The Wheels Come Off the Yasuní Bus (And My Thesis?)

“Yasuní-ITT”—the proposal by the Ecuadorian government to leave 900 million barrels of oil underground in exchange for international compensation (and, not incidentally, also the topic of my thesis)—has evolved into a powerful symbol.  When I first started my research, commentators were already declaring the proposal to be the solution to climate change and the harbinger of a new era of post-petroleum development.  This August, the Ecuadorian government signed the agreement to create the project’s trust fund, and the academic community made this symbolism explicit.  “Yasunízar,” they declared, was a new verb that meant, “to protect a sacred place.”

As I learned this summer, however, Yasuní the symbol doesn’t correspond well with Yasuní the place.  To be “Yasunízado” is supposed to mean “protected,” and yet Yasuní National Park itself is already scarred by logging, hunting, colonization, and, of course, oil extraction.  Yasuní-ITT would confront one threat, in one place, but leave many problems unconfronted.  Rhetoric about the “rights of nature” aside, Ecuador is still—and will be for the foreseeable future—a state that lives by petroleum.  Even were the Yasuní-ITT bloc preserved in pristine state, it would be an isolated victory, not a change in development paradigm.  These realities haven’t seemed to matter, though, because the symbolism of Yasuní—the idea of rich countries paying poor ones to save the world—is appealing to all sorts of actors.

This week, though, the wheels really started to come off.  First, Germany—which had pledged $650 million towards the project—backed out.  Then, a few days later, some disgruntled cops burning tires in Quito hit President Correa with a tear gas canister.  In a Huge-Chavez-esque moment of hyperbole, Correa declared the riots an attempted coup and tweeted that he had almost been assisinated.  While I haven’t read anything about the implications of this event for Yasuní, I fear it will provide other European countries to withdraw their support.  We have, after all, been reminded that the government promising to “indefinitely” leave oil underground represents a polity that has had nineteen constitutions in the last two hundred years and three (real) coups in the last ten.

Cynical as I may sound, I know that the failure of the Yasuní-ITT proposal will have dire ramifications for the people, animals, and plants of the Amazon.  At the moment, though, I’m worrying about my thesis.  If the proposal succeeds, I can both point out its limitations and offer a plethora of suggestions for improvement in other places.  But what’s the point of critiquing something that has already failed?  Is there a more practical lesson to this, other than that Latin American governments are unstable, Western governments are stingy, and fixing climate change is shaping up to be awfully hard?

Hot Latin Romance

It’s amazing that I’ve already been back in the United Statse for a week.  As usual, the transition is much faster than I would have imagined.  Preoccupations with my Spanish skills and obsession with grabbing a few more interviews have quickly fated, as I shift gears back into ivory tower mode.  Some things stay with me, though, so in the absence of good material coming out of Central Oregon, I’ll be writing up a few more thoughts on Ecuador before I head back to that other exotic wilderness where I spend my time, Oxford.

This post I have resisted writing for over a month, because I kind of hate posts like this.  It’s a common trope in travel writing: white person travels to poor country and falls in love with how friendly and quaint the natives are.  So, before I launch into this, I will say that I know that Latin America is a profoundly unequal and violent place where daily life is, for many, a struggle.

That said, I love Latin America.

I love that I never feel invisible.  In Coca, I felt like a had at least five surrogate mothers who were covertly watching over me: the mother at the hotel desk, the mother down the street at the frijoles stand, the mother in the tourism office.  They called me “jovencito” and asked, whenever I had been gone for a few days, where I had been.  Visibility is something that can be taken too far, of course.  In Uganda, I often felt overwhelmed by being the endless attention I got for being white.  Here, though, my visibility does not make me feel guilty, because I get the sense people are watching out for me not just because I am a gringo but because I am particularly young and clueless looking gringo.

