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Francisco Galárraga

Read The Believer’s Beautiful Post on the Sápara’s Secret Reserves

“In a land as exceptional for its fragile and fiercely-guarded biodiversity as for it’s dwindling population of guardians, the indigenous Sápara are the first in line for a new form of extinction,”– so begins Pablo Calvi’s story for The Believer on the Sápara, a small indigenous tribe living in the Ecuadorian Amazon. At the time of first human contact, it was once believed that the Sápara numbered upwards of 100,000– today, there are less than 1,000, with a mere 15-20 elders who struggle to maintain their linguistic identity (few in the tribe still speak the native language) as well as their centuries-old knowledge of the land and it’s biodiversity. Today, the tribe faces pressure from both nearby tribes and oil companies looking to exploit their land, as the Sápara struggle to maintain the pristine biodiversity that has characterized their portion of the Amazon Rainforest for centuries.

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“Just a half turn and Manari takes a glance at her. He smiles a vaporous smile. His hands stay glued to the nine-foot pole plying us upstream, cigar-sized toes fastened tightly to the hull of the canoe that his brother Andrés built years ago out of one solid trunk of cedar.

“Have you ever been to Venice?” the visitor repeats from under her hat.

Chewed up by chiggers, Manari’s calves twinge simultaneously. We are crossing a swell of whitewater on a bend of the Conambo River, deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest. This is Sápara territory, and Manari is their leader.

“I’ve heard of it,” he responds, shaking the question off.

From where I am sitting, I can see his scapulae rotating, his carved spine, his back muscles rising and falling like piston rods: a gargoyle on a ledge, poised to jump. He is as tall as the tallest Sápara can be, jet-black hair raining on his lashes, with the full Indian features of a regal Chief Bromden: proud cheekbones, lips thick as snakes.

“Manari has fished for barbudos, mota, kungukshi, silver piranhas, and giant catfish. He has had caimans as pets… Those were the good old days, when his father, one of the greatest Sápara shamans of all time, was still alive.”

Every time a rock breaks the surface of the stream, he pries it away curtly with the stick, steering us clear. Manari and his eleven siblings, and practically every other Sápara in the land, grew up navigating wooden canoes along these rivers. He is almost forty now and has seen black anacondas lurking underwater for their prey, capybaras crowding muddy landing strips, and a jaguar raring to feast on his sister’s flesh.

Manari has fished for barbudos, mota, kungukshi, silver piranhas, and giant catfish. He has had caimans as pets. He has eaten monkeys and frogs, and once owned a peccary that would chew on the pulp of his mother’s manioc beer, only to run, piss-drunk, back into the forest. Those were the good old days, when his father, one of the greatest Sápara shamans of all time, was still alive.”

Calvi’s narrative goes on to paint a picture of life in one of the most pristine natural environments in the world, which includes further discussion of the “The Gondolier of Amazonia”, “The Frog Hospital”, “Messages from the Land of the Dead”, “Diversity Maxima”, “Oil Settlers”, “Cinco Vueltas”, “Horizontal Drilling”, “Boars with Red Ribbons”, and what the Believer cheekily refers to as “The Visitors”.

Read the rest of the story here.

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