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Not every oil-spill disaster occurs precipitously, with a tanker running aground or an oil rig exploding, and not every one causes corporations, under political and public pressure, to reconsider their exploration policies and attempt to repair the PR (or actual) damage they caused. Some disasters are far more insidious, occur outside of the public purview and, while they destroy cultures and ecosystems, do so slowly and surreptitiously. 


That’s the case with a small group of indigenous people called the Achuar, natives of a region of the Amazon straddling the border between Peru and Ecuador, and the subject of a classic ethnological narrative, The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle.  Written by Philippe Descola, a student of Claude Levi-Strauss, the book recounts Descola’s experiences living with one of the few remaining peoples who, until not long before the anthropologist’s arrival in 1976, had had virtually no contact with the industrialized world. 


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The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle

Philippe Descola

(The New Press; US: Apr 1998)

Before securing transportation to the Achuar’s territory, Descola and his companion, Anne Christine, bide their time in a small nearby settlement called Puyo, though not so nearby that most of the inhabitants are even aware of the Achuar’s existence. With typical vividness, Descola describes his encampment this way:


Puyo’s smell is typical of all small Amazonian towns, a subtle blend of barbecued meat, overripe fruit and damp earth, sometimes overlaid by the pestilential exhaust fumes of a huge truck or jolting bus.  Against the background of this composite odour, the houses produce their own typical, intimate smell, a mixture dominated by kerosene and mildewed wood.


Descola eventually reaches the land of the Achuar, a sub-grouping of the Jivaros (notorious for their skill in shrinking the decapitated heads of their enemies) via an Ecuadorian Air Force plane, a “small, rickety canoe” and a “narrow, muddy track” into the jungle, battling torrential rains along the way. During the journey, Philippe and Anne Christine’s guides kill a toucan, roast it on a spit, and consume the fowl out of a “billycan of lukewarm rice” while one of the guides turns the unfortunate bird‘s tongue into a “love potion“. 


This is just the first of countless reminders in this narrative that the indigenes of the Amazon don’t necessarily live in some idealized harmony with nature and each other that tends to be the comforting fantasy of those of us in the Western world who don’t, either. Yet the Achuar, at least, commit their despoilations on a far more modest scale and, by virtue of their nearly non-existent technologies, limit whatever damage they cause to their own ancestral lands.


Upon his arrival, Descola is immediately introduced by an Achuar named Wajari to the local manioc beer, nijiamanch, a slightly sour, lightly alcoholic handmade brew that the Achuar drink instead of water and consume in extraordinary quantities before going into battle with their neighbors. Descola notes that “nijiamanchis drunk according to a precise code of seemly behavior, which I assimilated within a few days, since learning about an unknown culture always begins with table manners.” 


Table manners, as Descola soon learns, also involve partaking in a morning ritual of an emetic tea followed by ritual vomiting. Wajari, a man of about 30 with “eyes full of irony beneath his sooty brows” then evacuates his bowels in the river, and splashes about, proclaiming, “I am Wajari! I am Wajari! I am a jaguar that prowls in the night I am an anaconda!”  He then proceeds to toss some puppies into the river to teach them how to swim. As a rude awakening, this introduction to Achuar culture probably would be surpassed only by an Amazonian anthropologist’s first night and following morning in a Beta Theta Pi off-campus house.


The Achuar are as complex as any other culture on our planet. The same Wajari also is a loving father who tenderly cradles one of his babies who’s been bitten by vampire bats, never reprimands his children, and attends fastidiously to his appearance


...with all the concentration a Venetian courtesan. First he combs his hair carefully, then divides it into two braids, one each side of the thick fringe that encroaches upon his eyebrows. Each braid is wound about with a string of red cotton, and his long pony-tail is caught up in a ribbon woven with a geometrical design, while its other end is adorned with red and yellow toucan feathers that nestle like a little pony on the nape of his neck…He then asks one of his daughters to fetch a pod from the rocou bush that grows alongside the house, as befits a cosmetic in general daily use. With a stem dipped into the pod, he draws a complicated design on his face, examining his reflection with a critical eye in the little mirror I gave him a few days ago…


