EcoPunk #64 - Amazon

    Sometimes it’s really fucking hard to be an anarchist, much less an anarchist punk. After those first few years of youthful naiveté wear off and one starts pushing their 20s, then their 30s, reality starts setting in like so many layers of sediment through an old riverbed.
    Back in the late 1980s, my crew and I thought we were gonna take on the whole world. We thought that a few SUBHUMANS songs and a marginal subculture on the fat rolls of Northern society were going to usher in global revolution. But when that failed to happen, we retreated from our desire for full victory to single issues that were somewhat more possible than a global revolution. We went from struggling against all oppression to protesting circuses and in the name of political prisoners or ill fated social movements in the third world. And as those causes panned out little more than a few misdemeanor charges, we retreated further into the protective arms of specific single issues like neighborhood zoning commissions, defending specific national forests or publishing manifestos against genetically modified organisms. From this narrow focus, it wasn’t hard to see ourselves burning out in the next few years and assuming the same existence’s as the old school Earth First!ers or anti-nuke people or Latin American solidarity movement folks; ideologically retired with nothing but visions of what could have been and fabricated memories from the days that never were to keep us company. Afterall, anyone would get tired of being wrong and defeated so often.
    Last winter, as I looked across the Cascade Crest at the doomed contours of Pelican Butte (soon to be a $60 million ski area for the rich), my heart hung heavy as yet another layer of defeat settled across my once glorious politics. As anarchists, we have nothing to offer the world in terms of sustainable alternatives to the current global holocaust. We have no concrete plan to institute any of our supposed ideals (provided we could even come to consensus as to what those are) and no substantial historical examples that illustrate our politics to be anything but rhetoric. We have no political ties whatsoever with the masses of the world, even in our own neighborhoods and nowhere near enough power to be even a tertiary threat to global power. We are just another group of privileged honkeys spouting off at the hip with feel good words and ideological speculation.
    With a benign sense of resignation and a heartsick gut, I fled the snows of the Cascadian winter and headed off to warmer climes. I had no idea I was to experience things that would highlight the validity of my politics like so many thousands of flaming churches.
    A heavy pre-dawn mist wafted in from the Andes, swirling its way through the stagnant air, pausing only slightly as it clung desperately to the overgrown jungle along the banks of the Rio Napo. A pair of bats the size of pit bulls bickered back and forth overhead as our canoe slid silently through the muddy brown water. After too many days dodging buses and riot cops in Quito, it was quite a descanso  to sit idly by with my partner Mamy watching kilometer after kilometer of wild jungle pass as we plummeted downhill with the river on its tireless journey Eastward. Within a matter of days, the Rio Napo would gouge its way through the artificial national boundaries of Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil before conjugating with the glorious Amazon and washing into the saline bliss of the Atlantic Ocean. But for now, the river was gracefully carrying us to a small Quiche Indian village 30 miles downstream like a giant liquid freight train. 
    Mamy and I, both being tree hugging eco-nerds, were super excited about seeing virgin rainforest on the Southern side of the Equator. However, unlike the pale skinned tourists with towering backpacks and fancy shoes, things for us weren’t as simple as plopping down $200 for a week long jungle adventure. In fact, after pooling the entire contents of our pockets together, we had $3 between us, not anywhere near enough to get us to one of the jungle retreat yoga yuppie lodges. In fact, we didn’t even have enough between us to guarantee passage out of the dreary little town. However, the best experiences traveling always come about through unexpected twists and good old fashioned improvisation. Luckily, the duena  of our dingy pension happened to have a brother, Chuato, who knew some native guide just downstream and who just happened to drive a canoe. A small child was sent to wake Chuato out of his drunken slumber in a hammock nearby and after a few minutes of haggling in broken Spanish, a “tour” was arranged.
