hepatitis B even if he thought I was not a good son. As our families grow the land gets divided up, which is now why you hear so much about inheritance and all the inheritance laws that are coming up.

My parents' generation was nomadic. My generation is the first that has had to live in one place. We have to take the land as it is, use it over and over. When the rivers get contaminated by the oil companies, we have to deal with it. Everyone down river is always affected. Those who live upriver cause problems for those those live further down. The pristine waters are no longer that way because we overuse the same areas. Communities are now about 200-300 inhabitants, and that number continues to grow as the families grow. We don't have the option of picking up and moving to a new space because now we don't own that land, which makes it off limits.

Nowadays, we have to worry about things like water. Our way of life before did not allow the water to become so contaminated. We lived in small groups and moved frequently. Now we have to worry about the quality of our water; we worry about diseases that didn't exist until new people came into our area and brought us these diseases. I began to work with foundations years ago, when we saw that tourists were coming to our area.

I know how to cure illness with natural medicines. I can cure using shamanistic rituals. I worry about health, and that's why I support Medwater's work. If we can improve the health of our people through just a little work done with a bit of love, then I am there to help. What you need is just a little ounce of caring, and you can bring change to a lot of people."

Interview with Jaime Tapuy, (paraphrased and translated by Tammy Truong

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