Ecuador – Extreme Biodiversity and Extreme Loss: The Price Nature is Paying for the Sins of Modern Life– by Megan Gonrowski. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
I am currently studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador for the whole semester with the
HECUA program. This past weekend I spent two days in the Amazon Rainforest in Yasuní
National Park which is the first of three excursions during the program. Being in the Amazon was surreal because up until this trip, the rainforest was something I had only seen on National Geographic documentaries. We stayed at a science observatory on the Tiputini river, where we met all sorts of interesting researchers and nature lovers. Both days that we were in the Amazon were spent exploring in the forest and learning about many plants and animals I had never seen
before. It was amazing to see the amount of biodiversity that exists in the Amazon, something I had heard about before traveling there, but never realized what extreme biodiversity would truly look and sound like. I couldn’t walk two steps without finding a new plant, animal, or fungus that I had never seen before. The whole trip, I was in awe of the beauty of nature, but saddened by the underlying problems that exist in the Amazon.
Before I mention the negatives, I would like to highlight a wonderful experience that I
was a part of between our group and indigenous women from the Waorani (or Huaorani) community. There are 14 different indigenous nationalities in Ecuador, but the Waorani have territory near and in the Yasuní National Park. Most of the women and children I met could speak Spanish, but the older generations only speak their traditional language. The language barrier was an interesting experience because two older women were teaching me how to weave, but we could only communicate through gestures and by me silently watching them work. The Waorani women came to show us their artisan skills and taught us how to peel palm leaves which is the first step in the process to turn palm leaves into thread for weaving. The palm leaves then have to be dried, cooked, and then dyed in order to become strong and colorful threads for weaving. This process I was told takes many hours of labor. It was amazing to see the skillful ways that the women were able to create jewelry and household items with mere threads.
I later learned that the women often come to sell at the science observatory because there are always groups of backpackers or researchers staying at the observatory. The cycling groups of foreigners has created a profitable market for the Waorani to sell their handmade items. This artisan market is just one way the Waorani have had to adjust in order to “modernize.” After teaching us for an hour some of their skills we were able to buy handmade items from the women. I believe that this learning interaction and sharing between our group and the indigenous women was very important because indigenous communities have been disrupted by development or “modernization.” This disruption and often destruction come under the veil of modernity and progress, which has been a part of the political rhetoric for generations. The idea of modernity or development has been booming in North America and Western Europe since the Industrial Revolution, but really took off around the world post-World War Two, and the model of development created by the West has slowly been reinforced as the best model of life in countries all over the world, and Ecuador is no different.
For example, forty years ago the artisan market would not have been the custom because for generations the Waorani have been nomadic people and would have never needed to create jewelry or household items in excess because it would have been difficult to move around every 5 years or so. It is important to understand that the Amazon is rich in biodiversity, but the soil is poor and lacking in nutrients due to the constant rainfall. The poor quality of soil makes it difficult to cultivate crops in one area for more than a few years, hence the necessity of a nomadic life. However, since the beginning of oil exploration in the Amazon in roughly 1970, the Waorani and nearly all the indigenous groups have become less nomadic and eventually sedentary because oil companies have slowly bought the land of the Amazon which was once the open territory for all indigenous groups. The oil companies had a fairly easy time buying up the land of the Amazon because when the indigenous groups were asked to show their paper deeds to the land, they came up empty handed. This idea of owning land is not historically a concept that indigenous people have lived by. Instead, this way of thinking is purely Western and has been enforced all over the world. For example, the United States’ has a similar history with indigenous people from the territory which was once Mexico and is now California over to Texas.
There are only two Ecuadorian indigenous groups that are still semi-nomadic, and they have maintained this lifestyle by going into voluntary isolation. This isolation means that the two groups refuse to have contact with the “modern” world. These groups, like the Waorani, live in and around Yasuní because it is meant to be a protected zone. There is also a zone called the intangible zone where oil companies have yet to move in to. However, as I have learned in class, it is often difficult to know where the two indigenous groups are because they are nomadic and because of this minor detail, the oil companies have been allowed to move into land that could possibly be home to these two groups. The Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008 gives rights to indigenous groups so that their land is to be respected and protected, but because these two groups do not have contact with the outside world it is easy to claim that no one is living on the territory when a new oil opportunity arises.
The problem with the claiming of indigenous territory by oil companies, is that it is erasing the existence of indigenous people in Ecuador all together. There have already been two indigenous groups that have went extinct since the beginning of oil extraction. The loss of culture and way of life is daunting, but so is the loss of life due to contaminated water and food sources. Denying the existence of people on the protected land makes it ethically justifiable to extract oil from the area and contaminate the indigenous people’s way of life. As mentioned before, there are 14 different indigenous nationalities in Ecuador that make up 7% of the population. Currently, indigenous people are experiencing severe health conditions that are occurring due to living in contaminated zones due to oil pollution. Since the beginning of oil extraction there are more cases of cancer in indigenous people, with cancer accounting for 32% of deaths to the populations, which is three times the national average. Furthermore, there are many different skin conditions affecting the people in contaminated zones due to acid rain and bathing in contaminated waters.
My time spent with the Waorani has been a wonderful and eye-opening experience. I really admire the symbiotic relationship they seem to historically have with nature, and I believe that we have a lot to learn when it comes to living in harmony with the land. I have learned in class that the indigenous groups of the Amazon believe in Pacha Mama, which would loosely translate to Mother Earth. Pacha Mama is more than just words, it is the inter-connectedness of all that exists: human beings, animals, rivers, mountains, the cosmos, etc., and the belief that every being living or non-living is deserving of our respect. I have never felt smaller in this universe than I did standing silently in the middle of the rainforest surrounded by the harmony of nature.
Megan serves as an assistant editor for The North Star Reports.
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