I first met Manari Kaji Ushigua Santi in Quito in 2014 on the front line of the fight to protect the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, marching against oil development in his ancestral territory. I had heard about him and knew he was a deeply committed activist who defended the rights of the Sápara Nation (also known as Zápara or Záparo), and their ancestral land. In addition, he is a renowned and erudite speaker who has been involved in the COP21 UN Climate Conference and the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of human rights, and has also given TED Talks and visited many colleges and universities. Regardless of the platform, he is always the same. There is a calmness about him. He speaks softly and everyone stops to listen to his profound wisdom, yet he is quick to giggle, and has a boy-like delight in life. His passionate adoration of, and devotion to, the protection of rivers, creatures and ancient forests are both palpable and deeply infectious.
Ushigua’s ancestors were powerful shamans of the Sápara Nation who live in the Amazon rainforest along the border of Ecuador and Peru, and he was designated as the successor to his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, taking on the role of healer and leader of the nation – the akameno (authority).
In the early twentieth century, there were 200,000 Sápara people. Due to enslavement during the rubber boom, land grabs and intermarriage with neighbouring tribes, their numbers have dwindled precipitously to around 535. Today only four people, all of whom are over the age of seventy, speak their native language fluently.
Zoë Tryon, 2020
My name is Manari Ushigua. I am a political and spiritual leader of the Sápara Nation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I am a protector of the forest and also a healer; some people call me a shaman.
I was born in the rainforest. My mother told me we never lived in one place, we were always travelling up and down the river by canoe, learning from nature and the energies of different places in our territory. I am the ninth-born of twelve children. When the time came for my mother to give birth, we were travelling on the River Conambo, so they stopped and built a fire and I was born on the beach on a bend in the river. Once my mother had rested for seven days and washed me with tzigta (a protective herb used seven days after childbirth, to cleanse and mark the return to normal life) they continued on their journey. Sometime later when they returned to the same place the beach had disappeared. Because my placenta was buried there and was then swept away, the elders say I will be searching for it always and only settle when I find it, that is the tale they tell. So my tsawanu, my spirit, is searching for my placenta and it is close to finding it.
My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were powerful shamans. My parents knew that I would continue this lineage soon after my birth. When I was born, my father started to blow on me (how shamans transmit knowledge and healing) and feed me some medicinal plants so that when I was older I would have visions and clearer dreams. He prepared me to become a person who understood the jungle but who could also relate to the world outside. When I was a child, I began special dietas (fasts) and training to connect with the spirits of the forest and our ancestors.
As I was growing I was always learning from my father and the forest. At that time I really felt that the jungle was so immense and that nothing and no one would be able to destroy it. My father’s teachings about the forest made me feel that surety all the more; from the perspective of the spiritual world the security of the forest was assured. I would walk long distances with my father to go hunting deep in the forest, and with my mother to collect wood and gather food from the forest and that she had grown in her gardens. I felt so free being in the jungle, in that space. I had so many questions and I would ask my parents: How did humans appear in this world? How did the plants appear? How did life begin here? My father would answer me with stories and I would repeat them to the other children. I was very interested in learning these stories because as I listened they gave my body life, and spirit.
As a child I dreamed of very ancient things, sometimes I dreamed of my grandparents, my great-grandparents. They would teach me things about how we should love our life, to appreciate all that we have and walk a good path. My grandfather would tell me that life could end very quickly so to love each moment. As a child I would always see spirits. It was completely normal to me. My father told me that we need to study and do dietas to become accustomed to understanding these different worlds, that there were other beings and we didn’t need to fear them and we could learn from them.
When I was about ten my father taught us how to use a blowpipe and we did an initiation for hunting that involved seven days of fasting, without eating anything or drinking any water – we only ate a little bit of squashed plantain. It was a really hard thing for me to do because my father and my mother, all of them, were eating meat and drinking chicha (a fermented cassava brew made by the women). But this experience really formed my personality and my ability to overcome feelings of fear or inadequacy.
After the fast I drank tobacco and I had a vision. I found myself far, far away when the world didn’t exist – there was just a space. I was with my father, and I went back in time until there was no Earth. I was in the universe and there was a space and there was a force, an energy but with the character of a human being. My father told me: ‘This is a spirit, it is a person but it is invisible.’
