1972-2020: A TRIBUTE
Pascual was a Shiwiar leader, a father of 6, husband to a Shiwiar jeweller, and an exceptionally driven and passionate individual. He dedicated his life from a very young age to representing and supporting his people and communities in the rainforest.
He founded ONSHIPAE, later developing an NGO FUNSIFF and launching the Shiwiar Radio Tarimiat station, which is essential for staying in contact with isolated rainforest communities. He also created BUGYU Tours for sharing the rainforest experience with visitors, and he created a Rainforest Guide corporation called CORGUITURAE – Corporación de Guías de Turismo de la Amazonia Ecuatoriana. This is a professional development organisation for rainforest guides in Amazonian Ecuador.
I am deeply saddened that he is taken from us by the pandemic, and I want to pay tribute to his work and share something of how I was fortunate enough to meet him and work with him back in 2000.
You are invited to contribute to his family fund, dedicated in his honour and to support his legacy.
I met Pascual in Puyo, Pastaza in 1999. I had become involved in ecological work in Ecuador during my studies in Biology at University College London.
Genetics lecturer (now Professor) Jim Mallet, and his PhD student (also now Professor) Chris Jiggins had invited me to collect butterflies in Ecuador, for their studies of how species are formed; Chris then invited me to work in cloud forest as a botanist with the Sozoranga Forest Project.
After graduation, I heard through the networks that some people in the Amazon were looking for support in safeguarding their land and culture from invasive incursions and oil exploration. Driven by a desire to expand my knowledge and experience in Ecuador, I decided to respond.
I made a trip to Puyo, Pastaza in order to find out more about what was needed. There, I was introduced to Pascual and he quickly took me under his wing and offered a robust and inclusive approach to the work that he felt was needed. He was about the same age as me and had grown up in Shiwiar rainforest where missionaires had offered school-type education. Pascual had gone on to travel to the US to follow his studies, and then returned to Ecuador to pursue the protection and development of the Shiwiar land and people. When he met me he was keen as I was to make the most of this opportunity to bring a fruitful exchange into being.
In the UK I was able to raise about £24K with a small team from Quito and England, and we worked together as the Shiwiar Rainforest Initiative in 2000.
The team consisted of Hilary May (nee Kingston), Ben Smith, and Anna Portch from the UK; and Francisco Villamarín (now Dr., a lecturer at Universidad Regional Amazónica – Ikiam) from Quito. We raised funding from The Royal Geographical Society, Equafor, BP/Birdlife Conservation, The Oakdale Trust, The Conservation Foundation and private donors including the Rt Hon Simon Stuart, to whom we dedicated the Report. We also substantial support from family and friends, particulary in Kew, and associated with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew where my mother hosted a fundraising event.
We set out along with Pascual’s brother Juan acting as our rainforest guide and guardian. We recorded information about the culture and environment, and we offered sessions to Shiwiar groups on using the new US dollar currency, and about offering tourism and hosting foreigners like ourselves.
The Shiwiar people very generously hosted us and shared their culture and knowledge of the forest. We recorded this and shared the reports with Shiwiar, Ecuadorian and international stakeholders.
Here is a little about Pascual as recorded in the report:
“Alberto Tapuy elected Pascual Kunchikuy and Walter Jimpikit to go to college. He co-ordinated with the Mission and asked them to help finance their education. He successfully persuaded them to help but the Mission said they only needed primary education. Alberto, because of his knowledge of the outside world, knew this was not the case and he again persuaded the Mission to finance the second stage of their education.”
I could see in Pascual’s approach some of the evangelism that the Mission may have brought but he had chosen to apply this passion to supporting his culture and community.
What I learnt through Pascual and Juan and all the Shiwiar people we met and worked with, are things that I now feel are more widely understood – particularly the ways in which colonialism and capitalism are impacting places labelled ‘remote’, places bursting with biodiversity and rooted in some of the most continuous culture on earth – and yet I also see that the problems we all face are ever more entrenched.
