I met 65-year-old Don Francisco after spending a couple hours with Silverio Mamallacta, one of the Runa technicians, touring nurseries and chakras owned by families from the community of Lucianta. I listened intently as Silverio gave the families practical advice in Kichwa to improve the productivity of their land and shared a large stalk of sugar cane with everyone. The group finally dispersed, and Silverio and I went to Don Francisco’s house, where a pot of guayusa, complete with stems and all, was heating up over a wood fire. I asked Don Francisco a series of questions about guayusa and Kichwa culture, with the help of Silverio as my Spanish-Kichwa interpreter, and we all drank chicha de chonta (a traditional fermented drink made out of an orange-colored fruit called chonta). Below is an excerpt of our conversation, with my comments in italics.
C- Chris Jarrett
C- Why do you drink guayusa?
F- When you don’t drink guayusa, it makes you feel sleepy and run-down. Guayusa gives you strength, physical and spiritual. It really makes you feel like you’re in the jungle, with nature. It also helps to prepare for hunting. Our parents used to tell us, from the time we were four-years-old, that if we didn’t drink guayusa, we were lazy children who were never going to learn our culture and our wisdom. Without guayusa, you weren’t a normal person. When I drink guayusa, I feel like I’m being re-born, like I’m being rejuvenated and made younger.
C- How do you think Kichwa culture is changing with the newest generation?
F- Education is one of the biggest things that’s changing our way of thinking. Young people are more focused on studying for industrial development and capitalism. That makes it so they don’t value our culture, our traditions like drinking guayusa. Kids now wake up around 6AM, wash their faces, and drink coffee instead of guayusa. I think that’s bad because it’s not part of our traditions, our culture.
Young people are leaving the chakras. They’re all studying. They just want to make a lot of money. They don’t want to drink guayusa or maintain our cultural traditions.
There’s been a lot of deforestation. The whole area behind my house used to be all primary forest with lots of birds and animals, but now a lot of them are going extinct because the trees are being chopped down. I don’t have a formal education. My education was in the jungle, and it used to be more valued than now. We can’t use our knowledge as well anymore because hunting and other activities are so much harder now. Everyone’s got their own piece of land, and it’s not easy to just go and hunt or get materials anymore.
Although these challenges seem formidable, Runa is working hard with the Kichwa people to combat deforestation and contribute to a re-valuation of Kichwa culture by way of the sacred guayusa plant. Over time, all cultures change as they encounter new realities and new obstacles to overcome. Newer generations are especially vulnerable with the increasing prevalence of Western media and rapidly expanding urbanization in the jungle, but Runa’s guayusa project, as well as a variety of other new and innovative initiatives, are helping the Kichwa people to confront these changes with a sense of identity and empowerment.
C- What do you think is the most important thing to do to improve your community’s relationship with other peoples, like those from the U.S. and other countries?
F- I think we can keep growing cocoa and guayusa because that is a way for us to develop friendship with other countries, with other friends. It can lead to an exchange of knowledge and culture, especially if they come to visit and learn about our culture. The Runa project is great because it helps our family income and gives us another source of income apart from cocoa.
Plants are a natural point of exchange among peoples and have been for centuries. Fair trade projects with cocoa and guayusa are helping to make these exchanges more equal, respectful, and mutually beneficial. This type of relationship is central to Runa’s mission as an organization- to foster meaningful bonds among peoples through intercultural exchange.