The photo I took which crossed every photography category!
For a moment in time I was breathing with the lungs of the planet! At least that is what I’ve heard the Amazon rainforest called as it is the largest forested body on the entire planet. In terms of my intuition categories of photography, I crossed every single one at the same time while I was on a canoe making my way into the heart of the jungle. My breath felt taken away, and there was a moment of wanting to cry with joy for all the beauty!! I know there is a deep physical, mental, and spiritual connection that every species has with the Amazon, and it was a beautiful moment of being able to connect with that part of myself and that part of the larger ecological world.
A mamma monkey with a baby on her back seen on the canoe trip to the lodge.
The trip from home to the canoe port lasted 11.5 hours by bus!! The visitor’s port is very small and is mostly a docking station to pick up travelers, as all the lodging is located in the jungle. After the aforementioned amazing 2 hour boat ride, which included seeing two types of monkeys, a bunch of butterflies, and a moderate amount of birds, I landed on hard ground.
I took the trip into the jungle with a master’s level ecotourism class, and the tour was geared toward education which was perfectly fine with me. We ate and then took a walk into the jungle. I figured the jungle would be comprised of thick vegetation with animals all around, but I was under false pretenses. It was moderately easy to walk around, especially since the same path had been used countless times, and I didn’t see one animal. Bummer! Still, I was introduced to various vegetation and their cultural uses which was really cool.
After the short 20 minute walk and another boat ride, everyone ended up in the middle of Lago Grande (Giant Lake) and had the opportunity to swim. I’m amazed that very few people took the chance to swim in the lake. I was the first one into the water in my group of 10 and the last one out! I got to swim for a whole 30 minutes in the jungle lake while the sun was setting all around me. It was truly amazing!!! Apparently the giant lake dries up during the dry season as do many of the rivers.
That night we headed to bed around 10:30pm as everyone was super tired.
The cabin I shared with others for two nights.
At 5:30am the next morning we woke and were on our way back out to the boats by 6:00am. This time we took a 4 hour boat ride (each way) to reach the newest development in the rainforest called Playa de Cuyabeno (Cuyabeno Beach). Unfortunately this is when my heart began to break…..
The oil company has long been pumping oil from inside the rainforest, and there has been on and off damage as a result. One example is of the aforementioned giant lake where oil is found when it dries up (and I was swimming in that!). Anyway, various foreigners, including North Americans, built temporary shelters in the Amazon to create accommodations for the people who are employed by the oil companies. Well, the native Amazon communities saw how structurally secure the homes of these foreigners were and asked the government of Ecuador to provide them with structurally secure housing. Previously, the indigenous people would go deep into the jungle to find the best type of wood for their homes, but inevitably it would crumble due to termites. Finally, the government agreed to give the indigenous people what they asked for, but it came with a price.
Playa de Cuyabeno track housing for the indigenous communities.
The majority of the 15 communities that live in the heart of Ecuador’s jungle work for the oil companies! The oil company is required to give 12% of its annual income toward the developmental benefits of the surrounding communities. This means that there was sufficient funding to create 68 stock homes in the jungle which also come with a basketball court, a cemetery, and more. Each home is free to the various communities of indigenous people who will be moving in sometime at the end of 2014; however, they will now be required to pay for utilities. Each home is stocked with 2-3 bedrooms and a kitchen. The homes are made from metal, concrete, and aluminum, and each is two stories with the bottom story only having a bathroom; they can’t do any sort of remodel. Each home is also stocked with a land line phone, a cell phone, a television, and a cable for the internet. The price of utilities will be roughly $100 a year, and the money is earned from the oil companies. To me it sounds like a situation of colonialism.
Playa de Cuyabeno track home
Anyway, the tour of the new little city was given by the president of the indigenous communities, and he was elated at all that the communities would now have. What they mostly wanted, aside from structurally secure housing, was a center for education and public health. They also didn’t like walking in huge mud puddles from all the rain the Amazon gets. Well, they received much more than that but at the same time will be losing so much more.