I love that there is a certain gentleness and courtesy to interactions here.  I never tire of hearing people, upon entering a restaurant, wish “buen provecho” to those already eating.  I love that strangers will always greet me when they come into a room, even when they are there to see someone else.  And, although it always strikes me as somewhat absurd, I love that they will follow up with a formal goodbye, even if they are leaving twenty seconds later.  I have a soft spot for greetings that involve a kiss on the cheek, too, even though it feels awkward and I am generally unsure if I am doing it correctly.

I love that people trust me.  When we were in Baños, the chain on my rented bicycle snapped.  My companions biked on, while I was stranded waiting for a bus in a small highway stop.  A shopkeeper came out and offered to lend me his bike.  He asked for nothing in return and demanded no assurances that I would bring it back.  It’s much the same with the waiters and restaurant owners who assured me that I could come back and pay tomorrow, because they didn’t have change for a five at the moment.  However incongruous it is with Ecuador’s skyrocketing crime rate, I see a faith in community and friendship and humanity here that often feels absent in my own country.

I love that people here dance.  Not just the youth, but everyone; I love that on a Saturday night, I can see young couples and old married ones, grandparents and grandchildren.  Men and women dancing together here leave enough space between them to appease even the chaperones at my high school prom, and yet the dancing here is nonetheless the most sensual thing I have ever seen.  I even appreciate the endless attempts people make to teach me to dance, even though both they and I know it’s a hopeless cause.  I love that a bottle of beer is always served with multiple glasses, because sharing is simply assumed.

And, to get a bit closer to my thesis, I love that people share their time, too, and their knowledge.  I love that a kid who looks like he’s 18, doesn’t know a thing about Latin America, and can barely speak Spanish can still walk into the mayor’s office and get an interview.  I love the pride with which people tell me about Ecuador, the way they find nice things to say about even the most remote Amazonian backwater.  I appreciate that so many people want to exchange e-mail and skype addresses and telephone numbers.  I know that their promises to keep in touch are meant, even though they will almost certainly not be kept.  I love that the question people always ask, when they hear about my research, is when I am coming back.  And I certainly appreciate that, this time, I am being honest when I say that I will be back.

In My Father’s Shoes

One day in eighth grade, when my mother was out of town, my dad picked me up to school.  At this point in my life, all I wanted to do after 3:30 p.m. was get home and fry my brain with hours and hours of video games (I think it was Starcraft at that point), but when my dad picked me up, there was always something that we had to do first.  Trips to the hardware store, plant nursery, or office were always exciting detours to look forward to.

This particular day, we drove to the outskirts of town, to a strip mine where human ingenuity and modern technology were being used to tear down a volcano.  My dad was looking to pick up some cinders, I think, for some landscaping project on which I would invariably be forced to work on the following Saturday morning (I would, once again, have preferred to be playing Starcraft).  My dad chattered with some sort of a salesman, who walked into his trailer to get a price quote on something.  As we waited, gazing over the desolate moon-scape, I turned to my dad and, in the charming sarcasm of an obnoxious fourteen year old, told him “Dad, I’m so glad we can share these father-son bonding experiences together.”

Our trip that afternoon has earned a place in family lore, but it’s not the only quality time we spent together in my youth.  There were also Boy Scout backpacking trips, in which we together learned such useful skills as tomahawk throwing and spar-pole climbing, as well as sniggered at my Scoutmaster’s lingering anger over Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi (which happened in 1969) and fear that the federal government might restrict his assault rifle ownership.  For a mountain of reasons, though, the last two weeks I have spent with my dad travelling Latin America take the take for the best days I have ever spent with my father (and not just because there are no pit mines or black powder shooting ranges involved).

My dad has a pretty deep connection to Latin America, having spent two years in the Peace Corps in Peru and another year doing conservation work in Costa Rica.  When I was really young, I used to tell me teachers that my had two jobs: one where he sat in an office in Washington D.C., and another where he went to the rainforest to save monkeys.  Precocious as I was, within a few years I figured out that it was actually the same job: director of The Nature Conservancy’s Latin America program.  Still, though, not until this trip did I have any idea how far-reaching—and fascinating—his roots in Latin America were.  Who knew that I spent an entire year backpacking across the continent, anyway?

