(just a little bit) Trapped in the Jungle at Yasuni

My supervisor sat down next to me with the unmistakable look of someone bearing bad news. Yellow Bellied Spider Monkeys soared overhead on their monkey highway in the sky towards ripened fruit. The sun was setting and the sounds of the jungle started to come alive.

“The protests have escalated and the roads are still closed.” Santiago began.

“We will not be able to go back the way we came.”

With the indisputable air of a scientist who’s emotional reactions have been traded for logical reasoning, Santiago calmly delivered the news of our increasingly uncertain future. I took a long sip of water as I processed what was just laid out on the table in front of me.

“Is there another way out?” I responded.

“Yes, we can go by canoe on the Tiputini River all the way to Peru, and then head back towards Coca from the Napo River. It will take at least 12 hours.”

The news continued its downward trajectory.

“Some local Waorani protestors have raided our sister station at the Catholic University last night where some of our other researchers are staying. They stole all their food and supplies.”

“And what, they just left them there?” I asked.

He nodded in affirmation.

“Are they going to be okay? Should we expect the same thing to happen here?”

“Yes. It is a big problem.”

Okay, well that doesn’t really answer my question, but yeah… okay.

Needless to say, this was shaping up to be a memorable trip.

The indigenous protests in Yasuni began the day of my arrival in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. The timing was incredible, coinciding directly with my plan to ‘do a little research’ on the state of conservation in the world’s most biodiverse region. Yasuni’s Amazon Rainforest is home more life than anywhere on the planet. There are over 650 species of trees in one hectare of land here, and to give you some perspective on what that means: in all of the Netherlands there are only 150 species of trees.

It’s a scientists gold mine. Which is how I ended up at a scientific research center. In the heart of the Ecuador’s jungle is the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, where scientists, researchers and students can poke, prod, explore, collect, track and record all manner of living things. Just about everyone at Tiputini is an ‘ologist’ of something or other. Entomologists, ornithologists, primatologists, dendrologists, herpetologists…

You can just call me a ‘travel-oologist’.

Getting to Yasuni will throw you for a loop, an actual loop. You have to really want it. And even if you don’t land amidst a political torrent of indigenous unrest and capitalist exploitation, it’s still incredibly remote and difficult to access. There are only two places to stay inside Yasuni National Park: the Napo Wildlife Lodge, and San Francisco de Quito’s Tiputini Research Center. The research center is, well, its a research center, so it’s not really open to the public. Which leaves the Napo Wildlife Lodge. After doing hours upon hours of research, I came to a stand still. Not only was the Napo Wildlife Lodge booked during my dates of travel, but the cost was over 800$/night not including the travel to get there from Coca, Ecuador. In my experience, the cheaper the travel, the more rugged and immersive the experience. I wanted a down and dirty, deep in the green, kind of experience. Something I could write home about.

So I put on my writers cap and sent Tiputini an email requesting to stay at their research center as a travel writer. I wasn’t expecting anything from my inquiry, since the center is generally for people who’s occupation ends in ‘ologist.’ But it doesn’t hurt to ask. Well, it did hurt a little, I felt pretty out of my league requesting to stay at a research center. But I did it anyways.

In the meantime I looked at some other Amazonian destinations in South America that were more accessible and budget friendly. I researched the Amazon in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Brazil. But all of the destinations fell right into the same daily guided tourist traps where you are led like sheep to the same place day after day, and many tours even encourage interacting with the wildlife; which is really, really terrible. None of these destinations could match Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park in biodiversity. In the midst of my declining research, my friend in South America, who was going to travel with me initially, backed out; so I pretty much gave up on the idea altogether. I mean, a solo trip to the Amazon was not on my bucket list.

Right after I put the whole trip out of my mind, Tiputini Biodiversity Station emailed me back and said, Yes, of course, they would love to have me at their research center.

After all the research I did on other Amazonian destinations, I realized how special Yasuni really was. And now, being offered this singular opportunity to stay in a place where I could explore the wild grounds by myself if I chose, or with a private guide catered to my research needs, I wasn’t about to turn it down. I was ready to get my boots muddy.

Ticket for one please.

