The Boat of Dreams: How the Achuar Embraced Solar Power

February 02, 2022 Season 2 Episode 1
The Boat of Dreams: How the Achuar Embraced Solar Power
Show Notes Transcript

Los invitamos a escuchar el episodio en español aquí

The Achuar people living in the rainforests of Ecuadorian Amazon are stewards of land that holds some of the richest biodiversity in the world. They rely heavily on river transportation, and in recent years, the Achuar have been on a journey to reduce their use of gas-powered boats to something less harmful to the environment. Jessica Ramirez talks with Nantu Canelos, Luciano Peas, and Oliver Utne about a partnership between the Achuar people and an organization called Kara Solar that has led to the incorporation of solar power into the everyday life of many Achuar people. This episode includes everything from jaguars to dream interpretation, and we hope you enjoy it. Host and Lead Producer: Jessica Ramirez. Story editor: Jenny Asarnow.

Learn more:
Kara Solar
Seedcast at Nia Tero

[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: Welcome to season two of Seedcast. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez. We share stories of indigenous peoples whose time on our traditions are the key to a sustainable future. We must honor this. And one way that we can do that is by learning more about the indigenous peoples whose land we're on. I'm a visitor on Coast Salish territory on what is currently known as Seattle, Washington. And I humbly ask you to find out whose lands you're on.

Theme Song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling. We are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united. We are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay… 

[00:00:44] What you're about to hear is a story from the Ecuadorian Amazon. It involves the Achuar people, they learned and brought a new technology to their community. And this new technology powers, how their community stays in connection with each other. And it supports the way that they sustain their lands. When we think creatively about the resources that we have access to and the knowledge that we can share with each other.

[00:01:19] We can see how power can come from the ability to bring those resources together, because it does take all of us to build the world that we want. The Achuar pulled together ideas and resources to create a new tool for their community on their terms. They included people from their territory, people from outside their territory. People with no money and people with access to money, including Nia Tero whose provided resources for this project.

[00:01:56] And the success of their creativity is beneficial to us all.

[00:02:19] I want you to take a minute and close your eyes, picture in your mind an aerial view of earth. You can see blue oceans and green lands. And when you get in a little bit closer, right in the middle where the equator is, you can see the country of Ecuador. In Ecuador its mountains, soar high, and the jungle is lush and green.

[00:02:55] It's here in a remote area of the Amazon that you see a small community of people. And when you look closely, you see that they're gathered around and they are drinking something. And it's very, very early in the morning,

[00:03:19] meet the Achuar people. They start their day, at 3:00 AM by drinking guayusa 

[00:03:32] Nantu Canelos: Introduction in Spanish

[00:03:44] Jessica: This is Nantu Canelos,a member of the Achuar Nation. Nantu is sharing with me how the Achuar use guayusa. It's a tea rich in antioxidants and filled with caffeine. They prepare it the night before and they drink it in the morning,

[00:04:05] The Achuar drink guayusa to maintain their health. And they also use it to interpret their dreams

[00:04:16] More than 50 years ago they had a dream about an electric fish, a mythical eel named Tapiatpia. It was swimming, vibrantly and powerfully through the Pastaza and Capahuari rivers. You see with conversations over guayusa the Achuar are interpreted the dream of Tapiatpia as a literal vessel, a boat. That was going to change the way they were able to connect with other Achuar communities along the rivers that they all live on.

[00:04:53] Luciano Peas: Introduction in Spanish

[00:04:58] Jessica: So this is Luciano Peas. He's a member of the Achuar Nation

[00:05:15] Luciano is the captain of that boat the Achuar dreamt of, he travels up and down the Pastaza and Capahuari rivers, which all flow into the great Amazon river

[00:05:31] In this dense jungle, traveling by boats is just how people get around. It's how they can stay in connection with other Achuar communities. And it's all because driving a vehicle would mean you needed a road and a road would mean cutting down trees and cutting down trees these days creates openings for loggers and oil companies and other people that they don't really want in their territory.

