Verónica Yunkar, or Cestsenk in her Achuar indigenous name, is a courageous woman. A woman who, in spite of the many obstacles, has taken control of her own life.
Vero (from Verónica) fights to improve the lives of Achuar mothers and their babies and to reduce maternal and infant mortality within her community. This is her way of contributing to the defence of the rainforest, which Vero defends with pride and determination.
"We are women. Like the rainforest. That is why we must be respected. We are sacred, just as the rainforest is sacred," she says.
But Vero's work is complex. She tries to combine the sacredness of motherhood whilst actively trying to improve the health of her fellow indigenous women. Understanding the context in which Vero's struggle takes place, as an Achuar woman, is key to understanding the extent of her work. Relatively recently, in the mid 20th century, between the 1940s and 1950s, the Achuar people settled, and went from nomadic hunter-gatherers to occupying parts of the rainforest, cultivating plots of land and forming settled communities.
And since the turn of the century, these communities have grown very fast, and they are adapting to this new way of life, while trying not to lose their robust identity in the process.
This is also happening in Vero’s community of Sharamentsa, which is several hours by canoe from the road that is under construction between the city of Puyo and Achuar territory. For the moment, the road ends in Wisuy, but threatens to penetrate rainforest inside and break the isolation that has protected these communities until very recently. "The road is pure poison for us," says José, one of the leaders of this community. "We don't want what they have done there, in their cities. This is a green city. We want to continue with the dream of conserving it as it is and living naturally, not living technologically as they do, destroying everything.”
At the moment, Sharamentsa can only be reached by canoe via the Pastaza River or by air, with small planes that land on precarious airstrips, built years ago by missionaries who were determined to evangelize even these remote territories.
Like other Achuar communities, Sharamentsa's founders have been adapting to life in permanent settlements for a few decades, a transformed world where women have inevitably taken up a new role. Women have begun to rethink their relationship with the masculine world, which dominates the entire governance of the community.
There are still many symbolic barriers, psychological obstacles. But one of key aspects to this on-going transformation is to work on reproductive health. For Achuar women, reproduction has been and remains a sacred affair. "In the past, mothers gave birth in the rainforest alone, without any company," says Vero. "The rainforest has a healthy energy, that’s why people give birth there. The babies that are born in the rainforest have a lot of energy and so does the mother. They also went out to the rainforest on their own. The Achuar women were ashamed, they didn't want to give birth in the house, in front of everybody. For them, childbirth is transcendent, a solitary act which has to do with the energy of the rainforest, with sacred fertility".
The women of the family (grandmothers, mothers, sisters) waited to hear the cry of the new-born and only then did they come to cut the umbilical cord and assist the woman in labour. Giving birth would be a test of a woman's strength and endurance, alone in the face of her motherly destiny.
"Even today the Achuar women are still ashamed," continues Vero, "but our project is very respectful. It tries to convince them that help is for the best, and to protect them and their lives. Before they would have to give birth alone, nobody was there to help them.
Therefore, if women were exhausted from their daily burdens, or anaemic, malnourished for some reason, or if the foetus was in a dangerous position and if any complications arose, they would die during childbirth or later, because of frequent infections.
"It was only when the women in labour who went out to the rainforest took too long to return," continues Vero, “and after a while passed without screaming, that some mothers or mothers-in-law went to look for them in the rainforest. But now and again the women had already died. That's why we want to help.”
Yet, changing this ancestral habit takes time. It isn’t a quick task. The custom of giving birth alone in the rainforest refers to a time in which these indigenous peoples lived as nomads in these primary forests. There, only the strongest, the most prepared to fight would survive and prosper.
But now this sort of Darwinism is meaningless. And this is where Veronica intervenes. “Now, when we know that a woman is pregnant, we go to her house, we ask her how she feels, how the baby is growing, and in cases of abuse, we try and talk to them, so we can help”.
Vero knows first-hand the problems facing Achuar women. "Sometimes Achuar men have two wives, or three wives, or they are looking for another wife. Sometimes they hit women, sometimes they are jealous. Sometimes they hit pregnant women, which can sometimes explain why they get sick.”
Sometimes Achuar men have two wives, or three wives, or they are looking for another wife. Sometimes they hit women, sometimes they are jealous. Sometimes they hit pregnant women, which can sometimes explain why they get sick
Faced with this violence, Vero decided to take a different path, one with no children. Instead she has decided to help other women to have them safely, and to try to leave behind violence. "I didn't get married," says Vero, aware of the implication of her statement, "because I saw how my sisters, even my mother, when I was a child, were mistreated by their husbands. That's why I said to myself: I'm not going to get married quickly. I'd rather study, and defend myself in order to help women if they are abused and help families live a good life, without violence.”
Vero's decision led her to join a training and empowerment program for indigenous women ran by an international NGO, as part of a project called "Mothers of the Rainforest" or Ikiama Nukuri, in its newly adopted native Achuar name.
As part of that program, Vero travelled to the Mexican Yucatan to learn the skills alongside Mayan Women. She visited Peru to attend a conference and did an internship at a city hospital.
Nowadays, Vero not only assists women in Sharamentsa, but also travels to other Achuar communities, and beyond, to Shuar or Quichua communities. And she has trained Graciela, a fellow member of the community, who follows in her footsteps, and who already accompanies the women who request it when Vero is away.
But Vero's decision was to stay in Sharamentsa. And although the long absences to complete her training meant that her hut accumulated so much moisture that it partially collapsed, Vero decided to build a new one. These beams and crossbeams of solid wood symbolize Veronica's unequivocal will to remain in her community. Soon the new home will be up and running.
Vero knows she has a place within her community. "My dream is to stay with my community. My dream is to become a doctor, to finish my studies. I am an Achuar woman and I want to work helping other women like me, sisters, cousins, neighbours.”
In her garden, Vero cultivates the various traditional plants that complement her few modern medical instruments. "We sometimes use medicinal plants for infections, that are very common in pregnancy. Or if the mother-to-be has a cough, if she has a headache or dizziness, we use a medicine called mountain garlic, so she recovers well.”
Little by little, mothers manage to appreciate the benefits, gain autonomy and convince their husbands of the advantages of monitoring health during pregnancy and childbirth. In spite of the obvious limitations, Vero acts with an incorruptible determination. Improving the lives of the women of the community and their children is a vital mission for her.
For Vero, the future of the rainforest and its defence also depends on improving the living conditions of its inhabitants. If their mothers and babies are born and grow up healthy and without violence, the community will take a permanent step forward.
But like any complex process, the results are not immediate. It will take time.
Vero's story represents an important step in the history of Sharamentsa and the Achuar nationality. The new generations that are being born today, and that have to face the huge challenge of ensuring that the rainforest survives the multiple threats that it is undergoing, already have the opportunity to come to a safer and less hostile world.
"We are born as plants are born. And we are sacred, like them," says Vero, and in her eyes there is a glimmer of emotion. She notes that her commitment to motherhood and life, which embodies her way of defending the rainforest, is already bearing its first fruits. As today, in Sharamentsa, there are already more healthy and robust mothers, like the forest itself.
Vero has decided to give her whole life to the pristine rainforest. Hers is a courageous commitment and means a transcendent leap towards a better life for her proud Achuar community.