Mapa Teatro | © Ximena Vargas

The beginning of May, 2021. As we formulate these words, Colombia, the land in which we live and work, is in turmoil. First, we underwent a period of (voluntary) isolation as a result of the pandemic, and now, a period of social, economic and political unrest has led to the vast majority of the population tenaciously taking to the streets to protest, despite fear of contagion and brutal repression – both government-sanctioned and unofficial.

For two-and-a-half years, Mapa Teatro has been reflecting on several indigenous peoples of the Amazon and their determination to avoid contact with others. This is an act of resistance and survival in the face of plundering, the systematic reduction of their habitat, and the eradication of their culture and ideology. Our reflections began after we stumbled upon a news item in the local press about the discovery of a community living in voluntary isolation in the Colombian Amazon: This chance encounter led us to investigate other, earlier encounters. It is only through the current situation that we became aware of what implications such an act of resistance might have for our Western lives.

We can imagine the circumstances leading to the isolated community cutting ties with others. We would likely have reacted the same way. What we do not know, however, is what they think about us and the world in which we live. What is their take on what we call »progress« and »technology«? On our need to be part of a global communications network, and on our incessant and distracted consumption of information? How much longer can they remain distanced, cut off from the rest of the world like an island in the ever-deepening sea of humanity?

Other indigenous groups contact the isolated community by means of plants, animals, dance and song; we resort to our imaginations. We sense, however, how their thoughts constantly return to us, blocking our progress, stopping us in our tracks like crossed spears on a path, or like an arrow flying straight at us.

If we want to restore their anonymity and defend their resolve to live in the shadows, we have to forget them, erasing every scrap of news about their existence from our memories. Faced with this unknown is like trying to reconstruct an image of a black hole in space. Having insufficient tools to detect its presence, we opt to focus instead on the interference its gravitational force inflicts on its surroundings.

We oscillate between two parallel and contemporaneous worlds that remain alien to one another. We want to transcend our anthropocentric Western way of life and become intimate with an existence that lies beyond the limits of our experience. But try as we may to close the gap, we cannot see them, hear them or touch them. What kind of invocation would we need to step over the physical and mental borders that continue to separate us?

Never before has the non-linear progress of human history been felt as palpably as in 1969. In this year, two (white, Western) men stepped onto the surface of the moon. In the same year, but seemingly situated in a parallel universe in which progress occurs at a different rate, a community in the Colombian Amazon that had actively and consciously avoided all kind of contact for generations was disturbed by the arrival of a small group of explorers (also white, also Western).

Fifty years later, an encounter in Bogotá with someone who had fled the community when the white explorers appeared before their communal home, the maloca, led us to begin a work of »ethno-fiction« on the community and traces of its existence. The man we met, a gold-prospector turned goldsmith, became our medium. By creating small gold figures when he awoke from his dreams, he was able to facilitate potential poetic connections between us and the world of the isolated community.

The moon and the Amazon: two places experiencing time at a different rate. A window through which the white man saw other worlds, worlds from which he was excluded. Worlds in which the mineral, the animal, the indigenous and the herbal ruled. Mapa Teatro

The moon and the Amazon: two places experiencing time at a different rate. And 1969: the year of a strange connection, one that almost went unnoticed. A window through which the white man saw other worlds, worlds from which he was excluded. Worlds in which the mineral, the animal, the indigenous and the herbal ruled.

NASA sent the three Apollo 11 astronauts into the Darién Gap, a jungle shared by Colombia and Panama, as part of their training. In this place of extreme heat and humidity, the astronauts had to learn to survive without any assistance, bar the guidance of Antonio Zarco, an indigenous Emberá shaman. This training was instrumental in preparing the astronauts for the unpredictable conditions of outer space, but also in preparing them for the contingency of an unexpected jungle landing and being cut off from the rest of civilisation.In this part of the world, the saying goes that the souls of the Emberá travel to the moon after death.

