Santa Santet—an Achuar woman—and Placitan
Vickie Peck in the Achuar Rainforest
Two Achuar girls—one with a monkey on her
An Achuar man drinks chicha.
The Achuar’s Rainforest
—VICKIE PECK, PLACITAS
I just returned from two months in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador.
What was a desert girl doing there? The short answer is that I was
teaching English in a remote Achuar village near the Peruvian border.
The Achuar people, natural custodians of millions of acres of pristine
rainforest, had a communal bad dream in the early 1990s that turned
out to be accurate. The oil companies were coming to drill inside
their territory. As one of a handful of remaining Amazonian dream
cultures, they used this information to plan a response—to
tell the invaders not to come. This required that they contact the
outside world, something they had never done before. An anthropologist
and his client who were traveling in the rainforest at that time
both noted that they had dreamed of the same man with a painted
face, markings that the anthropologist recognized as Achuar. They
answered the call and traveled deep into the forest to meet with
the Achuar leaders. From this introduction, The Pachamama Alliance,
a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, was founded to
support the Achuar in protecting their rainforest and their culture.
I heard of The Pachamama Alliance (TPA, www.pachamama.org)
through my friend Pat Usner who was hired as their development director.
Though TPA was founded to assist the Achuar in preserving their
heritage, the Achuar elders soon pointed out that the most important
thing that TPA could do was to “change the dream of the north,”
i.e., to alter our consumptive lifestyles, especially our consumption
of oil, an idea that resonated with me. When Pat invited me to attend
a symposium developed by TPA to “change the dream of the north,”
I was so inspired that I was trained to facilitate the symposium.
Shortly thereafter, I joined Pat and nine others on a trip to visit
the Achuar people.
I guess some jungle bug got under my skin and I couldn’t
resist the Achuar’s request for volunteers to teach English.
Luckily, I am self-employed, have plenty of teaching experience
(in biology, not English), and have a flexible husband. So I found
myself armed with mosquito repellent, a fellow volunteer, and a
meager grasp of Spanish, landing in the middle of nothing but the
rainforest and snaking cappuccino-colored rivers as far as I could
Since that bad dream thirteen years ago, the Achuar people have
been carefully observing our modern technological world much as
they might watch a jaguar or an anaconda in the jungle. And being
excellent hunters, they have learned a lot about oil companies,
missionaries, and tourists. They have discovered airplanes, outboard
motors for their canoes, radios, flashlights, and the lure of dollar
bills. Given the options of working for the oil companies, selling
their timber, moving to the city, or hosting tourists, they have
chosen the latter. They are now the proud custodians of the Kapawi
Eco Lodge, a gorgeous, completely ‘green’ ecotourism
operation with the largest private solar electrical installation
The villagers of Sharamentza, the small village where I was visiting,
are a traditional people. They rise at three a.m. to share their
dreams, counsel their children, and plan their days. The men hunt
and fish; the women tend the gardens and the children and make chicha,
their lightly fermented manioc drink that doubles as a potable drink
and a source of nutrition. Because Sharamentza is perched on a sweeping
bend of the huge Rio Pastaza, a major tributary of the Amazon River,
the villagers spend a lot of time at the river fishing, swimming,
scanning for pink dolphins, bathing, doing laundry, gossiping, and
carrying water. The whole community participates in building each
of their houses—tall, graceful thatched–roof huts with
earthen floors. The men cut and fetch the chonta palm trees, the
women and children prepare the chonta fronds for the roof, and the
men construct it from chonta logs lashed together with fibers from
the tree bark, a process that requires hard work and a long lunch
hour with copious quantities of chicha, laughter, and maybe a siesta.
Sharamentza is also a very modern village, a “projecto piloto”
according to the carefully lettered sign that hangs in the communal
hut. The village gardens include a large variety of vegetables and
fruit trees that are managed according to permaculture techniques.
