According to a legend told in parts of South America, we are living at the end of the 10th pachacuti. Whenever a pachacuti-a 500-year cycle-shifts, the earth rumbles to remind people of their rightful place. It was predicted that the eagle people (the people of the mind from the north) would become highly evolved intellectually but spiritually bereft. The condor people (the people of the heart in the south) would be materially deprived but spiritually advanced. According to prophecy, at the end of the 10th pachacuti, the eagles and the condors will come together to bring the world back into balance.
The Achuar tribe lives in Ecuador's Amazonian rainforest, just north of the Peruvian border. Since the area has seen very few outsiders, save for a handful of missionaries, the tribe's traditions are intact, its culture is vibrant, and its members continue to sustain themselves in one of the few untouched stretches of rainforest left in the world.
Achuar elders had a series of visions in the early 1990s, however, that convinced them that their tribe's way of life was about to be endangered by outside forces. This threat would arrive in the form of oil drilling, which has devastated adjacent indigenous peoples.
The Achuar took the radical measure of issuing a call, communicated through dreams and visions, to potential partners in the modern world. They hoped to reach people who understood the value of an unmolested rainforest and who could help the Achuar develop a sustainable economic infrastructure that would both protect it and be true to the tribe's traditional structure and mores.
The Pachamama (an indigenous word meaning the earth, the sky, the universe, and all time) Alliance formed 10 years ago in answer to the call. Funded by members and private donors, the group aims to preserve the world's rainforests by empowering their natural custodians, contributing to the creation of a new global vision of equity and sustainability for all.
In late August, I traveled to the Achuar tribal territory with the alliance. As we were told at the outset, this was not a vacation, though there were many sybaritic moments; it was not adventure travel, though we certainly stretched. It was a pilgrimage.
On one particularly memorable day, we hiked for five hours in the jungle, through mud, across slippery logs, and up a stream in knee-high rubber boots. We had spent the previous day and night warmly welcomed in the village of Sharamentsa, and were on our way to Wayusentsa to meet with a shaman and participate in a sacred ceremony.
There was one man in our group of 20 who had severe back pain. A young Achuar man, seamlessly and gracefully, began to assist him on the difficult hike. I was moved by the Achuar man's acute awareness and anticipation, his steadiness and ease, and his unobtrusive elegance and respect.
Those qualities seemed universal in the indigenous leaders we encountered. Before we went into the rainforest, we had a briefing with several of them, who are currently engaged in a political struggle with oil interests to protect their lands. Most of them are young and were brought up traditionally, trained as tribal leaders, and, thanks to the work of the Pachamama Alliance, now have the tools to be ambassadors to the outside world. They are passionate about the dangers and opportunities of their situation, eloquent when they articulate how the interests of the North and the South are inextricably entwined.
The Achuar people have urged the Pachamama to help 'change the dream of the North,' since transforming our appetites and desires is ultimately the only solution. Political and economic strategies are important tools, but just as essential is a change of heart.
I personally experienced that change of heart as my sense of separation and difference dissolved. I came back home deeply connected to the people I shared this pilgrimage with and profoundly grateful to those who opened their way of life to us. I know more fully that the life force pulsing through all of us and animating every bug, leaf, and animal has no boundaries.
For more information on the work of the Pachamama Alliance and the trips it sponsors, check out www.pachamama.org.