Tikuna People

P1060538Arriving at the Tikuna village. The bank ahead is the beach of the Tikuna children who appear to be as much a part of this environment as the dolphins

Visited the Tikuna community of San Juan de los Lagos which is a short distance from Leticia.

On the day tour there was a Colombian middle aged couple who own a farm in a small town North of Bogota and a German woman who is teaching German in Bogota. She has lived in Colombia for a few years but must return to Germany soon. She says she will save her money and then wants to return.

DSC09906Barbara, the German teacher from Bogota dwarfed by the size of the tree behind her

The guide was a 20 something Colombian man who was fairly fluent in English. He has been visiting this Tikuna group for a while. He explained that there are three different Tikuna villages. The one we visited was the most remote. Most of the other villagers do not wish to continue their traditions. In the village we were visiting there was an older gent in his 60’s that has the respect of the last remainingTikuna who wish to remember their origins.



DSC00049The older children in the boat are returning from school

The village can be reached by boat four months of the year and there is a 3km pathway through the rainforest that can be accessed by a road that runs parallel with the river route from Leticia. The road is 22kms. long. The pathway to the village is at the furthest end of that road.

I learned a lot on this tour. The boat ride to the village passes a small island that separates a series of lagoons from the Amazon river.  Along the way we passed one of Pablo Escobar’s previous estates. The boat had just enough space for the motorman, the guide and we four tourists. We negotiated our way through a few tangles of aquatic plants and across a large open lagoon. Tall trees could be seen on the island in the distance and we saw water buffaloes on the bank of the land on the other side.

The boat then entered a small channel that was at times not more than 8 feet wide. The narrow waterway was flanked on either side by the trees that are the rainforest. There was at least one excellent example of the type of tree that requires multiple ‘roots’ that extend downward from branches. These ligatures attach themselves to the ground below. The reason for this is that the soil in most rainforest environments is very shallow so the root systems spread out rather than penetrate deep into the soil. The soil tends to be very hard clay and is not conducive to producing or retaining ’tilth’ of soil.  Thus, it is even more an incredible achievement for there to be such an astonishing variety of plants and trees.

DSC09798Shoots drop down from branches and become part of the root system

One of the things I learned is that the Native human inhabitants of the Amazon basin have been actively ‘gardening’ for thousands of years. It is not readily apparent because they never practiced monoculture. The developed systems of silvaculture and horticulture to assist them in their mostly nomadic lifestyle.

There are thousands of interconnected pathways throughout the Amazon basin. As an example of how these nomadic forest dwellers would intentionally arrange the plants is that they would plant many different types of known ‘medicinal’ plants along the pathways. They did this so that if they needed the medicines they would not have to scour the jungle to look for them, they knew right where to find them.  Ingenious, really.

Some tribes were less nomadic than others. These would form small family units that engaged in some agriculture along with the men hunting for monkeys, pecary, taipir, and other animals for protein and some fishing.  The type of agriculture that they did was known as ‘chagra’.  In this, each family would have four small plots of ground that was theirs to manage. The size of each ‘chagra’ was roughly an acre.  They would plant a variety of fruits and the staples of yucca and plantain/banana.  These plants were planted together, not in the monoculture pattern of Western civilizations.  They would rotate the production of each of these four plots so that only one would be intensively used and one was always fallow.

It was discovered some years ago that there are areas where the soil is a rich black loam underneath. On such plots there is to be found a much wider variety of plants.  In such areas the ground is called: ‘Terra preta’.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta

As it happens, these tribal peoples displayed an incredible intelligence in the way they chose to adapt to the conditions. Today in the West  the ‘terra preta’ practices of the ancient Amazon cultures is being mimicked when modern farmers make ‘biochar’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biochar.

Those Amazon cultures who practiced this were several centuries ahead of us it seems.  They did not know about their world through the lens of  scientific data.  They learned these things by accident and by observations passed from father to son and mother to daughter over the course hundreds of generations. They were the original ‘sustainable living’ practitioners.

The Tikuna villagers I met lived in a family group of 14 families consisting of 67 people. The children now go to school in Leticia.  They all speak Spanish. This elders in this village do what they can to teach the Tikuna language, legends, and customs to the young.  They are making the attempt to preserve their traditions.

Odd as it seems, these folks have electric lines from Leticia. There was a television in one of the houses. Many years ago they learned about the clay tiles that are used to build houses in Leticia. They had a discussion amongst themselves and decided to build their houses using the clay tiles. The advantage is that the houses will now outlast the occupants and not have to be rebuilt every five or six years. They do still build the Maloka, the community house, using the old ways.

P1060580The Maloka (traditional tribal meeting house)

I saw three ponds that are used to raise tilapia and a few other species of fish during the low water season when rain is sparse. Only one had water and was in active use. The other two were under construction. Each had to be dug by hand in the hard clay soil. The dimensions were approximately 100 x 40 x 3 feet deep. All of the men in the community help in the construction. Hard physical labor, I assure you.

They put on a traditional dance for us dressed in costumes made of tree bark. One elderly woman put on a play that tells some kind of a story about tortoises.  It was clear that they do not need to do this and that in some ways it seems artificial. But, the thing to keep in mind is that what I witnessed approximated how the older men and women grew up. The ‘new way’s have only become available during the past 40 years.

DSC00059Traditional dance and tree bark clothing 

I watched and listened as a man told their ‘creation story’.  It occurred to me that I was witnessing an Amazonian equivalent of Moses telling the tale of how the ‘gods’ created the forest and the people in it.  Part of the tale is about plants, part about different animals. There was a good guy and a bad guy ‘god’.  One of them wanted the best for humans and the other guy liked to trick humans.

When young women have their first period they go to live with their grandmother for a year. The grandmother teaches the girl all she needs to know to perform the things that are expected of women in this group.

They still perform the ritual of having a three day party where everyone gets drunk on fermented manioc… including the young lady coming of age. The villagers then pluck every hair from the young lady’s head. When it grows back, she is no longer a girl, but a woman.  A man from a different village is then allowed to woo the young lady and take her for a wife. In this way, installed in their stories and traditions, is a practical method of keeping the bloodlines from getting too narrow.

On the walk through the rainforest, the men explained the ‘chagra’ system and pointed out many, many varieties of medicinal plants and trees.

DSC00032This 3 year old boy is shooting a reed arrow from the small bow he and his brother made with instructions from other brothers. He and his 5 year old brother followed the group on our tour through the villages chagras. Both were barefoot (by preference)

Good to know that in these modern times, there still remain people who value the traditional knowledge passed to them that represents a long a painful process of trial and error that allowed them to make the rainforest their home. It was clear to me that the young people are now confronted daily with the contrasts of learning and preserving the valuable lessons of the past or that of moving into the ‘modern world’.  They now have a choice.

DSC00095This is the 5 year old brother of the 3 year old with the bow and arrow

It is my hope that the old ways and most especially the old knowledge will be preserved.  If there is a break in that thread, then the default way of ‘interpreting’ the experience of the tropical rainforest environment will be completely Westernized.

If the past if forgotten, the incalculable value contained in the viewpoint that human beings are a ‘part of’ the forest, not separate from it, will be lost.  Tragic, I think.