In this way my father taught me how to be. He opened up a path that connected to the spiritual world and told me to keep dreaming and little by little I would see and learn more. The first spirit I met in my life was the spirit of the birds. I knew about the spiritual world but I didn’t know how real it was until I left for the city. It was very curious to me to see the exact birds from my dreams and visions in the material world, that I had only seen in the spiritual world before. These birds never lived in the jungle, only in the city. I would say: ‘What am I seeing now? What are these birds doing here?’ That was a great surprise for me and very special.
My father was somebody who never left our territory in his life. He never went to other countries, but he knew exactly what kinds of people and what kinds of animals lived in each part of the world, and he told us stories. It was a big shock for me when my father used to say: ‘Crossing the sea, where the earth ends, there are sajinos (collared peccaries) as small as huanganas (white-lipped peccaries).’ So when I arrived in South Africa, where I was attending a conference, and I saw those tiny sajinos, that was a huge surprise for me. I said to myself: ‘How did my father know that those animals lived there, who told him that?’ So from where he was he knew about the whole planet. He would explain: this happens here, this happens there, in great detail. That means he had capacity of knowledge, flying, travelling to those places to know them.
Early mornings my father would ask us about our dreams and he would teach us their meanings. He spoke of arao, which is a species of parrot. He would say that within its flock, there is a spirit, with very red eyes, and that this lord of all the species of arao would be guarded and tended to. The parrots would look after him when he went from one mountain to another mountain in the spiritual world, accompanied by thousands, thousands and thousands of birds, thousands and thousands of parrots. My father told me that’s how each animal species that lives in the jungle looks after itself, accompanied by its spirit guardian. When I would hear the songs of these birds I would say: ‘Ah, they’re looking after the spirit of arao!’
My father taught me the ways of plant medicine. We used tobacco and chiricaspi (Brunfelsia chiricaspi). He would tell us about the medicinal plants, what each plant was used for, how it was used, how it was prepared. For example, if you couldn’t use the blowpipe, and the dart starts moving in a circle, he would tell us: ‘That’s when you have to drink leima.’ Leima is a plant which can be used if a snake bites you. You pick this plant, and cook the root and drink it and that helps to stop the poison, and with that you can continue walking in the jungle until you get home.
He taught us all those things while walking in the jungle. We had to pay great attention when we walked in order to hunt. Walking in the jungle, there were times when a hummingbird came and it made a sound like this: tium-tium-tium. That meant that on that path there were lots of animals that could be hunted, but if that same hummingbird changed its sound to: pis-pis, that signified that on the path there were animals but that they were dangerous, like a snake or a jaguar, so he said that if that happened in the jungle to walk very carefully and look far ahead, calmly and relaxed, so that nothing would happen.
Once I had a funny experience when I was hunting pigeons with my brother. He hit five with his blowgun and curare (poison) and told me to go and pick up the birds, and I ran straight into a herd of huanganas who were eating the pigeons. Then they ran at me. My brother climbed a tree and tried to pull me up, but I fell down right into the middle of them and they wanted to bite me and eat me. But I started laughing. There was nothing else I could do. The peccaries just stood in front of me and wanted to bite me, but they saw by my laughter that I wasn’t scared of them. If I had shown fear they would have eaten me.
When we were older, all the learning that our father left us, each lesson that he left us, we started to put into practice in every space that we moved in. When he died in 1996 it was very hard for me, but then he began to teach me through my dreams.
The big question I always had was: where do we come from? How did we appear here in this world? In my dream I had a vision that my father picked me up and told me: ‘I’m going to take you up to where the world disappears.’ We went backwards and backwards up into space and there was nothing. From there he made us listen to lots of stories. Someone said: ‘It’s possible that on this planet there can be life.’ I looked but it was invisible, it couldn’t be seen. It was just an idea. Then Earth fell like a clap of thunder, and that clap of thunder was so strong it split something and sand and water appeared, the Earth started to form, ah yes that’s how the Earth was formed, but that happened many years ago. Then a place of wisdom and knowledge appeared. My father used to say that the people who reach that place are the people who think about the world, how life started in the world, or how the earth was formed. We saw it was a difficult space to get to, it is the jungle in Amazonia. My father says that that’s why all who live here in the forest can truly think, we have this wisdom about the Earth, about the forest, because this space for thinking exists, it is here in this physical world.
