For Ancient Ecuadorian Tribe, Time is Running Out

Ayden Fabien Férdeline 2012-03-29

Notes from my diary; September 29, 2009.

OTAVALO, Ecuador (Ayden Fabien Férdeline) — It is harvest season across the spectacular Andean valley of Otavalo, 2550 meters above sea level, where mountains are flanked by volcano peaks. But Diego Sucre can not find enough bananas to fill his pockets.

Ecuador is the largest exporter of bananas in the world, a highly nutritious fruit that is a staple of the region. In times past, bananas were so abundant that Mr Sucre and other indigenous Ecuadorians would haul the fruit in clusters on their back.

But controlled burning to prevent bush fires has ruined another crop for the Otavaleños, an ancient Inca tribe, who were among the first inhabitants of Latin America.

Although the Otavaleños once had the Andrean plains to themselves, they are now confined to a small allotment of land in a plateau where illegal forest logging is commonplace and a drought has made it difficult for the 25,000 residents of the isolated village to survive.

If the forest situation does not improve, the Otavaleños, who have lived for centuries in this barren land, almost untouched by the outside world, risk becoming extinct. Their distinct culture and language could be lost forever.

‘The few bananas we do grow must feed the animals,’ said Mr Sucre, a tribal elder. ‘We will not eat this year unless we get help from the Government. We need better land and water.’

Although the Ecuadorian Government has promised to help indigenous communities in the country after national media coverage of the Otavaleños’ plight, tribe members said no government officials had offered aid.

The Otavaleños speak a rare language that few outsiders understand. They practice a religion that does not easily identify with Christian beliefs. Members of the tribe marry only amongst themselves and remain highly suspicious of outsiders.

The modern world, however, is quickly being adopted. Tribe members now carry cellphones and some adobe huts had solar panels installed in the mid-1990s. Television aerials are growing in popularity and some households use electrical appliances. Most men no longer wear traditional clothing, preferring what they call “leisure-ware,” contemporary American fashion donated by tourists who visit the region. Women now wear leggings beneath their skirts.

A religious battle is also brewing, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints building a church in this secluded village. Mr Sucre, the elder, said he fears tradition will be lost as the Mormons try to inflict “their beliefs” on his community.

‘We sacrifice animals for our gods, we use llamas as offerings at weddings and other celebrations,’ said Mr Sucre, ‘but the Mormons are encouraging us to abandon our language in favor of English and to separate our rituals from life.’

Ecuadorians trace problems in their indigenous communities to frequent wars with Peru and the arrival of the Spaniards.

The first Otavaleños were direct descendants of the Cara Indians, who were later conquered by the Spanish Conquistadores in the 1530s. Anthropologists say the Cara people appeared hundreds of years before the Christian era.

Problems first arose for the Otavaleños after the Spanish conquest, when climate change dried the Great Lakes in northern Ecuador. Fishermen and fisherwomen were forced onto dry land. The land they inhabited has, in recent years, been victim of animal poaching that has destroyed ecosystems, illegal forest logging, and controlled burns to prevent bush fires.

‘Because we do not pay taxes, the Government does not feel an obligation to assist us,’ said Mr Sucre.

Danigael Colon, spokesperson for Ecuador President Rafael Correa Delgado, said the Government has made “a commitment not to intervene in indigenous affairs.” Resettling 50,000 Otavaleño Indians would contradict this promise.

Nonetheless, Francisco Carrion Mena, Minister for Foreign and Domestic Affairs, said the Government will extend assistance to indigenous communities. He will announce a “solution” for the Otavaleño people by November.

Meanwhile, Diego Sucre struggles to maintain his way of life in this village, a six hour drive away from the country’s capital, Quito.