Yasuní National Park: Exploring Biodiversity and its Threats – by Abigail Blonigen. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
The Amazon has always seemed like a far off place, certainly somewhere I never expected to go, but our first field trip of the program was to the most bio-diverse sector of the largest rain forest in the world: Yasuní National Park.
It was a seven hour bus ride from Quito to the Oriente, during which we drove through a “cloud forest,” a subtropical zone where the mountains trap the moisture from the rain forest creating an eternal fog. We crossed rivers, saw waterfalls, watched the foliage change from mountainous to tropical, and hoped our bus did not get too close to the edge when parts of the road were washed away.
We made a pit stop in Lago Agrio to eat lunch and pick up our guide. Lago Agrio means “sour lake” in Spanish, and we soon discovered why: petroleum. As we were not allowed inside, we stopped outside of an oil field and saw the flames of the rig burning in between the trees. Our guide told us hundreds of thousands of insects fly into the flame, especially at night. In addition, it kills birds and causes the majority of the animals in the area to evacuate, dramatically affecting the biodiversity of the area. This is in addition to the deforestation which occurs to set up the site, as well as the environmental harm extracting petroleum causes.
Our next stop was at a petroleum “pool,” or place oil companies dump contaminated water. The pool we saw was small in comparison to others that exist in the area, at only three meters deep. The oil company reported 380 pools in the area, however there are really closer to 1,000, according to our guide.
Downhill from the pool was, inevitably, a pond contaminated by the oil runoff. Though it is now surrounded by caution tape, animals still drink from it as they do not know any better. Our guide said that the oil companies have neglected to inform indigenous communities what is safe and what is unsafe, so there have been approximately 1,000 oil-related deaths in that area alone. Cancer is now extremely prevalent in indigenous communities of the area. Our guide told us that entire villages have been built on former oil sites without the indigenous people knowing they were putting themselves in danger. Their livestock drinks the same water, and either dies of disease or passes on the chemicals to those who eat it. Thousands of indigenous peoples are losing their lives and their livelihoods in just that area.
Remediation at this point is virtually impossible and extremely expensive. The only hope is that the damage does not spread deeper into the Amazon. There is a saying in Spanish: lo qué pasó aquí, nunca en Yasuní, translating to: what happened here can never happen in Yasuní.
This experience shaped my mindset for the duration of the trip. Yasuní National Park is an incredible place. We went on several nature hikes during our few days there, and each time we discovered an incredible variety of plants, animals, and insects. There are mushrooms that feel and look like pig ears, spiders who work together to make gigantic webs, monkeys swinging in the trees, hundreds of species of colorful birds constantly chirping in the background, lizards, snakes, frogs, tarantulas, tapirs, we saw it all. It is unbelievable that we saw so much, though it is only a minuscule fraction of the biodiversity in Yasuní and the Amazon.
I was astounded by the harmony in which the rain forest lives. I have never seen the circle of life laid out more clearly. And, from what we learned, the indigenous people of the area fit perfectly into that circle. For example: many of the fruits and plants animals consume in the Amazon are mildly toxic or acidic, so they will go to mud pits and eat the dirt to aid digestion. Insects hang out around the mud pit because they hang out everywhere, birds and monkeys will go to the mud pit to eat the insects and the mud, larger predators will wait by the mud pit to make a snack of the monkeys and birds, and the indigenous peoples will hunt there for the larger predators.
With nearly every new plant we encountered, our professor explained to us how the local indigenous population, the Waorani, made use out of it. The jungle provides them the tools for everything: houses, food, fruits, medicines, bowls, jewelry. I was amazed to discover that they have a vine that they boil into tea and use as a contraceptive. We had a short session with some Waorani women who taught us how to make baskets and bracelets out of palm fronds. Though we couldn’t communicate very well as they did not speak much Spanish, their demeanor and the quick work of their hands showed how intimately in touch they are with the world around them.
Though I have always considered myself to be environmentally aware, Yasuní gave me an entirely new perspective. The Amazon is a beautiful, sacred place, and it hurt my heart to see it devastated by “la mano sucia” or the dirty hand. Every time environmental protections are rolled back, precious water, land, and life are lost, hitting indigenous communities most directly. The reality is, the oil supply is going to run dry eventually, so instead of continuing to cause environmental harm, we should be redoubling our efforts to transition toward green energy and preserve the beauty Pachamama (Mother Earth) has provided us with.
Abigail Blonigen serves as an assistant editor for The North Star Reports
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