The TH Interview: Zoe Tryon - Anthropologist and All-round Amazonian Woman
I met fellow Brit Zoe Tryon whilst we were both working in Ecuador during the first half of this year. We share a passion for working with indigenous cultures, sustainable development and communicating other people's stories. Zoe's background in anthropology led her to the Amazon jungle where she spent a month living in a remote Achuar community. It is thought that Zoe is the first western woman to live with the Achuar people for a significant period of time. During her time in Ecuador she also worked for the Pachamama Alliance at the Kapawi Eco-Lodge, guided David de Rothschild's Mission Toxico team into Achuar territory and accompanied Daryl Hannah on her 'Toxic Tour' with Amazon Watch. I spent some time talking with Zoe about what inspired her to go so deep into the Rainforest and what she hopes to accomplish there.Can you tell us a bit about the Achuar nation and how the Pachamama Alliance came to work with them?
The Achuar are very remote, they live on the border with Peru, there is no development, no roads, no nothing. All that area has been divided up into (prospective) oil blocks and they are in Block 23 + 24. Twelve years ago the Achuar already knew what was happening in the north of Ecuador (extensive deforestation + oil drilling), and they saw that they could either they retreat further back in to the forest, which is what some of the Huaorani have done, or they could come out and meet this challenge and fight it.
The Achuar have a strong dream culture and they realised through their dreams what they were meant to do. So they put out a call to say they wanted a partner in 'The North'; America - where a lot of the oil companies come from. 'The North' to them means the Western World as we see it.
Map Image sourced from 'Ecuador: Oil exploitation and environment rape' by Carlos Herrera www.axisoflogic.com
So they were looking for somebody from 'The North' to help them preserve their culture and land?
Yes, my take on it, from my anthropological studies, is that the Achuar people have people called Amiks who are like friends in other communities or enemy territory. That friendship opens up trading links and you have free passage to the other's house, even in times of war. It's like an ambassador. Pachamama was formed (in the spirit of an Amik) as a union between the Achuar and the allies in 'The North'.
What does Pachamama mean and how was it started?
Pacha (Earth) Mama (Mother) translates as 'Mother Earth, the Universe and Everything' in Kichwa.
So the Achuar put out this call and through an incredible series of events this call was answered. A lady called Lynne Twist, one of the greatest fundraisers in the world, she has raised over $200 million for The Hunger Project, was invited to go to a shamanic retreat with all sorts of leaders involved in World Change and transformation. Whilst on the retreat she had a vision of an indigenous painted face with a crown, which was red and black and yellow, and above she saw an eagle and a condor flying.
She voiced this image to the shaman and found there was another man who also had the same vision. That man was John Perkins (author of 'Confessions of an Economic Hitman'). The shaman told them that they needed to work together. When Lynne described her vision, John (who had recently been working with the nearby Shuar people) told her that she had seen the Achuar and he knew that they were looking for a partner.
What did the symbolism of the condor and eagle in her vision mean?
There is a prophecy in South American culture about the eagle and the condor. A Pachacuti is a 500 year period of time and we have been in the Pachacuti of the eagle. The eagle represents the materialistic world, the thought world and intellectual development. The condor represents contact with the earth, the spiritual side of life. This time of the Eagle has been spent developing our minds, but now the Pachacuti has changed and we are in time where they say that the eagle and the condor are going to fly in the skies together. It's a time when the materialistic world and the spiritual world will come together.
And so Pachamama was formed — this alliance between the Achuar people and 'The North'. No one was quite sure what the alliance was about, but they knew it was initially about protecting the land.
How does Pachamama work with the Achuar?
They work with the indigenous people to empower them to protect the forest of which they are the natural custodians. They started off with land rights issues and mapping the territories, you need to map the area in order to claim ownership. Pachamama did a lot of political work with them and the Achuar said, "We want to protect our lands, but we also need to awaken the people in The North. You are living in a dream, what you are doing is destroying the Earth."
In 2000 Bill and Lynne Twist decided to try and tackle this challenge. They set up the Awakening the Dreamer Symposium. This is a one day workshop on environmental sustainability, social justice and spiritual fulfilment - you need all those to make things happen. It's an eight hour workshop with incredible audio visuals with interviews and videos. There are amazing people talking like Brian Swinn and Paul Hawken, and its purpose is to wake people up.
How were you introduced to Bill + Lynne Twist and Pachamama?
I first came in contact with Pachamama when a friend of mine went to the first workshop in London, and she was profoundly struck by it. The Be the Change conference in London is now connected to Awaken the Dream. The founders of Be The Change were invited over to San Francisco to train to be facilitators and they invited me. I became a facilitator and then I met Bill and Lynne Twist. They were taking an Ecuador trip, a transformational journey, and so I quit my job in London and went with them. Then I went to live with Lynne and Bill and worked on their fundraising Luncheon for 1200 people. We raised 1.325 million dollars.
After that I came to work here in Ecuador. Anthropology is my background and I wanted to find something that connected that to personal growth, transformation and turning people towards more ecologically sustainable lifestyles. I was thinking how on earth can I fit all that together? But I really believe that if you follow your heart and your passions in life you will find the way.