This lengthy, poetic, and carefully observed narrative, translated from the French by Janet Lloyd, covers the entirety of Achuar culture, including their wars, their sex lives, their complex shamanistic practices and the thoroughly fascinating methodology by which they interpret their dreams. However, the book, which was published in 1993, deals rather briefly with a very-contemporary exigency: 


An old Andean belief shared by many tribes in the foothills attributes to some perverted Whites an insatiable appetite for the fat of natives, which they are believed to satisfy by boiling the unfortunate ones that they catch in huge cooking pots or by scraping them as empty as water-skins. Some claim that these macabre practices in truth serve to lubricate and fuel the gigantic machines thanks to which the Whites have imposed their dominion over the world, monstrous steel molochs that must be fed by constant sacrifices.


These “monstrous steel molochs” are fueled by petroleum, of course, and not literally by “the fat of natives”, though for the Achuar, that might be a distinction without a difference. Either way, they’re being chewed up and spit out. For the past 40-odd years, since oil was discovered on their land, the Achuar have been dispossessed, according to a website maintained on behalf of the Peruvian Achuar, “without compensation or indemnification”, and poisoned by pipeline leaks and by the byproducts of petroleum exploration. The website, www.achuarperu.org, notes that cadmium and lead poisoning is endemic among this people that only a short time before was completely invisible to the outside world, and also is killing the fish and fauna they depend on for much of their diet. 


As Descola noted years before in his book, the poisoning is of a spiritual kind, too: “Week after week (the Achuar) are subjected to the humiliation of beseeching arrogant bureaucrats to grant them the right to remain on their own ancestral land or of queuing up for hours in the waiting rooms of the offices of specialized lawyers. The consideration of requests made through the normal channels can drag on for years; if a lawsuit is involved a lifetime may not be long enough to gain recognition for one’s rights: there is always some document, some signature or some guarantee still needed to end the nightmare.”


This slow-motion Kafkaesque disaster speaks not to the unsustainable nature of our petroleum-based economy, which is true but also irrelevant because we have no economically viable alternatives to oil just yet, but rather, more narrowly, to the way in which all of us, including even the most seemingly remote tribes, are increasingly intertwined in each other’s lives.  Nobody reading this could possibly approve of the oil companies’ callous and careless exploitation of the Achuar, but all of us, merely by virtue of reading this article on a plastic-and-chemical-based electronic device of some sort, are in some small measure implicated. It’s not as if any of us can purchase “non-exploitative” gas for our cars; the fuel is fungible.


It’s very difficult to calibrate the balance between the good and the evil that we do by building and extending our civilization into areas that were once innocent of our existence. Even as the Achuar and other indigenous people are being forced out of their traditional ways of life, hundreds of millions of others worldwide are gladly moving from the countryside to the city, leaving behind bone-breaking poverty, and wholeheartedly accepting our energy-dependent civilization and everything it implies for them and for those they left behind. 


For better or for worse, the number of people worldwide who are not in some way morally compromised by our relentless march to modernity is very small, and steadily declining. In a marginal and incremental way, many of us do attempt to form more-reasonable accommodations by conserving, caring for the downtrodden, and engineering less onerous and more compassionate means of extracting energy and resources from our planet. 


Philippe Descola, beginning with his visit more than 30 years ago, did his considerable part by drawing our attention to one threatened group, although the good his book has done has probably been far outweighed by the damage created by the accidental and unasked-for presence of petroleum reserves under the Achuar’s feet. How fortunate those of us are who have access to all the resources we need, but none for others to covet! 


The Achuar live on, and to this day are battling the petroleum, mining and timber companies for their fair share, and for a healthier environment for their children. All of this is of course both necessary and admirable, but it is very hard to imagine that one of Wajari’s sons, perhaps the very one he cradled at the beginning of the book, is at this very moment splashing in a river of his own, and crying out in exultation, “I am a jaguar that prowls in the night! I am an anaconda!”


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Photo by © Antoine Bonsorte photography found on Bonsorte.com


Michael Antman is a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing. He is the author of the novel Cherry Whip (ENC Press, 2004), and recently completed a new novel, Everything Solid Has a Shadow. His website, where most of his writing is collected, is at Michael Antman Author.com.


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