Supporting the Siekopai - Part 1

In 2021, Big Canopy Campout raised funds for the Sëra Foundation, an indigenous grassroots organisation founded by a group of young Amazon defenders of Siekopai nationality who are working to protect their territory and ancestral culture. Their focus is to create an education system that combines their ancestral wisdom with aspects of modern knowledge, and to develop sustainable sources of income for their community. BCC 2021 connected our international community of tree climbers and outdoor enthusiasts with these forest defenders in a global campaign to protect the Ecuadorian Amazon, learn from the people who have resided there for millennia and share their story of resistance. Funds raised through the sale of custom made products provided the opportunity for the Sëra Foundation to leave their community on a trip to visit inspiring people and projects to guide the steps in their journey. Beth Pitts activist, author and friend of the Siekopai documents the story below. 

As we walked purposefully down the streets of Ecuador’s capital city, we were attracting some curious glances from passersby. My companions were indigenous Siekopai from Ecuador’s Amazon region, their macaw feather headdresses piercing the blue sky, their bright garments splashes of hopeful colour against the concrete. Swishing necklaces of seeds and boar teeth provided a percussive accompaniment to our hurried steps. 

Robinson. Trainee Shaman of the Siekoya Remolino

We were running late for our appointment with the Ministry of the Environment, delayed by the painfully slow process of printing the all-important documents that we carried, the ink on the signatures freshly dry. This wasn’t the Siekopai’s first visit to the Ministry, where the resident bureaucrats had the power to approve or deny their dreams with a quick press of a rubber stamp. For three years the young indigenous Amazon defenders had been attempting to complete the paperwork to legally establish their own NGO. Previous visits had ended in disappointment and seemingly endless new obstacles, but this time we had a secret weapon: Ricardo the lawyer.    

Ricardo was the lawyer that environmental activists dream of: grey haired, elegant and fluent in legalese, with the camouflaged heart of a revolutionary. Hopes were high that this time things would be different; that the meeting would bring us a big step closer to our goal. 

As we walked, I reflected on the journey that had led us to this point. It was in 2018, while researching for my guidebook on Ecuador, that I had met the young Siekopai leader Jimmy Piaguaje. I had been in the northern Amazon region looking for grassroots eco-tourism projects led by indigenous communities and was recommended to speak to Jimmy. We met at a Chinese restaurant in the city of Lago Agrio, a concrete jungle hewn from pristine rainforest by Texaco after the discovery of oil in the 1960s.  

During our meeting, Jimmy told me about the Siekopai, one of eleven indigenous nationalities living in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Siekopai, which means ‘multicoloured people’ in their language, Paai koka, are renowned for their knowledge of medicinal plants, in particular ayahuasca, or yajé. They are also known for their fiery hot sauce, made from jungle peppers, and for drinking yokó, a coffee-like drink made from a vine. According to the Siekopai origin story, the god Ñañëpaina came down from the sky to find their people living underground and liberated them to live on the earth.

In a matter-of-fact way, Jimmy went on to describe his people’s precarious situation. The Siekopai once numbered over 30,000 but five-hundred years of genocide, slavery, disease and displacement had reduced their number to just 1600, living in Peru and Ecuador. The 700 Siekopai in Ecuador exist in a

fragment of rainforest, surrounded by oil fields and monoculture palm oil plantations, their rivers contaminated by toxic waste. Oral traditions that have been passed down for millennia are disappearing and their shamans are dying without apprentices

In the face of these existential threats, Jimmy remained hopeful. He and a group of other young Siekopai had been working on a number of innovative solutions. Jimmy and his cousin Ribaldo, who had both studied audio visual production, began to film the shamans when they were harvesting medicinal plants, preserving ancestral traditions in video format. 

SËRA Foundation 

As other young people joined the group, they formed an organisation, “Sëra”, named after the spirit of heaven that arrives in the sacred month of August (Kakotëkawë in Paai koka) to announce a new era. They started working in the area of education, running school workshops to promote environmental awareness through intergenerational exchange between the elders, parents and children. They had recently embarked on the paperwork to legally establish the Sëra Foundation as an NGO.  

