Award Winning Documentarian Larry Lansburgh Kicks off Loew Lectures

Published on Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

How did a centuries-old indigenous society, isolated from the outside world until 1970, successfully and peacefully keep a big oil company and the Ecuadorian government from forcing their way in and taking the oil beneath their two-million-acre homeland?

Documentarian Larry Lansburgh put it simply in his lecture, “David & Goliath in the Amazon,” the first installment in the Franklin M. Loew Lecture Series for spring 2010. The Achuar people, the main characters in his latest film, “Dream People of the Amazon,” used three tactics: alliances, a positive stand and fostering competence in their children.

“These tactics had to work or those people would have been obliterated,” Lansburgh said from the stage in Daniels Hall on Becker’s Leicester campus.

The Emmy Award-winning, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker illustrated his passionate storytelling with powerful scenes from his film—lush, green rainforest, a peaceful Amazon river, the wide, painted faces of Achuar people around a morning fire before dawn and at a conference table at the United Nations conference on climate change—shot over seven trips in about eighteen months.
The alliances the Achuar people formed have helped give voice and power to other indigenous societies and to Nature itself. Lansburgh said that the non-profit group Pachamama has been instrumental in furthering the Achuar cause. Achuar elders and shamans helped found Pachamama to reach into the modern outside world. These previously unheard voices have had such an impact, Lansburgh told, that in 2008, Ecuador passed the first ever “green constitution,” recognizing the right of Nature to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

The Achuar are called, “dream people,” Lansburgh explained, because of their belief that dreams are as real to them as our waking reality. They begin each day by sharing and analyzing their dreams. After witnessing the stunning effects of oil extraction in neighboring regions, elders began having similar dreams. Their interpretation of these dreams, Lansburgh said, made it clear that to survive and preserve their pristine rainforest, they must take the unprecedented step of reaching out and allying with the outside world.

Lansburgh learned of the Achuar at a lecture given in San Francisco by their elected public representative. Inspired to tell their amazing story in a documentary, Lansburgh made his first trip to this remote part of southeastern Ecuador to make his plea before the Achuar congress. He made a lasting impression on these people, who usually refuse to be photographed, by learning “30 seconds of the Achuar language.” Achuar is related to four other languages spoken only in Peru and Ecuador. Many Achuar learned Spanish, and it is now taught in their schools.

“My view of the world changed when I realized that the Achuar—and many indigenous people all over the world—know something that we in the ‘developed’ world do not,” said Lansburgh. “They know how to exist sustainably on the planet that we all call home.” This is the key to their positive stand, he said. They are not against anything; they are “for preservation of the ancient rainforest for all of humanity.”

The goal of the Achuar is a permanent bioreserve, off-limits to any outside exploration. In 1995, they built the Kapawi Eco-Lodge that Pachamama describes as “a sustainable economic alternative that preserves and manages their precious natural environment and resources.” Lansburgh stayed at Kapawi on his visits with the Achuar and calls it “world-class.”

Lansburgh said his contact with the Achuar people has given him a “cautious sense of optimism about our planet’s future.”