There seemed to be a general consensus among classmates that the project will cause the communities to lose their culture. Previously families ate together in a giant open space, but now they would be confined to smaller spaces and will be eating only among family members. The housing has been set up to accommodate the nuclear family. Additionally, previously the cemetery was located far from the homes, and it took about a 25 minute boat ride to get to the cemetery. Now the cemetery is just a few feet away from the nearest homes. Everything is changing! In just one to two generations, there may be no memory of how the communities used to live in an ecological manner with the earth.
The president of the community doesn’t seem completely oblivious to these slight changes. He noted that there are now swarms of insects and birds that hover over the new city, and that was never a problem before in the jungle where huge strips of trees hadn’t gone missing. He failed to realize, as far as I know, that the mud puddles they suffered from are still going to be a problem. Where does he think the rain and the surrounding land will go during the wet seasons?
There are other things I noticed about the project. The plants that were placed in front of the homes to create a look of beauty are not all native. Also, the houses are bright white and do not blend into the surrounding forest. Additionally, the homes are all placed in a line which doesn’t allow for any social connections at the home space thus forcing people apart or forcing them to create another form of communal space. There is just so much that is un-realized with this project, and it seems the president of the indigenous people has been mesmerized into believing that this way of life will be everything they ever wanted…. until they forget who they are.
Everyone in the class left on a saddened note at seeing colonialism at its best and realizing that the community will only grow as the new generations are given the opportunity to apply for their own housing too, so long as they give their lives to the oil companies….. The next stop on our tour at the community San Victoriano made all the difference.
San Victoriano (the community is playing soccer)
San Victoriano started 80 years ago. The father of the president of the small community used to be a nomad in the jungle, but eventually he stopped and claimed land to farm on. Hence, San Victoriano is a farming community. They have 180,000 hectares of land that they claim, even though they use very little of it. There is a governmental program in Ecuador called Socio Bosque which gives $30 a year per hectare of land that a community is willing to protect, so San Victoriano plans to start in 2014 by giving 80,000 hectares of land to the project. They are required to protect the land for 20 years, and if they withdraw from the program before the time is up then they owe all the money back to the government. Anyway, this small community doesn’t feel that the oil company project intents to protect land, so San Victoriano is not interested in being part of the project. They are perfectly content with their farming, jewelry making, and their chance to be a big part of the ecotourism movement in the country. When visitors come they will pay $3 to learn about the community and stay for the night.
San Victoriano jewelry for sale
After leaving San Victoriano and having taken the 4 hour boat ride back to the lodge, we all ate dinner and then had a discussion with a gentleman from the Ministry of Environment who oversees Cuyabeno. He doesn’t seem to be in agreement with the Play de Cuyabeno project and knows that he can’t do anything since the government makes all the decisions. It seems the oil companies somewhat own the government of Ecuador. However, he seems to love Cuyabeno and hopes to keep doing all he can to protect it.
San Victoriano plant and me with my new necklace I bought to support the community’s focus on conservation.
As a general reference, Cuyabeno has 500 species of birds, 184 species of fish, 81 species of amphibians, 54 species of reptiles, and 473 species of trees. Tourism began in 1980, and the largest issues that the reserve faces is the oil company and illegal tree extraction.
Another long night ended at 11:30pm, and we were all up at 5:30am the next day to begin our trek home. We took our last 2 hour boat ride back to the original docks, and we rode for 11.5 hours by bus in order to be home by 10:30pm. Phew! My butt was sore, sore, sore.
All in all it was an amazing experience to see the Amazon and have such an immediate connection to it. It was also heartbreaking to learn of the changes that are occurring inside due to the oil companies and their model of colonialism. However, I am hopeful that the future will bring promising ecological changes as more and more communities join the Socio Bosque program and decide to protect the land, especially since it seems at least part of the government is on the side of conservation.