Yasuni National Park in Ecuador— the most biodiverse place on earth is at risk from oil development. Can the country take the long view— and the longer road to prosperity through eco-tourism and sustainable development to lift itself out of poverty? The world is watching.
A community of indigenous Kichwa people, rainforest caretakers for hundreds of years, think they know what's best for the Amazon. They've developed an award-winning model of preservation and sustainability that's providing the jobs, schools and healthcare they need. And all it took was having the mindset of a leaf-cutter ant.
© Frani Halperin/H2O Media, Ltd.
Jamie: The small terminal of the Coca City airport in the Ecuadoran Amazon is a nondescript concrete building. After a brief flight from the capital Quito, we file off the plane, walk through the tiny luggage area and out onto the street into the steamy midday sun where a cluster of people stand holding handwritten signs bearing the names of oil industry giants like Halliburton, Schlumberger or PetroAmazonas. We locate a person with the logo of the eco-lodge we plan to visit. It’s obvious— but unstated— that we’re two distinct groups of passengers: Half of us are tourists— birders, scientists, biologists — nature lovers off to the jungle hoping to catch glimpses of wildlife — and the other half are people in the oil industry heading off to work. This is our point of departure, and although we won’t see these men again their mark on the forest is indelible.
Frani: It will take just a few miles by motorized canoe to see how. As we head down the Napo River, a brown fast moving tributary of the Amazon, a tall orange flame spewing black smoke emerges on the horizon. Our guide, who up until now has been exuberantly describing the wonders that await us, changes her tone as the boat nears the jarring eyesore sitting right on the river’s edge.
Guide: We have been just traveling and everything is green and suddenly a big flare in the forest. There are a lot of negative impacts in the environment with these flares. We have acid rains in the surroundings of these flares and the biodiversity that is in close contact with these flares is also being affected.
Jamie: She goes on to describe the impact on wildlife such as to insects, vital pollinators of the rainforest which are attracted to the light only to be incinerated.
Frani: We knew before we came to Ecuador about the increasing threat of oil extraction in the Amazon, but we didn’t think our first rainforest ‘sighting,’ so to speak, would be not of a rare endangered animal, but of an invasive species of a different sort— the drilling rig.
Guide: Ecuador is an oil country. 60% of our budget is represented by the oil. We stopped here because we want to show you this. Because this is also part of our reality. We have these amazing rainforests— and also we have oil.
Jamie: We let that comment sink in as the boat throttles up loudly back into the fast moving river. Ecuador is a place with remarkable natural beauty— the Galapagos, volcanoes, beaches and highlands rich in indigenous culture and heritage. In other words, a traveler’s paradise. But the oil money is fast money, and seemingly irresistible for a country trying to pull itself out of poverty.
Frani: As we continue down the Napo zigging and zagging to avoid sand bars and tree trunks, as well as to pass flat-bottomed barges ferrying trucks and equipment up and the down the river, we’re retracing the journey of the conquistador Francisco de Orellana who’s credited with leading the first Spanish expedition from the Amazon river’s roots in the Andean mountains thousands of miles away to the Atlantic.
Jamie: Orellana’s hope was to find— and pilfer— the legendary city of El Dorado and its vast forests of cinnamon. Along the way he and his men suffered from hunger, malnutrition and illness, but most of all they feared an encounter with the fabled women warriors of the Amazon, legendary for their fierceness and ruthlessness in battle.
Frani: Fast forward to 20th century when a new breed of explorers representing not Spain, but multinational corporations came to the Amazon seeking riches of oil, rubber and minerals. It seems preposterous to suggest that these moderns would fear natives, in an era of advanced technology and machinery, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the determination these people have to protect their home.
Jamie: The people of the Kichwa Community of Yasuni National Park don’t intend to let their ancestral home be exploited. But they aren’t planning to defend it by deploying Amozonian women, who legend has it removed a breast so they could aim their arrows more accurately. Rather, they will protect it by taking on the mindset of a rainforest ant.
Frani: Yes, an ant. The leaf-cutter ant, an industrious creature whose most remarkable characteristic is its single minded of purpose and ability to work in unison toward a common goal.
Jamie: The community named themselves after the insect to reflect the tenacity it took to take on the endeavor of starting an eco-lodge in the rainforest. It wasn’t easy and there were many bumps in the road to discourage them. It required having the larger goal in mind to commit to conservation over logging or mining in a region of subsistence living and poor access to education and healthcare. The community persevered, working together to become an award-winning example of sustainable and ecologically-sound tourism.
Frani: It’s an economic success story to be sure— and a way of educating outsiders about ongoing threats to this jungle— an ecosystem that many consider to be the most pristine in the world with staggering statistics of biodiversity:
Guide: In one hectare of Yasuni National Park you can find around 800 species of native trees and bushes— more than you can find in United States and Canada together, you can find 200 species of mammals, we have around 200 species of reptiles, 130 species of amphibians, and in just one hectare, 100,000 species of insects.
