"Some people think that all Kichwas don't wear clothes or understand Spanish. Or that we sleep in hammocks and have small houses. And that we don't have light," 25-year-old Jaime Calapucha tells me. "They tell me they saw this online. Seriously? Who's giving out this information?"
Like most 25-year-olds, Calapucha has a Facebook and Instagram account, is updated on pop culture, and enjoys a drink and the occasional night out in the nearest city. The difference is that he has lived in the Amazon rainforest his entire life.
Calapucha is Kichwa (or Quichua), an indigenous group that spans parts of South America, including Ecuador. His town of Ahuano, with a population of roughly 4,000 people—most of them Kichwa—has been quickly modernizing in recent years. It's still a rainforest town; a great chunk of the population are subsistence farmers, which leaves its youth navigating the line that can often separate technology and indigenous culture.
When Calapucha was a kid, the streets of Ahuano were unpaved and people mostly got around by boat. There wasn't any electricity and for water, folks harvested rain. Now, largely because of tourism, the town is paved and there's fresh drinking water pipes. Cars are common, and the town has internet cafes, a couple dozen bars, nightclubs, and a new school. Nearly every family has a high-definition television set. Telephone providers came in the early 2000s and electricity, just under a decade ago.
Tourism has always been the main industry in Calapucha's lifetime, and one of the largest sources of income for the locals. Scattered around the area are a handful of eco-lodges catering to tourists from all around the world. Calapucha himself is a guide for tourists, and he uses his work to talk about the importance of protecting the Ahuano culture and forest—which is how I met him when I visited Gaia, an eco-lodge in the town.
Not all indigenous Amazonian towns are as connected as Ahuano, which is about a 40 minute car ride away from the nearest main city, Tena. Tribes like the Huaorani are located deeper into the forest, and remain virtually uncontacted and disconnected for the time being.
Internet access doesn't always translate to better quality of life, but it can sometimes bridge gaps in information. The biggest struggle of growing up in Ahuano was not the lack of conveniences or the slow introduction of them, Calapucha told me, but access to education. He can get on Facebook quickly, but has to travel to find a teacher. "I had to work to keep studying in school," he says. "I needed to go to the city to get more knowledge."
There were a few detours along the way, but Calapucha ultimately graduated and got his high school degree—a luxury that few in his family has. The majority of kids in Ahuano do not finish high school, and some nonprofits estimate that half of the indigenous people of Ecuador live under the poverty line. But the three internet cafes in town have helped them do research or learn languages without a teacher nearby.
But the internet can't teach anyone what Calapulcho says young people are missing: indigenous knowledge. Though most folks in Ahuano are now Catholic, a religion introduced over the past 500 years through Spanish missionaries, shamanism still plays a heavy role in the community. Most Kichwa communities have at least one shaman, who is called upon for sicknesses and aura cleansings. The shaman is dependent on the jungle for medicinal plants, like the infamous ayahuasca, which is taken very seriously and usually only for special cases.
The jungle has provided locals with most of what they need. In fact, the entire town of Ahuano is named after a tree (Swietenia macrophylla) that residents used to build their homes. They fish from nearby rivers and capture wild game like foxes, rodents like guatusa and capybara, and tapir —a large mammal with short black hair that is most reminiscent of a pig. Some families still mine gold.
But the locals won't be able to depend on the rainforest forever. In the last 40 years, close to 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cut down, and it will continue to force families to move away from subsistence farming. Climate change is also forcing people out of their rural lifestyle, since there is less rain to sustain their crops. And at the end of the day, neither the environment nor the internet will be able to protect the culture handed down over generations.
"You can have a modern house and you can have a computer. But you need to keep your culture," Calapucha said.
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