When we look at the natural world, we see the trees standing there, the insects flying, the birds, the animals, the rivers. If we can see that same reality from the spiritual world, we see these things as people like us: they walk, they move about, we can converse with them, with all the insects, the plants, the water, the air we breathe, it’s a person.
We know many, many things. I have told you we have a deep understanding about medicinal plants, about nature, about many different worlds outside of this one. And we know how to connect with different worlds, the world of nature, of spirits. We have always hidden and protected this knowledge, but now we have decided to share this with other cultures. To invite friends into our territory, and teach them so that they can understand us, and learn not to destroy nature. Many other cultures don’t understand how to do this, so when we have visitors to our territory the first thing we have to do is a limpia (ritual cleansing). We use medicinal plants (chiricaspi) and haoneca (jungle tobacco) and using these plants we open a window for them to connect with nature and the spiritual world. These plants neutralise and clean the contamination and smell of the city, and the contaminated thinking, so they can be connected to the scent of the forest. Once they are balanced the people can begin to recognise nature and it can begin to communicate with them, but they can’t do that when they are contaminated. Then when they sleep that night they will begin to dream, and in the morning we will ask them about their dreams and help them to understand the messages that nature is giving to them. So many people ask about how we connect with nature and this is how we answer: in our dreams and visions, nature spirits teach us.
In our ancestral land, the natural world, everything is clean, uncontaminated and healthy, the land is respected, the earth is in perfect equilibrium. When we ourselves are sick we understand that we must drink tobacco and ask ourselves how we are relating with the energy of the natural world. We use our dreams to understand how the body is, and how our connection with nature has weakened or broken. Using bad words or thoughts can affect our health, but we can reorient ourselves and cure our sickness with the plants.
It’s wonderful when you walk in the jungle. You stand and look up where there are thousands and thousands of trees, and if you think how many lives are there you can connect with them, because you are also a living being. By connecting with them they can teach you many things. Stand among the trees and look at them, see how they are connected with each other. From there come all the pure air, pure smells, all the things we humans like, so that’s why we say that the jungle is alive. Like us, it has life, it needs to be there, because we also need it in order to be, to practise sumak kawsay (living well). (And yes, the Kichwa of Sarayaku, who are relatives and neighbours of the Sápara, have spearheaded the concept of sumak kawsay to the general population in Ecuador.) There are lots of people who when they talk of living well talk of having a house, a spear, a wife, babies and a jungle with lots of animals, they say that’s living well. But it’s not about that, it’s about you as a person being content inside yourself, at one with nature – it’s there you will discover how to live well. Not in the material world, only in the spiritual world, that is living well. Because the term sumak kawsay is from the spiritual world, and not from the material world. It’s even included in our Ecuadorian constitution, and our Indigenous concept has inspired many people – politicians, intellectuals, students, activists all over the world – to change the way they see the world. But now the concept is also misinterpreted: somebody builds a hundred-mile motorway and they say that they are carrying out a public policy to put into practice ‘living well’. It’s not about that, it’s about being a good person, a person who is aware – that’s what sumak kawsay is about.
In a space where a species appears in the jungle, there will always be a change because if there is a species that exists alone in nature, it has a strength, a way of relating, and its presence is special for that place. If we put another species there, it must align with that existing strength, that energy, for nature to continue to function in the same way. If, in that same vein, humans arrive, we have another energy, another smell. Everything changes with our presence when we arrive in a place, the space already starts to change. If in that change our presence is very calm, a complete balance, the change will be similarly balanced. That is how humans first appeared on this earth, but our presence and evolution are changing. We’re beginning to abandon the spiritual part of our relationship and connection with nature when we become more material. That is what has caused a negative impact on the earth, because we have created a structure of life that is not good for the earth. For example, to say gold is valuable sounds like a joke because how can it be possible for a metal to have monetary value? It doesn’t make sense. But for other cultures – in your world, perhaps – it is considered very valuable and people’s need for it has taken us along a path that leads to being very lost.
We Indigenous peoples know how nature works, how water, mountains, trees function and relate to each other, how stars in space are connected with the earth.