Antonio Zarco was trained by his people to become a medicine man and a spiritual leader. He was masterful with the bow and arrow, learned the secrets of hunting and fishing, and was well-versed in the thousand different ways man can commune with nature. He had a profound knowledge of the power of plants and trees. As is typical in these cultures, his education was provided by the elders: he followed a special diet and, far removed from other people, was highly attuned to nature, to its sounds and smells, to the movement of light through leaves and on the water’s surface. He was taught to store the knowledge of the living beings around him so that, removed to an unfamiliar place, he could draw on this intangible wealth.

Space has no atmosphere and, as a result, sound does not travel through it. Space is a silent realm. Astronauts, however, are unaccustomed to silence, their hearing constantly attuned to their own bodies, to the flowing of blood and the cracking of joints, to the processes of digestion. It is almost as though they carry the jungle within them.

Were the astronauts a step ahead of Antonio Zarco when they journeyed to the moon, or did Zarco pave the way by teaching them to understand the jungle, to return alive from places inhabited by the souls of the dead?


XIMENA VARGAS, AGNES BREKE, HEIDI ABDERHALDEN, ANDRÉS CASTAÑEDA, JULIÁN DÍAZ, ROLF ABDERHALDEN, JOSÉ IGNACIO RINCÓN.
Bogotá, Columbia, Mai 2021

In January 2020, I took a short trip to Leticia, the capital of the Colombian Amazon. While I was there, I visited Gori Nuekeda, an indigenous man who’d had to move to the area with his family several years before. We talked all night in the maloca, sitting by the fire. I wanted to know what indigenous peoples think about the attitude of other communities in the same area, communities that avoid contact and cut themselves off completely. There is a significant paradox inherent to this decision, given that indigenous organisations have fought political fights to protect their visibility, to have their demands met and to defend their territories.

Gori replied: »Everything revolves around who we are. The term ›uncontacted tribe‹ can be insulting, implying as it does the power of a dominant force. We were put at the mercy of religion in 1890 by Law 89, which established how ›savages‹, converted to living a ›civilised‹ life, were to be governed.«

In its first chapter, declared unconstitutional in 1996, the law determined the following:
»The general legislation of the republic does not apply to the savages undergoing conversion to civilised life by missionaries. Consequently, the government, in agreement with ecclesiastical authority, will determine the manner in which these emerging societies shall be governed.«

We were treated like savages, like useless people. Perhaps the term »uncontacted tribe« helps maintain this prejudice. We are people with our own wishes. We can decide over our own fate. We have the right to self-determination, and yet there is no real recognition of that right. As far as the »uncontacted tribes« are concerned, it worries me that we don’t know whether they are suffering, that we can’t be sure that they’re doing well. Even though they are said to be uncontacted, this doesn’t mean they don’t also live in this polluted world here in the Amazon.

 

Indigenous peoples who live in voluntary isolation build fences to protect themselves. However, these don’t keep out pollution or diseases such as malaria, which have wiped out a number of our people. We don’t know what they are going through. The damage has already been done. Can they escape from disease? Run, I say! But the diseases will follow them. They are nomads travelling within an area that constitutes the territory, and we reach out to them mentally because we sense their distress. If we concentrate, we can establish mental contact with them. By concentrating, we can tell them yes, but we can also tell them no. We can tell them to come, but also not to come. We can tell them to stay put; were they to come here, they’d suffer just as we do. Our dances also establish a very strong flow of energy, and this connection is transmitted via plants, birds and animals. Were we to lose any of these, we would also lose our connection. The »uncontacted tribes« are not truly uncontacted. Our myriad concentrated efforts bring us closer to their world. We have direct contact, and so they cannot be uncontacted. They are in touch with us. It is a powerful thing. Through our dances, we learn about them and they sense how we are doing. We offer each other mutual protection.

 

I’d never been to the Amazon. I thought the jungle would embrace me on my arrival. Instead, I came, was embraced by Gori’s words in Leticia, and I left.

 

HEIDI ABDERHALDEN
May 2021

Translation: Charlotte Wührer/PANTHEA