LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Protecting nature's diversity -
Mari Muench and Kurikindi with their daughter, Samai
Date of photography: 6th October 2017
This remarkable story tells of an extraordinary woman, Mari Muench, who married Kurikindi, a native shaman in Latin America. With their daughter, Samai, the family now live part of the year in Ecuador, where they fight to preserve the virgin rainforest, and part in London, where they strive to expose our foolish destruction of the precious environment upon which our lives entirely depend. Mari recently observed that whenever she returns to London, with her eyes freshly sharpened by exposure to an entirely different culture, she finds it shocking and depressing how little people here know about the destructive impact they have on the wider world around them. Surely, it must be almost a sort of madness not to see that we cannot keep on taking more and more, treating our planet as an unlimited resource that we can just chop up and burn as we please. A small minority are beginning to recognise the overwhelming need to sustain the natural equilibrium, something indigenous peoples don’t need to be taught, it is their way of life, yet they are sometimes seen by us as backward, uncivilised and primitive people. Sadly, Mari is also beginning to see that even indigenous populations are starting to drift on to the same path; they are now subject to the same systems of education, all of which promote the old dogma of never-ending economic growth and increasing productivity, with little regard to the fact that resources are being swiftly depleted and we shall all soon be on the same road to ecological disaster.
When I was invited to their Greenwich home, to photograph and interview Mari’s family, wearing the authentic clothing of the Ecuadorian Kichwa tribe, this was for them neither a gimmick nor a rehearsal for a fancy-dress party. In fact, Mari’s family spend most of the year living deep in the virgin rainforest of Ecuador, and the splendid attire they are wearing is what would be appropriate for major occasions in the life of the tribe. Mari Muench is a true Londoner: although she was born in Epping and has lived in both Kent and Essex, mostly she has lived in London. Almost eight years ago, deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest, on the banks of the Napo River, she married the then president of the Kichwa tribe, Kurikindi, who also happens to be a shaman. They have a delightful daughter, Samai, who is now six.
Mari is certainly someone you don’t forget: she radiates confidence, embraces life in all its forms, yet clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly. To some, she might possibly come across as eccentric but as she tells me: “Milan, I was born into an eccentric, almost bohemian family and to me, their behaviour always seemed normal. My father was both an entrepreneur and a businessman, but he was also a musician. He sang and played the guitar, as well as a very early version of the electric banjo. At one stage, in the 1950’s, he even had his own dance group. The guitars on our wall are all his except for the Spanish guitar, which is the one I play. My mother is now in her nineties and continues to live independently. If you were to meet her, you would soon realise that she seems to have lived several lives and all of them to the full. She was a mother, a restaurateur, a boutique owner, a dancer, a choreographer, and a teacher; she even performed on the stage at Sadler's Wells Theatre at the age of 94. So, as you see, both of my parents were colourful characters, and they both led interesting and unusual lives. Looking back at them, you can perhaps see where the ‘mad, anything goes’ factor within me comes from.” Mari concludes with a laugh. (Mari’s mother, Doris, has kindly agreed to participate in this project and her photograph and story can bee seen at: www.londonersathome.org/dancing.html )
“When I was young, we moved around a great deal. I went to lots of different schools across Kent, London and Essex, and we lived in numerous different houses; at one stage, we even lived on the water, in a houseboat. As you can imagine, my education was all over the place too. I went to private schools, where I was taught French at the age of 5, to large state schools, and to small village schools; predictably, the quality of my education varied greatly. Once classified as a child genius, I was failed by the school system and I ended up not passing many formal exams and, no, I didn’t go to university either, but I learned a great deal from my parents, from the way we lived, and by living life to the full. And yes, Milan, I continue to learn and to change, even at my age. I left home at 16, and I had quite a range of jobs: I was a life guard, I cooked burgers, I served ice-creams, and I delivered spares to garages; I could turn my hand to anything really. Survival was the key to it all. After many years of working for a large number of interesting people, I started out on my own; I became my own boss. I ran a well-known go-kart circuit in London’s Docklands for sixteen years and I made a great success of it.” Having spent half a day with Mari, I could well imagine that she was capable of succeeding in whatever endeavour she set her heart on, or put her mind to, and yet, behind what seemed like supreme confidence, there was not even a hint of arrogance, and certainly no delusions of grandeur.