Several dehydrating toilets are scattered around the village. The
pilot project includes a photo voltaic system that powers lights
in all of the houses and a pump for the community water system,
a two-way radio communication system, and a ‘pharmacy’
with malaria diagnostic capacity and anti-malarial drugs. There
are two rooms for visitors and a tiled bathroom with a flush toilet.
(Unfortunately technology is fallible—the solar system batteries
were dying and the pump was burned out while I was there, so we
all hauled water and read by candlelight.) The village also sports
a large airstrip that required a year and a half to clear using
machetes. Commercial charter planes with eighteen passengers can
land and take off there.
The pilot project also includes plans to build an “academy”
for educating the Achuar people in the ways of the modern world—a
place for courses in photo voltaics, outboard motor mechanics, permaculture,
health, and business managements skills. But first they want to
learn English, so that they can communicate with their English-speaking
guests. That’s where my job came into the picture.
Teaching English was a wonderful experience. The students from
ages three through sixty loved learning. Like the pet parrot that
roamed the village, the kids quickly learned to mimic everything
we said—and did. We all laughed a lot. When they tired of
English, they taught us Achuar. Then we would go in search of ripe
bananas and papayas in the gardens, singing songs in English. Soon
everyone in the village was singing, “fingers, elbows, knees,
toes; knees, toes…”
My teaching partner Alicia and I stayed in the guest quarters and
ate with the families. The food was an adventure that I loved more
than Alicia. We ate whatever they hunted or caught that day, including
lots of fresh fish, birds, caiman, frogs, rodents, wild pig, and
turtle soup. We ate lots of plantain and manioc root. We missed
our veggies and morning coffee. But the sunsets over the river with
parrots and toucans more than made up for that. The real downside
for us, though, was the inability to escape the biting bugs and
the humid heat. Snakes were common, as were all kinds of bugs.
In all of my adult life, I have never had so much free time—time
to contemplate my belly button, to dream, to watch the ants hunt
bugs. Time to think about the Achuar and the rainforest. It seems
to me that we could go beyond saving the Achuar in order to save
the rainforest for global warming and cures for cancer. I observed
a deeply spiritual people who understand their world in ways that
I truly cannot grasp. They are happy people; they love their children;
they share everything that they have, including food, labor, and
dreams. They laugh often. The funniest thing they learned about
our culture is that we have special houses called storage lockers
to store our things that we don’t use. Perhaps the best help
that we can offer them is to change the dream of the north.
Coming back to the city after two months of deep peace was shocking.
NOISE! It seems that we in this country are often in a state of
“tranquilization by trivia” as Kierkegaard put it. My
phone messages, email backlog, and piles of junk mail are mostly
unattended to. What calls to me is to build a chicken pen so that
we can have fresh eggs. And I can watch the chickens hunt grasshoppers.
Cibola National Forest Christmas tree permits
It’s time to think about Christmas trees! Permits will be
available over-the-counter at Cibola National Forest offices beginning
November 21 and lasting through December 24. The cost is $10 per
permit. Each household is limited to one permit. Up to four additional
permits can be purchased for family or friends. Names and addresses
are required for each permit. There is no Christmas tree cutting
on the Sandia Ranger District.
“Our Christmas tree cutting program remains very popular
and is a great way to spend a day in your national forest with friends
or family,” stated Timber Management Officer Tom Marks. “With
the recent fire disasters, it is important to note that cutting
Christmas trees helps thin overcrowded timber stands on National
Forests,” Marks added.
For more information on tree cutting on the Cibola National Forest,
call the forest supervisor’s office at (505) 346-3900 or visit
their website at http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/cibola/.
Individuals interested in tree cutting on the Santa Fe National
Forest (Jemez, Pecos, Cuba, and Las Vegas Ranger Districts), please
contact the forest office at (505) 438-7840 for more information.
