UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Imagining the Jungle: Environmental Knowledge and the Ecuadorian Amazon in Oral and Written Literature

Isabelle Barnard

This paper uses an inclusive approach to literary studies to analyze the ways that the Ecuadorian Amazon has been represented and understood through a diversity of texts, both written and oral. The Amazon has long held a tremendous amount of symbolic resonance for the outside public, whether as a “savage” and frightening jungle, a last frontier awaiting exploration, or a treasure trove of global biodiversity. This study seeks to parse and thereby challenge dominant images of the Amazon and its peoples. Based on two months of fieldwork and interviews in the Upper Napo region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, this paper brings contemporary oral narratives of indigenous Kichwa people into conversation with a selection of written literature about the region: Friar Gaspar de Carvajal’s Discovery of the Amazon, Juan León Mera’s Cumandá, and Luis Sepúlveda’s Un viejo que leía novelas de amor. Using the theme of environmental knowledge as an organizing thread, this paper explores questions of indigeneity, coloniality, and belonging. Ultimately, it argues that only by incorporating historically marginalized voices alongside the traditional literary canon can we arrive at a nuanced, just understanding of any region or theme and its social ramifications.

I. Introduction: Contextualizing Cumandá

On my first day in Quito, a combination of the common cold and altitude sickness kept me shut inside my hostel, sniffling and pounding bottles of water to beat back my headache. On the second day, however, I was ready to take on my first mission: finding a copy of Juan Leon Mera’s Cumandá, o un drama entre salvajes [1]. Written in the 19th century and celebrated as the first Ecuadorian novel, Mera’s work tells the story of an indigenous girl and a white man who fall in love deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon. While internet articles assured me that Cumandá was a pivotal piece of Ecuadorian literature, I hadn’t managed to find a copy on Amazon in the United States and thus I wondered if the text had slipped into obscurity. To my relief, the first used bookstore I spotted had not one, but four copies of the novel, all different editions, as well as a contemporary “translation” of the work into poetry. I asked the store clerk if she knew of any books about the Ecuadorian jungle; she darted off to fetch me yet another a copy of Cumandá, and when I asked her if there was anything else she shrugged and pointed me toward Horacio Quiroga’s Cuentos de la selva (set in Argentina). I would proceed as planned, then: to understand the role of the Amazon in Ecuadorian literature, I would begin with Cumandá.

The novel relates the tragic romance of Cumandá and Carlos, the son of the European Padre Orozco. Cumandá’s family tries to kill Carlos, and when Cumandá rescues him, they punish her by forcing her to marry a chief so old that he dies on their wedding night. Custom demands that Cumandá be sacrificed to accompany her deceased husband; meanwhile, it is revealed that Cumandá is actually Carlos’s long-lost sister. On their way to save her, Carlos and Padre Orozco encounter Cumandá’s adoptive father on his deathbed. Orozco succeeds in reconciling with the bitter old man and receiving his confession, but they are too late to save Cumandá.

Most scholarship on Cumandá has focused on the novel as a nationalist, politically motivated work, although one recent article also explored its implications for human-environment interactions. Hernán Vidal argues that Mera’s work imagines the Amazon as the possible site for a theocratic utopia, thus defending and justifying President Garcia Moreno’s conservative, ultra-Catholic policies (Vidal 1980). Doris Sommer points out Mera’s role in the creation of national myth: Cumandá becomes “the woman over whose dead body Spanish and Indian fathers can love each other” (Sommer 240). Ricardo Padrón posits that Cumandá is “nationalist geographic fiction” that maps out an Amazonia in ruins as an invitation to explore and reclaim it (Padrón 222). One recent article diverges from this exclusively political focus: using an ecocritical approach, Lee Joan Skinner analyzes the space of the river in the novel and concludes that Mera depicts the Amazon as useless to the Ecuadorian nation. However, the novel also offers hope of inter-ethnic national reconciliation, if people can appropriately navigate the rivers and landscape without “enacting permanent transformations or damage” (Skinner 141). These analyses all differ in the specifics but share a focus on the political and nation-building aspects of Mera’s work.

However, not enough attention has been paid to another crucial element of Cumandá: its interactions with a European public, particularly in its portrayal of an exotic Other. Mera first submitted the novel to the Real Academia Española, upon notification that he had been appointed a correspondent to the academy. In the letter accompanying his text, he emphasizes the novelty of his novel’s setting, due to the unique customs of the indigenous people he depicts:

“La obra …será grata al entendimiento del lector inclinado a lo nuevo y desconocido…[A las regiones orientales,] ni la industria y la ciencia han estudiado todavía su naturaleza, ni la poesía la ha cantado, ni la filosofía ha hecho la disección de la vida y costumbres de los jívaros, záparos y otras familias indígenas y bárbaras que vegetan en aquellos desiertos” (Mera 1877).

Cumandá, therefore, does not deal solely with issues of Ecuadorian politics and border disputes. The letter above recalls discourse around the “discovery” of the New World—Mera is playing with European fascinations with the exotic unknown, the Americas as a place of strange, uncivilized, but also more “natural” peoples.

In an uneasy balance, Mera both claims and distances himself from these indigenous populations and “virgin” lands. He draws on them to add excitement and “color” to the Ecuador he represents, but he still clearly separates the civilized, Christian nation he is a part of from the barbarian wilderness to the East. At stake in Cumandá, then, is a question of representation: How should Ecuador represent itself domestically, as part of the nation-building process? How should Ecuador represent itself to the outside world, as writers like Mera seek acceptance and recognition from a Eurocentric intellectual community? And what role should the Amazon play in these representations? Understanding and responding to these questions will require a more comprehensive account of the ways the Ecuadorian Amazon has been imagined and used in literature throughout history.

Furthermore, any study of representation of the Amazon will be incomplete if it continues to treat Amazonian indigenous peoples and cultures as a static, blank canvas upon which scholars can project generalized theories. Existing studies have sought to locate Cumandá within the context of (mostly urban) national and international politics and culture. Given the centrality of indigenous peoples and customs to Mera’s text, Cumandá must also be considered in the context of indigenous history, customs, stories, and practices. A broader study of the way the Ecuadorian Amazon is represented in literature, then, requires the inclusion of indigenous sources.

To this date, there have been no comprehensive studies of the image and representation of the Ecuadorian Amazon in literature. Some scholars have surveyed jungle-related works in general, often combining literary analysis with anthropological approaches, history, ecology, and oral narratives. Scott DeVries examines the nascent environmentalist discourse in the “novela de la Selva,” identifying Cumandá as one of the origin points of that genre (DeVries 2010). Editing Eden, compiled by Frank Hutchins and Patrick C. Wilson, focuses on anthropological issues but surveys historical representations of the Amazon in explorers’ accounts for context (Hutchins and Wilson 2010). In the past few decades, anthropologists have also extensively studied indigenous representations of the Amazon, particularly the ways these representations are used in working with NGOs, carrying out political and environmental activism, and expanding the tourist industry (e.g. Rubenstein 2004, Valdivia 2007, Hutchins 2007, Reeve and High 2012, Becker 2013). Perhaps the most exciting and comprehensive work on the “imagined Amazon” is Candace Slater’s Entangled Edens, which weaves together oral narratives and written accounts of the Amazon, including literary texts.

Slater’s work will serve as an inspiration for the study to follow. As she points out, the Amazon continues to have enormous symbolic resonance on a global scale—but in failing to pick apart, analyze, and challenge how the region is represented, we ignore contradictions in those portrayals, and participate in the silencing of some narratives in favor of those put forward by more powerful entities. Describing a typical nature documentary on the Amazon, Slater remarks:

Nothing in this movie makes us think about all of the very different people who live in the Amazon. Nothing makes us think that our own fascination with an idealized forest may exclude other ways of seeing—Amazonian ways of seeing. Nothing leads us to suspect that our own focus on spectacular nature may be not only too narrow, but potentially unjust (Slater 6).

This paper will respond to Slater by focusing its attention on the multiplicity of stories and images of the Ecuadorian Amazon produced by various narrators over time, and by seeking to remember the issues of justice at stake in those representations and their dissemination. Growing out of the concerns about representation raised in the discussion of Cumandá, this study will seek to demonstrate how bringing both written and oral texts into conversation with each other over a single region and theme can enrich our understanding and broaden our perspectives on that theme and its social ramifications.