When the Docklands’ all-powerful London Development Agency decided to re-acquire the land occupied by Mari’s go-kart business, the feisty Mari, as you might have expected, put up quite a fight. This time, alas, Goliath prevailed and she lost the battle, but instead of moping, she moved on to open a new chapter in her life. Without knowing it, she would soon to be involved in another battle, this time involving forces even more powerful, more baleful than the London Development Agency. This time, the fight would take place on the other side of the globe, in the deepest, darkest rainforests of Latin America.
Mari continued: “Milan, I was 43 by this time and went, with my boyfriend of thirteen years, on a long trip to South America. We visited my niece, who worked as an astrophysicist in Chile, and we also took the opportunity to see the Galapagos Islands. This venture also took us deep into the Ecuadorian rainforest, where we stayed in an eco-tourist lodge at Sani Isla, on the banks of Ecuador’s Napo River; the lodge was run by a community of the local Kichwa tribe.” Theirs was a vast territory of over 70,000 hectares of virgin forest and home to about 400 indigenous villagers, a people who, as recently as two generations ago, had defended their land from intruders using deadly blowpipes. Sani Isla is a community of approximately eighty families and Mari says: “For me, as a Londoner, it was literally arriving into ‘another world’ and at that stage, I couldn’t have imagined how much the visit would change my life.”
“Of course, I wasn’t entirely deaf to discussions about the environment that had been taking place in the UK but, to be honest, I’d had other priorities on my mind, mostly my business and my private life. Then, at a village ceremony held during our visit, I met Kurikindi who was at that time the Community Chief. He was also a well-respected shaman.” It has been rumoured that magic might have turned this accidental meeting into something of far greater significance: Mari’s long-term relationship ended and, after meeting again some time later, she and Kurikindi simply felt they were ‘destined’ to be together and to settle down in Kurikindi’s ancestral home. Their tribal marriage even made the headlines in London but it was not only the event itself; it was the fact that they soon found themselves drawn into an almighty battle with powerful economic forces and a major conflict of interests between the indigenous population and a swarm of avaricious interlopers.
When Mari arrived to stay in Sani Isla’s Eco Lodge, the place was well-established and almost always full of visitors, yet the community seemed to benefit little from it. With her outsider’s perspective and her ‘hands on’ experience of running a substantial business, Mari soon discovered what the problem was and what needed to change. As one might imagine, the changes she suggested, and later saw implemented, pleased some but angered others; Mari, however, is someone who gets things done, she always does, and the changes she effected bore fruit quite soon.
Mari returned to London, briefly, to give birth to her daughter but soon, they were all back together in the rainforest, now facing a much more serious struggle. Sadly for the Kichwa, oil reserves had previously been found on their land, and the state-backed petrochemical company, PetroAmazonas, was determined to harness this resource. The year 2013 proved to be critical: by now, the Kichwa people were no longer strangers to those who had tried, and who would continue to try, to invade their territory, in order to exploit the rich resources of the rainforest and possibly one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Battles with illegal loggers had been frequent but at the same time, the Kichwa had begun to collaborate in eco-tourism in an endeavour to save their land; this, of course, brought outsiders directly into their community.
Like so many other indigenous peoples of Amazonia, the Kichwa tribes have, within three generations, graduated from spears and blowpipes to eco-tourism. And therein lies the conundrum: many aboriginal peoples have, in the past, been described as primitive or uncivilised simply because intruding westerners had nothing to gain from recognising, or even looking for, these tribes’ complex social structures and rich cultural traditions, mores that had evolved and been nurtured over centuries. Indigenous peoples may have succeeded in resisting ‘invaders’ for several generations but once the tribes themselves had opened the doors to visitors, be they traders, missionaries, medics, eco-tourists or whatever, they exposed themselves to the forces and influences of modernity that they could no longer control. Eco-tourism is perhaps the best, contemporary example of this sort of contamination.
As one would expect, the first approach made by PetroAmazonas was to come bearing gifts: they promised the community a school, healthcare, university education for the brightest children and, of course, lump sums in cash, in amounts that seemed huge for a community whose members were living not much above subsistence level. In reality, what they offered was only a meagre £24 per hectare of land, land covered in what, at that stage, was still pristine rainforest. Mistrusting the corporation and fearing the destruction and pollution that would follow drilling, over 80% of the village opposed the proffered oil deal. Both Kurikindi and Mari were very much involved in helping to coordinate that opposition.
True to type, the PetroAmazonas corporation was not to be so easily thwarted and resorted to a time-honoured practice that rarely fails - ‘divide and rule’. Having identified key individuals amongst the opposition, they subjected them to intimidation and direct threats. Such threats are nothing new and in Amazonia, they are, alas, only too real: many environmental activists who have stood in the way of developers have simply been murdered. Mari, Kurikindi and their daughter were now all at risk.