 

Jimmy told me about his community of Siekoya Remolino, which is made up of 53 families living on the banks of the Aguarico River. While other Siekopai communities have felled their rainforest for oil palm, the residents of Siekoya Remolino continue to defend and conserve their territory. Jimmy explained that only the continued peaceful resistance of his community is preventing the state oil company from building a road that would allow the exploitation of the Amazon all the way to the border with Peru. 

I left the meeting with Jimmy deeply moved, inspired and impressed. Of the many nature defenders I met during the year I spent researching for my book, Jimmy gave me the most hope for the future. I soon left Lago Agrio to continue my investigations, but Jimmy’s story stayed with me. 

In 2020 I began writing for Writers Rebel, the literary magazine of Extinction Rebellion UK, with the aim of platforming indigenous defenders. I conducted an in-depth interview with Jimmy, during which he updated me on what he’d been up to since our initial meeting. 

He explained that the environmental workshops he’d been running with his group of young leaders had been so successful that their next goal was to expand these into an alternative school, where they planned to implement a curriculum blending ancestral Siekopai wisdom with aspects of modern knowledge. Sadly, he told me that their efforts to legalize the Sëra Foundation had stalled. They had made numerous trips to Quito to complete the paperwork, but had been met with discrimination from the State, which was putting endless red tape in their path. At one point, they had even been asked to provide certificates proving their indigeneity. Their limited funds had been exhausted by these trips to the city, which is a ten-hour journey by canoe and bus from their community. 

I suggested that we set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to establish the Sëra Foundation. As Jimmy and I worked together on the campaign, unbeknownst to us, a group of tree enthusiasts with a fundraising platform was looking for their next cause to support … 

Big Canopy Campout

On 20th January 2021 I received an unassuming message via the crowdfunding page from an organisation called Big Canopy Campout (BCC), asking whether I was available for a call about the Siekopai project. I messaged back to arrange a call for that afternoon.

As soon as I started speaking with Big Canopy Campout Co-Founder Vicki Tough, I immediately felt that I’d found a kindred spirit. She explained that BCC organizes the world’s largest treetop camping event whilst raising funds to protect native forests. They had spent 2020 selling tree-climbing gear online to raise funds for activists who were camping in the treetops of Tasmania’s Wielangta Forest to prevent its destruction by logging. Their investigations for a cause to support in 2021 had led them to Jimmy’s videos of medicinal plants and our crowdfunding page. Were we looking for any additional funding? 

Vicky expressed a desire to fundraise for something distinct from the crowdfunding campaign, so Jimmy and I came up with the idea of a tour for the group of young Siekopai leaders, to visit other alternative schools that were already in operation. The vision for the tour was to inform and inspire them, to broaden their horizons, to clarify next steps on the path to creating their own school, and to find mentors to guide them on the way.  

And thus began a year of working with the wonderful people at Big Canopy Campout (BCC), who appeared like carabina wielding angels to make this beautiful dream come true. And, despite being arborists, I can attest that the funds they raised did not fall from a tree. They were the result of months of hard work and dedication, in particular by Vicky Tough and her sister Rebecca. As part of BCC 2021, 183 tree camps were set up in 35 countries worldwide, including Russia and Fiji! By selling tree climbing and related gear to the event participants and their community, BCC generated £5000 for the young Siekopai’s educational tour. 

Lisa Searle Bob Brown Foundation Activist

Aside from the opportunity to collaborate with such amazing humans, for me one of the most wonderful aspects of working with BCC is the energetic or karmic origin of the funds. In my years of activism, I have seen how many beautiful projects have to accept grants from morally dubious sources just to keep going. In contrast, the funds from BCC had been raised by tree lovers all over the world while communing with trees! It still gives me joy to imagine the hundreds of people camping in tree tops, their torchlit tents lighting up the canopies like fireflies. It felt like alchemy to connect this network of forest enthusiasts with Jimmy and his group of Amazon defenders.

