I am a Takana and the Jungle is my Home.

21 Apr, 2016 | Nikolaus Hochstein Cox

Culture and Tourism

Photo: Nikolaus Hochstein Cox

Where science and spirituality meet under the Amazonian canopy


Parque Madidi, in northwestern Bolivia, and its surrounding Amazonian territories, is a vast collection of trees and waterways, brimming with flora and fauna. It is a wild place away from human control, whose fate is not at the whims of the Bolivian government but El Niño. For travellers, it offers a plethora of tourist attractions. For biologists, it provides a lifetime of research. But after all, the rainforest remains grounded in the prosaic – it is a land justifiable by science and hard fact.

For the Takana, however, a population of 8,400 indigenous people who live within the park’s borders and neighbouring forest, the jungle is both science and fiction, history and mythology. For these rainforest-dwelling peoples, the lines between fact and fantasy become blurred when viewing the rainforest. Within living memory the Takana have been jungle nomads and the rainforest has both given and taken from them. Even after the Bolivian government created the national parks and the Takana became a sedentary population, the rainforest has persisted in being their sole provider.

During my travels in the area, my Takana guide Nilo acquainted me with three types of palms, the fronds of each have a different particular use in the construction of the thatched huts that make up Takana homesteads. Every tree has a different purpose – some provide poison used for hunting wildgame, some store gallons of water for drinking. The rivers seethe with fish, and as we go midnight trawling in the sluggish expanse, we capture seven ferociously barbed catfish – enough for Nilo's family to survive for a week. Money still has relatively little use out here, and Nilo vividly recalls when he was fifteen and first met tourists who tried to pay his family in cash. They ultimately made the notes into kindling. The jungle gives Nilo and his people everything they could ever want. His niece Raquel may study in the comparatively cosmopolitan town of Rurrenabaque, but even she considers the jungle her home and says it is all she needs.

But as the jungle gives, it also takes. Nilo is a guide, artisan, hunter, fisherman and carpenter, and is currently engaged in helping his brother build a new series of houses further away from the river. Serious flooding a year ago destroyed the entire community, which is why they all currently live under the skeleton of a house, covered by a blue tarpaulin. The jungle provides food for Takana hunters, but even experienced bushmen can vanish in its dense undergrowth. They could be gored to death by a wounded peccary, bitten by any of the poisonous animals that inhabit the woods, or simply get lost. For a Takana the rainforest is all-powerful; it gives as much as it takes, and humans are just one of the many countless organisms granted a short lease below its branches.

With this kind of perspective it comes as no surprise that the Takana consider the entire rainforest to be alive, as a great omnipotent organism, in which all trees and animals are connected spiritually in a symbiotic whole. Just as there are trees with practical uses for jungle life there are also those whose significance is spiritual. The most important of these is the great Mapajo, whose trunk can grow to be hundreds of feet in diameter. These trees are described to me as 'kings' and 'gods' of the forest, but even they are not the absolute deities in this spiritual landscape. They are simply messengers for Pachamama, the Andean Earth Mother. It is She who reigns supreme in the Amazon. The Takana annually gather around Mapajo trunks to dance, drink a ch'alla and sacrifice jungle game. This is to ensure prosperity, protection and success in the coming year.

As the spirit of Pachamama is in every tree and animal in the forest, the Takana never hunt for sport. Nilo speaks of a man who would stalk peccary every night for the thrill of the hunt rather than necessity. One night the man never returned and Nilo accepts this as Pachamama's punishment. Conventional explanations for the man's disappearance can be construed, but for the Takana, when the jungle is a deity, all things are spiritually connected. The forest is adored and feared by those who live within it. Just as Pachamama provides rivers full of fish and springs of pure water, She can also threaten the lives of those who live within her borders.

There are isolated areas in the forest where the jungle spirits roam free under the solitary influence of Pachamama. As Nilo quietly warns, when the Takana roam into these regions, into the 'corazón del bosque,' they are confronted by the preternatural: faceless men that walk over the waters in ancient dress, unknown compelling forces that attack tourist tents in the night. Pachamama is the jungle and, like the rational rainforest known to science, Her forest can be kind and cruel.

For a transient passing through the Amazon, the benefits and detriments of living there are only a consequence of naturally-occurring cycles and patterns. For travellers, the rainforest is not the whole world but another stop on the tourist route across Bolivia. It is spectacle, but little more. But for those who live their entire lives within the jungle, who live for the rainforest, the trees and rivers become something more. They become a single living organism, a sentient being with absolute control over everything that occurs beneath the canopy. The Takana know the jungle better than anyone else. They know it has moods and feelings. They know it lives.