Then, quite out of the blue, the villagers of Sani Isla discovered that, without any authorisation from the community, the village chief had signed a contract giving PetroAmazonas the go-ahead to start their proposed explorations for oil. Mari and Kurikindi attempted to demonstrate that the contract could not possibly be legal and they challenged the document. They campaigned for days, travelling by boat to each village, house and family, but what they discovered was that, by then, the villagers themselves were divided. Mari continues the story herself, her voice tinged with sadness and regret: “We were sitting in my husband’s mother’s house and we could see the writing on the wall. The battle was lost. We had done everything we could and yet we saw six or seven years of everyone’s work gone. I invested energy, love, passion, conviction, even money, in order to help but, Milan, I am not an environmental activist or a campaigner and, to be honest, those few years turned my life upside down. I had come from the world of go-kart racing, where we gaily burned gallons of petrol every day without ever giving so much as a thought to the impact on the air we breathe; the impact on the environment never occurred to me. I now realise how little we learn about such things in school - I was certainly not taught anything about how my actions might affect the planet. Now, living and raising my family in the Amazon rainforest was a massive wake-up call for me; it also had a huge effect on how I see our life in London.”
Despite the fact that Kurikindi has close family who continue to live in Sani Isla, the place where he himself had lived most of his life and where he had established his own family with Mari, circumstances now obliged them all to leave. They are now building a new home, with another branch of the Kichwa tribe, where Kurikindi had lived as a child, but this community is far more traditional, and live much deeper in what is an enormous territory of virgin forest, near the border with Peru. And don’t try to find it on Google maps; the community comprises only fourteen adults and sixteen children. I asked Mari if they might ever think of returning to Sani Isla and she replied: “No, I don’t think we will ever return. It is also a very tribal thing: if you leave, you never go back.”
“It has been a tough fight but I have no regrets; I would do it again, Milan. I wouldn't even think twice! Anyway, to be quite accurate, the area of land around where Kurikindi’s family still resides has not gone under; the eco-lodge still exists and eco-tourism continues. As the cost of crude oil has dropped dramatically, the exploration for new wells has now stopped. However, just as we predicted, very little of what was promised was ever delivered to the community. I do feel that not all is lost, however, and that the new president of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, is currently on the side of the rainforest and its peoples, even given the difficult economic circumstances that Ecuador finds itself in.”
The Kurikindi-Muench family now reside in London for part of their time. Mari’s mother is 96 and while she is astonishingly bright mentally and is still largely independent, she is getting frailer as the years go by. Kurikindi’s first trip to London was when his daughter was born and this first experience of the metropolis must have been a considerable shock - the stark contrast between deepest Amazonian rainforest and one of the world’s largest, busiest cities. Mari laughs: “You would have been amused by his fascination with the snow that fell one night in our garden, and you should have seen his face when I made him his first Sunday roast.” While here in the UK, Kurikindi takes part in various shamanic events; he also lectures, hosts environmental events, teaches courses, and practices as a shaman here in London. This is covered in a separate article under the title, The World of an Ecuadorian Shaman.
Towards the conclusion of the interview, I asked Mari how, as an ‘outsider’, she was received in what was a very traditional Kichwa community: “People there accept you at face value and take everything you say as the absolute truth, unless proven otherwise. I am now fluent-ish in Spanish and gradually learning Kichwa, so communicating is getting easier. At this stage, we are self-educating our daughter, Samai, and she is already bi-lingual. When she is older, we will give her the option to decide if she wants to go to a school and, if so, where. But for me, while keeping the family together is obviously a priority, I want Samai to be able to travel, to be free to grow up, and to grow up free. I want her to have spent a sufficient portion of her life in the rainforest so as to understand it, to love it, to be fluent in her father’s language, and to have life-long friends there in the Kichwa community. Samai is fully accepted by the other kids; she is already learning their dances and soon, she will speak their language too.”
It is clear that Mari now cares deeply about the environment; she also sees great value in the Kichwa’s centuries-old culture and traditions. I therefore asked her if she thought these things would survive for another two generations, if she was optimistic. “That is a good question, Milan. Two generations, yes; four generations, possibly. Anything after that will depend very much on us as outsiders. It will all depend on whether we are willing to change our ways, to recognise what damage we are doing to the planet we live on.” Mari adds, in tears: “Whenever I return to London and observe life here, I do wonder, I really do wonder: I find it shocking and depressing how little people know about the impact they have on the world around them. It is surely a sort of madness not to see that we cannot keep on taking more and more, treating our planet as an endless resource that we can just chop up and burn as we please. It is distressing but I am beginning to see that indigenous populations are already drifting on to the same trajectory; they are now subject to the same systems of education, all of which promote the same dogma of never-ending economic growth and increasing productivity, without much regard to the fact that we are now heading for certain disaster. While a small minority are starting to recognise the overwhelming need to sustain the natural equilibrium, indigenous peoples don't need to be taught this - it is their way of life - and yet they are sometimes treated as backward, uncivilised and primitive people. How can we be so wrong?”