As a case study of this inclusive approach, I will explore the issue of environmental knowledge in three written texts and a series of oral life-narratives collected in the Upper Napo region of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The written texts are Friar Gaspar de Carvajal’s Discovery of the Amazon, an account of the Orellana expedition across the continent in the 1850s; Juan León Mera’s Cumandá; and Chilean author Luis Sepúlveda’s Un viejo que leía novelas de amor, a pro-environment, pro-indigenous novel published in 1989. After assessing the way environmental knowledge is portrayed and used in each of these texts, I will turn to contemporary indigenous oral narratives.

The stories with which I will compare the texts above were collected over the course of two months of fieldwork in and around Tena, Ecuador, a small town on the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Upper Napo is a lowland rainforest region, cut through by powerful whitewater rivers that flow into the Napo and then into the Amazon River. Napo Province’s capital, Tena, serves as a tourist hub and the gateway for most trips on the river or into the jungle. In the summer of 2014, I spent two months living in the area and conducting research on oral narratives and environmental knowledge, first at a field school outside of Tena, then as a secretary and translator for a tour agency, during which time I stayed with a Kichwa family in Tena. Tena is home to a large population of Kichwa people, the largest indigenous ethnicity in Ecuador. Of the four consultants whose stories I will discuss, three identify as Kichwa.

Using anthropological literature on Kichwa culture for support and context, I will look at the way environmental knowledge has been defined, assigned, and used in oral and written literature about the Ecuadorian Amazon. I will define environmental knowledge as a person’s familiarity with and understanding of their nonhuman environment, including the proper ways of interacting with geographical features, plants, animals, and sometimes supernatural beings. While myriad themes might have provided equally productive points of comparison and contrast between the different oral and written texts, the question of environmental knowledge is especially useful in understanding the relationship between people and the Amazon. Knowledge, after all, is not just power—in a harsh and dangerous environment populated by other (often hostile) beings, knowledge can mean survival. Who is represented as “knowing” the land, the plants, the animals, and the spirits, and what form does this knowledge take? What are the consequences of this knowledge, particularly for determining who “belongs” in the Amazon, and/or whom the Amazon “belongs to?” Using an inclusive approach to literary studies, I will seek to demonstrate the richness of connections and comparisons made possible by bringing a diversity of voices into conversation around the Ecuadorian Amazon. This paper may open more questions than it answers, but my hope throughout is not just to show the ways people have represented the Amazon over time and space, but to identify why it matters, and what the real, ethical consequences are of those imagined jungles.

 II. Intelligence Gathering and Helplessness in Carvajal’s Discovery of the Amazon

            Friar Gaspar de Carvajal’s account of the “discovery” of the Amazon River needs to serve two main functions: to describe the region to his European audience, and to convince this audience of the importance of the Orellana expedition to the Spanish empire (Medina). His project, then, centers on environmental knowledge. In one sense, this is a scientific endeavor. He describes the geography of the region, maps out the rivers and changes in terrain, and presents a detailed account of the customs and political structure of many different peoples. However, this knowledge is filtered through a colonial lens: Carvajal seeks to provide the Spanish crown with the political, geographic, and ethnographic information necessary to conquer and rule the region, and he works to capture his readers’ imaginations by emphasizing the strange, fantastic, and exotic qualities of the region and its inhabitants. Thus, he is interested in native people’s customs and political structure, but not their hunting practices; lands that could be used to grow crops, but not the animals that populate them.

Carvajal validates his observations by claiming the authority of a firsthand witness, one who has seen or heard for himself what he recounts. He defends the veracity of an unusual story through this eyewitness power: “an incident occurred which I should not have dared to write down if it had not been observed by so many witnesses” (189). He makes a similar claim in the midst of a lengthy description of a fight with a group of female warriors that he identifies as the storied Amazons. “[W]e ourselves saw these women,” he insists (214).This reliance on firsthand experience to validate knowledge claims extends to more mundane facts as well. Referring to the presence of oak and acorn-bearing cork trees, he again emphasizes that “we ourselves saw them” (217). The credibility of Carvajal’s account, it would seem, hinges on his and his companions’ firsthand knowledge of the region they “discovered.”

Despite this insistence on observation, however, the Europeans’ knowledge of the Amazon is mediated: they can only know and experience it (and survive to recount what they know) through the expertise of the indigenous inhabitants. This dependence becomes obvious through Carvajal’s emphasis on their near-constant risk of starvation. Although the explorers hunt and fish when they can, they struggle to find sustenance in their strange and threatening new environment. Thus, they either receive food from the native people as a gift, or they steal it. The relationships between the Europeans, the indigenous Amazonians, and the land and animals are thus intimately linked: the explorers rely on the native peoples’ knowledge of the land and its (edible) species for their survival, and the expedition members’ interactions with fish and game animals are thus mediated by their interactions with the indigenous inhabitants of the territory. They relate to the land and animals through their relations with the native peoples. Near starvation, the party finally reaches inhabited lands once more and rejoices: “[W]e were now in an inhabited country and no longer could die of hunger” (173). The most fundamental interaction between humans and their environment, eating, is not possible for the Europeans without the aid and knowledge of the Amazonian peoples.

Of course, that which enables their survival also poses their most significant threat. Many of the tribes the explorers encounter are hostile and attack them. Carvajal’s account, thus, is full of seeming contradictions: sometimes, like in the passage above, the group feels frightened and helpless in areas without people; other times, they are relieved to reach uninhabited areas where they will not need to fight: “[W]e departed…not a little delighted, thinking that we were leaving all the settled country behind us and that we were going to have an opportunity to rest from our hardships” (222). However, these forays into unpopulated regions are only possible when the explorers have stockpiled food from the indigenous communities they’ve visited or raided. The Europeans in the Orellana expedition lack the environmental knowledge to interact with the nonhuman environment without the mediation of the native people.

However, in his descriptions Carvajal does not treat indigenous people’s expertise as a source of power for them. Rather, he casts their ability to find food as evidence that they will be especially competent servants: “the Indians did not stop offering aid and coming to the Captain and bringing to him foodstuffs in abundance, and all with as much orderliness as if all their lives they had been servants…” (177). The native peoples serve as a bridge between the Europeans and the nonhuman environment, but their knowledge is only implied, never discussed. Carvajal makes no mention of how the villages they raid or visit acquire their food or what their hunting and fishing practices are. Such information is not important, because the Europeans do not need to learn to fish and hunt; they only need to be able to control the indigenous population, much of which is “naturally” subservient and ready to be incorporated into the Spanish empire.

The idea of the natives as (subservient) future citizens of New Spain may explain Carvajal’s frequent mentions of the intelligence of the indigenous people who are captured and forced to serve as guides for the expedition. Of one such guide, Carvajal says that “he was an Indian of much intelligence and very quick to comprehend; and so are all the rest [in that] land, as we have stated” (222). Another guide is “an Indian girl of much intelligence” (210). These guides are the primary means by which the Europeans acquire knowledge of anything beyond what they can plainly see on the banks of the river. From them, they learn about leadership and politics in the region, the extent of various groups’ territories, and the customs of various groups.

The explorers travel by boat, on the river, because it is far easier to traverse than the jungle. Whenever they disembark, as previously mentioned, they tend to find themselves either skirmishing with natives, or led to villages where they are fed and housed and thus have no incentive to leave and explore the jungle. Always on the move and rarely venturing off the river, the members of the expedition acquire little firsthand knowledge of the environment.

In his account, Carvajal must balance his two purposes: providing the Spanish crown with the intelligence the Orellana expedition has gathered, and attracting the attention and interest of his European audience. The first aim requires that Carvajal present himself as a reliable source of information, providing credible stories and descriptions. The second, however, leads the friar to recount incredible tales of ferocious female warriors, gold and silver everywhere, tall white natives who behave like courtly gentlemen, and lost groups of Christians. Carvajal balances these conflicting tendencies by locating the most mysterious and least “credible” elements of his story deep in the jungle.

