In The Time of Chonta


Ripe chonta fruit. Photo: Alex Goff

By Alex Goff, Field Coordinator The fruit from the chonta palm is so important to the peoples of the Amazon that in the past the annual harvest would mark the passing of each year for many tribes. Chonta, Bactris gasipeas, or peach palm in English, grows throughout the Amazon basin and is used by most indigenous peoples. It is a tree of myth, a symbol of life and of abundance. From March until May the trees are laden with bright red, orange, and yellow fruit. This is a time of plenty, when hunger is all but forgotten. It is a time for marriage, having children, and celebration. Every year, for example, the Cofán people throw a big party, the festival de la chonta, that brings all Cofán communities together. Everyone dances special dances and drinks chicha made from the chonta fruit. As a food, the fruit is versatile. The oil is used for cooking and gives special richness to fried fish and stews. The fruit itself is eaten plain or with salt. If someone comes across a wild bee nest, the fruit is eaten with fresh honey. Rich in vitamins, calcium, iron, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, and beta-carotene (also found in carrots), the chonta fruit is an important source of nutrients in the Amazonian diet.

Chonta fruit smokes on a rack for preservation while the fresh fruit is boiled below. Photo: Alex Goff

In the way that chonta foments life it is also brings death. The wood from the tree is very durable and is used to make blowguns, bows, and spears, for hunting and for war. A Waorani spear made from chonta wood is heavy; the point is razor sharp and can easily pierce human flesh. Many a Waorani warrior, as well as oil worker and missionary for that matter, has fallen victim to the chonta’s deadly perfection as a weapon. Chonta plays an important part in the balance of life and death in the Amazon. As long as a healthy forest exists and people live off the land, chonta will continue to mark the passing of the years.

Waorani boys enjoy ripe chonta fruit in the community of Miwaguno. Photo: Alex Goff