[00:06:00] The Achuar's ancestors ancestors traveled by canoes. They were human powered. They were quiet. They were reliable, but they were very slow. And the world that the Achuar live in now just doesn't afford them that kind of time anymore. Eventually people in the Amazon began outfitting their canoes with gas powered motors.

[00:06:28] This helped them get place to place faster. Some of the gas powered boats are called peque peques. Peque peque is literally the sound that the motor makes when you turn it on. So that's why they're called that. Not everyone has one. And when they don't, they really look to each other to give each other rides, but they bring their own gas so they can get from point a to point B and gas is not exactly the easiest or most affordable resource to find in these really remote parts of the Amazon jungle. People are bartering with goods or services, like offering a chicken in exchange or cut down a tree as a trade for that hard cost of gasoline.

[00:07:15] When that chicken could feed a family and that tree could actually be saved and be used for shelter for creatures living in the jungle. The territory where the Achuar live, hold some of the richest biodiversity in the world. And a big reason why is because of the time honored traditions, the Achuar have used to steward their lands.

[00:07:39] Having gasoline power transportation meant they were making hard decisions. And those decisions impacted their environment and their families, but the Achuar wanted to figure out how they can keep their territories free from pollution and maintain community connection.

[00:08:02] Nantu: Speaking Spanish 

[00:08:12] Jessica: This is Nantu Canelos you heard from him earlier when he was telling us about the ceremony

[00:08:23] Nantu: Speaking Spanish

[00:08:32] Jessica: Nantu says he is the local coordinator of regional transportation services. What that means is that he's looking at how the boats move from point A to point B on a daily basis. So I asked Nantu how did the boats come about? 

[00:08:54] Nantu: Speaking Spanish

[00:09:00] Jessica: Nantu is sharing that the idea around the boats was brought to their community by a volunteer, a person who was teaching English in a community next door. 

[00:09:22] Nantu: Speaking Spanish

[00:09:25] Oliver Utne: My name is Oliver Utne. I'm originally from the U S but I've been living in Ecuador for 12 years. I got the opportunity to go and spend two months in an Achuar community called Yutsuntsa to teach English in this school there.

[00:09:40] And the first thing that happened when I arrived in the community was that I was presented with a document from the community handwritten document, uh, asking me for help in, uh, in getting a computer for the community. And when I got it, I had this initial kind of gut reaction that, that I didn't want this to happen.

[00:10:00] And I thought that a computer would be damaging to the indigenous culture that the Achuar people have. And, um, I didn't say that to them, but that's what I felt inside. 

[00:10:13] Jessica: Colonial powers have really shifted the way indigenous peoples live in this world. And Oliver was concerned that a technology like a computer would really shift the way that the Achuar maintain their culture.

[00:10:33] Being an outsider, being a white American, Oliver made a big assumption. He just didn't have the full understanding because of his own lived experience world. 

[00:10:47] Oliver: And, uh, and that feeling, uh, completely changed over the next two months because as I got to know people there better, I realized that they weren't just seduced by the computer because it was some flashy thing, like I had thought before, but they knew that the computer is the way that the, that the world communicates now. 

[00:11:06] Jessica: Oliver finally understood the request. People were asking for a computer because they had heard that stories about the Amazon were making headlines all over the world. These headlines were about climate change and their territories. 

[00:11:24] Nantu: There's a conversation going on around the world about their territory, about the Amazon, about the rainforest and about the resources that are there and about, um, what's gonna happen uh, to that territory and to the people who live there and they want to be involved in the conversation, they want to speak for themselves. And they knew that the computer was a way to do that. 

[00:11:47] Jessica: So the Achuar did get their computers. In fact, the government opened computer labs soon after this whole exchange occurred.

[00:11:56] But talking about the need for a computer, started a conversation about technology in general. How could they bring in a new technology into their territory in a culturally relevant way?

