Take What You Need: What I Learned from the Achuar People in Ecuador
I had the honor to journey into the Amazon Rainforest with the Pachamama Alliance this August. The Achuar people opened my eyes and my heart to what has been right in front of me my whole life. I experienced the Achuar community in action and the beauty of being in the presence of the protectors of the rainforest, who simply embody purpose and self-sufficiency.
“Changing the Dream of the North”
The indigenous Achuar people of Ecuador have taken a stand for keeping oil development out of their ancestral Amazon rainforest home, among the best-preserved and most biodiverse places on Earth. Their desire is stemmed from wanting to preserve our planet and it’s also based on their deep belief of taking only what we need. They welcomed me and my 15 Jungle Warriors into their traditions and lives in the hope they could change the dream of those of us in the “modern” world; what they call the North. This resonated so closely with me as I have been writing and speaking about, “what’s your enough?” and how in our world, we have been numbing ourselves with stuff and being busy 24/7.
The Achuar, for years, watched northern tribes struggle against the big oil companies, who saw the jungle as their corporate growth strategy, and in the early 1990s started organizing their dispersed communities into an entity that has so far saved them from a similar fate. The Achuar people are known to practice dream sharing as a way of determining and shaping their waking activities. They dreamt and recognized they could not do it alone. Over the last two decades, the Achuar and the Pachamama Alliance have worked together to seek solutions to age old problems of survival; this time facing the modern world wanting a piece of the Amazon Rainforest. Together, they partnered to change their collective dream and shift to a more sustainable way of life where money and having more is not how success is defined.
The struggle for power continues and I was there when a global tribunal was taking place because Ecuador’s president was considering allowing the oil companies into Achuar territory due to economic pressure. Their fight is simple. They see themselves as the protectors of the forest from development and it is the age old struggle for power and resources that native people have always faced. Their message to us is clear, only take what you need.
What they taught me has changed my life. I want to share with you their wisdom and find a way that we could all protect the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world from exploitation since we live in a world of abundance and we already have what we need. It is just not distributed equally.
“Take What You Need”
Imagine a world where we knew what we needed. When we shopped, we bought only what we knew we needed. We had a vegetable garden where we picked only the vegetables we needed for the meals for that day or even just that time of day. We didn’t have refrigerators where we could store food for another day. We had to consume whatever we brought into our space. In this world, we did not have walk-in closets where we could organize our clothes that could cloth at least 5–10 other people. We only had enough clothes, shoes, and accessories that we needed. In this world, a hoarder would be seen as an alien as taking too much would be frowned upon. And there could be “sightings” of them that would later be denied by official sources as it would be shocking to know that anyone took more than what they needed to live their life in comfort.
I spent a week with people who only take what they need in the heart and lung of the Amazon Rainforest. It is a tenet of their culture and also their reality. These people are the protectors of mother earth (Pachamama) and our forests. They are the Achuar people. They are astounded that in our world, there is a financial exchange for every meal we consume if we leave our homes. They think about what meal they will eat today and if they will eat. During one of our dinners, one of the women in my group saw some dogs milling around. She wanted to give them the food she wasn’t planning to eat. Before she shared it, which is what she would have done instinctually in our culture, she asked our Ecuadoran guide what she should do. Christina laughed when she heard this and said, “let’s make sure the people eat before we feed the dogs. The dogs need to fend for themselves.” I am so glad we asked.
In the Achuar culture, the women turn to the men when they see excess. They advise them when they are hunting or fishing too much. When they encountered the people from the north, they turned to the women and asked them why they were not telling their men that they had enough? They could not comprehend the constant need for more and more since they already had enough.
Think about the concept of taking what you need. What if you:
#1) Knew what you needed?
#2) Took only what you needed from the planet and people?
#3) Had an understanding of your enough?
The irony is that in our culture of extreme obesity rates, Attention Deficit Disorder, depression and increasing suicide rates, we are, too often, out of touch of what we need. We are saturated by messages telling us how to live our lives. We think we need more or at least that’s what advertisers hope we feel and act upon. The lines outside shops to buy the latest gadgets, when we already have enough, are a symptom of our consumption. The United States has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space — more than 7 square feet for every man, woman and child. It’s a place to store extra stuff even though the average home size has nearly doubled. Furniture is the most commonly stored item in America because people buy new stuff and refuse to depart with their old stuff. The statistics are staggering when you start looking into our habits of success being more is better.
“Shifting Our Dreams”
A week after I returned from the Amazon, when getting my morning coffee on a business trip to Toronto, I overheard this conversation between two women in a busy coffee shop, even though I tried to respect their privacy. It looked like an intense conversation between two women enjoying their morning coffee. I was curious about what they were so passionate about. When I heard what they were talking about, I found myself entering my judgment. Leaning in with great intent, one woman looked at the other and said “I am serious. You simply cannot wear purple to that meeting. You need a new outfit to impress them.” I looked at them again and saw the designer handbags and shoes. And I said to myself, the consumer world is alive and well. I was the one who went to the jungle and came back forever changed with thoughts of what’s my enough and what do I need. Most people around me are still busy numbing themselves with stuff that ends up trying to impress others or at the back of their walk-in closets after the one hurrah of adorning themselves with it.
The trip to the Amazon Rainforest forever changed my life. Although I have worked around the world and have been invited to learn from many different cultures, this was different. I was there to learn and listen. I was invited to be with a group of powerful women to learn about the Achuar culture and be with the women who were emerging for the first time in the tribe and community. We didn’t have to lecture or speak. Our simple presence was enough to show there are women in the world who are leaders and want to change the dream. We were there to simply be present and take it in. And most importantly, share with the world. The Achuar people believe that each person who enters the rainforest will tell 1,000 people about the need to protect mother earth from development and find new sustainable ways to take only what we need.
I changed my dream. I had a vision when I was lying on a banana leaf on mother earth that millions of people will hear this message and we will create new ways of living that will not only protect Pachamama (mother earth) and the rainforest but will all save millions of lives by having more people come to terms to understanding both what they need and what their enough is. There was no obesity, depression, ADHD or suicide in the jungle. I hope you join me and become part of this conversation wherever you are in the world. It’s time for each of us that despite the fear that surrounds us, we have the power to make choices in our lives about what we consume and how much. We need to start asking new questions about what we eat, where we shop, where we work and where we spend our gifted time on the planet. It is not an overnight transformation but a conscious path of listening to ourselves, breaking the culture of sameness, and knowing what we need.
As a result of this journey, I wrote Our Journey to Corporate Sanity for all fellow architects of humanity.