The Colombian Amazon holds many secrets.
Spreading over a third of the national territory, an area equal to the size France, this green and almost unexplored immensity is covered by an inextricable jungle that seems to extend to infinity. This vast tropical forest, home to an exceptional biodiversity, has nourished the countless fantasies of explorers, ethnologists and travellers who have ventured, by pirogue or on foot, on long and perilous expeditions into the bowels of this maze of muddy rivers and sprawling lianas.
Men penetrates into a universe apart, whose mysteries are often beyond comprehension. Yet millennia-old peoples live under these emerald foliage, adopting an extraordinary way of life, in accordance with the hostile and mystical nature that surrounds them.
Having been preserved from outside contact for a long period of time, this people watched with suspicion as the first European missionaries and traders who ventured in this corner of the world in the early days of colonization. They were followed by the large extractive companies coveting the resources of these lands to supply European companies with rubber, tobacco, wood, metals of all kinds, etc.
In front of this foreign incursion, many natives disappeared (ravaged by diseases or decimated by exploitation), some were assimilated, but others still managed to preserve and claim their ancestral heritage.
Today, there is a myriad of indigenous communities throughout the Amazon, although they are increasingly sedentary and dependent on river communication. Among these numerous tribes inhabiting the “lungs of the Earth”, three stand out in Colombia: the Huitoto, mostly located on the banks of the Putumayo River marking the border with Peru, the Tikuna, mainly present in the basin of the Amazonas River around Leticia (the tri-border) and the Makuna, mostly in the Vaupés region bordering Brazil.
Projected under the tropical foliage, to discover these communities, be prepared to exchange bikini for long clothes and the sun cream for several tubes of mosquito repellent. On the borders of Brazil and Peru, you will embark in the humidity of the jungle, leaving for an unforgettable life experience.
The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are the guardians of ancestral knowledge. They will amaze you first of all with their intimate knowledge of the local flora and fauna. These men and women are perfectly adapted to life, even survival, in the tropical rainforest zone. They will be your guides on the barely visible jungle trails, detailing the uses of each plant, each root.
The hollow trunks of some trees allow them to communicate, the songs of birds and animal tracks allow them to find their way around, some lianas will be used to build huts, others for shamanic rituals…
They hunt or fish live animals around or in rivers with respect and wisdom. It is not uncommon to see crocodiles, turtles, monkeys, capybaras (large rodents) or fish of all kinds and sizes (which will be brought back and prepared by the community to feed the families) loaded on dugout canoes or trading in the itinerant markets.
Traditional weapons such as blowguns, spears or arrows that the natives took care to poison with plants or amphibian secretions (the world’s most poisonous frogs abound in the region) are sometimes still in use, but still compete with the somewhat rusty firearms that the luckier ones proudly carry slung over their shoulders.
Language and cosmovision
The different indigenous peoples of the Amazon are distinguished by their linguistic family but also by their spirituality. Each community has its own cosmogony (myths and legends of the origin of the world) and its own cosmovision (spiritual reading of the organization of things).
For example, the Makuna are called “Water People”. Their language belongs to the Tukano Oriental family, which they share with other surrounding peoples. Fewer in number than the Tikuna, there are only over a thousand of them. These indigenous people associate the birth of humanity with the mythical cycle of the Anaconda, which, as it descends the river, is said to have left behind men, languages and teachings on how to cultivate the land, how to organize themselves, etc.
The word Tikuna is polysemic, sometimes meaning “man” or the colour black in reference to their custom of painting their bodies with a natural dark pigment from the Genipa tree. The Tikuna use among themselves the term Du-u which means “people” or “the people”. Their population is estimated to be around 8,000 souls.
According to their beliefs, they are the descendants of the fish that the deity Yoi would have taken out of the river deciding to give them a terrestrial life. This semi-nomadic people gradually settled down with the arrival of Portuguese settlers from Brazil who imposed forced labour to produce rubber, flour or wood for export.
