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Learning to Live With Less in the Colombian Amazon

By Michele Bigley

10.25.19

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Design by Emily Blevins

A mother travels into the rain forest with her husband and two young sons, where they learn invaluable lessons from the indigenous Tikuna people about existing without modern luxuries.

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“Without rain, we have no water.” Our host Kim spun the shower spigot, the water barely wetting a toe. “Please use water sparingly,” she cautioned, leading us to the sleeping area in our jungle guesthouse. Kim handed me some medicated anti-mosquito soap—as if I had enough water to adequately lather the bar—then invited me, my husband, and our 11- and seven-year-old sons, Kai and Nikko, to dinner at sundown in the lodge’s common room. As Kim left, the door bounced shut behind her, leaving my family to gape at the screenless windows and limp mosquito nets in our sweltering room.

We ended up decked out in our Indiana Jones gear in Colombia’s 1,133-square mile Amacayacu National Park because I insisted. I want my sons to learn how to survive, and ideally thrive, in the future that’s predicted for them, and according to a 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, future generations—as in our children—can expect to contend with rising seas, extended heat waves, and limited food and water around the world as a result of global warming. 

Hoping to arm my sons with some tactics for living with less from nature, I arranged for my family to travel to southern Colombia’s Amazon region (at crossroads of Brazil and Peru), where we’d stay in villages with the indigenous Tikuna community at lodges like Casa Gregorio in San Martin de Amacayacu. I booked our family’s summer adventure through the Colombian tour agency Ecodestinosa locally-owned company known for crafting individualized trips into the Amazon. One look at my husband Eddie’s face though, and I knew he regretted following me into the rain forest.

Tikuna tribes (also spelled Ticuna) have lived in the Amazon rain forest for centuries. Each year, they must react to the river’s moods as it floods and retreats during the wet and dry seasons. The Tikuna people understand adaptability; they exist by living with nature rather than trying to conquer it, even as their ways of life are challenged by symptoms of climate change, such as altered patterns in precipitation. The indigenous communities have important lessons to teach about adjusting to a changing world.

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“This flooded forest feeds all creatures,” our local guide Sergio explained on my family’s second day in Amacayacu National Park. We had been sailing a up a tributary of the Amazon River for an hour when Sergio maneuvered our small boat under a canopy of varzea forest branches and turned off the motor. He demonstrated how to tie bait onto a stick and use it to lure catfish. Then, he invited us to listen to the sounds of the “flooded forest” while we waited for something to catch.

The sun silhouetted the jungle around us; dragonflies dove into the browned river, and birds fed on bugs, zinging with ferocity. 

“I got one!” Nikko yelled, lifting up his stick only to find that the other end was empty.

Sergio laughed. “Keep trying,” he encouraged. “The river provides what we need.”

A canoe appeared on the edge of the forest with a boy not much older than Nikko at the helm. His fishing stick danced above the water’s surface in the distance, and within minutes he pulled a fish from the river before paddling away with that night’s meal.

I asked Sergio how Tikuna children learn to take only what they need from the river to survive. He veered my focus toward their reality: When the wet season ends each June, everything becomes scarce. Less water means less food. For everyone. For Tikuna communities living in the Amazon rain forest, water is the most precious commodity. They’ve learned to adapt to the challenges of climate change (like less rainfall) and conserve the natural resources and ecosystems they depend on because it’s an imperative part of their survival.

In the Amazonian villages we visited—San Martin, Mocagua, Leticia, and Puerto Nariño—I noticed that nearly every house had an aluminum roof with a 1,000-liter barrel on top. According to Sergio, this is how the local Tikuna communities capture clean water when it rains. I thought of my family’s reliance on our water taps at home, which deliver streams of fresh liquid on demand, regardless of the outside weather. What do these people do when the rain stops?

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Sergio said that during the Amazon’s dry season (which usually lasts June through December), local residents boil river water to sterilize it for their needs, adding that Tikuna families also preserve food by storing it underground before the season. This year, he added, the country’s Food and Agriculture Organization installed a filtered water station in the area, but only for locals who can pay to buy clean drinking water. I considered the half-guzzled glasses of water my kids often leave on the table and felt a stab of guilt.

The next day, we took a boat to the Amazon region’s protected Tarapoto wetlands to view pink river dolphins in their natural habitat. When we saw a raft of plastic water bottles floating down the river, even the boys grew quiet.

“It’s hard here,” Kai muttered later that night from the bed in our guesthouse. “At home, we get to have water whenever we want.”

“Or whatever food we want,” Nikko added.

“But the local kids don’t seem to mind,” I said hopefully, thinking of the children we’d seen fishing effortlessly from the river or climbing the jungle’s fruit trees.

“They would if they knew what they could have,” Kai said. “I think I’m starting to appreciate home.”

I could have counted this as a positive lesson my sons had learned from the experience, but the truth in Kai’s words bummed me out. Traveling to the Amazon might’ve proven that our family could exist without our conveniences, but my son was right: We didn’t want to live without running bathwater or have to learn to preserve our food underground. We wanted the ease of modern living. How many of us are truly willing to sacrifice simple luxuries to give the future of our planet—and the people on it—a fighting chance? 

Weeks after our family left the Colombian Amazon, raging wildfires broke out in record high numbers throughout Brazil’s portion of the jungle, hundreds of miles from Amacayacu. (The fires were reportedly caused by deforestation.) Mainstream media coverage showed dark clouds from the devastating blaze above São Paulo, more than 1,700 miles away. I didn’t see any reports about how the smoky air and ashy drinking water was affecting the indigenous communities in the rain forest’s depths. Once we got home, though, I did notice that my kids were no longer leaving their glasses of clean water on the table half full.  

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