    After 45 minutes of dodging rapids and keeping a watchful eyes out for schools of piranha that could supposedly devour a whole cow in less than 30 seconds, we spun a sharp turn around a rock riffle and up a small tributary. The tributary narrowed and we abandoned the boat for a brief trek through knee deep water before coming to a bamboo bridge, literally secured to the top of the bank with live vines. Mamy and I exchanged nervous glances as we followed Chuato up the swaying bridge. This was exactly the kind of situation guide books advise against; a reputationless “tour” with a drunk local man a three day jungle hike from the nearest road or cop. A recipe for robbery, kidnapping or worse? Certainly. But we hadn’t come 4000 miles to be denied a chance to see jungle just because we were short a bit of cash. 
    Luck was with us and without incident we passed through a dense stand of twisted matapalo  trees and into a small clearing lined with thatch huts. Chuato vanished for half an hour to track down our guide, leaving Mamy and I to make small talk with a group of men lounging outside the largest of the huts.  No sooner had I struck up a conversation with a half naked, unemployed logger when our canoista slogged through the muddy trail, a stout man of maybe 5’2” following a few yards behind. Chuato went to bum a cigarette from one of the lounging men as the stout man stepped forward. His bare torso rippled with muscles and his dark oaken skin was speckled with slivers of plants and dirt. A machete dangled flirtingly around his hip. I bet none of those yuppies’ tour guides had got done cutting banana stalks at the start of the tour. “You wanna see some jungle?” he asked politely in broken Spanish.
    We nodded. “My name is Franklin and I live in a village just North of here. The timber companies cut most of the huge trees and my people moved out here from where Puerto Misahualli now is 70 years ago, so if it’s virgin forest you want to see, I can’t really help you. But what we have is still very much alive and keeps us alive.” 
    The gold plated smile stretching across his weathered face was reassuring enough for us to follow him though an orchard of cocao trees and into the selva amazonica. Although the area had been heavily logged in the 1970s and 1980s, the forest had reclaimed every lost foot. As soon as the cultivated rows of cacoa and platano faded to our rear, the forest engulfed us in a snarled canopy of trees, vines and epiphytes so dense that the day seemed to grow later by several hours. Our borrowed rubber boots groaned agonizingly with every step through 6” deep mud, while Franklin identified the plants and animals that had sustained his people over the past five millennia. “If you crush this leaf over here and drop it in water, the fish fall asleep and float to the surface... Or this type of termite. If you stick your hand in their nest and crush the bodies against your skin, it keeps the bugs away... Or when a woman is having difficulty bleeding from illness or unwanted pregnancy, she sends her husband out to harvest this plant which makes her bleed... Or these ants here are good to eat if you’re tired or sore (the 1/2” long ants tasted like sweet lemons and crawled around in my mouth for a good 15 minutes)... Or these fronds here are good for building houses or cooking... Or these roots are a special dessert... Or this spider over here keeps us from dying of fever... Or these over here...”
    Franklin literally knew the name, the uses and the stories behind every single plant we passed. When I asked him how he knew so much about so many plants, he turned to me and said, “I should know these plants. They are my neighbors, my family. Without them, neither my people nor I would be here. I know hermana  spider as well as I know my own children.”
    We passed through stands of massive ceibas, trees with snarled trunks the size of whole suburban tract homes. Past ant colonies three stories high, filled with busy little ants who could kill a grown man with one bite. Past mobile strangler figs and small streams full of brilliant silver fish. Under whole ecosystems who survive without ever touching the ground, supported by the tireless generosity of their woody stemmed neighbors. Past natural plots of yucca and stunning flowers that would make Mapplethorpe shit himself. Past plants bearing sweet fruits and powerful medicine and lethal poisons. It was Eden’s grocery store, pharmacy and armory all wrapped up in one giant respiring body.
    But one thing struck me as odd. As much as Franklin had told us about the plants and animals of the forest, he hadn’t mentioned a thing about himself or his village. We paused for a moment while Mamy struggled to dislodge her estranged rubber boot from a puddle of quicksand. “So Franklin, all these plants and things are cool, but how is life for you, for your people?”
    He gave me a funny look. “You’re the first white person that has ever asked me that. Usually all people want to see are the trees and plants. It’s like they want to pretend that we don’t exist at all. So I never talk about it.”   
