I imagine for most the list of people who truly inspire us is short. The list of those who surprise us tends to be longer. Those who we are in awe and in whom we trust, in the interest of self preservation is sensibly kept to a minimum.
In the making of Tribes Predators & Me, Anaconda People of the Amazon (shorter titles were not available) I spent time with three men (three strangers) each who inspired and surprised me. Men whom not only was I in complete awe of but I trusted, trusted them with my life. Not bad going, considering I’d only had a fortnight to get to know them and despite sharing their palm-thatched hut we didn’t share a common language.
Pente and Bai are bothers, Tepenye is Pente’s son and Bai’s nephew. They are Waorani Indians of the Yasuni region of the Ecuadorian Amazon. That’s a lot of foreign sounding names and places for any sentence. The type of sentence that would send a shudder all the way down and all the way back up the spine of Donald Trump. Despite their extraordinary practices and remarkable way of life these men are just like the rest of us. They have friends, families, dreams, desires, hopes and fears. Don’t worry Donald none of these men have a desire to enter America or really to even visit Quito, Ecuador’s capital. In fact none of them have much desire to leave their rainforest home. And it’s not surprising.
They’re strength of character and sense of self was apparent from the first handshake. In my time with Penti, Bai and Tepenye we gathered food together. I saw how with apparent fearlessness they hunted dangerous wild peccaries with spears, how with a 4 meter long blowpipe they skillfully puffed a poisoned tipped dart over a hundred feet through the air to find its target, a spider monkey at the top of a huge emergent tree. I was moved by the respect with which they treated a huge Anaconda over 17 feet long that we had just lifted from a murky jungle lagoon.
The forest and rivers around their village provides the basics needed for them and their families to survive, food, water and shelter. But essentially and importantly the Rainforest with all it’s plants and creatures allows the Waorani to thrive, providing another kind of sustenance. Spirituality or at least spiritual grounding is what makes the Waorani the Waorani. A culture and people whose bodies, minds and their souls are nourished by the Rainforest. And this from me, a nonbeliever!
In my time with them talk of spirituality was made easier when I saw how inextricably bound the Waorani are to the forest. The forest is their very own Garden of Eden in which they still live. In their beliefs the snake (or Anaconda to be exact) is not the corrupting villain of the piece but the first of their kind, their very own Adam and Eve. The real unimagined villain is the outside world. A fuel and mineral hungry world, a world desperate for the things that their forest holds but that the Waorani themselves have little need of.
An oil pipeline in the Ecuadorian Amazon (Credit: Victor St. John / Alamy Stock Photo)
Wonder and worry remains with me from that place and those people. An overwhelming sense of value of the forest and preciousness of the people who are so much part of that forest that it’s hard to disentangle them. I believe that in today’s world we can’t have one without the other. I hope that those people, men who walk the walk, talk the talk, who can’t contemplate a future without forest will also be able to fight the fight to become the ultimate saviours of the one of the worlds last great wild places.
An article by Gordon Buchanan.
You can view "Tribes, Predators and Me" here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03l23sv which was first aired on BBC 2 on 27 December 2016.
Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJXcu64oLHA
A huge thank you to Gordon and all the remarkable work that he continues to do.