The Bora Tribe’s Delicate Dance in the Amazon

Posted onMay 12, 2013

I was half naked, and clothed with a colourful skirt made from the pounded bark of an Amazon tree. My face was painted, a large plumed necklace stuck to my chest’s perspiration, and on my head was a brightly colored headdress made of macaw feathers. Around me were brown colored people, men and women, who were clothed like me, except the women didn’t cover their breasts. I was deep in the Amazon River basin, near the river Nany, pronounced Na-ni, and if I didn’t know the location, I’d have sworn I was frolicking with my half naked relatives in the jungles of Vietnam. But I wasn’t in Vietnam, and despite the racial similarities, I was with the Bora tribe.

As I looked at my new identity through the LCD of my camcorder, the chieftain motioned for me to join his group. After a quick inspection of my dress and face paint, he guided me into the middle of a line of tribesman. We were about to dance a tribute to the Sacha Vaca, the amazon tapir. Sacha Vaca is a pidgin word, a mix of quechua and Spanish, which meant “It’s not a cow”. As I stood in the line with the men, we pounded our sticks into the ground, and sang. Suddenly, I felt the pull of a hand on my shoulder, and they tugged me into a run with their dance line, as we pounded our sticks in synch with the women’s voices. My feet gripped the rough soil floor, as I struggled to maintain the quick, changing rhythm of the line. Through it all, I marvelled at the tribe’s ability to maintain its traditions in the 21st century. How did they do it? That answer lay within the isolation of the Amazon Basin.

The Bora Tribe lining up for Carnaval in Iquitos

The Bora Tribe members in Iquitos readying themselves for Carnaval

I was on my fourth trip to South America. Like the first time, I chose to bicycle across the enormous continent, but this time I was headed through the southern portion, with the intention of crossing the deep Amazon Basin in Bolivia, the upper half of Paraguay, and through Brazil. I’d originally planned to enter the Amazon through northern Bolivia, but a request from a Peruvian friend to accompany him to Iquitos was too much to resist. We were going to survey several enormous tracts of land that the Peruvian government put up for auction. The government wanted to settle the vast interior of Loreto, as a way to alleviate poverty, and my friend wanted to purchase, preserve, and create a research and eco lodge park. Since his interests clicked with mine, I immediately bought a ticket, stashed my bicycle at his house, and we flew to Iquitos.

Iquitos is either an hour and a half flight from Lima, or a five to ten day river journey from several low mountain ports in the southern Andean region.. There is no land crossing to Iquitos. It’s also the capitol city of the largest department of Peru. When we arrived in Iquitos, we were dismayed upon learning that the hectares were several days away up the river via boat. My friend’s poor planning forced me to extend my plane ticket until we learned that the next boat wasn’t available for at least two weeks. I took the entire line of inconveniences in stride, and with a block of time now available, I set out to explore Iquitos and the surrounding regions. I contacted another Peruvian friend who was a biology research graduate at Rutgers University in Camden. He recommended that I stay with his family, and meet his friend, Gilberto, an ecologist, to get a better sense of the Amazon environment of Loreto. Gilberto worked at a biological preserve and research park, known as the White Sands Forest. Here, I discovered that the forest settlement program, as a method for poverty reduction, was a disaster waiting to happen.

The Amazon forest ecology in most of the Loreto Department consists of highly efficient, ecological recycling systems on top of nutrient poor, sterile sand. Most of the vegetation depends on a horde of millions of species of insects, molds, and fungi which, in a matter of days and weeks, turn any kind of organic matter into high powered fertilizer. Most of the Amazon Basin consists of this type of environment, where almost all the organic matter is either alive and trapped in plants and animals, or is in the process of being ground and molded by something living. Almost no organic matter is sequestrated in the soil, and is the primary reason why the Amazon basin’s soil is among the world’s poorest. The moment the insect’s homes, the trees, are cut down and burned, the recycling systems are eradicated, and what’s left is a thin layer of ash on top of loose and sterile, white sand.

Consequently, anyone who moves into the forest, and burns it down to plant crops, or worse, to ranch cattle and livestock, finds himself in a cycle of poverty which never ends since the soil can barely support savannah vegetation, let alone crops or cattle. After three to four years, the land is wasted, and the peasant finds himself and his family poorer, and moves to more forest to burn. Unfortunately, especially in Brazil, all of the Amazon Basin countries have enormous deforested sections which appear on satellite maps as white blocks and stripes, where the land serves as a parcel of desert.

The invasion doesn’t stop there. Like the Andean regions of Peru, the Loreto department is about 85% unexplored. Yet, after years of isolation, due to surging commodity prices, extensive exploration efforts yielded recent discoveries of large oil deposits. Consequently, the territory is quickly turning into the Wild Wild East of Peru. When I left the plane, I noticed personnel from an oil exploration company based out of Houston, Texas, who arrived to survey one of the many parcels of land the Peruvian government was auctioning.