It seems every place we visited triggered another memory: “Oh, yeah, I think maybe I was involved in the creation of that park.”  Sometimes, though, his footprints were not so larger, but they were always interested; on this trip, he finally opened up and told me tales of hitchhiking through Argentina, or taking wood-powered paddle boats through the Amazon.  The best part of it, though, is the sense that I am starting to trace my father’s footprints.  Long hours spent winding along Andean highways have given me plenty of time to imagine my dad, at the same age, doing the same.  My father, too, arrived in Latin America with only a bit of Spanish and not one bit of experience, and a few decades later retired with a trail of protected areas and national parks in his wake.  Spending time with him makes me realize that I could be very content with my life if only I could do the same.

The End (As Seen From Paradise)

I’m still in Ecuador, but for all intents and purposes my thesis research is over.  Upon coming back from Yasuní, my dad and I returned to Quito, where we immediately were picked up to go to Maquipucuna Lodge, in the liminal zone between the Andes and the Coast.

Decades ago, my dad helped some young and idealistic Ecuadorians buy a nature preserve, which has now turned into a swanky eco-tourism lodge.  My dad called in a favor, in a sense, and now we are relaxing for the next two nights in a cloud-forest paradise.  To offer but one example: we spent the morning trailing the elusive spectacled bear—we heard it and saw scat, but couldn’t catch a glimpse—and returned to a three course vegan lunch!

In one sense, it’s nice to make Maquipucuna my last stop in Ecuador, because it means I will leave on a note of optimism.  As eco-tourist projects go, I couldn’t imagine one more successful.  The preserve protects a fantastic biodiversity hot-spot—6,000 hectares with 10% of Ecuador’s bird species—and is actively reforesting the surrounding areas.  The whole operation is carbon neutral and sustainably built (almost too sustainably built, given how many bugs made it into my cabaña last night).  A few interpreters are employed from the surrounding community, but—probably more importantly—the lodge owners are working with the entire population of the region to develop fair trade and environmentally friendly agriculture.  Maybe this whole tourism thing really will work out for Ecuador, and they will look back on oil as a forty year long mistake.  Ojala que si.

From the perspective of getting anything done, though, Maquipucuna is something of a dead zone, as it is a few hundred miles from Yasuní.  As is always the case with my academic work, I peaked a few weeks before the actual “end”, and I feel like I have coasted to the finish.  At a certain point, I realized that I had a thesis’ worth of data, and stopped constantly begging everyone I met for interviews.  Trips to Yasuní and the Huaorani territory spawned some interesting stories, but my guides never delivered the “dusk till midnight” interviewees they promised.  I’d feel like I had earned a rest upon my return home if the last few days hadn’t also felt an awful lot like I’m already on vacation.

I leave happy, though, not because I’m particularly impressed with what I’ve accomplished, but because I have hope for what I’m going to do in the future.  Tomorrow I’m meeting with the director of a very interesting group of social scientists that work with local governments and civil society organizations—to talk about working there after I graduate.  At the moment, I think it will be hard to pull myself away from more research: my mind is already full of ideas for extensive surveys and comparative studies and behavioral games.  It’s almost de rigeur to tell people when you’re traveling that you can’t wait to come back, but in my case, it’s definitely true.

There and Back Again: A Barnard’s Tale

It’s a little bit absurd to say this, but up until Wednesday of last week, I had never actually seen Yasuní Park.  As my research went on, my understanding of Yasuní-ITT moved from generalizations drawn from the secondary literature and rumors collected in Quito to concrete, firsthand accounts on the ground.  Yasuní itself, however, remained almost a mythical place, the stuff of Discovery Channel documentaries and novels about the “Green Hell” of Amazonia.  With my flight out of the country just one week away, though, I took advantage of the presence of my father (a “walking ATM” as he describes himself) and finally set off for the park itself.