While BCC worked to finance the tour, I organised the itinerary and logistics. After much deliberation, two main destinations were chosen: the Bosque Escuela Pambiliño, a forest school north of Quito that focuses on experiential education in nature; and Sarayaku, an indigenous Kichwa community with a school based on their own cosmovision. We added a stop in Quito to advance the paperwork for the Sëra Foundation after an Ecuadorian NGO, Fundacion Raiz, very kindly offered us the services of their lawyer, Ricardo Crespo.   

It was decided that the six founding members of the Sëra Foundation would participate in the tour: Jimmy and his cousin Ribaldo, both documentary film makers; Yadira, whose passion is reviving the Siekopai’s ancestral ceramic traditions; Joffre, who focuses on eco-tourism; Ruth, who runs a reforestation project; and Liliana, who works with the community’s children. Joining the six would be two other promising young people from the community: Robinson, the community’s apprentice shaman; and 18-year old Milena, the youngest member of the group and an IT student. Accompanying us to document the tour with videos and photos were Jimmy’s Japanese American filmmaker girlfriend, Kumiko, and my partner, Angelo, an Ecuadorian artist. 

 L-R: Robinson, Beth, Jimmy, Joffre, Ribaldo, Milena, Yadira, Ruth, Liliana)

After a year of work, it was hard to believe that the tour was finally happening. But here we were, in Quito, walking towards the Ministry of the Environment, paperwork in hand. 

Ricardo was waiting for us outside the Ministry when we arrived. He explained to the security guard on the gate that the group of Siekopai had arrived for their meeting with the Legal Department. The guard took in the headdresses, the boar teeth, the painted faces, before radioing in the news of our arrival. He told us that only two of our party would be allowed to enter the building with Ricardo. Whether this was standard practice, an anti-covid measure, or a way to prevent an indigenous occupation of the building (a tried and tested protest tactic in Ecuador), we will never know. Jimmy and Yadira went in with Ricardo while the rest of us waited anxiously outside. 

We didn’t have long to wait before Ricardo, Jimmy and Yadira came out smiling. The Ministry lawyers had accepted our request to continue with the stalled process of legalising the Sëra Foundation! There would be one more legal procedure to complete, which Ricardo could undertake in Quito before sending the documents to Siekoya Remolino for the group to sign. Ricardo estimated that by the end of February we would be able to take the all-important step of opening the NGO bank account. After three years of frustration, this was wonderful news. What a difference it made to have a lawyer onside!


Bosque Escuela Pambiliño (Forest School)

That afternoon we made the three-hour journey from Quito to the Bosque Escuela Pambiliño, a forest school located in the rainforest of the Andean foothills northwest of Quito, within the Chocó Andino UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. 

In the van, the Siekopai had been talking wistfully about visiting the beach, joking with the driver that if he turned off and kept going east, they’d be eating ceviche by dinner time. Some of them had never seen the ocean. I’d started to wonder whether we should have chosen a coastal school as our first destination, but as soon as we arrived in Pambiliño, these worries were dispelled.

Upon setting foot in a familiar rainforest habitat, with the song of crickets to welcome us, the Siekopai came alive. They had been fine in the concrete jungle of Quito, but here amid the trees they were in their element.  

 

 

We were met by the school’s founders Oliver Torres and Marie Arcos, who showed us to our rooms. “It’s so beautiful!” said Robinson upon seeing the dormitory, made from bamboo and wood, surrounded by forest. That night we dined together on cassava lasagne and went to bed early after a long day. 