    By that time, afternoon had fallen over the forest and we headed into the cultivated periphery of his village. The lessons turned from botany to history and sociology. “My people came here 70 years ago when they put the road into Puerto Misahualli. When roads come in, bad things happen to the pueblo. The roads bring in people who destroy our land and hurt our people. When the roads come, we must move or die. Eventually we will have to leave here and head further East. But for now, things are good. We have our small fields of banana, cocao, yucca, and a little bit of corn. And then we have the jungle. These provide all of our food except for our rice which we buy.” he smiled. “With the money we make taking gringos on nature tours.”
    The winter of 2000 was a hard one for most of Ecuador. Everywhere one ventured, the people wore frowns of anxiety. The neo-liberal model, coupled with a corrupt bureaucracy and years of industrial exploitation had taken their toll on the Ecuatorianos. The economy was in shambles and for the landless masses, every meal might very well may be their last. It was the exact same conditions which had inspired so many dozens of revolutions in the region over the years. Perhaps this would be one of those years. I asked Franklin what he thought of the dolarization process by which the Ecuatorian sucre was being discarded in lieu of the omnipotent U.S. dollar. He laughed. “It doesn’t matter what the money looks like. As long as we have the ants and fish and jungle and a little bit of cacao, we can survive anything. The people in the cities fear the future greatly, but for us, it isn’t a big deal... As long as they leave us alone.”
    “You must have to work a lot to live off the land like this.” I queried.
    “Oh yeah,” he said with a sincere look. “Some days we have to work FOUR hours a day. But usually we work two or three.”
    My jaw dropped and I shook my head in disbelief. He shot my question back at me with a laugh. “How much do you work?”
    “Ten or twelve hours a day.”
    He chuckled a deep belly laugh. “For what? What do you gringos need that makes you work so much of your life away?”
    I tried to explain taxes and mortgages and the temporal costs of living in the most prosperous nation in the world, but he kept shaking his head and muttering locos  under his breath.
    Subconsciously trying to defend my ridiculous work habits, I asked him another question. “Well if you only work three hours a day, what do you do with the rest of your time?”
    A look of seriousness entered his eyes. “We rest. And talk with our neighbors. And teach our children.” He looked around to make sure Mamy wasn’t listening and grinned a huge grin. “And we make love a lot.”
    As the sun plummeted behind the protective shadows of the Andes and we headed back upriver with a hung-over Chuato, my mind raced. We had just taken a walk through an anarchist wetdream. A self sufficient and rabidly independent culture that had survived outside the capitalist paradigm for thousands of years. A culture without cops or militaries that was apparently more or less egalitarian (at least as much as any anarchist scene I’ve ever seen). A culture that exemplified mutual aid and a symbiotic respect for Nature. The first living footnote I have ever seen of the things John Zerzan and Claude Levi Strauss wrote about. A paradise that at once inspired the shit out of me while simultaneously making me jealous as all hell.
    Fuck the Steelworkers and tedious coalitions with asshole Marxists. Fuck getting old and giving up. Fuck the upper class liberal ass kissers in the Direct Action Network. What I experienced in the jungles of the Amazon Basin was a living case study that anarchism can work; a tangible example that we ARE right and that we are right without selling the soul of our convictions to whatever group is in style at the moment. Living self sufficiently without armies and pigs telling us what to do and killing our friends isn’t some ideological pipedream, but a day to day reality for thousands of people who live outside the capitalist model of urban oppression. There are places on Earth where anarchist ideals are practiced every day that can and should stand as gleaming examples of what is possible in our own country, in our own lives.
    It is up to us here, in the most privileged (and therefore possible) nations on Earth, to get to work against progress and get back to the roots of anarchism; self reliance, autonomy and independence. It is up to us to derail the plans of global capital not by hoping to subvert the system through impotent street demos and bad three word chants, but by reclaiming the land and resources requisite for freedom. It is up to us to exchange our rhetoric for real tools and get to work reclaiming our freedom and the integrity of Nature. We are right and with the right amount of organization and perseverance, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. ¡Hasta la final!
—mike antipathy
PO box 11703  • Eugene, Oregon 97440