“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” ― Rachel Carson
Leaving most of our luggage behind in Quito, Ecuador, we packed only what we needed and flew to Coca on a puddle-jumper plane. It was definitely a jungle frontier settlement, wild and unruly. Locals in trucks cruised around the tiny, dusty town square looking for something to do, or hangout at one of the many bars or pool halls, also a gathering place for oil workers. Pick-up trucks served as taxis and the roosters had the right of way. Noisy monkeys dangled from the trees in the small park ready to pounce on any litter left behind.
Located in the Oriente region, Coca, is the gateway into Ecuador’s upper Amazon and gives access to the rainforest down the lower Napo River. It is an area of incredible biodiversity and home to two indigenous groups, the Hauorani and the Quichua.
We arrived at the landing and soon after, climbed into a motorized canoe with a tattered canopy and off we went. Lunch sacks were handed out to us as well as ponchos. It was suggested we put our rain gear on immediately and no sooner were we told that when the heavens opened up. It came down in sheets and the tarp hardly helped. I moved my backpack under my poncho and hunkered down while getting pelted by sharp stinging rain as the wind was driving it in on my side. If anything was left on the floor it was floating or waterlogged.
I noticed how high and muddy the Napo River was and the debris and logs we had to avoid. A Quechua Indian sat on the bow giving the helmsman hand signals as to his steerage. The rain continued to pelt my face, but nothing compared to what the man on the bow was feeling.
We docked at a small outcrop of thatched buildings and were transferred into two dugout canoes paddled by Quichuas.
We met our naturalist guide, Andres who was from Columbia, a young man, educated and knowledgeable. By now the rain stopped and the river had noticeably narrowed. Our small group of eight was under the same spell. We remained quiet and conversed in hushed whispers, not wanting to disturb the wilderness. Andres slowed the canoe to point out the magnificent scarlet macaws flying overhead and the Amazon kingfisher perched on a limb close by.
Tall heliconias and large ginger flowers were abundant along the swollen creek. Palms hugged the banks while shadows danced on the water from the light of the setting sun. The jungle was raucous with monkeys announcing their presence. I had to pinch myself that I was here, so far from the civilization I know.
And then suddenly, our jungle laden creek opened up to a small, pristine lake…the Añangu Lake, surrounded by more rainforest. Thatched cottages dotted the shore with a small boat dock jutting out. We had now arrived at The Napo Wildlife Center located in the Yasuni National Park, which was to be our home for the next several days. How fortunate I felt to be visiting this area, an important UNESCO Biosphere Reserve containing the largest tract of tropical rain forest in Ecuador.
This trip occurred in 2007. The same year that President Rafael Correa launched the Yasuní-ITT Initiative to protect the park’s natural resources. In other words to leave the estimated 850 million barrels of oil untouched in the Yusuni’s northeastern section known as the ITT block (named for the three oil fields it contains:Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini). What Correa wanted for this preservation of incredible rainforest was $3.6 billion in compensaton from the world by 2013 to not drill.
It is now 2013. After an evaluation of the plan, Correa announced on August 15th that he would dissolve the ITT initiative because only $336 million had been pledged, and of that only $13.3 million had actually been delivered.
This announcement has been such a blow to environmentalists around the world. It has stirred emotions and created outcries from the Ecuadoreans many of whom organized and or participated in marches recently. Many know firsthand the effects of road building, deforestation, the moving of indigenous people from their native grounds, the endless oil spills into the Napo River, the life line of Ecuador’s Amazon, let alone the horrendous impact on wildlife and their ecosystems. Drilling for oil is nothing new in Ecuador. The fear is that it will continue, section by section and we know the rest of the story.
In May, 2013, some friends of mine were coming back to Coca along the Napo River. The water became black as they came upon an oil spill. Slowly their boat plowed through the sludge while anyone with a cell phone was calling to get information. Plumes of smoke and fire could be seen off into the jungle. Eyes teared, lungs choked. She said that every emotion was shown: anger, tears, disgust, and sadness. Using the boat as a water taxi, a Quichuan family hitching a ride was close to home. This is the river they live off of. Not very promising.
There are two bloggers that I want to call attention to who jarred my memory of what is going on with the ITT. One is Sylvana, a passionate young college student, an Ecuadorean who loves her country and participated in the march for life for the Yasuni. She for one doesn’t want to see oil drilling in the ITT block. She feels there are other ways to address poverty. I applaud her efforts and loyalty to this cause.
The other blogger is Z of Playamart. She is an American expat who lives in Ecuador and has written about the ITT and has rebloged Sylvana’s blogs on the subject. She also emphasizes how all nations have exploited their resources and environment, but how complacent we have become. Z reminds her readers that the Yasuni contains the last of the world’s magnificent jaguars.
And then of course there is National Geographic. For their 125th year edition in January, 2013, they featured the Yasuni National Park. In this 36 page spread they covered the controversy with the ITT initiative, and the lure of oil in the richest biodiversity area in the world. Their team of writers and photographers spent a month at the Napo Wildlife Center and surrounding area to do their research. They also covered the indigenous and their relationship with the land.
I am including a link here to a video of the photographic team in the field, how they gather data and photograph wildlife. Very interesting.
The few days we spent hiking with naturalists, climbing an observation tower to look out over this incredible rain forest and to visit a clay lick that attracted hundreds of cobalt-winged parakeets was just part of our experience. By the end of two days, I had filled up three pages in my journal with names of insects, animals, birds and bats, not to mention the huge strangler figs, flora and fauna of the jungle. Night excursions on the lake in dugouts put us up close with caimans, spotting their red eyes in the glow of the flashlight. Bats hurdled themselves over our heads as they headed out for their night time feasting on insects.
On one of our days, we observed a Shaman applying his art and knowledge of the mysteries of illness. One of the women in our group, who was not feeling well and suffered from migraines, volunteered to be his subject. As he was chanting, he used a leafy branch to wave over her body. He even pretended to spit on her head, making deep guttural sounds. At the end of this exercise, she felt somewhat drained and then rejuvenated from the session.
According to Scott Wallace, the National Geographic writer who wrote the article, Rainforest for Sale, relates that “jaguars are ancestral spirits that visit shamans in dreams to tell them where game is plentiful in the forest.”
We never encountered a jaguar, but the Yasuni National Park and this biosphere is rich with hidden secrets of undiscovered species.
How long will it remain that way?
Photos by Ron Mayhew