Kingdom for a Barrel
ORGIGINAL LINK; http://www.wendmag.com/magazine/06-04/yasuni/
Can an area of deep Ecuadorian Amazon inspire the world to look past nationhood for collective conservation?
Words: David Biller, Photos: Valentí Zapater
Walking along a jungle path just outside Ecuador’s largest national park, Yasuní, the Zabala family was surprised by a group of nude Amazonians that emerged from the forest. The mother screamed as the tribesmen plunged palm-wood lances decorated with macaw feathers into her chest and stomach, killing her. They then speared two of her children, grabbed her infant son and made off into the woods. Days later, the baby was found—alive—in a hole dug beneath a tree root.
One of the most biodiverse places on this planet, the nearly-4,000-square-mile Yasuní National Park is also the verdant home of two small, semi-nomadic tribes that live in isolation: the Taromenane and Tagaeri. The attack on the Zabalas, the latest of several such incidents in the past decade, occurred near heavy machinery opening a road and a generator powering an oil well. Ecuador’s environment ministry hypothesized that the Taromenane, drawn by the sound of the roadwork and the generator’s “deafening noise,” were striking back at an “enveloping society.” Indeed, oil activity has pushed steadily east through the northern half of Yasuní’s untouched depths for the last several decades. The undeveloped ITT area—named for its potentially lucrative Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini oil fields—overlaps more than 350 square miles of Yasuní’s northeast corner, and is all that remains between ongoing projects and the Peruvian border.
But the government’s Yasuní-ITT Initiative dictates that oil-dependent Ecuador will leave ITT alone forever if the international community comes up with half the $7.2 billion value of its oil. Money raised would fund conservation, reforestation and renewable energy. An initially enthusiastic reception has been hushed by the government’s aggressive sales pitch, which at times has sounded more like a hostage negotiation than an international model for conserving tropical, mega-diverse areas. Ecuador needs $100 million in commitments by year-end to keep the Yasuní-ITT trust fund alive. As of early December, it had about $70 million.
I wanted to see what about ITT the government thought could inspire people the world over to loosen their purse strings. While waiting for my access permit in the Ecuadorian environment ministry’s regional office, I chatted with a pair of bright-eyed employees. In a moment of candor, one said, “I hope the government gets the money. If not, have you seen Avatar?” She signaled the Yasuní wall map with her small palms wide open. “This is the Ecuador version.”
I hoped ITT itself, the pristine northeast corner of Yasuní park, might deliver a more coherent pitch for conservation to me and my friend Dan, an emergency medicine doctor whose idea of a vacation is hitchhiking through rural Africa. To our uninitiated ears, though, the jungle’s voice would seem subdued, not symphonic. Deciphering it would be best accomplished traveling ITT’s trails and paddling down the Yasuní River with interpreters from the Waorani tribe, which, although still remote, has been contacted over the last half-century. With the Waoranis’ help, I believed ITT would prove itself a world apart.
And I had good reason to hope: Yasuní occupies just 0.15 percent of the entire Amazon region yet is home to roughly one-third of its amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species. In a given hectare, there are 100,000 insect species, not to mention more species of trees here than in the U.S. and Canada combined. The number of fish species surpasses that of the Mississippi River basin. Invoking the cliché “teeming with life” would merely scratch the surface. Yasuní is life atop life atop life, all of which—in a cruel twist of fate—resides atop oil. ITT alone holds about 900 million barrels, or 20 percent of Ecuador’s total reserves.
This bounty defies comprehension to everyone except people like Quemontare “Pedro” Enomenga. Pedro, 23, is one of the first three Waorani whom Ecuador’s environment ministry hired as park guards in 2011, and we were the first people he guided.
Pedro is short with a boyish face, but strapped with muscle from hunting since he was old enough to hoist a spear. He weaved briskly between trees with absolute certainty; to his trained senses, the jungle was alive with meaning. We struggled to keep up, bypassing trees, plants and mushrooms with a pathetic inability to identify any of them. Our taxonomic vision, Pedro informed us, was on par with that of a Waorani toddler. A nettle he pushed into our forearms raised the skin in bumps and left a pleasant numbing sensation like Icy Hot. The stench of a fullback’s sweaty shoulder pads signaled that tapirs had passed through. What looked like an unripe starfruit was actually a pod containing pulp-covered seeds that tasted like watermelon Jolly Ranchers. I perceived everything in terms of my world, but there was no analog when Pedro peeled back a vine to reveal a fluid the Waorani use to paint their faces. He made birdcalls and conversed with doves. His own language, Wao Terero, bears no relation to any other on Earth.
Original Link: http://www.wendmag.com/magazine/06-04/yasuni/