The unseen “interior” becomes a space of possibility and mystery. It is invisible to the Europeans, but frequently described, discursively constructed by both the Europeans and the native guides. Past the impenetrable jungle there is a land “rich in silver… and the country is very pleasing and attractive and very plentifully supplied with all kinds of food and fruit” (203). Similarly, Carvajal reports that according to one native guide, the fierce female warriors the expedition had battled earlier “were certain women who resided in the interior of the country, a seven day journey from the shore…” (222). The world Carvajal outlines through the indigenous man’s testimony is filled with strange and exotic beasts: “[T]here were camels that carried them on their backs, and he said there were other animals…which were big as horses and had hair as long as the spread of the thumb and forefinger… and cloven hoofs” (222). Like medieval maps placing fantastic monsters in unknown oceans, Carvajal’s narrative geography maintains its credibility while enticing his audience’s imaginations by mapping rumors, the strange, and the supernatural/unnatural onto the inside of the country, what remains to be explored and ultimately put to imperial use.

It is only in this magical, unknown space that Carvajal recognizes the natives as true authorities. He does not question their knowledge, and he assumes that the natives report entirely honestly. Nonetheless, it is clear that for Carvajal, the Europeans’ ignorance and thus lack of power in the interior of the country is a temporary state. Explorers and conquerors like the Orellana expedition members will continue to forcibly extract knowledge about the land and people from indigenous informants, and eventually there will be nothing “important” that the natives know and the Europeans do not.

III. Knowledge through Experience, Not Blood: Colonial Ambitions in Cumandá

Where Carvajal’s account explicitly deals with the colonizers’ collection of knowledge from observation and indigenous reports, Cumandá explores not just the use-value of environmental knowledge, but also the symbolic importance of knowing nature. Mera attributes a special depth of knowledge of the forest and river to the region’s indigenous inhabitants. Says the narrator,

Los indios poseen un conocimiento instintivo de todas las vueltas, encrucijadas y enredos de esas desiertas y misteriosas ciudades de troncos y hojas que se llaman selvas, y jamás se pierden en ellas, aunque las recorran en medio de las sombras de la noche, y caen, de seguro, guiados por no sé qué brújula mágica, en el punto a donde dirigen sus pasos (120).

Of particular note is the word “instintivo”—this would suggest that in Mera’s eyes, the natives of the region are born with a unique understanding of their natural environment. He even claims that there is something supernatural about their knowledge, which is apparently infallible even in the darkness. Here, the writer’s etic perspective as a cultural outsider is particularly clear. The landscape he describes is one seen through the eyes of an external observer—it is deserted, mysterious, and he must even identify it verbally as a forest, “que se llaman selvas,” in order to make it recognizable for the reader. The narrator even waives off omniscience to declare that he doesn’t know what “witchcraft” the natives use to guide themselves. The reference to magic is presumably for dramatic effect, given Mera’s vehemence in insisting that there is a scientific explanation for the events that the indigenous people interpret as the work of spirits. Nonetheless, Mera here presents native ecological knowledge and navigational abilities as something mysterious, magical, and incomprehensible for outsiders.

However, this description of how one can know the forest is not consistent with Mera’s treatment of environmental knowledge in the majority of the novel. As Skinner has noted, Mera often switches into a narrative style in which he seems to speak from the perspective of an anonymous, white, male traveler. However, this narrator’s impressions do not always agree with information and ideas that Mera conveys through other dialogue, events, and descriptions throughout Cumandá. In the Upper Amazon depicted in the novel, familiarity with and the ability to navigate the jungle and river are not instinctive, something inherent to indigenous Amazonian people and inaccessible to anyone else. Rather, skills and environmental knowledge are gained through experience, accessible regardless of race, birthplace, or cultural background.

Carlos Orozco is the most obvious example of Mera’s belief in nurture, not nature when it comes to ecological knowledge. The son of a priest, Carlos is a mestizo often referred to by the moniker “el blanco.” He is not indigenous, but nevertheless he comes to feel at home navigating the rivers:

Se apresuró a comprar una canoa y aprendió a manejarla con sorprendente destreza. En ella, muchas veces solo y otras acompañado de un joven záparo…subía o bajaba por el Pastaza… buscando sitios que armonizasen con su carácter e inclinaciones por la soledad, el silencio y la belleza sombría y tétrica, tan común en aquellos bosques (61).

As Skinner has pointed out, Carlos’s affinity for the river and skill with a canoe are surprising because he is white and an outsider (Skinner 135). The default expectation, it seems, would be something akin to what Mera expressed in the voice of the confused traveler—indigenous people know the land because they’re indigenous; it’s a racial characteristic, not something learned. A white man, therefore, could never be a skilled river traveler. However, Carlos’s facility with a canoe proves this wrong. The Amazonia Mera describes, then, is perhaps not as hostile and impenetrable to outsiders as it might initially appear.

Cumandá herself is an even stronger example of the idea that experience, not birth, gives people an understanding of the jungle and river. She has been raised like any other indigenous child in the region, and Mera describes at length her skill and familiarity with both the river and the jungle. She is an able oarswoman, he tells the reader: “sabe dominar las olas, así hendiéndolas con el remo como rompiéndolas a nado” (82). She is equally capable in the forest and does not get lost: “Cumandá tenía confianza absoluta en sí misma,” Mera informs us (120)[2]. At the end of the novel, however, it is revealed that she is actually the long-lost (white) daughter of Father Orozco, taken in by an indigenous family in the aftermath of a bloody insurrection. All of her skills, then, cannot have been the product of indigeneity; rather, they must have come from her upbringing and her experience navigating the woods and waters where she grew up.

            Just as not all competent outdoorspeople are indigenous in Cumandá, not all indigenous people have the same environmental knowledge. Of the virgins appointed to honor the curaca Yahuarmaqui at the festival, Cumandá is the only woman who knows how to row. Furthermore, Mera draws a distinction between the skills and affinities of different indigenous groups. The jíbaros, he says, are more adept than the záparos at navigating under difficult conditions: “Los jíbaros son generalmente mucho más diestros para caminar por la noche y en medio de la tempestad …” (225-6). The záparos, in contrast, fear the river when it rises too high:“[N]o están acostumbrados a desafiar como algunas otras tribus bárbaras los peligros de una navegación en noche tormentosa y en aguas agitadas” (215). Their apprehension, Mera makes clear, comes from lack of experience—they are not accustomed to travelling under these conditions, and thus they don’t know how. Indigeneity, for Mera, does not necessarily imply perfect environmental knowledge, as the first statement about native peoples’ “conocimiento instintivo” would suggest. If, then, ecological expertise and the ability to navigate both river and jungle come from practice, the jungle could indeed become accessible to non-native colonists. They would simply need to invest the time and work needed to become familiar with the region. Cumandá thus provides a road map for colonization, a defense of the nationalist project of integrating the country’s tenuously claimed peripheral regions.

In addition to engaging with the real problem of incorporating the Oriente into the nation-state, Mera also uses the Amazon metonymically, transfiguring it to represent the nation as a whole. The land, epitomized in the wild, ever-changing jungle, does not remember racial conflict and historic injustices: “la naturaleza agreste recupera bien pronto lo que se le había quitado” (18). Forgiveness from Heaven, forgetting on Earth—this is Mera’s vision for re-unifying Ecuador despite a history of conflict. The Amazon thus functions both practically and metaphorically, both as territory that must be known in order to colonize it, and as a catalyst for un-knowing petty and destructive human history in the face of an enduring, triumphant nature.

IV. The Complexities of Indigenous Environmental Knowledge in Un viejo que leía novelas de amor

In his 1989 novel Un viejo que leía novelas de amor, Chilean author Luis Sepúlveda also explores colonization of the Amazon and the acquisition of ecological expertise. However, while like Mera he stresses the importance of spending time living and working in the jungle, his treatment of ecological knowledge is more complex, incorporating indigenous spiritual and cultural understandings of the environment and problematizing the transmission of said knowledge to non-natives. The novel centers on Antonio Jose Bolivar Proaño, an elderly colonist in a settlement called El Idilio. El viejo, as he is often called, is the colonist most familiar with the jungle and its ways. Through flashbacks, however, the reader learns that this was not always the case. The old man used to live in the sierras, where he and his wife led a difficult and, to their chagrin, childless life. Lured by government land grants and the hope that a change in climate might fix their fertility problem, Antonio and his wife travelled to Eastern Ecuador. The technical aid the government promised never materialized, but a group of indigenous Shuar people took pity on the hapless colonists and began to teach them how to survive in the rainforest.