[00:12:14] The boat captain Luciano says he's so happy to take people to their destinations.

[00:12:25] Sometimes the boat passengers ask him if they can stop so that they can all jump in the water together and enjoy the freshness of the river.

[00:12:41] Luciano: Speaks Spanish

[00:12:43] Jessica: for me, uh, they love to share food, breakfast, lunch, and chicha a fermented drink, similar to in Mexico or kombucha, which you can find here in the US. Luciano says they pass the time by having conversation, figuring out what's going on in each other's lives, because they genuinely really liked to help each other out.

[00:13:10] This is a community that is really close, Luciano loves when someone requests both transportation and people do this by using a walkie-talkie or a two way radio, essentially. Luciano is seeing the community every day. And he loves this part of his job as boat captain. And he really enjoys serving his people.

[00:13:40] Indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of technological advances since the beginning of time. They invented the knife and seed keeping. They invented basketball hoops and canoes, their ingenuity, their creativity is what keeps them so modern and relevant and the Achuar are no different. They were trying to reimagine their transportation system because those stinky peque peques that are using gasoline were no longer working for them.

[00:14:18] They were talking about climate change and oil and the effects on the Amazon. They knew that they could create an alternative to the extractive industries that they didn't want to be a part of. And Oliver, the volunteer said that they all started talking about solar energy. 

[00:14:37] Oliver: We would kind of, we were dreaming about it, you know, and, and, and, uh, slowly over many months, this, uh, this kind of pie in the sky idea that we didn't actually think was possible.

[00:14:50] It started to seem more and more possible. This idea of electric boats powered by solar energy. 

[00:14:56] Jessica: And so solar energy became the way that the Achuar thought that they could literally take care of their land and defend their territory. This different transportation model could make that happen Oliver returned to the us to study solar energy.

[00:15:15] And then he came back one year later to Achuar territory with lots of information to share with his friends and the leaders of the Achuar Nation. They started talking about how they could implement a technology like solar power in their community. 

[00:15:40] Nantu: Speaking Spanish

[00:15:41] Jessica: Nantu says that making the decision took one year. 

[00:15:57] Nantu: Speaking Spanish

[00:15:59] Jessica: It includedd lots of conversations while drinking guayusa and several community assemblies where people gathered together to talk about the issue at hand, 

[00:16:17] Nantu: Speaking Spanish

[00:16:23] Jessica: Some community members even had an idea of what this opportunity could be. Like. They had traveled to big cities, like Quito where public transit moves people from place to place.

[00:16:37] So they thought what if large groups of people could commute and travel together on the rivers of Achuar Nation? They wondered, could they create a bus, but on the river,

[00:16:53] Nantu: Speaking Spanish 

[00:16:57] Jessica: Nantu says, people were really curious about the technology. Not only were they asking themselves lots of questions, but they were already trying to solve the problems that it could potentially create. They thought about, you know, where the routes would go. Would it make noise? Who's going to drive the boats.

[00:17:15] Who's going to fix them. And they were talking about batteries and all of the technological advances that solar panels were making every day. But at the end of the day, all the elders, they were just really excited to figure out how they can get their communities together more frequently. They wanted to make sure they were keeping their territories clean and safe.

[00:17:38] And the Achuar wanted to know how the design could ultimately adopt and adapt to their traditional ways and really serve the needs of their people who would be using the boats on the river. And 

[00:17:53] Oliver: that's kind of the beginning of Kara Solar

[00:18:00] Jessica: Oliver Utne found it. It's a community led enterprise and non-profit that focuses on solar technology. 

[00:18:19] Nantu: Spanish Speaking

[00:18:23] Jessica: Nantu says that the word "Kara"translates as a dream that comes true in their Achuar language. And solar well, that's all about the sun.

