Ancestral Knowledge & Community Tourism in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador
When I first went to Ecuador in 2007, I was absolutely amazed by the diversity of the country—diversity in people, ecological environments, cultures, and landscape. Being from the flat midwest of the United States, the Andes mountains surrouding Quito took my breath away each morning. And then I went to the jungle, or what in Spanish is called the “oriente” region of the country east of the Andes. I was blown away by the natural beauty surrounding the town of Tena, when the afternoon sun revealed the layers and layers of mountains and jungle in the distance. From there, I went to the community of Chichicorumi and the community tourism project of Kamak Maki, where I found my absolute favorite spot in Ecuador, and maybe in the world. As I stood over looking the layers of green jungle, the distant outline of the volcano Sumaco, the shades of gray in the stones on the river bank, and the blue rushing current of the powerful Napo River, I felt a commanding energy in the combination of brilliant colors and tranquility of nature.
I have now been working with this community and the Kamak Maki project in some capacity for about a year and a half from Quito, and this past spring I spent 3 months living there and working full time in the promotion of the project. Kamak Maki is a family and community project that started about 10 years ago with the idea to develop an interactive center of the Kichwa culture with respect to its history, myths, beliefs, ancestral knowledge, and relation to the environment. In the past 3 years, it has grown drastically to include an extensive ethnocultural museum, medicinal plant garden, animals of the region in danger of extinction, restaurant of typical food, and small shop selling local crafts made by community members. Members of Kamak Maki believe that it is a space that promotes co-existence and co-living in the Amazon jungle through community based tourism, without altering social ties nor inherent value of the community and its practices. The hope is to demonstrate that the conservation of culture is not static and that with planning and adequate control, ancestral knowledge can be preserved in the long term. Its location about 15 minutes from the tourist port town of Misahualli has been a major reason for its success, allowing mostly Ecuadorian tourists from all over the country to take a canoe down river and have a one-hour tour of the site. However, Kamak Maki also now has cabins for tourists to stay overnight and can offer multiple-day tours that more thoroughly explore the Kichwa culture and various activities available in this beautiful region of Ecuador.
From spending time in the community and working with the members to promote the project, I’ve learned so much about the importance of preserving this valuable cultural knowledge. Whether it is speaking the Kichwa language, knowing what medicinal plant is used for stomach pain, moving the wooden bowl correctly when panning for gold on the river banks, or making the traditional chicha drink, it is a knowledge that connects the current community members to an ancestry and culture that goes back centuries. This type of knowledge isn’t learned in school, and in fact while there exists a small local school in each community in that area, pursuing a structured education is only more recently being seen as important. Most adult community members have only completed grade school, but they are encouraging their children to continue to high school and beyond because of the improved opportunities available to those with a formal education. However, apart from math and reading taught in school, all of the local children also know the Kichwa language, the uses of medicinal plants, and the typical dishes and how to cook them. It is something passed down in everyday life and not learned in a classroom; it is a familiarity with how things are done from the older generations.
Further, ancestral knowledge includes seeing how life in this region is so strongly connected to nature in various ways. For example, heavy rains up river can produce floods that affect agriculture or transportation, as using canoes to travel across and along the river is still a common form of getting around. Or, a few days of strong sun without rain can dry up a pond that is growing tilapia fish to eat and sell. In addition, ancestral beliefs dictate the future—hearing the singing of a particular bird means there will be visitors or tourists the following day, or seeing certain images in one’s dreams can predict good or bad outcomes in real life. While it sometimes seems that people in this community have drastically altered their way of life to incorporate modern influences, a deeper look shows that it is truly a mixture of old and new practices and beliefs, and not a complete taking over from outside pressure. It is true that most people in the community have cell phones, participate in a money-based economy and eat various foods not part of their traditional diet. However, it’s apparent that the ancestral connection to nature and utilizing what nature provides also so strongly dictates their way of life.
For many of us when we travel, we are looking for something different than what we know in our everyday lives; we are wanting an escape, a vacation, an adventure. We want to learn something about another culture and experience a different way of life than our own at home. And I think that is exactly what community tourism can offer. It provides an opportunity to not only visit another country, but it opens our eyes to another way of living. For those of us that live in urban areas such as bustling cities with a fast-pace lifestyle, community tourism sites like Kamak Maki bring us back to nature and remind us of its importance. The communal knowledge in Kamak Maki is something that can be lost if not preserved and taught to future generations, and educating tourists about these cultural practices is one way to keep it alive. The tourists who visit are not only contributing economically to support the community and its tourism project, but are learning about the inherent importance in a connection to nature and the cultural ancestral knowledge that lives on in current generations.