Over time, the old man’s resentment of the region has turned to respect and ultimately love, as well as near-encyclopedic knowledge. The figure of el viejo, therefore, might seem to represent the partial fulfillment of Mera’s dream. While the old man is not particularly religious, he is an outsider who, by living and working in the Amazon, comes to understand and thrive within his new environment. Furthermore, he unlocks the potential value of the region through his hunting and trading activities. Antonio, thus, is part of a movement of people who solidify Ecuador’s claim to the contentious Amazonian territories (at the time, under dispute with Peru) and help incorporate the region and its resources into the national economy. If this peasant from the sierras can move to the jungle and become an expert, the logic would follow, anyone else could do the same. Bring on the colonists!

However, Sepúlveda is not in fact arguing for increased colonization, but rather for the defense of the Amazon and its people against powerful forces from outside. Part of his case stems from the idea that indigenous Amazonian people serve as guardians of knowledge and are the only conduit through which critical survival skills can be passed to outsiders. In the novel, in contrast to Cumandá, knowledge is not something that can merely be learned through experience. Rather, it belongs to the indigenous people, and must be acquired first through them. When the colonists are alone in the jungle, struggling to build their homes and sow their seeds, they are nearly wiped out by sickness, animal attacks, and the inadvertent consumption of poisonous plants. The Shuar are their saviors:

De ellos aprendieron a cazar, a pescar, a levantar chozas estables y resistentes a los vendavales, a reconocer los frutos comestibles y los venenosos, y, sobre todo, de ellos aprendieron el arte de convivir con la selva (41).

Hunting, fishing, creating weatherproof shelters, avoiding being poisoned—these are survival skills. Mera’s Carlos learns to navigate the river, but the author makes no mention of food; presumably the young man gets his food from indigenous hunters or farmers in his settlement. Carlos’s familiarity with the river and skill with a canoe brings him pleasure and helps him gain a sense of belonging, but Mera does not emphasize the importance of environmental knowledge for survival in ordinary life. Sepúlveda, in contrast, suggests that the colonists owe their lives to the training provided by the Shuar. Sepúlveda’s Amazon has a steep learning curve, and a novice can either receive help or perish.

In Un viejo que leía novelas de amor, environmental knowledge is not just a matter of personal relationships between an individual and his or her environment. Knowledge must also be transmitted person to person—in other words, ecological expertise is cultural. And indeed, Sepulveda describes his protagonist’s growing familiarity with the Amazon as much in terms of what he learns about the Shuar as what he discovers about the plants and animals. Antonio undergoes a partial cultural shift:

Aprendió el idioma shuar participando con ellos de las cacerías… Con ellos abandonó sus pudores de campesino católico. Andaba semidesnudo y evitaba el contacto con los nuevos colonos que lo miraban como a un demente (42).

His physical actions (hunting, fishing, walking in the woods) are important, but equally crucial are the relationships these actions allow him to establish with the Shuar. The colonist learns a new language, abandons his outsider fears (culturally linked, as the social term “campesino católico” suggests), and changes his mode of dress. So dramatically does he change his customs that other colonists think he has lost his mind. But by “acting native,” Antonio is able to deepen his relationship with his environment, aided by his Shuar companions. He walks more quietly, hunts more effectively, and puts up fewer barriers between himself and the nonhuman world, listening and watching more closely and wearing less clothing.

Even more challenging for the outsider seeking to know the Amazon solely through their own efforts, the old man’s acquisition of ecological knowledge depends not just on the goodwill of the Shuar, but also on chance. One day, his carelessness with his machete leads to a near-death experience with a poisonous snake. He survives and is rescued by the Shuar, who treat his run-in with the snake as a kind of initiation right to the tribe, “determinada nada más que por el capricho de dioses juguetones” (46). Outside of the Shuar system of understanding and interpreting the natural world, Antonio’s serpent encounter is senseless and random. However, the Shuar use communal celebration and ritual to make the experience intelligible. The tribe presents Antonio with an array of gifts and invite him to drink ayahuasca, a potent hallucinogen, with them. This is his first introduction to the spiritual world of the Shuar, a whole other dimension of ecological knowledge:

…en el sueño alucinado se vio a si mismo como parte innegable de esos lugares en perpetuo cambio, como un pelo más de aquel infinito cuerpo verde, pensando y sintiendo como un shuar, y se descubrió de pronto…siguiendo huellas de un animal inexplicable (46).

By tapping into the supernatural life of the jungle’s indigenous inhabitants, he feels truly part of its “green body,” thinks and feels like an indigenous person, and promptly has a vision of his future. He does not recognize it as such at the time, but this supernatural experience leaves him with the feeling that he has more to learn and only the Shuar can teach him. Unlike Mera, whose Christian, conservative bent keeps him from taking native spirituality seriously, Sepúlveda presents Shuar cultural and religion as containing important insights about life in and with the jungle.

These insights, however, may ultimately be inaccessible to outsiders. Even while living among the Shuar, Sepúlveda stresses, Antonio is not one of them: “ Sabía tanto de la selva como un shuar. Era tan buen rastreador como un shuar. Nadaba tan bien como un shuar. En definitiva, era como uno de ellos, pero no era uno de ellos” (49)[3]. With help from the native population, an outsider can gain the technical skills and understanding needed to survive in the Amazon. However, barriers remain; the Shuar way of life is a complex web of beliefs, traditions, and knowledge that non-natives may never grasp in its entirety. Antonio learns this the hard way when he violates the customs surrounding a close friend’s death and inadvertently condemns the man to an eternity of dishonor and suffering. Learning to hunt and participating in rituals is not enough; the colonist has not grown up in the Shuar conceptual world, and therefore he makes a mistake. Because of his transgression, the Shuar sadly tell him he is no longer welcome to stay with them. In his cultural ignorance, he has jeopardized the spiritual life of another person, and therefore he can have no more access to Shuar culture.

The notion that indigenous people possess knowledge that cannot easily be translated or transmitted is a common theme in environmentalist and indigenous rights discourse. It is hardly surprising, then, that Sepúlveda [brings out] this theme in his explicitly environmentalist and pro-indigenous novel. Furthermore, the author repeatedly plants the threat that this knowledge is disappearing—the Shuar, as well as the animals that sustain them and populate their rich cosmology, are retreating “selva adentro, en un éxodo imprescindible hacia el oriente” (58). As these people and their world disappear, so does their knowledge, Sepúlveda suggests. But it is not enough to send in colonists or researchers with tape recorders and cameras—even a man who lives with the Shuar for years cannot grasp key issues in their culture. Un viejo que leía novelas de amor thus makes the powerful claim that environmental knowledge is cultural. It cannot be simply extracted from indigenous people; it cannot be exported; it cannot be packaged and sold for the market.

The novel is not entirely pessimistic, however. While the old man is exiled from his home among the Shuar, Sepúlveda does open up spaces of possibility in which ethnic, species, and spiritual borders can be crossed, with productive results. The old man gives his nights over to his beloved romance novels, which carry him away from the confines of his own world to far-off places like Venice. But nights are also when he enters the realm of memory. All of the wisdom he learned from his Shuar friends is now preserved in his recollections, whether in the form of sayings or in full memories. Sepúlveda narrates these flashbacks in the present tense, creating scenes that feel not completed and irrelevant, but rather in progress, both accessible to the old man and continuing to exert an influence on his life and actions.

