14 Seed and Tree Guardianship in the Heart of the Amazon

Mario Vargas Shakaim

My community is located in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

My name is Mario Vargas Shakaim, I am a Shuar (Indigenous) from the Ecuadorian Amazon, as well as co-founder of the GEO Indigenous Alliance. My community is located in the heart of South America, in the diverse landscapes of Ecuador. A mega-diverse country is divided into four distinct regions: the coastal region, known as the “littoral”; the “sierra” region, adorned with majestic snow-capped peaks; the island or Galapago region considered the second largest marine reserve on the planet; and the Amazon, an expanse of lush forests teeming with life. Our community is only one hour away from the provincial capital, Puyo. It lies along the Amazonian trunk road, the Ruta Amazónica, a long road that connects the countries of northern Colombia with the vast expanses of southern Peru.

Since I was young, I have maintained a deep connection with nature. Planting various types of flora, including fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants, has been a passion since childhood. Observing the fruit of these plantings, such as the chonta palms that provide sustenance for both humans and wildlife, highlights the vital role plants play in our Shuar world.

In 2005, I participated in the reforestation efforts of a foundation, focusing mainly on the mahogany tree species (Swietenia mahagoni). This initiative also included the planting of palm trees, known as morete in my Achu language. These palms bear fruit that serves as sustenance for both humans and forest-dwelling creatures, the sturdy trunk, when felled, harbours an abundance of larvae, a delicacy for many villagers, especially children, and a valuable resource for medicinal purposes. The bamboo trees we planted now serve as fences for animals and birds, as well as ponds for banana trees.

My weekend visit to the farm reaffirmed the importance of these plantings. The bamboo, reused to build animal pens, exemplifies the enduring value of our reforestation efforts. It was a gratifying moment to inform my mother that she could use these plants to build chicken pens.

In 2021, I participated in the NUMI reforestation project, collaborating in reforestation efforts with families representing diverse Indigenous nationalities in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

The enchanting tales of the Shuar: Nunkui, Goddess of Abundance

In the Shuar world, there are more than 50 stories about nature. One of these legends is about Nunkui, the goddess of abundance. According to the Shuar, she has the power to help things grow, especially food. Long ago, when food was scarce, the Shuar found small samples of yucca near a mighty river. This discovery changed their lives. They also met another family who had an abundance of food. From then on, Nunkui was seen as a goddess, like a baby. When you asked her for a plant or fruit, she would turn it into a baby. This story shows that, in Shuar belief, Nunkui is the goddess who brings abundance and protects the vital power of the sun.

I have learned that successful germination depends on the presence of positive energy. Without it, seeds may not sprout and transplanted plants may not thrive. In addition, understanding the optimal season for reforestation is crucial. Planting during the wet winter months ensures the greatest likelihood of growth, while summer plantings may lead to undesirable results.


Seed and Tree Guardianship: Insights from Shuar Seismology

In Shuar cosmology, the guardians of seeds and trees encompass a diversity of beings. It is not confined to any specific gender or age group; it can be a man, a woman or even a child who takes on this role. In our worldview, humans are not the only contributors to the planting and care of seeds.

Consider, for example, the chonta palm. After harvesting its fruit and extracting the seed, we make a conscious effort to plant it, ensuring its continued productivity. Alternatively, within the plant’s ecosystem, creatures such as the guatin play a vital role. This animal, familiar to us, transports the seed to a new location, sometimes a considerable distance of 10 to 20 metres, consumes its pulp and leaves the seed behind. Through this process, it is inadvertently planted. Similarly, bats are revered in our culture for their contribution. They transport seeds to distant areas and disperse them widely.

For the Shuar people, safeguarding the integrity of seeds and plants is not solely the responsibility of humans. It is a collective effort that extends to the countless creatures that inhabit the forest, forming an intricate web of caretakers in the cycle of life.


Cultivating Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Perspectives into Reforestation Initiatives

All our reforestation initiatives incorporate Indigenous perspectives and traditional ecological knowledge. Our deep understanding of the seasons and the detailed stages of fruit and seed maturity allows us to effectively harvest and cultivate plant species. Recognising optimal times and specific regions for harvesting is critical. For example, what may have been the ideal season for chontas in the northern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon a month ago may not be true for central or southern areas. This knowledge is crucial.

In our practices, there is a subtle wisdom that is not always evident at first glance. Take, for example, the ability to distinguish viable from non-viable seeds. This can be disconcerting to those unversed in our ways. In my case, I have perfected a method for palm seeds. Soaking them in water for about ten days greatly accelerates germination, although it requires a good amount of water. This knowledge comes from years of practical learning and experimentation, which significantly strengthens our reforestation work.

The integration of Indigenous perspectives encompasses a wealth of knowledge accumulated over generations, providing valuable insights into sustainable and effective reforestation practices.


Symbiosis of Indigenous knowledge and plants in reforestation: A multifaceted impact

The combination of Indigenous knowledge and native plants for reforestation brings with it a wealth of opportunities. Personally, I see it as a double contribution, not only to our fellow humans but also to the wider ecosystem, including birds and animals. This sentiment is illustrated by a powerful experience two years ago. At that time, I planted about 19 bamboo shoots. Amazingly, in just two years, these bamboos have grown into towering giants. They now provide a cool shelter from the scorching sun, similar to a natural refrigerator. In addition, they have become habitat spaces for perennial birds, with several species building their nests in the lush vegetation.

Why emphasise that the benefits go far beyond personal gain? The profusion of life, both plant and animal, thriving in this reforested haven serves as a vital reminder of the interconnectedness of all beings. It is not just the benefits gained by individuals like myself, but a collective blessing for countless humans and the planet as a whole. This harmonious dance between Indigenous knowledge and the plants we grow embodies a powerful force for positive change in our ecosystems.

Bridging generational gaps: Cultivating traditional wisdom among young people

Engaging the younger generation poses a challenge, especially since many no longer reside in the forest. To overcome this, we create community spaces for activities such as chakras (cultivation plots) and gardens, which function as educational centres. Through collective efforts, young people are able to actively participate, learning from both community members and external sources. This inclusive approach ensures the transmission of vital knowledge and practices, fostering a stronger connection to our cultural heritage.

Pursuing a green future: Goals and priorities for Indigenous reforestation in Amazonia

Our main goal is to create a sustainable and diverse rainforest, abundant in native plants. This benefits not only nature, but also makes life easier for humans by having close access to any species we may need in the future. To carry out this initiative, we need both internal and external support. This involves material resources and funding to establish a nursery where we can germinate a large number of plants and continue to cover those spaces designated for reforestation.

About the author

Mario Vargas (Shakaim) is an Indigenous Shuar from the Ecuadorian Amazon who has been defending nature since he was a young boy. He has been the leader and technician of the Shuar Federation of Pastaza, supporting the formulation of a community broadcaster that disseminates information on the rights of the people. Mario is a founding member of the GEO Indigenous Alliance that was established at GEO Week 2019 in Canberra, Australia to foster a continued, effective, respectful, and reciprocal relationship with GEO and representatives of Indigenous communities from around the world. He is a member of the Network of Climate Finance Specialists, as a representative of South America, and currently works at The Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), as Technical Coordinator of the environmental monitoring project “All Eyes on the Amazon” (TOA). Mario graduated from the Polytechnic College of Chimborazo and is specialising in Public Management at the Postgraduate University of Ecuador.

You can read more about Vargas Shakim’s work here.


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Seed and Tree Guardianship in the Heart of the Amazon Copyright © 2023 by Mario Vargas Shakaim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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