The planning alone was an undertaking of epic proportions. Step 1: you really have to want to get there, because its epic. First: you have to get to Quito, Ecuador. Then you have to take a flight from Quito to Coca (I recommend booking directly through Latam Airlines, as any private booking agency will charge double and will most likely be more difficult to work with than Latam’s airline app.) In Coca, I stayed one night at Heliconias, which was a really wonderful hotel, they were easy to work with and used to dealing with people traveling to and from Tiputini’s research station. By ‘wonderful,’ let me just clarify what I mean exactly in case anyone reading this gets some unreasonable expectations: they responded quickly and clearly to my booking needs, and allowed me to change my dates when I needed to on multiple occasion with ease and direct communication. The rooms were clean, and they offer meals on request. For those of you that travel often in Latin America, you probably know that these simple conveniences of travel can be really hard to come by. On the flip side, this hotel is far from luxurious. But ‘luxury’ isn’t really what I’m going for.

Once Tiputini’s station supervisor picked me and two other researchers up in a canoe at Coca, I was pretty much at their mercy, not really knowing where we were going aside from the ultimate destination: Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS). From Coca, it was a 2 hour canoe ride on the Napo River to Pompeya, the first leg of our journey to TBS. Pompeya was my first real look at the state of oil extraction in Yasuni.

My journey here was centered around the conservation efforts and general state of oil drilling in Yasuni. According to my research, the ITT initiative was a massive fail, which basically sealed the fate of Yasuni’s future in oil extraction. The ITT initiative was Correa’s innovative way to try and ‘save’ Ecuador’s Amazon, by promising to halt drilling in a portion of the park, in exchange for international support equivalent to 3.5 billion dollars. The main reason behind this being pretty clear cut: all the countries begging Correa to save Yasuni had already exploited and used up all of their natural resources. Ecuador is a poor country and Correa asked the rest of the world to put their money where their mouth is.

If you’re interested in how much money 3.5 billion dollars is, allow me to give you a brief interlude:

On one of the many plane rides I took to Yasuni, I caught a small blip in a National Geographic magazine about DART: Nasa’s recent project to knock an asteroid out of space, you know, just in case one comes flying into our orbit. The chances of that happening by the way, comes along about every, hundred million years or so I looked it up online, wanting to know a little bit more about why we are knocking asteroids out of orbit in outer space. On Nasa’s website explaining the project, under “why it’s important,” the first thing they say is: “The vast majority of asteroids and comets are not dangerous, and never will be.” 

HmmmmOkay, so under Nasa’s statement of why it’s important, the first thing they do is state why it’s not important. 

Do you know what the budget was for that project? Allow me to illuminate you: 350 Million dollars.

If you need a minute to let that sink in, by all means, let it marinate.

That’s almost half a billion. (I bet you can see where I’m going with this). 

Nasa’s proposed yearly budget for 2024 is over 27 billion dollars.  That’s one country’s budget for one year for one agency. And while we are spending money defending ourselves from imaginary killer-asteroids in outer space, we are openly allowing ourselves to break apart from the inside through our own industrialism and capitalistic exploitation, creating irreparable damage that will likely cause the demise of our species. Does anyone see the irony? Thanks a lot NASA; how about doing an about face with that telescope and pointing it on the inside, where the real threat to our planet lies? 10 years after Correa’s ITT initiative went into effect, only 300 million dollars in international pledges were made of the proposed 3.5 billion, deeming it a complete failure.

You don’t have to go to outer space to see the critical wounds being inflicted on our planet, by our own species. In Pompeya, it was shockingly obvious that oil extraction has in fact taken over the park. We got off the canoe and walked directly into a Petrol Station. There were massive posters printed of oil rigs in the park, interlaced with iconic imagery of the indigenous Waorani people and the endemic wildlife. The propaganda was as shocking as the oil extraction itself. About a dozen oil workers wandered around the station, dressed in the typical blue coveralls with white stripes.

Okay, so I guess the state of Yasuni’s conservation is not good. Giant barges carrying oil tanks are sprinkled along the length of Napo River. In my hotel room in Heliconias, there were available brochures on safety protocols on the oil rigs intermingled with the brochures advertising local tourist attractions. In Coca, by the Napo River, there are massive pipes blocking the city streets waiting to be buried underground to funnel the liquid gold out of the ground. Oil is everywhere.

We all waited at the station for the bus to take us to Tiputini River. But what should have been a 30 minute wait, turned into hours. I walked outside and let a Rhinoceros Beetle blow my mind as it made it’s slow and incredible journey up a tree.

The oil workers came outside and started whistling to the trees. Hearing its summon, a Wooly Monkey and her baby came down to grab some food from the hands of one of the men.