The following morning began with a word circle, where everyone introduced themselves and Oliver welcomed us to the Pambiliño Forest School. In the middle of the circle was a pan full of dried leaves, which Oliver explained were from the coca tree growing on the grounds. While it is illegal to cultivate coca in Ecuador, it is a native species in the Chocó Andino region. The Yumbos, who inhabited this part of Ecuador from 800AD until after the colonisation, used to chew the leaves in ceremonies to clean the spoken word and clear the vision. With a wad of leaves in his cheek, Oliver invited us to participate in this ancestral ritual. He explained that many of the traditions of the Yumbos have been lost and that he was excited to share this ceremony with the Siekopai, who still retain many of their own ancient customs. He hoped that by sharing this medicinal plant together, we would be planting the seeds of a long and fruitful relationship. He reflected that before the western education system arrived, this was how communities educated their children; by sitting together, sharing medicinal plants and talking, passing on knowledge and stories.   

Jimmy recounted that the Siekopai traditionally used the plants mañapë and yokó in a similar way, with the whole community getting up at 2am or 3am and talking around a fire. This was ancestral education, with the community learning from the elders, from the plant teachers. This is how it had been for time immemorial, with knowledge being passed orally down the generations. That way of teaching had continued unbroken until the 1970s, when the missionaries with the Summer Institute of Linguistics had arrived. The missionaries had worked with Texaco to sever the connection between the indigenous peoples and their ancestral lands in areas where the oil company wanted to operate. When that connection was cut, Jimmy said, everything was lost. After being told that their millennial way of life, including ayahuasca, was sinful and the devil’s work, the Siekopai abandoned many of their ancient traditions for fear of going to hell.  

Nowadays in the community, Jimmy explained, the quality of education was poor. Although the Siekopai have their own language, Paai koka, the government sends teachers of Kichwa nationality to the state school in Siekoya Remolino, obliging the children to learn Kichwa. No educational materials are provided in Paai koka. To make things worse, the teachers set a bad example, drinking beer with the students after classes. As alcohol had replaced ayahuasca, the community had lost its way and violence had increased.   

Oliver then introduced a ground breaking concept. He told us that while he and Marie had created the forest school from scratch, they had also transformed the local state school using the forest school methodology. He spoke of the difficulty of financially sustaining an alternative private school, which tend to work best in wealthier areas where parents can pay significant fees to cover the school’s running costs.

 

By transforming the existing state school, education can remain free, as the government still provides the basic infrastructure and pays the teachers’ salaries. In this way, Oliver said, it is possible to take advantage of the space created by the modern education system to create an intercultural education that fuses the Western and indigenous worldviews and remains accessible to everyone. This was a real “aha!” moment for us!

Oliver explained that the forest school methodology focuses on experiential education, i.e., learning while doing. This is very different to the passive education model still used in the vast majority of Ecuadorian schools, where students are taught to copy from the board, to learn by rote, to obey rather than to question. He pointed out that ancestral education wasn’t just undertaken by talking around a fire, but also while hunting, fishing, building, or harvesting plants. Here too, the forest school methodology imitates ancestral education. The space for learning isn’t just the classroom, Oliver said, it’s the whole community and its environment: the forest, the rivers, the kitchen, the garden. Experiential education provides options for exploration and allows children to find their vocation, he told us. 

Oliver highlighted a forest school in Puerto Rico, the Bosque Escuela La Olimpia, which had grown out of a grassroots citizens’ movement to prevent open-pit mining in the island’s central mountain region. After 15 years of struggle, local residents had succeeded in conserving the area by creating Puerto Rico’s first state forest. Within the heart of the new protected area, they founded a forest school with a curriculum that includes agro-ecology, biodiversity, climate change, renewable energy, and community development. The aim was to guarantee that future generations would manage the forest sustainably. This was music to the ears of the Siekopai, who are fighting to defend their territory from oil exploitation! 

With this inspiring story, the word circle came to an end. Yadira chose this moment to present Oliver and Marie with some gifts that she had made for them: a bracelet made from seeds for Oliver and some macaw feather earrings for Marie. 

Yadira wasn’t the only one feeling grateful to our hosts at that moment. While organising the tour, I had been very conscious of all the effort that Big Canopy Campout had made to raise the funds. I had been feeling the weight of this responsibility, wanting to make sure that the decisions we made honoured their hard work. After the word circle I felt an enormous relief, knowing that we couldn’t have chosen a better use of the funds than coming to the forest school. Oliver and Marie understood the Siekopai’s situation perfectly, had exactly the knowledge we needed, and delivered it in an inspiring and uplifting way. 

