The region where the Ese eja make their home has been a hot zone for such debate since the 1990s. The biodiversity in the Amazon is tremendous. One landmark study showed that a single tree from the area held more than 20,000 species of beetles. Armed with this knowledge, conservationists and government officials decided to create reserve zones and a national park, and a variety of sustainable development and ecotourism projects sprung up. Although the regional indigenous federation was involved in the decision-making process, the Ese eja were not significant participants in discussions that affect their traditional homeland. Ocampo-Raeder has a theory as to why.
“The Ese eja don’t look like they’re ‘supposed’ to. They wear Western clothing, they occasionally hunt with guns, so somehow, they’re not ‘indigenous’ anymore to people making decisions,” she says. “Outsiders want this whole ‘noble savage’ image, which is entirely wrong. Unfortunately, the perceptions of outside people are enough to keep indigenous people out of the conversation.”
In the Amazon, 12 percent of the landscape is human-made, Ocampo-Raeder says. So what does that mean in terms of other ecosystem dynamics?
“If you construct little areas in a certain way that is culturally specific, that means you’re also going to attract a certain type of animal to where you live,” she says. “The Ese eja specifically planted things to attract animals that they like to eat. They cultivate plants to eat, medicinals, fibers for clothing. It’s what I call the functional integration of resource management activities.”
Though they may not approach sustainability the same way a Western conservationist would, the Ese eja have shamanic traditions that protect the wildlife they depend on for food. They believe that when their ancestors die, they are reincarnated as white-lipped peccaries, piglike creatures that are a major food source for the tribe. The Ese eja create bamboo forests to attract peccaries at critical times during the year.
“They’re impacting the forest in order to ensure that the forest is giving them what they need to survive,” Ocampo-Raeder says.
When hunters kill peccaries, they bring them back to the village, where the shaman “reminisces” with the spirits and brings news from the forest. In some cases, that news may be a message about a particular animal disappearing as a result of overhunting.
“It’s a really sophisticated kind of ecological knowledge,” Ocampo-Raeder says. “I’m constantly dealing with what indigenous rights mean today when dealing with conservationists and government. And as a researcher, I bring a whole different perspective that looks at the human factor through the lens of ethnography and anthropology’s theoretical frameworks.”
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