Parque Madidi, in northwestern Bolivia, and its surrounding Amazonian territories, is a vast collection of trees and waterways, brimming with flora and fauna. It is a wild place away from human control, whose fate is not at the whims of the Bolivian government but El Niño. For travellers, it offers a plethora of tourist attractions. For biologists, it provides a lifetime of research. But after all, the rainforest remains grounded in the prosaic – it is a land justifiable by science and hard fact.

For the Takana, however, a population of 8,400 indigenous people who live within the park’s borders and neighbouring forest, the jungle is both science and fiction, history and mythology. For these rainforest-dwelling peoples, the lines between fact and fantasy become blurred when viewing the rainforest. Within living memory the Takana have been jungle nomads and the rainforest has both given and taken from them. Even after the Bolivian government created the national parks and the Takana became a sedentary population, the rainforest has persisted in being their sole provider.

During my travels in the area, my Takana guide Nilo acquainted me with three types of palms, the fronds of each have a different particular use in the construction of the thatched huts that make up Takana homesteads. Every tree has a different purpose – some provide poison used for hunting wildgame, some store gallons of water for drinking. The rivers seethe with fish, and as we go midnight trawling in the sluggish expanse, we capture seven ferociously barbed catfish – enough for Nilo's family to survive for a week. Money still has relatively little use out here, and Nilo vividly recalls when he was fifteen and first met tourists who tried to pay his family in cash. They ultimately made the notes into kindling. The jungle gives Nilo and his people everything they could ever want. His niece Raquel may study in the comparatively cosmopolitan town of Rurrenabaque, but even she considers the jungle her home and says it is all she needs.

But as the jungle gives, it also takes. Nilo is a guide, artisan, hunter, fisherman and carpenter, and is currently engaged in helping his brother build a new series of houses further away from the river. Serious flooding a year ago destroyed the entire community, which is why they all currently live under the skeleton of a house, covered by a blue tarpaulin. The jungle provides food for Takana hunters, but even experienced bushmen can vanish in its dense undergrowth. They could be gored to death by a wounded peccary, bitten by any of the poisonous animals that inhabit the woods, or simply get lost. For a Takana the rainforest is all-powerful; it gives as much as it takes, and humans are just one of the many countless organisms granted a short lease below its branches.

With this kind of perspective it comes as no surprise that the Takana consider the entire rainforest to be alive, as a great omnipotent organism, in which all trees and animals are connected spiritually in a symbiotic whole. Just as there are trees with practical uses for jungle life there are also those whose significance is spiritual. The most important of these is the great Mapajo, whose trunk can grow to be hundreds of feet in diameter. These trees are described to me as 'kings' and 'gods' of the forest, but even they are not the absolute deities in this spiritual landscape. They are simply messengers for Pachamama, the Andean Earth Mother. It is She who reigns supreme in the Amazon. The Takana annually gather around Mapajo trunks to dance, drink a ch'alla and sacrifice jungle game. This is to ensure prosperity, protection and success in the coming year.

As the spirit of Pachamama is in every tree and animal in the forest, the Takana never hunt for sport. Nilo speaks of a man who would stalk peccary every night for the thrill of the hunt rather than necessity. One night the man never returned and Nilo accepts this as Pachamama's punishment. Conventional explanations for the man's disappearance can be construed, but for the Takana, when the jungle is a deity, all things are spiritually connected. The forest is adored and feared by those who live within it. Just as Pachamama provides rivers full of fish and springs of pure water, She can also threaten the lives of those who live within her borders.

There are isolated areas in the forest where the jungle spirits roam free under the solitary influence of Pachamama. As Nilo quietly warns, when the Takana roam into these regions, into the 'corazón del bosque,' they are confronted by the preternatural: faceless men that walk over the waters in ancient dress, unknown compelling forces that attack tourist tents in the night. Pachamama is the jungle and, like the rational rainforest known to science, Her forest can be kind and cruel.

For a transient passing through the Amazon, the benefits and detriments of living there are only a consequence of naturally-occurring cycles and patterns. For travellers, the rainforest is not the whole world but another stop on the tourist route across Bolivia. It is spectacle, but little more. But for those who live their entire lives within the jungle, who live for the rainforest, the trees and rivers become something more. They become a single living organism, a sentient being with absolute control over everything that occurs beneath the canopy. The Takana know the jungle better than anyone else. They know it has moods and feelings. They know it lives.

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