We spent the rest of the morning touring the school grounds. We walked through the food gardens, where crops including cassava and plantain grow alongside native trees such as cedar and kopal. Oliver showed us around the kitchen, where ingredients from the forest are prepared. Robinson was particularly fascinated by the wood-burning clay oven. Would it be possible to make a giant version as a kind of sauna for treating people using medicinal plant vapours? he wondered, sketching the oven in his notebook. 

      Yadira, Ruth, Liliana with Oliver

As Siekoya Remolino’s apprentice shaman, Robinson plays a key role in the community. As fewer and fewer young people choose the shamanic path and wise elders die without passing on their knowledge, he is a figure of great hope for the whole Siekopai nationality. He had been instrumental in the recent project to build a ceremonial maloca (hut), the community’s first dedicated space for spiritual and medicinal rituals since the arrival of the missionaries half a century ago. After knowing him for just a couple of days, I was very glad that we had been able to include Robinson on the tour. He quickly proved himself to be kind, thoughtful and endlessly curious, seizing any opportunity to learn. He was filling up his notebook so fast that I wondered if he might need another one before we left Pambiliño!

      Robinson Apprentice Shaman

In the kitchen, Oliver introduced the idea of value-added products that come from the forest. He explained that the school cultivates cardamom, one of the most expensive spices in the world. By dehydrating and packaging it, they can sell it for a higher price. Similarly, by making artisanal chocolate with the cacao grown on the grounds, it can be sold for more than the raw ingredient. He wondered if the Siekopai might be able to open a restaurant next to the fish farm that they were planning on building, offering freshly-caught fish as part of their eco-tourism project? 

The concept of value-added products was interesting and relevant, as one of the Siekopai’s most urgent needs is to generate sustainable sources of income. While the residents of Siekoya Remolino are determined to conserve their fragment of rainforest, they see other communities receiving money from oil palm and petroleum companies. Each family in the neighbouring village, for example, receives $500 per month after felling their trees for oil palm, while families in Siekoya Remolino receive nothing for conserving the biodiversity of their land. This kind of wealth inequality creates social fissures that the extractive industries are adept at exploiting, which is why building a regenerative alternative economy is key to maintaining a unified resistance.

After the kitchen, we visited the plant nursery, where Oliver and the Siekopai exchanged the Spanish and Paai koka names and uses for various plants. After the coca ceremony, the shared passion for medicinal plants ran like a thread through the morning, and would continue throughout the ten days we would spend together. This was fitting as, according to Jimmy, it is only the Siekopai’s use of plants, especially what he calls the “plants of resistance” such as ayahuasca, that has enabled the survival of their millennial culture. In fact, it was through drinking ayahuasca together that the young Siekopai had envisioned theconcept for the Sëra Foundation.

Moving on to the art workshop, we saw the crafts that the students were making with forest materials such as gourds and clay. This was of particular interest to Yadira, whose passion is ancestral Siekopai ceramics. 

We ended the tour in the forest. We were accompanied by a couple of the students, both of whom, like the Siekopai, seemed in their element among the trees.

 

 

Marie led us in a fascinating activity in pairs, where one person closed their eyes and their partner had to guide them in an exploration of the forest using their other senses. Directed by our companion’s guiding hands and words, we touched moss, listened to the crunch of dried leaves under our feet, smelled dirt from the forest floor. Even the Siekopai, who were so familiar with the forest environment, had never experienced it from this perspective.   

 

After lunch we had some free time to bathe in the river. Watching the group of young Siekopai laughing, swinging on a vine into the water, I reflected how good they were at living in the moment. Despite, or perhaps because of, the precarious situation of their community, they were quick to find joy in daily life. 