The most significant night experience occurs near the end of the novel, when the old man is sleeping under the canoe where he has taken shelter from the man-killing tiger he is hunting. In the transliminal space of his dream, Sepulveda arrives once more to the scene of his ayahuasca vision, but this time accompanied by a shaman. The shaman finally explains the prowling animal—it is his own death, hunting him, and Antonio must hunt it instead in order to survive. The old man wakes to the realization that the tiger is on top of his canoe, waiting to attack, and thanks to the dream’s warning he is able to best the beast. Night, thus, is a time when ethnic, temporal, and spiritual barriers break down, allowing even a non-native to access new realms of knowledge of the nonhuman world and its inhabitants. Listening to the jungle sounds one night, el viejo recalls a Shuar saying: “De día, es el hombre y la selva. De noche, el hombre es selva” (101)[4]. In contrast to the ideal of a romantic individual contemplating a natural world he intends to rise above, as per Mera, Sepúlveda proposes a radical collapse of selfhood into a collective being/nature.

In Un viejo que leía novelas de amor, environmental knowledge is not just about a set of useful skills. Rather, it’s about knowing and understanding a complex ecological, cultural, and spiritual web of meanings and localized history. This knowledge may be attainable by outsiders, but learning will be hard work, and very little time remains before the nonhuman world of the Amazon, along with its indigenous gatekeepers, vanish. For Sepúlveda, indigenous environmental knowledge figures into an etic depiction of the Amazon as mysterious, precious, and under threat—and therefore in need of help from his international audience.

V. Knowing Where the Animals Are: Practical Knowledge in the Age of Tourism

In my interviews with locals in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I heard a variety of perspectives on the question of how one can acquire knowledge and understanding of the non-human environment. Of the five consultants that discussed this subject, four were Kichwa and one was from a colonist family, though he was born and raised in Amazonian Ecuador. The consultant from a colonist family drew a distinction between locals and foreigners, and he claimed that the only way to really know anything about the jungle was actually go into the forest and live there. All of my Kichwa consultants also mentioned the importance of spending time in the jungle or river. However, they did not place as much emphasis on locals versus foreigners. Instead, they focused on what I will call the “supernatural” aspects of environmental knowledge acquisition, such as the establishment of relationships with forest and river spirits.

The aforementioned non-Kichwa consultant, an elderly gentleman who went by the name Don Manuel[5], had worked as a jungle guide for many years and at the time of the interview served as the caretaker for a lodge near Pañacocha National Park. Don Manuel was skeptical about much of the bureaucracy surrounding guides and tourism, suggesting that it favored foreign operators who looked good on paper but who didn’t actually know anything about the jungle. He was similarly critical of foreign authors who didn’t get their hands dirty. Said Don Manuel:

Ahora yo, yo no tengo el carnet de guía. ¿Por qué sentido? Porque viene un extranjero, a conversar por ejemplo a respeto de la selva… no se mete en la selva, a ver los animales. Él anda preguntando, allí escribe sus libros. En cambio, nosotros nos metemos en la selva, vivimos en la selva, y sabemos dónde están los otros [animales] personalmente. En cambio, los escritores… no, ellos no (Barnard 2014).

Here, somewhat ironically given his feelings about writers, Don Manuel’s beliefs about environmental knowledge are fairly similar to those of both Mera and Sepúlveda. The jungle is complex and difficult to know. Only by spending time in the forest, living there, and observing where the animals are, can one actually claim any knowledge of the jungle.

As evidence of his own knowledge, Don Manuel described all the spots where he would take tourists, the places where he would find ocelots, peccaries, snakes, and other animals:

[U]no ya sabe las madrigueras donde puede estar el animal. Uno, cuando es guía, dice vamos, llevar turistas por aquí, por aquí, por aquí, ve allá, ya está cerca, allá está el tapir, o si no se pone a remedar, a llamarle al jaguar, o la anaconda. Entonces este es el arte profesional de los guías. Cuando uno sabe de la selva (Barnard 2014).

As a guide, knowledge of the jungle has long been crucial to Don Manuel’s livelihood. As he says, his familiarity with the land and ability to predict where animals will be is part of the art of his profession. His environmental knowledge is necessary to create a particular picture of the Amazon for tourists, one teeming with exotic creatures. He defines the authenticity of the Amazonian experience he creates for tourists in opposition to those of foreign guides. Like Mera and Sepúlveda, his narrative relies on the ability of colonists to come to know the nonhuman environment via lived experience in it. However, in the context of international capitalist tourism, knowing the jungle becomes less about surviving nonhuman threats than surviving economically by helping tourists access a particular, preconceived image of the Amazon. Frank Hutchins discusses this phenomenon in his article on ethnotourism in the Upper Amazon, arguing that tourists purchase a “commodified experience” that more closely reflects Western imaginings of the Amazon than local people’s lives and experiences (Hutchins 91). Environmental knowledge, in this context, is a marketable good.

In some ways, the role of environmental knowledge in Don Manuel’s narrative is most akin to its place in Carvajal’s Discovery. In both texts, knowledge is being presented to an external audience that does not need to acquire it for themselves—either because they will never visit the Amazon, in the case of Carvajal’s European readership, or because they are only temporary visitors who can depend on their guide to mediate their relationship to the natural world. Both Carvajal and Don Manuel are therefore particularly oriented toward creating and reinforcing particular images of an exotic, rich Amazon, though Carvajal focuses on material resources and Don Manuel on biodiversity. For Don Manuel, environmental knowledge is a key aspect of both his identity and his livelihood, and it takes on new meaning in his interactions with international tourists and the jungle experiences they imagine.

VI. Spirit Guides as Gatekeepers to Environmental Knowledge 

For my other consultants, ecological expertise was equally important for their livelihoods. However, that expertise was mediated through supernatural encounters and experiences. Kichwa people believe that forest animals are controlled and managed by what Eduardo Kohn translates as “spirit” or “forest masters” (Kohn 121). If a hunter wins a forest master’s favor, the master will send game to him, as if the hunter were attracting the animals to himself. Often, these human-spirit bonds are established through a sexual relationship with the forest master’s daughter, the sacha warmi (forest woman). These romantic encounters typically take place when the hunters have taken hallucenogens to gain access to the spirit world (Kohn 144). The narratives relayed by my Kichwa consultants corroborated this model of environmental learning through amorous relationships with spirits. I will cite a translated version of one story in its entirety, to provide a point of reference, and then for the remainder of the accounts I will resume my previous method of citation in Spanish.

In my interviews with Kichwa consultants about hunting, fishing, and time spent in the jungle and river, some of the most common motifs involved spirits; tokens and other material carriers of power; and dreams used to make sense of the supernatural. The following story is from Luis, a 27 year old male living in a Kichwa community on the Napo River. Luis works in town, but he likes hunting and fishing and has spent a lot of time in the jungle since he was a boy. This story was told to me one night in the shed/gathering space adjacent to his family home.

I was still a kid when the river woman (yaku warmi) started messing with me. When I went fishing, she would throw rocks at me. I would catch a lot of fish, a ton! I would come back to the house, and people would ask me, “Who gave you those fish? Something’s happening. A yaku warmi is after you.” “What do you mean?” I’d say. “It’s nothing! I fished. I’m good at fishing.” And one day, I went fishing and something happened, and to this day I don’t know what it was, exactly.

I was fishing in a little gully, and I went far upriver, some three or four kilometers. And the further up I went, the more fish I caught. So I kept going up. She was leading me. I was a kid, fourteen years old, I wasn’t thinking about that stuff. That’s old people talk. So I kept walking, and walking, and fishing even more. And suddenly, I was standing in a little lake, fishing, and from behind me, pah! Someone threw a rock at me. I was standing there, in the shallows, and the rock fell right at my feet. It was like something was attracting me, as if it were telling me, “Come here.” And I thought, “Okay, I’ll check it out! Kind of weird, that rock.” So I picked it up, and I opened my hand. “What am I looking at?” I asked myself. “What is this?” Someone had thrown it at me, I realized, and by now I was scared.

I stood there, looking at the rock, about the size of my palm. Smooth, and inside there was a kind of pyramid, and inside the pyramid there was a little circle that looked like it was full of water. And inside the circle, there was the image of a little white horse with a girl sitting on it. Just like a photo. “How strange,” I thought, really freaked out now. And I kept fishing, fishing, but now I wasn’t catching anything. I said to myself, “No, maybe I’d better leave.” I was scared. I grabbed the rock so that I could take it to my parents, to find out what it was. I screwed up; I didn’t know that a woman wanted to give me power. The being in that place was a girl, a girl who was messing with me.