As the hours ticked by, I began to wonder. Santiago, Tiputini’s station supervisor, explained that a new oil company, PetroEcuador, had recently taken over the oil stations after Rhepsol let its concessions expire this year. The locals were protesting the new oil company with a fury. Hence the long extended wait for our bus.

Given my own sheltered and well padded point of observation, everything filters through my ‘first world’ perception. I automatically assumed that the Waorani are protesting the new oil company because the oil company is raping and pillaging the land; tearing apart the rain forest and killing all the tiny monkeys, duh.

It’s much more complicated than that.

The Waorani tribe is a recently contacted tribe. In the early 1900’s, they resisted contact with the outside world by spearing intruders. In fact, the first oil company to establish extraction rights in the 1940s was chased away by the Waorani after several oil workers were killed. For a time, it appeared that the indigenous people had violently won the right to maintain their traditional lifestyles in Yasuni. While they did succeed in keeping their virgin forest clear of oil extraction for a time, they could not win against the missionaries. The forces of Rachel Saint and her evangelical propulsion won out. Religious zeal ultimately conquered the cultural heritage of many Waorani. Missionaries have repeatedly initiated the rapid decline and disappearance of indigenous cultural through systematically undermining their confidence and robbing them of their inner faith and beliefs. After Rachel Saint converted a large portion of the Waorani tribes, the government instilled a ‘protectorate’ to begin relocating the newly converted Waorani. Rachel wasn’t satisfied with her new converts and in the process of trying to convert the remaining tribal sects, polio was introduced to the tribes, contributing to more death and displacement of the Waorani people. Two Waorani tribes held out against Rachel Saint: the Tagaeri and Taromenane, and they still live in isolation deep in Yasuni as uncontacted indigenous tribes. After Rachel Saint converted and relocated (those that didn’t die of disease) a portion of the Waorani, a new oil exploration company immediately took over the newly vacated lands. After that, settlements and road construction created a butterfly effect of irreparable change for the Waorani. Before contact from the outside, the Waorani were nomadic hunter gatherers, but the new roads and permanent settlements makes hunting grounds unsustainable. Without the movement that defines nomadic hunters, the hunted species don’t have time to repopulate. This means that the Waorani have been left with an unsustainable way of life in Yausni. Their old pre-contacted way of life was sustainable (and remains so for the uncontacted tribes), but the changes brought about by missionaries and oil exploration have left them with new lifestyles that are untenable. The Tagaeri and Taromenane believe that any alliance with the outside, including with missionaries, is treacherous and destructive, and they have been at war with the ‘contacted’ Waorani ever since. Since these tribal wars began, the oil companies have armed the Waorani, giving them guns to fuel their rage, and now the discord has cost dozens of lives.

With some historical context, you can see that the network of change has rendered the Waorani lifestyle implausible, and now Yasuni is full of communities of indigenous people that need work and rely on contact with the outside world to survive. The local communities are now completely enmeshed and dependent on the oil companies for various things. The only Waorani that live independent of oil and remain vehemently against it are the Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes living in un-contacted isolation. But since they have no contact with the outside world, their voice isn’t on the table; nor can they stay informed of current events.

So why are the Waorani protesting? Unlike most extractive industries, Rhepsol, Yasuni’s previous oil extraction company, operated under an innovative business model: a Social License to Operate, otherwise known as SLO. Its an integrative model based on local, social permission from their host community. The theory is that the business is more sustainable if the relationship with their host is more symbiotic, and less parasitic. They formulated this model by working directly with the Waorani communities in an informed and integrated context. They hired the locals to work on the oil fields, they also helped them with housing, schools and more.

This integrative business model is part of the reason that the Waorani communities are so completely dependent on the oil companies.

PetroEcuador, Yasuni’s new oil company, swooped in at the start of this year, and ceased all ‘integrative’ dealings with the communities. They immediately fired the Waorani employees and are refusing to involve them as affected members of the community. “They don’t care,” I heard one Waorani woman say as she described her dispute with the new company. She was clearly in distress, and I could see her underlying emotions of fear and lack of recognition rising to the surface.

The Waorani response to the new oil company’s mass firing was expeditious. They started protesting only hours before our arrival, digging deep trenches in the roads rendering them impassable by the oil company. Needless to say, no one in Ecuador is reporting on this, and as a result, most people in Ecuador (and the rest of the world) don’t even know it’s happening. The government doesn’t disclose these sorts of topics or allow for reporting on them, which is another reason why the Waorani feel the need to resort to violence. They have been robbed of their voice. They are neither seen nor heard by the national and international communities.