Ojo Peak fire contained
Recent snowfall in Mountainair helped suppress and control fire
growth in the 6969-acre Ojo Peak fire northwest of Mountainair,
New Mexico, over the end of November. A drying trend is expected
to continue as temperatures rise and humidity levels begin to drop.
This may result in an increase in small fire activity. Isolated
patches of unburned fuel in the interior areas of the fire are expected
to continue to smolder. Firefighters will continue to patrol, monitor
and secure the current containment lines.
Evacuations have been lifted in all residential areas. Several
forest roads are now closed or will be closing, including Forest
Roads 422 and 253 in the fire area. All gates are currently open
in the area for fire fighter safety, however, the public is asked
to stay out of these areas as hazards may still exist.
The Southwest Incident Management Team returned the management
of the fire back to the Mountainair Ranger District.
Due to the Ojo Peak Fire, the Red Canyon Christmas tree cutting
weekends originally scheduled on December 1, 2, 8, and 9 have been
For further Ojo Peak Fire information and road closure information,
contact the Mountainair Ranger District at 505-847-2990 or go to
Website promotes solar energy
Check out Solar Nation at www.solar-nation.org/
and receive our weekly newsletter. Solar Nation is a national campaign
that involves you, America’s solar citizen. The object of
the campaign is to make solar power a significant part of this country’s
energy future. We will achieve this by building a large membership
of well-informed solar citizens who are dedicated to the advancement
of renewable energy in general and solar energy in particular; this
citizenry will use its voice to convince state and federal policy
makers to create a political climate favorable to solar energy development
and use. Through our network of partner organizations, we remain
close to current developments in the world of solar energy and the
corridors of power. We’re also prepared to react quickly to
political maneuverings by alerting every solar citizen to significant
impending legislation. When our lawmakers understand that large
numbers of voters are solar citizens, they should enact the kind
of legislation our Solar Nation needs.
BLM restores over 250,000 acres of public lands
in NM in 2007
—BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has restored more than 250,000
acres of rangelands in New Mexico in fiscal year 2007, far surpassing
last year’s total of 145,000 acres. What started out as a
concept to restore and enhance degraded landscapes three years ago
has grown into Restore New Mexico—a full-blown effort involving
agencies, organizations, ranchers, and industry.
The BLM is working with state, private, and federal partners to
restore grasslands and riparian areas to a healthy and productive
condition. On grasslands invaded by brush, efforts focus on landscapes
dominated by mesquite, creosote, juniper, and other species to restore
native vegetation, which greatly benefits watersheds and wildlife
habitat. The BLM and its partners are also replacing salt cedar
in riparian (streamside) areas with native cottonwood and willow.
Partners under the program are also identifying and reclaiming orphaned
oil and gas wells, pads, and roads, and are working to control invasive
“Regardless of how people feel about land uses or management
priorities, everyone agrees that we need to look at the land differently
than we have in the past,” said Linda Rundell, State Director
for the BLM in Santa Fe. “We are now beginning to restore
entire landscapes. It’s amazing what can happen when folks
have a shared vision.”
About a third of New Mexico (just over twenty-six million acres)
is federally owned. The BLM manages 13.4 million acres of this total.
“Public lands are an extremely valuable resource for all New
Mexicans,” Rundell added. “Where areas have been disturbed
by development, erosion, recreational uses, and other activities,
we must work together to restore them.”
Much of the Restore New Mexico work to date has focused on southern
New Mexico. The BLM is building on past partnerships to focus on
projects throughout the state. Restoring landscapes not only enhances
New Mexico’s wildlife, but also watersheds and groundwater
supplies; it will also allow the BLM and other partners, including
the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, to reintroduce native
wildlife to places where they have disappeared.
Over the past century, a variety of land uses, periodic droughts,
and New Mexico’s rapidly expanding population has fragmented
habitat for wildlife. The state has also seen an expansion of invasive
plant species, degraded water quality due to erosion, and an increased
threat from catastrophic wildfires to wildlife habitat and communities
bordering our public lands.