[00:18:37] So it's with the dream that nine communities along the Pastaza and Capahuari rivers have built a technological project so that they can stand relationship with each other. It's a massive undertaking and it's funded by Nia Tero and several other foundations who help make it possible. And as of now, all the rides are free.

[00:19:08] Luciano: Speaking Spanish

[00:19:09] Jessica: Luciano is talking to this person named Tatiana. He's asking her where she's going.

[00:19:17] Tatiana was on her way to work in her garden. She is growing lots of vegetables there, like yucca onions and papa china. It's something that English speakers call taro. Travel got a lot easier for people like Tatiana. Before visiting your garden could take days or weeks of planning.

[00:19:42] This is a big deal. Reliable transportation is creating an entire new generation of young people who really want to stay connected and stay on their territory. They can now see that there's opportunities in being able to leave and come back.

[00:20:11] The solar powered boats have names Tapiatpia that legendary electric giant fish. And Sunkirum the electric eel Luciano says the Achuar and Kara Solar have built the boat of dreams 

[00:20:34] Luciano: Speaking Spanish 

[00:20:41] Jessica: They have internet on them and ports to charge your cell phones. There's even a sound system. If you want it to play your music. 

[00:20:49] Luciano: Speaking Spanish

[00:20:54] Jessica: Luciano says that these boats are really quiet compared to the canoes with the outboard motors, they don't use stinky gasoline and the boats don't pollute the water. This makes the elders happy.

[00:21:13] Luciano describes the boats as gliding right on top of the water because the solar power boats are so quiet he can really take in the scenery and see what's around him. Sometimes we'll even accidentally sneak up on a Jaguar drinking water off the banks of the river. 

[00:21:37] Can you imagine? For decades, your loud and stinky gas powered boats are scaring off all the animals in your community. And then one day while traveling in your quiet solar powered boat, you come upon a Jaguar

[00:21:53] Nantu: Speaking Spanish 

[00:22:05] Jessica: Luciano says that when people request transportation on the walkie-talkies, he will take them wherever they need to go. At whichever time these boats don't hold normal business hours. So people just radio him and they tell them that they need his services.

[00:22:25] I asked Luciano what his favorite time of day was when it comes to driving the boats.

[00:22:30] Nantu: Speaking Spanish

[00:22:38] Jessica: His favorite time of day is when the sun comes up at about six in the morning. The sun is beautiful and it's clear. And when someone requests boat transportation, even if it's really early in the morning, he's so happy to do it. He prepares more guayusa and he jumps into the boat. Sometimes he'll even jump into the river to take a quick bath before driving off to pick up his first passengers for the day.

[00:23:19] The Achuar are teaching us that another world is possible. Their bravery and ingenuity are redesigning the way they stay connected, not only with the land, but with each other is a model for us all. It's a model for how we can all reconsider how we can be in relationship with each other and the mother eart.

[00:24:01] You'll hear more stories like this in season two of Seedcast. Thank you so much for listening. This episode was possible with generous help from so many people, the Kara Solar team in Ecuador Oliver Utne, Josue Enriquez Bernarda Troccoli and of course, Nantu Canelos and Luciano Peas. And a big thank you to my Nia Tero colleagues, Margarita Mora, Marc Balandras, and Leigh Morgan. Translation support from Annabella Tidona David Schmidt, Natalie Figueroa, and Angela Casteneda. Nia Tero is a Seattle based foundation. We are both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples with a mission to secure indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems that means we provide support to indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making earth livable for humans and other species for generations to come. Here at Seedcast our guests represent themselves. They don't necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. We'd love to hear yours too. Email us at or find us on social media at Nia Tero. You can learn more about Seedcast and about our work at Nia Tero on our website, This episode was produced by me, Jessica Ramirez and edited by Jenny Asarnow.

[00:25:45] Our consulting producer is Julie Keck, Executive Producer, Tracy Rector. Fact-checker Romin Lee Johnson theme song by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez. And we look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon.

[00:26:11] Theme Song by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united. We are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay.