NAPO RIVER BASIN, ECUADOR - After three long hot hours paddling up the Napo River, the last hour of which was in small canoes manned by local villagers, Jiovanny Rivadeneira beams like a proud papa as his pride and joy comes into view.
Just ahead, across the lake so smooth it looked like a velvet mirror, lay the Napo Wildlife Center (NWC), a refuge and resort owned and run by the community. One of the most successful jungle lodges in Ecuador, it lies within the boundaries of the vast and lush Yasuni National Park and Rivadeneira, a local man and one of 13 children, is the general manager of the centre and a founding member of the local Kichwa Añangu community.
The Yasuni National Park has been declared a world biosphere reserve by UNESCO, and is one of the most biologically diverse areas on earth. Over 650 species of trees have been found in one hectare of forest alone — more than are recorded in both Canada and the continental U.S. combined.
Over 170 species of mammals and 600 species of birds make this region their home. Yasuní is also a vital habitat to 23 globally threatened mammal species, including the infamous Pink River Dolphin, the Giant Otter, Giant Anteater, the Amazonian Manatee, Amazonian Tapir and the White-bellied Spider Monkey.
Not knowing what to expect on a visit to the Napo River basin, a tributary and part of the vast Amazon River system, we were totally unprepared. Sitting at dinner the first night in a giant wall-less “chalet” going over our next-day hiking plans with our guide Miguel, we saw a bird-sized moth fly by our heads. As Miguel informed us, it was a standard sized moth — 15 cm across at least — but certainly not the biggest we could come across (a great start to our adventure I said to myself).
Later, I felt something brush against my back as we ate our dinner. Looking across the table, my wife Lorraine had a petrified look on her face. However. Miguel calmly came over and carefully lifted a giant grasshopper the size of his hand off my shoulder and set it down on the grass outside.We had just arrived but my wife wanted to leave already.
Left: Jiovanny Rivadeneira is raging a struggle to preserve a way of life in the rainforest. Right: Big oil is leaving its mark on the delicate rainforest landscape that so many are trying so hard to protect.
As we were about to find out over the next days, underneath the small area of the Yasuni National Park lies a wealth of black gold. In the area known as Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT), rests an estimated 850 million barrels of oil, over 20 per cent of Ecuador’s known oil reserves which is valued at over $7 billion (U.S.).
The Kichwa nation’s people have lived in this area for over 500 years, however, the Añangu Community itself is a much more recent resident, having first arrived here in 1978.
As with most smaller settlements and towns around the world, the young adults left the community for opportunities in the bigger cities, and the community was stagnating. At one point it was a mere 60 strong. However, by the mid ’80’s many started returning and within a few years managed to obtain legal permission to permanently inhabit and manage the area, thus making it the official home of the Kichwa Añangu Community.
Today their number has grown to over 180 inhabitants.
In the latter part of the ’90’s the Añangu community made a decision to start their own eco-tourism initiative, thus spawning the NWC. It now stands as the premier alternative eco-lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
In 2007 the Yasuni-ITT proposal was launched by the Ecuadorian government to prevent the massive environmental destruction and deforestation that can be caused as a result of oil exploitation and to refrain indefinitely from exploiting the oil reserves of the ITT within the Yasuni National Park.
The Yasuni-ITT Trust Fund was officially launched in August 2010. This successful implementation would prevent the estimated emission of over 410 million cubic tons of carbon dioxide — more than is produced by France in one year, or Ecuador in 10. In the spirit of co-responsibility, Ecuador is hoping the world community will contribute 50 per cent of the income it is forgoing, equal to $3.6 billion over a 13 year period, with the balance being the contribution of the people of Ecuador through initiatives like the NWC. So far, the project is far behind budget and stalled at just over $200 million.
Scott Wallace of National Geographic magazine says: “With the initiative stalled and (Ecuadorian President) Correa warning that time is running out, activity on the oil frontier continues to advance through eastern Ecuador, even within Yasuní’s limits.
Every day, another bit of the wilderness succumbs to the bulldozers and backhoes.”
Traditionally, the Kichwa Añangu were hunter-gatherers, subsisting daily on what they could capture or forage.
Life was an uphill battle to survive. Today, they fight a different battle, this time against the lure of black gold.