This experience has profoundly shaped my understanding of the world ever since. I was also exhausted by overstretching myself and this prevented my continued working with the Shiwiar in the way I had hoped. I did return once in 2004 with two friends, and we met up with Pascual in Puyo. He joshed me that I had put on weight, and we all enjoyed a meal together and catching up on our work and lives. I had always thought that someday I would go at least once more to meet Pascual. I am so saddened that this won’t be possible now.
I came to understand that there was an approach to medicine that allowed for deep listening to the body, allowing it to speak to us through dreams, a skill that I had never encountered and realised that in many ways my own culture, though wealthy, is also impoverished.
The full reality of non-human species also struck me, as each tree is inhabited by a spirit – which is a person like you and I. Knowing the forest so well means being able to tell if people have lived in a place up to 300 years prior – from the mix and growth of species present.
The very extensive knowledge held by Shiwar people, of plants and animals, medicine and food, spirits and technical matters such as building houses, making blowguns, making curare, hunting, ceramics and more. Indeed Pascual’s wife Norma is herself a skilled jeweller using rainforest materials to make elaborate decorative pieces for adornment.
These are not remote regions as we often might imagine: Europeans, and later Americans, have been impacting the Amazon region significantly for hundreds of years. I understand why some of the Shiwar prefer to remain ‘wild’ as they were described to us – staying out of contact with Westerners. It’s really impossible to escape the impacts of Europeans and others – simply, some choose to retreat, while others seek to engage and endeavour to learn as well as protect what is rightfully theirs.
Oil exploration continues to be a threat to the forest and its people, but now this is added to by pressure for gold mining and timber felling. All driven by global economic growth that none of us can avoid.
I am not convinced that our seemingly growing understanding of how the world is connected, is having meaningful effects. Our economies and cultures continue apace, expanding and extracting. How can we navigate this often threatening and turbulent change? This is a question Pascual was dedicated to addressing, often very successfully. He was connecting the Shiwiar and the foreign tourists that come to enjoy the rainforest in ways that were constructive and enriching. He was seeking greater protection for indigenous people and the forests and land, and he was creating vehicles and processes for healthful development.
We are so deeply interconnected, and it’s so important that more of us start to not just know this intellectually and technically, but feel it and see it and let it be a tangible connection. There are many layers of hurt and harm and difference and ignorance and language and knowledge that seem to separate us, and we must work hard sometimes to peel these away and use our imaginations and trust to form the connection.
The reality is that my desire for chocolate, my joy in coffee, my attachment to this computer I am using to write this, and the internet that is powered by fuel, these connect me inevitably and painfully to the forest. My heart connection is another matter, and doesn’t necessarily follow. I was incredibly lucky and privileged to have the opportunity to travel to Shiwiar territory and very few people have that kind of chance. I had so much support from my family, and from the organisations and friends that put money into the project, including a significant amount (to us) from BP oil company funding. The irony of this is not lost on me – in fact it is a symptom of how hard it is to extract ourselves from the economic drivers that both disrupt and connect us.
The hospitality, generosity and kindness with which Pascual, Juan and all the other Shiwiar families we met was extraordinary and is deeply appreciated by myself and my companions.
We cannot disentangle ourselves, so let us work together to make things work better for each other. This is not about feeling guilty – or ashamed or anxious or even rightfully angry or hostile. While those are all valid, we need to concentrate our efforts on listening, learning, acknowledging what is not good, and on reaching out to share and repair and build new futures together. The gifts of the Shiwiar way of life and it’s people – indeed of all indigneous culture – must not be underestimated. And the connections between us, if we can recognise and respect them, could become wonderfully fruitful for us all.
I feel a great loss. Pascual’s family are obviously feeling this much more deeply and I hope you, dear reader, can make a small or large contribution to his family fund, according to your means. The situation for Shiwiar people remains precarious. Despite the many achievements Pascual accomplished, his death was unexpected and his wife has been unable to replace the lost income, she has been unwell and her work in jewellery making has lost it’s viability as tourism has stopped.
Thank you Pascual and may you be at peace wherever you now inhabit. Your spirit will always be in my heart and my deepest gratitude to you and all your people.