The Kichwa tribe in Ecuador are custodians of some of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Their land lies close to the Yasuni National Park, an area in which a single hectare of the Amazon basin probably contains a greater variety of life than all of North America. The Kichwa are only too aware that they have no resources to protect this extraordinary natural wealth and they are forced to seek help from the Ecuadorian government and from the outside world too. But, sad to say, such help never comes without having strings attached.
Eco-tourism is seen by some governments, and some tribes too, as one way forward, but not all is well on that front either - there are always two sides to the coin. Eco-tourism is now the fastest growing sector of the tourist industry, with annual growth in the region of 10-15%. It is being sold as low-impact travel to natural areas for those who are interested in an exploration of pristine and remote environments, and in the cultures and traditions of indigenous peoples. It teaches the visitors about the value of natural diversity and, in principle, it is seen as supporting conservation. However, while these initiatives are being promoted and sold as a way to conserve the environment, the tangible benefits to the host communities often fail to materialise, or they are minimal. Large increases in the volume of visitors can easily lead to the over-stretching of resources and major attractions can soon start to suffer from overuse. Visitors in large numbers can also disrupt local wildlife, with the tourists’ need for modern transport creating noise and air pollution, which are anything but environmentally friendly. While the original ideas behind eco-tourism seemed benign and of possible benefit to the host communities, the reality is often rather different and local people sometimes derive no benefit at all. The indigenous population often end up with the low-paid service jobs, like cleaners, porters and guides, or they become the vendors of food or souvenirs, often getting laid off during the low season. Eco-tourism can also disrupt the dynamics of the pre-existing local economy and the cultural and ritual practices of the indigenous people become mere fodder for tourist entertainment, eroding their very purpose and meaning. Most of the profits are channelled to tour operators, organisers and transport companies, not to mention the governments who frequently demand large fees for granting the necessary licences. Some critics now see eco-tourism as an ‘eco-façade’ or as ‘greenwashing’ - some even think of it as ‘eco-terrorism’ - but there are ways it can be donetwell, and some do manage that.
The indigenous peoples themselves are at the crossroads: while they lived in isolation, their lives remained largely unchanged for centuries and they survived in harmony with the natural world around them. None of these people would have seen themselves as masters of nature or behaved as if they were ‘masters of the universe’. On the contrary, the inhabitants of the West, the advanced, ‘civilised’ world, see themselves as lords of creation and behave accordingly. We knowingly extract and consume natural resources at a rate that is not sustainable and, while the environmentalists warn us repeatedly that this is the path to catastrophe, very little is ever done to slow our progress on the road to ruin. Once indigenous peoples are exposed to the outside world, to ‘civilisation’, they are quickly corrupted; often they are taught to take up the ways of the West and their adoption of our attitudes is seen as ‘progress’. For example, the arrival of Roman Catholicism, hand in hand with modern medical care has, within two generations, brought about a doubling - in some cases, a quadrupling - of indigenous populations and, in order for these larger numbers to survive, more land has had to be cleared, villages have grown, and more food has had to be cultivated.
In the Spring, Mari, together with her husband, Kurikindi, and their daughter, Samai, will return to the deepest rainforest of Ecuador. Having met them all and spent a little time with them, I am certain that they will do everything in their power to preserve the best there is in Kurikindi’s ancestral homeland and that they will continue to promote an understanding of the need to keep life in equilibrium with the natural world and to preserve the unique diversity that is locked in this part of Latin America. We should all wish them well: whatever they are able to preserve and protect will, it is to be hoped, remain there for others to admire, explore, enjoy and nurture. This assumes that humanity is willing to learn from the Kichwa, and from the other tribes, that living in harmony with nature is essential for the survival of the human race, and that the never-ending exploitation and trashing of the natural world will eventually become unsustainable and our much-vaunted civilisation will bring about a global catastrophe. We still have time to change our ways, though that time is getting ever shorter; the future of the planet is ours to choose.
Text edited: 13th February 2018
Page modified: 22nd April 2019