Yasuní is not easy to get to.  Our journey started with a twelve-hour boat ride from Coca—itself, not exactly the center of the universe—to Nueva Roca Fuerte, the closest town to the ITT bloc of the park.  The river was sufficiently low that we occasionally had to hop out and push ourselves off a sand-bank (“Anyone with an open wound or sore needs to stay in the boat,” our guide informed us, “because there are Pirahnas”).  As trips that involve twelve hours of transportation go, though, this one was pretty entertaining, thanks to the fact that we shared our canoe with sixteen unforgettable and fabulous Ecuadorian ecotourism students from Puyo.

Six hours in, I got my first glimpse of Yasuní.  Sadly, I knew we had reached Yasuní not because of a visitor center or a signing declaring “Welcome to the Park.”  Instead, I could tell that we had reached the park—declared “protected” by the Ecuadorian government and a “Reserve of Cultural and Natural Patrimony” by UNESCO—because I could see oil wells belonging to REPSOL, an Italian corporation.  This dispiriting introduction aside, though, as we moved further downstream, the scenery became steadily more spectacular.  The forest was no longer secondary regrowth, but untouched primary canopy.  Signs of humanity diminished; motorized boats were replaced with dugout canoes; thatched roofs appeared in place of corrugated metal ones.

It was dark when we reached Nueva Roca Fuerte.  NRF isn’t nearly as distant or as small as Bameno, the Huaorani community I visited last week, but it felt to me like the ends of the earth, the last gasp of civilization before it is swallowed by the Amazon.  The two thousand residents have one car among them, which functions as the city garbage truck.  Everything comes in by canoe, and is sold at prices two or three times those in Coca.  The water goes off at 9 p.m.; the power at 11 p.m.  What really makes NRF seem abandoned, though, is the sense that it’s moving backwards—or, as my Dad put it, that “The future has come many times, and it has always left.” There used to be a plane that came three times a week; now it comes every fifteen days.  Gradually, the Rio Napo is “eating” the city (to quote some residents); the first two main streets have now eroded away, and number three is set to last only a few more years.

I can’t explain why, but I absolutely loved NRF.  The city is about as isolated as a place can be while still pretending to be a part of modern society.  To me, it showed the universality of human aspiration, even in the most impossible of situations.  There are restaurants and stores and even a discoteca, all of which are tiny and undersupplied, yet still open at regular hours and attended with care by their owners.  As forgotten as the residents seemed to feel, they also appeared to find pride in what their town could offer: “Isn’t it so quiet here?  So peaceful?” I was asked over and over again.

On Wednesday, we left early to go inside the ITT bloc; for me, it was a chance to see if the park was really so spectacular as to merit the $3.5 billion dollars Ecuador has demanded to protect it.  It was nice to see that the entrance was guarded by a well-kept cabin, with a sign that announced in Spanish “Yasuní National Park: Preserving the Amazon, Protecting the World.” The single ancient ranger, though, didn’t seem quite up to the task of fending of Peruvian loggers and local hunters.  Nor did he seem particularly concerned when a few students started fishing under a sign that read—in rather bold font—“No fishing.”

Before I had actually gone into the Amazon, I had an idea for a blog post that would start with something to the tune of: “And on the eight day, God stopped fucking around and created the Amazon.” I got the idea that the Amazon was mighty and fearsome combination of inclement weather, floods, vicious snakes, killer diseases, and a health number of vampire bats.  In reality, though, the forest is much lighter, more open, and much less menacing then I expected.  It’s not as hot as I thought it would be, nor, really, as rainy.  Going through the forest is no safari: the animals are scarce and hidden.  In short, I left Yasuní with an acute sense of how incredibly fragile the place is.  As much as I like to think of the raw power of nature, here is a place that humanity really can destroy—and, sadly, is actively destroying.  Even as far from “civilization” as we were, signs of the depradations of overhunting and colonization were inescable.