The goals of Restore New Mexico are therefore to restore habitat
for fish, wildlife, and species of concern; restore native grasslands
and reverse the expansion of invasive plant species; reverse habitat
fragmentation from historic oil and gas development; improve water
quality; and reduce the impacts from catastrophic wildfires.
Within the next two years, the BLM intends to restore and reclaim
250,000 acres of public land statewide each year, and with its partners,
achieve a goal of five hundred thousand acres per year of public,
state, and private lands.
An area of emphasis in 2008 and future years will be to eradicate
cheatgrass, an invasive grass that has become a critical problem
in Nevada, Utah, Idaho and other Western states – and is becoming
a threat here. Cheatgrass seriously out-competes native grassland
species; cheatgrass-dominated landscapes host hotter and more frequent
wildfires, further degrading rangelands and reducing wildlife populations.
The goal of brush treatments is to reduce the incidence of brush
in rangelands to historic levels; in many areas, the percentage
of brush in a landscape has increased from ten to over ninety percent
over the past 120 years, radically reducing the areas’ biological
In areas with oil and gas production, 172 miles of roads and 375
well pads have been reclaimed, ‘defragmenting’ tens
of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat.
Congressmen discuss Navajo uranium mining
Last month, in a rare roundtable session, leaders from Congress,
the Navajo Nation, and directors from relevant federal agencies
and entities engaged in open dialogue focused on the past, present,
and future of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.
With a standing-room-only crowd, Congressmen Tom Udall, D-NM, Jim
Matheson, D-UT and Rick Renzi, R-AZ led a discussion focused on
the prospects of renewed uranium mining in Navajo Indian Country,
the health effects associated with mining and milling, the Radiation
Exposure Compensation Act, known as RECA, and the environmental
aspects of mining. Collectively, the three represent the Navajo
Nation in Congress.
During the course of the three-hour roundtable discussion, tribal
officials, led by President Joe Shirley, Jr. from the Navajo Nation
emphasized their request for observance and implementation of a
federal moratorium on uranium mining both within the reservation’s
boundaries and beyond, in what is known as Navajo Indian Country.
Additionally, tribal officials emphasized the need to clean up dangerous,
old, exposed mining sites that still exist on the reservation.
The officials cited the Natural Resources Protection law, a Navajo
law that places a ban on all uranium mining both within the Navajo
Nation boundary and surrounding areas that make up Navajo Indian
President Shirley noted that in the face of the Cold War, the government
mined uranium on their land, and that “now more than fifty
years later, the legacy of uranium mining has devastated both the
people and the land.”
“The tragedy of this legacy is that those who worked in the
uranium mines have experienced devastating health effects because
of their exposure,” Shirley said. “The greater tragedy
is that years and decades later their families who live in those
same areas are experiencing heath problems today because the remnants
of uranium activity continue to pollute the land, the water, and
their lives. It would be unforgivable to allow this cycle to continue
for another generation.”
Dr. Charles L. Miller, director of the Office of Federal and State
Materials and Environmental Management Programs, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Commission, which regulates uranium milling, said he knows of sixteen
leases for uranium milling recovery process that are expected in
the next several years.
He said that twelve of those applications are expected to propose
in-situ leaching facilities, a process he described as “leaching
the uranium from the underground rock and into the groundwater and
through a series of pumping operations getting it to the surface
for processing.” In addition, he said he expects approximately
eleven expansion or restart applications for existing uranium facilities.
He indicated that “none of the applications are proposed
to be on Navajo lands, however, two proposed new sites, and one
restart site, are located near Mt. Taylor,” a sacred site
for many Native Americans.
Udall, Matheson, and Renzi emphasized that their efforts to bring
this roundtable together would not conclude after it adjourned.
They are committed to continuing the dialogue on uranium mining
and its effects and promised to stay involved and seek justice for
those individuals and families impacted.