It wasn’t just the goose bumps and occasional terror produced by the massive, towering jungle with its chaotic screaming sounds. I was profoundly moved by the local people who hosted us and who are demonstrating remarkable courage refusing the wealth of oil that sits below them.
Ecuador’s Amazon is one of the richest biomass areas in South America and includes Yasuni National Park, which the Wildlife Conservation Society says is “one of the most biologically diverse forests in the world.”
The area is also the home of several clans of Huaorani people who continue to forcibly resist development, violently opposing all efforts to contact and civilize them.
But controversy with oil companies dominates the area. The first discoveries of huge reserves in the 1960s led to a mini oil boom that was eventually stopped when several massive spills galvanized local opposition. An increasingly leftist government in Quito became incensed by the significant ecological destruction of their Amazon.
One of the tribes in the area, in fact, the Achuar Kapawi, successfully obtained a large judgement against Occidental Petroleum after a persistent six years of expensive litigation in New York (spearheaded by EarthRights International).
But even more significant reserves were discovered in the late 1990s and so the pressure on the Quito regime grew substantially. The Correa administration asked the United Nations to calculate its reasonable return over ten years if it allowed the oil to be developed. The UN came up with a figure of $7.2 billion.
President Rafael Correa then addressed the opening session of the United Nations in 2007 and asked the assembly to create a trust fund that if if subscribed by half that amount, $3.6 billion, would be used by his administration as an alternative to developing the oil in the Amazon.
Correa challenged us global conservationists to put up, or shut up.
Several years later only $110 million had been pledged and less than $13 million actually paid into the trust. So in 2011 Correa struck a deal with a consortium of multinationals for a federal royalty of $17.06/barrel and invited the companies to negotiate final deals with the various owners of the Amazon land where the reserves were located.
Nineteen of the 26 indigenous communities in the Yasuni National Park area have so far struck deals with the oil companies. The Sani-Isla community, which owns about a half million acres including a small portion actually inside the national park, has repeatedly refused deals.
Multiple times oil company representatives have requested and received an audience with Orlando, the 70-year old, democratically elected Sani-Isla leader, who is also a shaman, and who also worked for the oil companies for 20 years in the 1960s to 1980s.
Orlando’s first job with an oil company was as the most menial of laborers, the poor bloke who has to climb inside a giant oil barrel and swab it clean. By the time he left more than 20 years later he was a foreman on an oil rig.
Orlando grew increasingly horrified by the drugs, alcoholism and prostitution that always seems to beset an oiltropolis. He pleaded with management multiple times for rules and regulations to curb the errant behavior so alien to his way of life, but to no avail.
So he led his 600 Sani-Isla people to vote no to oil. Instead, they built a tourist lodge with Orlando’s savings. It’s always hazardous to critique a place you’ve been so soon after leaving it, but my initial impression is that my 7th Amazon visit, this time to Sani Lodge, was the best I’ve ever had in a jungle.
The earnings from Sani Lodge have funded a school, but it’s small and basic and has no bathrooms. They’ve also built a health clinic but it’s very rudimentary, dependent upon infrequent nurse volunteers.
On all sides of the Sani’s half million acres of Amazon, oil rigs are churning. Those communities with negotiated deals have modern schools and health clinics. Some have running water. Some even have sanitation systems. Many of their smarter children are getting scholarships to U.S. schools.
Sani Isla’s children are just as smart as any, and ironically the oil boom trusts created in the 1960s actually provided scholarships for some of the San Isla children.
Javier Gualangi is the principal guide at Sani Lodge and one of Orlando’s chief supporters. He spent three years studying biology at a college in Portland, Oregon, and he traveled across the States, visiting wilderness sites from California to Minnesota to the Everglades, in part on oil company tabs.
It was in the Everglades that his longing for the Amazon grew acute.
“That was when I knew I must come home,” he told me.
At 27-years old he has yet to start a family. He gently refused his parents’ arranged marriage, and he insists that Orlando has the correct vision for his people.
“Before we began our conservation efforts with the lodge,” he told me, “there were hardly any capuchin monkeys left.” This is the case throughout much of the Amazon, by the way. “Today they’re all over!”
We saw many. Javier’s enthusiasm for the wild is almost unbelievable, especially because he expresses it so elegantly in excellent English. What is such a remarkable person doing here? I asked myself, when the modern world is at his fingertips?
Javier showed me more stuff in the Amazon, I think, than I saw in all my combined previous six visits. He found at night the treasured paca. (See this Flickr link for pictures.) He showed us the Great Potoo, many many-banded aracari, lots of caimans, wooly and howler monkeys.
He knew the scientific names of … well, everything: plants, bugs, animals. He explained how trees walk across the ground, how mushrooms invade moths, how eels electrify our imaginations!
Two professional birders who were with us at the lodge said they came here specifically because there are more species of bird than anywhere else in Ecuador’s Amazon.
But – as I cautioned Javier – Sani Lodge as good as it is will never achieve the revenue stream of oil. Was there not a way to negotiate with the companies to protect the community’s social and cultural values?
Javier’s radiant face always seemed to smile knowingly. He said nothing at first, then pointed to a black bird deep in a bush near our canoe that was singing a most haunting Amazon tune.
“That,” he said with pride, “is the plumbeous antbird. You can’t see it anywhere else but here! It’s disappeared from the other communities.”
I listened to the hauntingde-escalating warble, a quintessential Amazon bird song echoed even louder as it sallied through the dense jungle around us. Then suddenly, the great forest fell surprisingly silent for all of a second. My tummy thundered. You could hear albeit from ten miles away the distant low rumbles of an oil rig in the next community downstream.