 

In the afternoon Marie gave us a talk on the Pambiliño Forest School and its methodology. After originating in Scandinavia, the forest school methodology has spread across the world. Having been recognised by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education, there are currently 50 communities across the country using it to transform their state schools. Each forest school has its own focus, depending on the community’s requirements. 

In the transformation of their local school, Marie and Oliver had designed a program with four axes: agriculture and environment (forest gardens and crops, water, botany, forest ecology); arts (music, visual art, literature, artistic expression); gastronomy (nutrition, edible plants, cooking, conscious eating); and crafts (carpentry, ceramics, weaving). Marie talked about some of the activities that the children undertake. I was particularly taken with the idea of their final projects, which the children get to choose. Last year, one group had decided to make and sell jam from fruits harvested from the forest, while another group had set up and monitored camera traps. In the process of carrying out these projects, the children learned a wide variety of subjects, such as maths, science, marketing and group dynamics.    

Marie suggested that the Siekopai might set up a forest school based on the Paai koka language, ancestral stories, medicinal plants, ceramics and other crafts, traditional architecture and Amazonian gastronomy. 

This was when Marie introduced the second ground breaking idea of the day. She explained how she had taken the first step towards the transformation of the local school by volunteering there as an English teacher. Little by little, she had built relationships with the teachers, the children and the education authorities. Eventually, she and Oliver had been able to work with the teachers to introduce a whole education program. She suggested that we start the transformation of the Siekoya Remolino school in a similar way, by offering a once-monthly workshop to the children. Looking around the group, I realised that the young Siekopai already had the skills between them to take this first step. With some preparation, we could already offer workshops on audio visual production, medicinal plants, ceramics, IT, art, administration and photography. What an eclectic range of knowledge we had to offer from both the ancestral and modern worlds! Once these monthly workshops had been established, Marie suggested, we could supplement them by involving other community members with skills to share, or by bringing in long-term volunteers to teach English. 

In the space of a day, what had seemed an overwhelming project, to open our own alternative school, suddenly seemed possible. That morning, Oliver had introduced the idea of transforming the existing state school, rather than creating a school from scratch. Now Marie had given us very doable first steps to take. 

Marie went on to say that she and Oliver would be very open to visiting Siekoya Remolino to continue the sharing of knowledge. They could conduct an evaluation of the school´s physical infrastructure and human resources. She suggested that members of the Sëra Foundation might like to train in the forest school methodology; that Siekoya Remolino could become part of the national forest school network. She was excited by the idea of fusing the forest school methodology with Siekopai ancestral education.   

That evening I lay in bed listening to the happy sounds of the Siekopai talking. Some of them already had young children at home, others lived in the city while attending university. It was rare for them to spend time together like this, away from their usual responsibilities. I was glad they had the opportunity to do so now, to learn, dream and laugh together. 

Before I fell asleep, my mind returned to a story that Lili had told me earlier, after becoming teary-eyed at the sight of Oliver and Marie’s black Labrador. Her two beloved canine companions had died recently, she explained. One day the dogs had accompanied her sister, Ruth, to the river when they suddenly started to bark uncontrollably. Ruth had been unable to quiet the dogs and had become angry with them. In the end, she had to stop fishing and return home in order to get some peace and quiet. Later, both dogs had been found dead by the river, killed in a fight with a jaguar. They had been barking to warn Ruth of the big cat’s presence. I thought about my own dog, snoozing for most of the day on the sofa. Lili´s story had been a stark reminder of the very different worlds we inhabit.  

The next day we visited the local school, the Escuela Rio Mashpi. Sadly, the government had just announced the temporary closure of all state schools as a response to the new covid variant, so we couldn’t see the classes in operation as we had planned. However, Marie gave us a tour of the facilities, accompanied by two of the students. The classrooms at the Rio Mashpi school were very different from those I had seen in other Ecuadorian schools, which consisted of rows of desks facing a whiteboard at the front. Here, each classroom was divided into separate areas for various activities - art, science, educational boardgames - with chairs clustered around small tables. Everything was colourful, tidy and well kept. As Marie showed us around and explained how the children use the various areas, Angelo commented that he’d like to go back in time to be a child again so that he could be educated like this. 