As if this wasn’t enough, global warming was changing the area’s weather patterns. I spent part of the week questioning both the scientific station, and many of the locals about what they’d observed in the past five years of temperature and climate. In what should be “rainforest”, where the seasons are wet and wetter, there was a shortage of rainfall, and due to the porosity of the white sand, trees weren’t getting enough water, and the heat, amazingly, was hotter than usual. This compounded into a death sentence for most tree species, and after two years of blazing heat and lack of water, trees all across the basin were dying. A chain reaction was at hand, with both deforestation, and global climate change compounding on top of each other.

As we hiked through the preserve, and admired the areas where giant trees still stood, pristine, and watched the swarms of insects devour and grind fruit, organic detritus, and anything living in its path, I wanted to know if there was anyone who managed to live in harmony with the forest.

You should visit the Bora tribe, if that’s what you’re looking for. Said Gilberto as we examined a large rubber tree.
The Bora tribe?
Yes, they’re unique.
How so?
Well, they’ve been able to maintain their lives, traditions, and culture in the face of globalization and deforestation.
You’re kidding me.
No, go visit them. You might observe some interesting things.

Gilberto just told me to give them a call, but this is easier said than done. To get to the Bora involved traversing one of the sources of the mighty Amazon, the River Nany. The Rio Nany serves as the channel for Loreto, with Iquitos as the primary port on the way to the Atlantic. The Rio Putamayo, which forms the borders of Peru, Ecuador, and passes into Colombia links to the Rio Nany. Approximately 30-40 thousand members of the Bora tribe live within this territory of the Putamayo, and typically a journey from their central homeland to the Nany takes ten days on the river.

The Bora are indigenous to the Northeast Amazon river basin, a giant territory formed from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru’s Amazonian corners. The Bora are also notoriously shy about letting outsiders in to see their villages, homes, and culture. Yet, both economics, and global invasion were imposed on the Bora, and they had to come up with a solution to balance both their economic needs, and their desire for privacy in their villages. So, they came up with a display area solely for the use of ethno-tourism.

Joined with a new friend, Janet, a local Iquiteñan who showed me around her city, we took a 30 minute boat trip to one of the many green islands which dotted the horizon of the Rio Nany. As we got closer to the shore, several children dressed in just a white, painted cloth for a skirt came out to greet us. We waved to them, as we climbed up the rudimentary dock made of logs, and together we hiked to the tribal display grounds. There, a short, handsome, brown man who sported a macaw feathered headdress greeted us, and led us into a large house, called a “maloca”. We sat down and listened to the chief explain the basics of his tribe and customs.

According to the chief, the family structure is an extended set of families living in a “maloca”. A maloca is a great house made of wooden poles, roofed in palm fronds or thatch, and set upon the rain forest floor. The basic family unit is called a “curaca”; it consists of one man and several wives with their children. The society is a hunter gatherer society, and their belief system, customs, and language is based on the amazon rainforest plants and animals. All of what they eat and make is derived from the rich biodiversity of the rainforest, and their culture passes on its knowledge in the rich oral tradition of parent to child. Lately, missionaries from both Catholic and Protestant churches have made inroads into the society, and as a result, much of the native culture and especially valuable knowledge of medicinal flora is disappearing. Combined with the rampant globalization of every single culture, one would think that this unique ethnic group should’ve been lost in the homogenized, monotonized blur of globalization. Surprisingly, this isn’t the reality.

Obviously, economic realities have forced the tribe to make use of its unique culture and background as a means of income. Besides fishing, river boating, and tour guiding, the use of the site for ethno tourism permits the Bora to freely express their culture, customs, and rites, for a price. Because of the polluting effects of modern culture, the tribe chose to use the remoteness of the amazon to their advantage. They commute daily, walking one hour a day from the village to the display area, thus allowing them to show their culture, but without permitting the infiltration of their village and home lives. This was their secret to preservation, a long commute to work? I was both surprised and delighted in the simplicity and elegance of their solution.

In the final dance, I joined the women as we danced a tribute to the Manguare, a type of aquatic bird similar to a heron. As I danced with them and smiled with their grinning faces, I felt at once transported back in time, to the time before Western contact with the Americas, and I was in another world, age, and place. When we finished the dance, in my custom, I thanked every single one of the villagers in their native language, and then I learned one other characteristic of the Bora peoples. They’re well versed in business and trade. After negotiating a price with me regarding their tribal dance and participation, I was immediately swamped with village women offering their wares and handicrafts. It took some creative use of language and polite hand movement to get out of the maloca. As I sat on the boat back to Iquitos, and watched them wave to me, I remembered that the Amazon is an ocean of green, with isolated islands of people, each with their own unique culture and customs that they’ve fiercely guarded through the millennia. And, I prayed that in the face of globalization, deforestation, and global warming, that it would continue to be that way.

The author with the Bora Tribe

The author hard at work dancing with the Bora tribe. You can tell who he is, can’t you? He’s that sunlight deprived fellow in the middle there…

A Video of Me Dancing with the Bora Tribe