Anyway, I grabbed the rock, I threw away my fishing rod, and then I was running, rushing to get away. Suddenly, I saw a man in front of me, walking toward me. In your community, you know just about everyone. They’re your neighbors, your cousins… No strangers or outsiders ever came to those parts. But here was a man I’d never seen before. There was something different about him, like he came from somewhere else. He wasn’t wearing rubber boots; he was wearing fancy boots like a horseback rider. He was well-dressed, with a big belt, a hat. “What a strange man,” I said to myself. “I think he’s lost.”

Bah! The man stopped me before I could walk by. “Good evening,” I said to him. He didn’t return the greeting; all he said was, “You found something.” “Me? I didn’t find anything,” I replied. “No, you found something. That belongs to me,” he insisted. I had put the stone in my pocket, and I felt it there. “I don’t have it,” I told him. “No, you found something,” he repeated. “That rock belongs to me.” I kept saying no, that I didn’t have it. I put my hand in my pocket. “Look for it, if you want!” I said. And he came over, and stuck his hand in my left pocket. Nothing. Then he stuck his hand in my right pocket. Nothing. And just before he put his hand in, I sensed that there would be nothing there, that the stone had vanished.

“Where is it? You have it, you must have it!” said the man. “No, I don’t have it!” I told him, and I stuck my hand in my pocket myself. Nothing. I was going to give it to him by that point; what did I know? But the rock had disappeared. I got scared. “I didn’t find anything,” I told the man again, but he kept insisting. “You did find it, and you have to give it to me!” “Fine,” I relented, “but I found it over there—” and I turned to point in the direction I’d come from. Pah! I turned back, and the man had disappeared. I was the only one who saw him.

I think I made it back to my house in five minutes flat, I was that scared. I ran, I jumped right over the river, without seeing anyone. I arrived at my house, and my sisters started laughing. “What happened to you? Did you see a ghost or something?” And I just stood there, not saying anything, terrified. A ghost. I didn’t say anything to them, but later I told my mother what I had seen. Nothing happened to me, though. I didn’t get sick, I didn’t feel dizzy, nothing. I was relieved; I thought I must have just been crazy.

That night, though, I had nightmares. A girl came up to me, wearing a dress, blonde hair, light skin. And she approached me, not walking but flying. I was sitting in the same place where I found the rock. It was real, this dream. I thought, “But I was asleep in my room, how am I here?” And she kept coming toward me. I wanted to move, to get away, but I couldn’t, and she kept getting closer and closer. Fifteen meters, ten meters, eight meters, five, and then there she was, right in front of me.

“You are chosen,” she said. “You need to do something for me. I was going to give you everything I have, all my powers.” I just needed to protect that rock when the man wanted to take it away from me. That man was a ghost, a spirit disguised as a person. So to protect the rock, the woman made it disappear. She took it away herself. “I have the rock now,” she told me. “But maybe some other time, if you return, I’ll give you the rock. But this time I won’t throw it. I’ll give it to you like this, face to face.” That’s what she told me in the dream.

It scared me. I couldn’t sleep; the same dream kept coming back to me. I was so frightened that I was lying right between my parents, and still I couldn’t sleep. She was the yaku warmi, the woman who wanted me. And the man I saw was a ghost, a spirit. He wanted the rock for himself. But to keep the bad guy from getting it, she carried it off herself. She has it, and at some point she’ll give it to me again.

I haven’t gone back alone, though. I went with my dad, and lots of other people, and told them the story. It turns out that 50 or 100 meters from that spot, there’s a cavern between two mountains. She lived there. That’s where she was from. So I didn’t know, I just kept fishing, excited, wanting to fish more, and then all of that happened to me.

Like Discovery of the Amazon, Cumandá, and Un viejo que leía novelas de amor, Luis’s story is concerned with the acquisition of environmental knowledge. As in Cumandá and Un viejo, this knowledge is practical: Luis has the opportunity to learn how to fish exceptionally well. Unlike in the abovementioned works, however, this knowledge has an explicit gatekeeper, a female water spirit at whose whim a human man can gain knowledge and skill in the water. The potential for learning emerges out of the relationship Luis unknowingly begins to establish with the woman. As a young teenager, he spends a lot of time fishing, and while he is on the river he catches the eye of a yaku warmi. She begins to throw rocks at him and gift him with unusually large catches, though he doesn’t realize at the time that anything unusual is going on. The favor of the yaku warmi brings Luis extraordinary skill in the river. This is not skill based on knowledge in the traditional sense, since as he narrates Luis professes again and again how little he knew then and how he didn’t understand what was happening. Rather, Luis serves as a kind of conduit for the yaku warmi’s wisdom and power—he is a “good fisherman” because she sends him fish.

Luis’s story presents a model of ecological expertise in which the hunter or fisherman’s skill comes not from his intellect and individually developed abilities, but from the grace of powerful supernatural beings. This begs the question of whether “knowledge” is even the right term to describe this mode of understanding and interacting with one’s environment. When you have established a relationship with a spirit guide, they help you by sending you game and fish. But are you actually learning things? While skills gained through relationships with yaku warmi and sacha warmi (female forest spirits) may not match the traditional western concept of knowledge, my Kichwa consultants nonetheless tended to classify these spirit encounters as learning experiences and sites of knowledge transfer.

While Luis did not actually enter into a relationship with the yaku warmi, he says he has had many experiences since with forest spirits. When a man establishes a relationship with a spirit woman, she gives him both power and wisdom:

[T]e da un poder especial…[En el sueño] dice que si tu quieres venir aca, puedes venir solo, y te dice todo… Asi es cuando tú ya te adaptas, asi…. Y despues del tiempo ya te quedas como shaman. Te da esa sabiduria (Barnard 2014).[6]

There is a kind of continuum, then, that connects the knowledge of a hunter to the knowledge of a shaman, and both sets of abilities are facilitated by spirit guides. A person must adapt themselves to the particular land and climate, spend time there, hunt or fish, and then hope to attract the attention of a forest or river spirit. Only with the aid of such a supernatural helper can one navigate the entirety of the Amazonian landscape, including its supernatural dimensions. The yachaj, or shaman, can access the “true” spirit realm with relative ease. Thus, he or she maintains relations with a whole host of spirit masters and lovers, and draws his or her strength from those relationships (Kohn 99).

Luis’s brother-in-law, a young man named Samuel, used similar language when he referenced some of Luis’s stories of recent supernatural encounters:

[M]e dice que… alguien le está siguiendo, detrás…Entonces eso es una energía. Una sabiduría que la selva, la montaña esta queriendo enseñarle a él, para que sea como yachaj…O sea, nosotros decimos como aquí, una mujer para él…Sacha warmi… Entonces eso significa que la naturaleza, o la selva, o la energía, quiere enseñarte, que tú seas yachaj (Barnard 2014).[7]

Knowledge and learning, once again, are the concepts Samuel uses to frame his brother-in-law’s budding relationship with the sacha warmi. This knowledge, however, operates in a distinct way. Carvajal’s knowledge was firsthand, the I as eye, and through the reports of guides; Mera emphasized experiential knowledge; and Sepúlveda added an element of cultural understanding. Luis and Samuel’s stories add yet another layer of complexity (and perhaps inaccessibility) to the puzzle of knowing the Amazon: knowledge is interpersonal and mediated by superhuman forces. By interpersonal, I mean that environmental knowledge emerges out of personal relationships between human beings and more powerful nonhuman beings, and it does not exist outside the context of this relationship.

Knowing, living, and thriving in the jungle and river are predicated on bonds established with specific supernatural beings, gatekeepers to the animals upon which Amazonian people depend. The nature of this mode of environmental knowledge, however, suggests that it cannot be transferred from human to human. It cannot be written down or recorded; you can describe, as Luis and Samuel do, how one would go about befriending a yaku warmi, but you cannot verbally transmit the ability to attract extraordinary numbers of fish or game animals. Luis and Samuel call this ability “sabiduria” and say that it is learned, but it is a type of knowledge that is incomprehensible outside of the framework of Kichwa culture and religious beliefs.