Jamie: But there’s another perhaps more important benefit of running an eco-tourism lodge. It allows the Kichwa as well as other groups in the Amazon to preserve their way of life and their roles as rainforest caretakers for hundreds of years. Teaching visitors about the Amazon isn’t just about protecting plants and animals— it’s about protecting them— the people who hold the jungle’s secrets. Secrets that could be the next cure for cancer, a treatment for Alzheimer’s, a serum for anti-aging. Yes the elusive fountain of youth that other conquistadors were seeking. Maybe not a worthless quest after all?
Frani: Paddling by small canoe in up a stream in the jungle, the water is black and still. Trees and vines hang from the canopy to prevent much light from reaching us on the forest floor. We hear the buzz of cicadas... occasional snapping of branches as squirrel monkeys traverse from tree to tree and the chatter of parakeets high overhead. This cacophony of sounds makes it easy to— temporarily at least— forget the flares on the river and the threats they represent.
Jamie: But the threats are real. Unfortunately the Yasuni National Park— a United Nations recognized World Biosphere Reserve— sits atop billions of dollars worth of oil. Right now, oil development is prohibited there, but pockets of the park are already being drilled and a huge block— a concession called the "Block ITT" could be opened as early as 2016.
Frani: That’s because in 2007 President Rafael Correa called upon the international community to help “save” Block ITT in Yasuni asking for half the oil's estimated value in order to keep it in the ground. When donors fell short he called the campaign a failure and authorized drilling.
Jamie: What’s more, in a complete reversal, Correa declared drilling as the very thing that would make life better for the people of the Amazon.
Guide: The government is trying to promote the oil extraction here. With the benefits of the oil he is going to bring safe water and electricity to the towns that are located here. But of course, when it comes to oil extraction or any type of extractive activity the reality is that you have oil spills... and then it comes the pollution. Which is worse because they can bring water but at the end accidents will occur and we will have oil spills and then the water is going to be polluted by these oil spills and then the water will drip to their farms and then they will start to get sick.
Frani: Despite the government’s adamant declaration that extraction will be limited and done safely with the best technology available— a spill— any spill here has vast consequences. Why? Because this is the rainforest and everywhere you look there is water. The jungle is a web of creeks, swamps and streams that mean the proverbial pebble dropped in one pond can have a ripple effect hundreds of miles away. For example just last year a pipeline break spilled 400,000 gallons into Coca River leaving Coca's 65,000 residents without drinking water. The oil then floated downriver all the way toward Peru and to date the water in the river is unsafe to drink.
Jamie: Still not all communities see it how these Kichwa do. The choice to give in to the oil companies is powerful and divides villages. For some, the allure of outside goods— of money, trucks, schools and fresh drinking water becomes hard to resist until down the line they find that they’ve traded pristine hunting grounds for poisoned rivers and empty promises.
Guide: We are cutting this rainforest and we are turning this into oil wells. So we are losing things that we don’t even know exist. We are going to lose medicines. We are going to lose the home of the last non-contacted groups in the world. We are losing things that has a lot of value.
The government is trying to convince all Ecuadorians that actually it’s going to be the other way. That he is only going to just touch 1% of all the Yasuni National Park, and with that percentage he is going to take us from poverty. The reality is we have been an oil country for 40 years and we are not out of poverty because of the oil. Of course. And actually that’s the opposite reality. We have oil spills, we have deforestation, we have pollution, we have people with cancer because of this.
So, the sad reality of the people that live in the rainforest is that oil didn’t improve their lives — it was the opposite thing.
Jamie: So is it arrogant for outsiders— visitors like us to ask this small poor country not to exploit it’s buried treasure in the hopes that it potentially holds our future medicines and cures? Is it fair for us to ask them to live in poverty? Many experts say that if the rainforest is destroyed it could change our world’s climate?
Frani: To take the long view— and the longer road to prosperity through sustainable development like eco-tourism instead of oil extraction is a lot to ask of Ecuadorians. And it brings back to mind the leaf-cutter ant.
Jamie: Scientists call their colonies one of the most complex social systems on earth, second only to humans. Leaf-cutter colonies have several types of workers, and each ant has a specific and vital task. But each individual ant can’t see its purpose in the chain, nor its role as a cog in machine that keeps the entire colony alive. But instinct tells it to carry on and play its part.
Frani: So what do our instincts tell us? For those of us visiting the Amazon this trip we’re motivated to do our part in protecting this forest, to take actions no matter how small and unsure we are that they’ll make a difference. That’s what you learn by being in this place and meeting the people who live here and know it best: Follow your gut and think like an ant. 💧
This piece is part of our on-going Radio Postcards series which give first-person accounts of environments
around the globe and their relationships with water.