Our bus arrived, about 3 hours late, and we all loaded up. We picked up some locals along the way, overloading the van with people and luggage. As we approached the trenches in the road, the local Waorani were gathered around with a defiant look about them, donning the iconic red paint on their faces. As a part of the Tiputini Research Center, we were still in their good graces, and they helped us across the trenches by putting down some wooden planks over the 3 foot drop. Our van’s front tires made it to the other side, but our back tires crushed the planks, leaving half the bus at the bottom of the trench. The stunning jolt and sight of the back of the bus in the ditch had me quickly assessing this as the end of our journey. I mean, there are no tow trucks out here, and I don’t see any other vehicles lining up to make this crossing.

But, in Latin America, there is no end of the road. The journey continues!

Everyone banded together and leveraged the van out of the trench with more wood and relentless determination, and we were back on the road in a matter of minutes. There wasn’t even time for anyone to consider other options. And the van, miraculously, suffered no damage. The resourcefulness and fortitude of Latin Americans never cease to amaze me.

After a 2 hour drive through the jungle, and past petrol stations, we arrived at TBS’s sister station: Tiputini’s Catholic University. From there, we got into another canoe on the Tiputini River and floated along the serpentine riverbanks of the Amazon.

The aroma was strong and enticing; it smelled like all my best memories of summer.

We made it to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station just as the sun began to set. A Tapir crossed the river as we pulled into the dock. Our welcome into the camp was rushed, dark, and somewhat lacking in information. Electricity was only available for a few hours a day, run by a generator. It’s a research station, not an eco lodge. I was mostly afraid of getting lost on the way to my hut from the dining hall… which I did, but only a little.

The jungle was screaming with the sounds of life. It was daunting and terrifying if I’m being honest. My lodge was at the end of the path that connected the huts to the dining hall and the laboratory, about a quarter mile from where we docked the canoe. I stumbled along the wooden planks, with over 50 pounds of luggage on my back and my front, utterly exhausted as I made my way up the hill to my hut. I was immediately struck with the reality of my situation.

Am I in over my head?

Probably. But here is one thing I’ve learned in my recent over-zealous travels: the view is the same no matter how you feel. You don’t have to be comfortable or even in a good mood to take in the scenery… So I let myself go a little bit, and let my senses overwhelm me.

It was exhilirating

As I walked on the wooden planks that marked the path, the sounds intensified, and the humidity thickened. A Great Tinamou, also known as the ‘chicken of the forest,’ sang a haunting and alluring song in the distance. The sounds and smells and textures were indescribable. The life and energy pulsated through the thick air. All I needed was some Ayahuasca and a Shaman to take me into the void.

maybe next time.

My room was simple, but it had all the necessary things. A torn screen was the only thing that separated me from the jungle outside. Electricity was available for three hours in the evening so I turned the light on, looked around, and saw bugs, big bugs, crawling around my room. I ‘redistributed’ them, and quickly turned the light off. I wanted to be as boring and uninteresting as possible to all the creatures outside. It’s the bugs that make Yasuni such a biodiverse hotspot of living things. Most of the books and posters in the station’s laboratory were about insects of one type or another. Bugs are one of the best determining factors of the health and biodiversity of an ecosystem. And Yasuni has bugs, so many bugs.

So I used the red light on my headlamp, and a candle when the sun went down to light my room. I didn’t turn my overhead light on once. It worked beautifully. There wasn’t one bug in my hut during the entire week of my stay (if you don’t count bed bugs, but I’ll save that that for another story).

I rushed to the dinner hut, and met the other 6 or so researchers at the station. Santiago joined us, and I over heard him telling someone that all the groups scheduled to come in behind us had been cancelled due to the protests and road closures. I sat down to get a little more information on that. The indigenous protestors had just taken control of the oil pits and were planning to keep the roads closed until negotiations with the new oil company were made. I tried not to think about getting back, and what that would look like.

The next day, I met another Santiago, who would be my private guide if and when I needed one.

Tiputini is full of well marked trails and I had about a week to get my boots muddy in what is likely to contain more life than anywhere in the world. I’ll save my encounter with the world’s tiniest monkey and other wildlife adventures, and how we got out of the jungle amidst protests, road closures, indigenous raids and other foreboding obstacles for part II.

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