Indeed, Luis explained that one of the characteristics of such knowledge and spirit encounters is that one should not discuss them. “Si ves esto [un espiritu],” he told me, “no tienes que contar a nadie. Porque si tú cuentas, desaparece. Pierdes eso.”[8] True environmental knowledge, then, is deeply personalized and impossible for humans to transmit or teach. Knowledge cannot be possessed, but rather is a constantly renewed and negotiated gift from a very temperamental spirit ally.

One of the takeaways from Luis’s yaku warmi story is the fragility and uncertainty of these spirit relationships. If you don’t know how it’s supposed to work, you are likely to make a mistake and ruin your chances. Luis repeatedly emphasizes his ignorance at the time the events took place. His lack of knowledge in fact serves as a narrative device that moves the plot along—he keeps fishing, keeps moving upriver, and tries to give the rock to the evil spirit, all because he doesn’t know better. Ignorance is also a key narrative device in Cumandá and Un viejo que leía novelas de amor. In Cumandá, tragedy occurs because the characters fail to correctly identify each other and lose their ability to navigate the environment. In Un viejo, it is the ignorance of various gringos and greedy visitors, as well as the old man’s own ignorance of Shuar culture, that set the plot in motion. Only in Luis’s story, though, is the primary consequence of ignorance the inability to gain knowledge, the way that Luis loses the opportunity to learn from the yaku warmi because of his bungled management of the encounter with the evil spirit.

Despite the centrality of ignorance in Luis’s story, Luis uses various narrative techniques to maintain his own credibility while emphasizing his lack of knowledge in the past. In the two novels, the reader is given little information that the characters themselves do not also possess, but Luis constantly contrasts his younger self’s false perceptions and mistakes with the reality of the situation. He launches the story by explaining that he had an encounter with a yaku warmi, even though in the story he does not identify the experience as such until after the fact. This openness and narrative quasi-omniscience serves an important function in the story. Through it, Luis separates his past self from his narrative self, contrasting his earlier ignorance with his current knowledge and familiarity with the ways of the forest, river, and spirits. This allows him to maintain his authority as storyteller and explainer of Kichwa culture while telling a story about ignorance.

In Luis’s story, ignorance leads to more ignorance: by failing to recognize and respond correctly to the yaku warmi and the evil spirit, Luis forfeits access to the knowledge and skill the river woman would have offered him. While none of my Kichwa consultants made any mention of ethnic or racial barriers to environmental knowledge, Luis’s story does not seem promising for the outsider hoping to know the Amazon. Not only must a person spend time in a particular forest or body of water, hunt there, fish there, and walk there; they must also depend on the whim of a spirit; and if they are lucky enough to have a spirit encounter, they must then interpret it and respond correctly. This interpretation process, moreover, likely cannot happen in isolation. To understand what happened to him that night while he was fishing, Luis must ask his parents about what he saw, remember and mull over years of his family’s teachings about yaku warmi and other spirits, and then trust and interpret the nightmares he has after the encounter.

Sometimes dreams sent by spirits are more enigmatic and the interpretation requires even more outside help. Take, for instance, a dream that Samuel had while he was living in the United States:

Soñé un día nadando en una cascada que tengo que llegar, y había mucho, mucho maíz, en el piso…Y yo estaba bañando. Y pregunté a mi papi “Eh, ¿qué es eso? Estaba bañando en una cascada, y había mucho maíz.” “No,” me dijo, “No digas a nadie eso, porque tú tienes mucha energía. Si tú dices eso a un shamán, el shamán te puede quitar esa energía.” Eso es lo que me dijo, tener el sueño, el maíz es oro, y tú estabas bañando en una laguna de oro (Barnard 2014). [9]

Samuel’s story also highlights the tenuousness of relationships with the spirit world—if he had told the story to someone other than his father, that person might have tried to sabotage his connection to the waterfall and steal the energy he was receiving. Interpretation, therefore, is crucial, and it would be difficult to imagine an outsider equipped with the necessary resources to interpret and correctly respond to every challenge of the spirit world, as well as the threats posed by other humans.

VII. Negotiating Passage: Shamans as Mediators between Outsiders and Spirits

It is important to remember that even within the Kichwa cultural universe, not having complete knowledge of the jungle does not mean you cannot live and even prosper there. Shamans, whose knowledge of the spirit world is strongest, have long served as bridges between weaker/less spiritual people and the powerful beings that threaten them. Raul, an older Kichwa man, told me the following story about going to a new part of the jungle with his wife and her father, a powerful shaman:

Yo me fui—una vez, por acá, por la cabecera del Rio Napo, Virdiyaku estaba. Yo, como primera vez que estaba yéndome a este [lugar]… empezó a hacer un viento, después un agua … Hasta los palos que cayeron encima, puta, yo asustado, se va a caer. Mi suegro dice, “No,” a mi decía, “Masha,” o sea es cuñado, masha. Dice, “Cálmate, lo que pasa es usted por primera vez viene asi, entonces ya vamos a andar, tranquilizarte.” Cogió, y se dice, ay, yay, yay, ay, ay, eee [chanting/singing] Yaa, saque. Sssuu! Oy, “Saque, kayga churi,” dice que, “Churi, ayllumi…Tukusha.” Cálmate, cálmate. El viento, entonces, shhhh” (Barnard 2014).

Here, Raul demonstrates the importance of establishing personal relationships with the places you visit. As newcomers, he and his family face life-threatening dangers from the storm that arises when they arrive. However, his father-in-law is able to use his already established relationship with the spirits to calm the winds. “Kayga churi,” he tells them. This is a son. “Ayllumi”—He is family. Stop, calm down. To the spirits, now Raul and his family are no longer newcomers: they are family to the shaman, who is family to the spirits of this place.

Environmental expertise may not be transferrable, but strong shamans can use their established spiritual relationships to remove supernatural barriers for outsiders. They may never be mighty hunters, but outsiders can at least survive in the jungle. Hutchins cites examples of shamans drinking ayahuasca and negotiating safe passage for tourists to caves and lakes inhabited by dangerous spirits (Hutchins 90). Carlos described to me how animals like jaguars had become “civilized,” and he related a story about a shaman defeating an anaconda that had been killing locals and newcomers alike.

The tourism industry demands a type of performed and pre-envisioned knowledge from guides, including the location of exotic animals, the scientific names for plants, and a specific set of cultural beliefs compatible with tourists’ visions of “indigenous Amazonia” (Hutchins 93). Traditional hunting and fishing practices, in contrast, require knowledge and environmental learning that is relational, supernatural, and non-transferable. Despite these differences, stories of shamans using their spiritual knowledge to serve as intermediaries between newcomers and angry spirits can be read as a counter-narrative to both the post-racial, individualized human-environment relationships idealized in Cumandá, and the mournful vision of vanishing knowledge and relations in Un viejo. Kichwa people are finding ways to reconcile two very different understandings of the ways one can and should know the nonhuman world, and they are assuming positions of power and agency in controlling the way those differing systems of knowledge and representation interact. Kichwa communities decide if tourists can access sacred sites or enter protected territory; Kichwa shamans negotiate entrance for people who otherwise could not penetrate. Much as literature like the three novels discussed attempt to prematurely eulogize the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon, they are still deeply engaged in the representation of the region, not only as passive recipients of outside messages and images, but also as creators in their own right.

VIII. Conclusion: Politics and Ethics of Representation

This paper has analyzed the theme of environmental knowledge as an entry point for understanding the ways different people have conceptualized the Ecuadorian Amazon throughout history. Though in no way comprehensive, by bringing together the stories of a 16th century European explorer and friar, a 19th century conservative Ecuadorian scholar, a late 20th century Chilean leftist, and a group of contemporary Kichwa and colonist residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon, this paper has attempted to show some of the vast spectrum of ways that the region has been imagined, understood, and used in narratives. While there are many points of comparison, some have proved especially fruitful: the question of how and when knowledge can be transmitted, for example, and what that implies for belonging or not belonging in the Amazon. Beyond that, I have largely engaged in a kind of thought experiment, observing what kinds of insights and connections emerge by placing these oral and written texts in conversation with each other. From a literary perspective, all sorts of issues have been raised, tropes identified, and narrative devices examined. But it remains to be seen whether or not I have succeeded in my initial purpose: by addressing the many ways of thinking about the Amazon, making sure that my own portrayal of the region is just.