One of the Pambiliño volunteers was painting a mural on the outside wall of the school, assisted by some of the children who were interested in art. The school closure didn’t affect this activity. Angelo, a talented artist, seized his chance to spend a couple of hours painting and joined in. 

In one of the classrooms, Oliver divided the Siekopai into two groups and asked them to envision the school that they would like to see in their community and then present their ideas. Their dream school formed the heart of their community and included educational materials in their own language; well trained and respectful teachers; and the involvement of the elders in classes. Facilities included volunteer housing, a solar powered canoe, a workshop for ancestral and modern art, a cycle path and a library.

In the afternoon, two of the teachers from Rio Mashpi gave us a talk on the transformation of the school, which they had been involved in alongside Marie and Oliver. They spoke of the importance of finding ways of teaching that suited the interests of individual children, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. They gave the example of a girl who didn’t like maths, but loved birds. By getting her involved in counting and adding up the different bird species that she saw in the forest, they had found a maths activity that she really enjoyed. Lili later told me that this talk was a highlight of the whole tour for her. She’d been trying to force her children and niece to all learn in the same way by nagging them. She was excited about returning home and trying a more tailored approach.

On our last morning at the forest school, I interviewed Marie for the documentary that we were making for Big Canopy Campout. She told me how much the young Siekopai had inspired her and Oliver, how much hope they felt for the future as a result of our visit. It was wonderful to hear that our hosts had also benefitted from our time together.

Everybody enjoyed that morning’s activities. After dividing into two groups, half of us harvested ingredients from the forest for lunch, while the other half learned how to distil essential oils from native plants.  

I was in the harvesting group, which was led by a local campesino, Don Eddy, who had a deep ancestral knowledge of the forest. We were accompanied by one of the students, a boy named Hans. Marie had told us that when Hans had first arrived at Pambiliño, he had shunned cooking as an activity for girls. During his time at the school, he had changed his opinion and become a keen chef! I asked Hans what he most liked to cook and he shyly told me that he loved making chocolate and orange cake with cacao and fruit from the forest.

In the space of a couple of hours with Don Eddy, we harvested an impressive variety of ingredients. We dug up a kind of wild purple potato from the forest floor, carefully gathered nettles, and cut palm stems to find the tender hearts inside. We picked a number of fruits such as jackfruit, dragon fruit, mandarin oranges and salak. When Hans saw how much I enjoyed the crunchy, acid sweetness of the salak, he showed me how to find more at the base of the plant. To flavour our harvest, we collected various herbs and spices including wild versions of turmeric, cinnamon, lemongrass and garlic. Happy with our haul, we returned to the kitchen to prepare lunch. 

 

 

 

When we got back, we found the other group totally immersed in making essential oil from wild lemongrass using glass distilling equipment. They were listening intently as Marie’s brother Juan explained the final stage of the process. At the end of the morning’s work, they had produced just a few drops of precious, divinely fragranced oil from an enormous beaker of leaves. 

In the kitchen, we set about making purple potato mash with turmeric, a nettle salad and a salak dessert with chocolate and orange sauce. Spirits were high as we tucked into our last meal at Pambiliño. The ingredients we had harvested were so full of energy and nutrients from the forest, that I felt supercharged as we sat down for a farewell word circle. As everyone took their turn to speak, there were many expressions of gratitude and inspiration. Marie and Oliver presented Yadira with some river rocks painted by the students to thank her for the bracelet and earrings she had made for them. It wasn’t just Yadira who was wiping away tears as we said our goodbyes.

 

As we set out for Quito, our driver put some romantic ballads on the stereo. As the Siekopai sang along, I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer of gratitude to the universe. Marie and Oliver had illuminated the pathway to our dream and offered to guide us on the way. Our time at the forest school had been everything we could have hoped for and more. Later, Kumiko told me that Jimmy had been in tears in the van, overwhelmed that all our hard work had yielded such a beautiful result.