I just returned from one of the most beautiful places in the world. One of the most biodiverse. And crucially — one of the regions that is most important to the survival of life on our planet. Known as the Sacred Headwaters of the Amazon, it is the magnificent beginning of a vast rainforest that stretches from the Andes mountains eastward for nearly 4,000 miles to the Atlantic Ocean – an environmentally fragile forest roughly the size of the continental US.
I was there co-leading a group of people who had answered a call to experience this magical place and the amazing Indigenous people who have inhabited it for thousands of years.
Our private bus drove us from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, along the “Avenue of the Volcanoes,” a corridor of eight snow-mantled volcanoes, including the world’s highest active volcano, Cotopaxi (over 19,000 feet). In the distance, stood the majestic Chimporazo which at more than 20,500 feet is the closest point on the earth to the sun – the highest mountain when measured from the center of our planet (due to the Equatorial bulge). Behind us was the tallest peak on the Equator, Cayambe, at nearly 19,000 feet.
Crossing through the eastern range of the Andes, we traveled down the spectacular gorge of the Pastaza River, descending from the wintry scenes of the high plateau, through the spring weather of majestic cloud forests, and into the summer realms of the Amazon rainforest. After a gourmet dinner, we spent the night at the beautiful Il Jardin (“the Garden”) hotel in the “end-of-the road” town of Puyo. The next morning, we boarded small planes and flew into Achuar Territory.
Without going into detail about the Achuar (you can see them here), suffice it to say that theirs is a dream culture. The people base their lives on dreams and the messages they receive from nature itself. Their dreams have shown them the importance of ending global systems that threaten their forests and the entire planet.
I had first met them three decades earlier.
In 1993 I was sitting in a ceremonial lodge deep in the Amazon attending an Achuar council meeting with my friend Daniel Koupermann — an Ecuadorian naturalist guide who is highly respected by many Indigenous groups. As I listened to the discussions, I was haunted by memories of my Peace Corps days in 1968-71 when I’d lived in the territory of the Achuar’s neighbors, the Shuar. At that time, the Achuar officially were uncontacted, although one or two missionaries had wandered into their territory.
“The Achuar are killers, butchers,” I’d been warned. “Don’t even think about going anywhere near them.”
But in 1993 Daniel smiled and told me, “That was twenty years ago. Things are different now.”
Were they ever! In fact, the change seemed nothing short of miraculous.
These people who had lived as hunters and gatherers for millennia had seen how the US oil company Texaco (now owned by Chevron) had poisoned the rivers and lands in northern Ecuador and ravaged hundreds of square miles of rainforest. Along with the destruction to plants and animals, uncounted numbers of people, including many children, had died from cancer and other diseases caused by the company’s unconscionable dumping of toxic chemicals. The Achuar Territory had been untouched and they were determined to keep it that way.
In the late 1980s, the Achuar had joined the Shuar, Kichua, and other Indigenous groups in a federation aimed at stopping oil exploitation. Then Achuar shamans began to have powerful dreams of big cities, huge industrial plants, and cars – things they had seen in photos brought by the missionaries. They understood that the oil company’s roads, bulldozers, and cranes were just symptoms of the real problem, what they came to call “the dream of the modern world.” They understood that this dream was creating what economists define as an unsustainable death economy.
Their dreams told them that they had to reach out to that which they most feared: us, the people who demand oil.
That night in 1993, sitting in an Achuar lodge, I experienced something that, as far as I knew, no one had ever before experienced. People threatened by an invading force had decided not to run from or fight it but rather to join forces with some of its members to try to change – everything. They asked Daniel and me to invite people from our world to come and visit them and form partnerships that would change the destructive dream.
During the August 2022 trip, our group lived in a beautiful eco-lodge the Achuar had built. We canoed and swam with freshwater dolphins, hiked through pristine forests, hung out with Achuar families, and took ayahuasca with their shamans. Later, during our closing dinner back in Quito, every one of the seventeen visitors expressed gratitude to the Achuar for teaching them the importance of dreaming a new dream for humanity and they each committed to taking actions that will help manifest that dream.
That particular trip was sponsored by the Pachamama Alliance, but it is one of many that takes people to learn from the Achuar and other Indigenous teachers. Daniel and I also facilitate trips to the Maya of Guatemala and the Kogi of Colombia. These diverse cultures share a common message: We have reached a pivotal moment in human history; we know that the socio-governmental-economic systems that today dominate the world are unsustainable, and we must change.
It is ironic that societies capable of sending people to the moon and creating computer models that warn of impending catastrophe seem to lack the intelligence and/or willpower to face this critical problem and take actions necessary to solve it — while societies that only recently became aware of the world beyond their lands are confronting the problem and urging us to join them in turning things around. Perhaps this apparent conundrum points out the deficiencies of societies that define people as apart from – instead of a part of – nature. The Achuar – like the Maya, Kogi, and all our Indigenous ancestors – understand the importance of honoring our connection to nature, listening to our dreams, and embracing change.
Nature is telling us in no uncertain terms that we must change. Covid has taught us that we can change. The Achuar remind us that our 200,000 or so years as humans are a testament to our ability to change. The Sacred Headwaters of the Amazon have been called both the lungs and the heart of the planet. Yes, they convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and, yes, they send the lifeblood of water coursing across the planet through the “flying rivers.” But, perhaps equally as essential is the message that emanates from them:
We must change,
We can change,
We will change.