Thomas Berry the great cosmologist and environmentalist he said "What can we do? Well, what CAN you do?" Basically each one of us has the potential to do something and you just have to look and see what that is. It doesn't have to be running off to live in the jungle, it can be, "What can I do in my day to day life?" "What's a tiny shift that I can contribute?" Carpooling or whatever. Each one of us can do something.
Paul Hawken during the research for his book 'Blessed Unrest' found 2 million organisations that are working to make the world a better place. When you hear about that from all over the world then you realise wow it's not just little old me, it's everyone working together and that gives you the impetus to get out there and do it.
So I've been volunteering for seven months now: 2 months in the states and 5 months down here living in Achuar territory and working on the transference process of the Kapawi Eco-Lodge. It's going back into their hands in December.
What is the story behind the Kapawi Lodge?
Kapawi is the brainchild of a man called Daniel Kouperman who wanted to come up with a way for the Achuar to earn money without resorting to oil drilling or logging and he came up with the eco-lodge idea. He passed it by all the elders, he had to go round and visit all 63 Achuar communities to get their approval. When they all said yes he presented his idea to a very wealthy businessman friend who agreed to put millions into the project. They built the lodge completely in Achuar style, no nails, all wood, around a lagoon. It has solar panels and a generator for when it's very cloudy. I think 75% of Kapawi's energy runs off solar.
It is very remote, you can only get in by plane on a mud landing strip. If it rains then it's impossible to come in or leave — which adds to the adventure.
A travel company called Canodros is running it. The agreement was that they would run it on Achuar land for 15 years and then give it back to the Achuar people, but sadly the owner of the company has now passed away and his sons didn't share his vision for Kapawi as it wasn't making much money. So they've decided to give it back after 10 years and unfortunately they haven't been doing what was planned, training people or looking after the employees in the way that we would like to see them looked after.
What has been your role in all of this?
I've been teaching English and training the staff at a number of different levels. Also it's important to shape it into what the Achuar want. We don't go in and say you need this, this and this. We say what is it that you want and how can we work together to make that happen?
Are they very receptive?
It's about learning communication skills, they have a very different way of working. It's about understanding their thought process and their way of life. Then it all makes sense to everyone.
Does your anthropology background help you with this or are you relying more on instinct?
I think it's a bit of both. The anthropology studies mean I am fascinated by others cultures, but then it's also about shutting up and listening and observing and putting aside my ego and what I think is best. I went to live with a family for a month because I wanted to understand what the life is like of an Achuar person. How can I help them or have any useful input if I don't understand where they are coming from? That was total immersion for me. To wake up every morning with them and drink tea, sitting round the fire and discussing our dreams, working out the plans for the day. To see the way things are done and learn Achuar time. It was challenging and it was great. It opened me up a lot and I took guidance from them always.
They've survived in this jungle for god knows how long perfectly and beautifully. It was all working very nicely thank you very much until external forces pushed their way in. We are in their territory, you have to remember that the Kapawi eco-lodge is in Achuar territory, it's their nation and we are guests there.
But, if you go in there with the right intention they see that, 90% of language is non verbal. They sense if they like you or if they don't. I just feel incredibly lucky to be able to work with them, they are incredible people and I really want this project to work, because on this trip (with David De Rothschild) I've seen what's happened (in northern Ecuador). That's the future of Achuar if something isn't done. They need money because they want health care and education, they have everything else, they are rich.
Would it be true to say that they don't need money, because they are self sustaining in their environment, until external forces come in and offer them things to buy?
For example the kids are not allowed to go to the mission schools if they don't have a uniform or shoes or books. That's very expensive and it's changed the dynamic of the culture enormously.
What other sustainability projects have you been working on with the Achuar?
Right now we are working on creating an organic farm for the Kapawi lodge to make it more self-sustaining, because at the moment everything has to be flown in. We've just done this great program where we took ten kids from Kapawi high school, three Shuar kids and three Kichwa kids from Saryacu to an organic farm on the coast called Riomuchacho and did a training program with them for three weeks.
How old were the kids?
They were between 15 and 18. So each one of those kids is going to go back to their community and start organic farms. I've been talking to the nuns at the school and they are going to have an organic farm for the kids in school and any extra that they grow will be sold to the lodge. So it's about them developing sustainably as well.
This is great, it sounds like a jungle version of Alice Waters' Edible School Yards project.
Wow, well we should get her to come and help! This is great for nutrition issues and hopefully it will encourage more communities to take part in Kapawi and for them to see that Kapawi is an interface between 'The North' and the Achuar, so they have more positive impact on each other. So often when indigenous and non-indigenous people come into contact with each other they just take on the worst of both worlds, this time it is about looking for the positives and how we can work together.
What has inspired you most about your time with the Achuar?
I have always been interested how other people think and different ways of doing things and ecology is part of that as well. That's the message indigenous people give to us. I am fascinated by indigenous women's wisdom. These women have worked so closely with the soil and the earth all their lives, it's part of their being. Whereas we are so distanced from that. During the time of the Spanish Inquisition between 3 and 5 million women were killed in Europe that were good with plants, who loved animals, who loved walking alone in the countryside. They were labeled as witches and burnt at the stake. So we've had to distance ourselves from our connection with the earth, plants and nature, and become more masculine in our energy in order to survive. It's very interesting to see women who haven't had that break and to see their strength and power and how it impacts the whole community. When a woman is strong and she is happy she nurtures and that affects so many people.