It is tempting to use the inclusion of indigenous voices as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, checking off boxes for “inclusivity” and “cultural sensitivity.” It is important, therefore, to also problematize the type of indigenous source this paper works with, and the ways they are presented. Anne Goldman turns a critical eye to the way scholars and writers have edited and presented the “autobiographies” of working class women. She notes that often, while authors pay lip-service to the idea that their subject co-wrote the book, the concerns and perspectives of the particular subject are subsumed into a “greater” portrayal of the women’s social class or occupational category as a whole. Says Goldman,

[E]ditorial interest in constructing an “authentic” speaking voice works here not to enable a particular storyteller to discuss her views on what is important to her—family conflicts? political opinions? reflections on personal achievements, however defined?—but, rather, to authenticate a given statement as telling the historical “truth” about—again—a type of work (Goldman 67).

There is a danger, with the kind of fieldwork that I have conducted, of essentializing Kichwa or colonist culture, or taking the narratives and style of a few individual consultants and treating them as representative of “Amazonian indigeneity” as a whole. By pulling in a only a few quotations and anecdotes from interviews that I myself conducted, transcribed, and translated, my editorial hand is all over the oral texts used in this paper. To account for this problem, and to address Goldman’s concerns, I have sought to strike a balance between understanding my consultants as unique individuals with their own narrative and performative goals and styles, and looking at the larger cultures and forces by which their stories are shaped and in which they play a part.

Implicit in this project is a desire to challenge the hegemony of certain types of thought that tend to go unnoticed: specifically, the image of the Amazon. Postcolonial scholar and politician Catherine Walsh frames the issue nicely:

[T]he problem is in the ways that critical thought in Latin America tends to reproduce the meta-narratives of the West while discounting or overlooking the critical thinking produced by indigenous, Afro, and mestizos whose thinking finds its roots in other logics, concerns, and realities that depart not from modernity alone but also from the long horizon of coloniality (Walsh 2007).

As Slater has noted, in the twenty-first century the Amazon has been depicted as everything from the “lungs of the world,” to a treasure trove of biodiversity, to the last stronghold of “true” indigenous people, to a frightening “Green Hell” (Slater 8). These representations have emerged out of very particular histories and literary traditions, and therefore it is worth beginning to trace out some of those histories in order to understand these images, identify their inconsistencies or shortcomings, and place them on a level playing field with other, traditionally marginalized voices and perspectives.

In the main square of historic Quito, a plaque on the National Cathedral reminds visitors that the Orellana expedition set off from Ecuador’s Andean capital: “Es gloria de Quito el descubrimiento del Rio Amazonas,” the plaque proclaims[10]. Outside the presidential palace, a PR campaign is being waged against environmentalists who wish to end oil drilling in protected areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon. “¡Yasuni vive!”[11] the signs announce, the text floating above colorful pictures of men in traditional indigenous garb and women holding children with painted faces. In Tena, murals throughout town also speak to the many, sometimes conflicting, ways that the Amazon is represented and understood. One sign features a drawing of a Waorani man and the words, “Salvaje no quien protégé la naturaleza, salvaje quien la destruye.”[12] Another is a government-sponsored depiction of industrious workers harvesting crops: “Juntos construimos el Oriente que queremos,” it declares[13]. Governments, ethnic groups, industries, nonprofits, special interest groups—all are putting forth different visions of the Ecuadorian Amazon to serve their varying purposes, and seeking to legitimize those visions by claiming privileged knowledge about the region, its needs, and its potential. In short, the ways that people imagine the Amazon matter. I hope that this study can serve as a launching point for future work that brings a variety of voices into conversation and thus challenges dominant narratives of the Amazon and its inhabitants.

Works Cited

Barnard, Isabelle. Personal interview. 21 August 2014.

Personal interview. 25 Aug. 2014.

Personal interview. 27 Aug. 2014.

Personal interview. 31 Aug. 2014

Becker, M. “The Stormy Relations between Rafael Correa and Social Movements in Ecuador.” Latin American Perspectives 40.3 (2013): 43-62. Web.

Devries, Scott. “Swallowed: Political Ecology and Environmentalism in the Spanish American “Novela De La Selva”” Hispania 93.4 (2010): 535-46. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Goldman, Anne E. Take My Word: Autobiographical Innovations of Ethnic American Working Women. Berkeley: U of California, 1996. Print.

Hutchins, Frank. “Footprints in the Forest: Ecotourism and Altered Meanings in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon.” The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 12.1 (2007): 75-103. Web.

Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Medina, José Toribio, and Bertram T. Lee. The Discovery of the Amazon: According to the Account of Friar Gaspar De Carvajal and Other Documents. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Pub., 2014. Print.

Mera, Juan Leon. Cumandá, O Un Drama Entre Salvajes. Guayaquil: Casa Matriz, n.d. Print.

Padron, Ricardo. “Cumandá and the Cartographers: Nationalism and Form in Juan Leon Mera.” Annals of Scholarship 12.3-4 (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Reeve, Mary-Elizabeth, and Casey High. “Between Friends and Enemies:The Dynamics of Interethnic Relations in Amazonian Ecuador.” Ethnohistory 59.1 (2012): 141-62. Web.

Rubenstein, Steven L. “Shuar Migrants and Shrunken Heads Face to Face in a New York Museum.” Anthropology Today 20.3 (2004): 15-18. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/3695120?ref=no-x-route:2f4ff7bd25fab10816ae5a710b750b94&gt;.

Sepúlveda, Luis. Un viejo que leia novelas de amor. Barcelona: Tusquets, 1998. Print.

Skinner, Lee. “Identity, Engagement, and the Space of the River in Cumandá.” Hispanic Issues Online 12 (2013): n. pag. Web.

Sommer, Doris. Ficciones Fundacionales: Las Novelas Nacionales De América Latina. Bogotá: Ediciones Fondo De Cultura Económica, 2004. Print.

Valdivia, G. “The “Amazonian Trial of the Century”: Indigenous Identities, Transnational Networks, and Petroleum in Ecuador.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 32.1 (2007): 41-72. Web.

Vidal, Hernán. “”Cumandá”: Apologia Del Estado Teocratico.” Revista De Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 6.12 (1980): 199-212. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Walsh, Catherine. “Shifting The Geopolitics Of Critical Knowledge.” Cultural Studies 21.2 (2007): 224-39. Web.


[1] Cumandá, or a drama among savages (this and all subsequent translations my own)

[2] “Cumandá had absolute confidence in herself.”

[3] “He knew as much about the jungle as a shuar. He was as good a tracker as a shuar. He swam as well as a shuar. Definitely, he was like one of them, but he was not one of them.”

[4] “By day, it is the man and the jungle. At night, the man is jungle.”

[5] Names changed for privacy reasons, in accordance with anthropological convention.

[6] “She gives you a special power… In the dream she says that if you want to go there [to her], you can come alone, and she will tell you everything…This is when you’ve already adapted, like so…And after some time you become a shaman. She gives you that wisdom.”

[7] “He says that…someone is following him, behind him…So that is an energy. A wisdom that the jungle, the mountain wants to teach him, so that he will be like a yachaj…Or like, we say here, there’s a woman for him…Sacha warmi…So this means that nature, or the jungle, or the energy, wants to teach you, so that you’ll be a yachaj.”

[8] “If you see [a spirit], you can’t tell anyone. Because if you tell, it disappears. You lose it.”

[9] “I dreamed that one day I was swimming in a waterfall that I needed to go to, and there was a lot of corn, on the ground…And I was bathing. And I asked my dad, ‘Hey, what is this? I was swimming in a waterfall, and there was a lot of corn.’ ‘No,’ he said to me, ‘Don’t tell that to anyone, because you have a lot of energy. If you say that to a shaman, the shaman can take that energy from you.’ That’s what he told me, in having that dream, the corn is gold, and you were swimming in a lake of gold.”

[10] “It is the glory of Quito, the discovery of the Amazon River.”

[11] “Yasuni lives!”

[12] “It is not the one who protects nature who is the savage, the savage is the one who destroys it.”

[13] “Together we construct the East that we want.”