Traditionally, Amazonian peoples share a similar social and economic organization. The communities are divided into clans that are divided into different villages built around the Maloca, the community hut that is the epicentre of social, economic and ceremonial organization.
Fishing has now become their main activity due to the relocation of riverside dwellings. The indigenous people have developed many techniques that allow them to fish in different environments: mangroves, lagoons, streams or large rivers.
You may accompany a fisherman to put wooden pots in the current to trap his prey, or you may show him how to fish in small streams, spreading barbasco, a lightly poisoned plant, killing almost instantly the fish that were still wriggling under the surface for a few moments.
Through burning, they also ensure a supply of platano (seed banana), yuka (a tuber close to cassava), maize, pineapple, camote (a kind of sweet potato), achiote (a fruit containing the pigments that make up the dyes), tobacco and many other foods that vary according to the region. These crops, called Chagras, are often the fruit of women’s labour, when the men are instead sent out to hunt or fish.
The daily life of the natives is punctuated by many spiritual rites. Among the Tikuna, the first menstruation of young girls is the subject of a solemn and joyful ceremony where they share great feasts, where their bodies are painted, where they convulse to the sound of songs and music inspired by the woodland spirits. The young woman, after being isolated from the rest of the community, dressed in a yanchama and set with a feather tiara, makes her transition to adulthood during which her hair is cut.
The indigenous generally see the universe according to three levels: the upper level, that of the souls; the lower level, underwater, the territory of the demons; and the middle level, where men live in harmony with nature. Shamans are essential mediators for the community, enabling it to make the link between the spiritual worlds.
Rebuilding oneself after a heavy past
The Huitoto, living mainly in the Putumayo region and in the west of the Amazonas department, have had a particularly difficult history.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Peruvian trader Julio Cesar Arana founded a company to carry and market the rubber extracted in the region.
Controlling an immense production land, it could reach markets all over the world via Iquitos. This expansion was to the detriment of the local population and to say the least: in 30 years of activity, Casa Arana was responsible for the death of 40,000 natives.
Today, the headquarters of the Peruvian Amazon Company, located in the department of La Chorrera, has been converted into a place of remembrance thanks to the efforts of Fanny Kuiru, an indigenous leader, who succeeded in transforming this place, 15 days by boat from Leticia, into a cultural and remembrance center recognized by the Colombian State after what some people call the “holocaust” of the indigenous people.
Following these events, however, the Amazonian peoples of this region experienced other curses, such as the Colombian-Peruvian conflict in the 1930s, which left behind the tragic scars of war.
It is only in the last 30 years or so that the indigenous populations began a process of “recovery” of their identity and through the creation of “resguardos” (indigenous reserves) were able to ensure respect for their territory.
Despite the many conflicts that still exist with the resource-hungry oil companies, the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon have been granted rights such as the Consulta Previa (a kind of participation in decisions made in the region) or the possibility of drawing up a Plan de Vida (life plan) endorsing the demand for a model of autonomous indigenous “government” in accordance with their ancestral socio-cultural organization.
When the night falls and the last rays of daylight come to colour the Amazonian sky with its most beautiful ornaments, reflecting on the rivers as in a kaleidoscope, and when the chirping of the multitude of birds on the peaks gradually fades away, giving way to the incredible symphony of insects, you will feel caught up in this world apart, full of poetry and mysticism.
By the fire, in a hammock or in the maloca that thrones in the centre of the villages, you will take part in the daily exchanges of the families who find themselves sharing laughter and stories, before dozing off in the heart of this dense jungle which never sleeps.
To find out more about it:
- Suggested books: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955 – José Eustasio Rivera, La Voragine, 1924
- Movie: El abrazo de la serpiente (The Snake’s Embrace), by Ciro Guerra, 2015 (Oscar nomination)
- Documentary : Indians of Amazonia, the last fight , by Laurent Richard, Productions Premières Lignes with the participation of France Télévisions, 2013
Text by Eliott Brachet