On Thursday, I life-listed another country: Peru. In the 1940s, Ecuador lost something to the tune of 40% of its territory in a war with Peru, about which they are still smarting.  Ecuador didn’t accept its new border until 1998, though: apparently, according to my Dad, customs officials used to confiscate any map that didn’t show the border of the lost Amazonian territory as “disputed.” My first look at Peruvians, then, was of some gunners manning a cannon at the border, ready to repel an invasion at any moment.  (Though the Ecuadorian soldiers I’ve seen can’t even put together matching uniforms, so I’m not sure Peru should feel that threatened).  They wouldn’t give me a passport stamp, but I did see some dolphins, so I returned to NRF feeling quite content.

That night was the last of our trip, so we convinced the owners of the NRF discoteca—“The Yellow Shack”—to open up for us.  After a few cheers of “Que viva Yasuní!” we started downing Pilseners Peruvian style, in which one person goes around the group with a large bottle and a single glass.  Our student friends started to dance, and eventually my Dad joined in, which was fantastic to see (although embarrassing from my point of view, given how utterly he showed me up).  At eleven, se fue la luz, but—in a clear show of good priorities—the discoteca has one of NRFs few generators, and the fiesta continued long past midnight.

When we left the discoteca, the night was the darkest I have ever seen in my entire life.  The town had not a single light beyond the blacklights of the dance floor behind us.  We were too far from any city to have any ambient light on the skyline, and thick clouds covered every single star and the moon.  How crazy is it that, at twenty-three, this is where I have come to?

At five a.m., we were back on the boat, motoring back to Coca.  Five weeks ago, Coca felt like the ends of the earth, but now that I’ve actually seen the end of the earth, landing felt like a return to civilization.  I have a really weird sense, though, that I will be back to NRF at some point in my life.

Heat

Here’s an idea that doesn’t get nearly enough consideration in the development community: poor countries are poor because they’re hot.

Okay, I’m not going to try even a half-assed defense of that statement.  I’m pretty sure there’s no shortage of peer-reviewed articles that disprove the climate-development link, and that if I thought for four seconds about this I could come up with some examples of poor cold countries and rich hot ones.  The thing is, though, I am not in much of a mood to write anything intellectual, because it’s too damn hot.

My Dad and I came to Coca on Saturday night.  It’s been great to show him around, and realize how much more of a local I feel than when I first arrived: store owners greet us with “Where have you been?” and the boardwalk’s ice cream salesman offers me free popsicles.  I had aspirations of achieving a few more interviews, too, in my limited time here, but one walk along mainstreet convinces me that such efforts are futile.  In the current heatwave, people are just sort of collapsed on the sidewalk, nursing a beer or huddled around a desultory fan.  When we enter a restaurant, the waiters peer up from the tables onto which they have nearly dissolved, as if to say, “Are you kidding?” No, no interviews today.

In Uganda, about one year ago, a farmer tried to convince me that the real problem in his country, as he put it, was that “It’s too hard to starve here.”  In the tropics, you can just throw some seeds in the ground and, well, something is bound to grow, right?  (Friends studying agricultural development, please see two paragraphs previous before you correct me.)  And maybe there’s something to that; that I now have enough interviews to get by, to squeeze out a 30,000 word thesis, and maybe it isn’t worth flogging myself too much in my last week. I’d rather just find a place in the shade and watch the people as they… well, do nothing, actually.

Maybe Europeans really do control the world because we were cold and hungry, and felt some intense need to share our misery with the rest of the world.  And all they wanted to do was sit around and drink cold chica on a hot day.

On the Need for a Huaorani A.L.F.

I’ve often wondered whether people who live their entire lives in places with really fantastic National-Geographic-esque animals still get excited when they see them.  Are elephants still cool if you live in Kenya?  And are squirrel monkeys equally entertaining for Amazonians as they are for me, or are they just like, well, squirrels?

For their part, the Huaoranis still seem pretty excited about the Amazon’s animal life, to the extent that their monkey-related-enthusiasm rivals my own.  There were times during my trip that it seemed as if we talked about little except for animals: our entire day’s journey was filled with observations of animals, mimicry of their calls, discussion of their ways of living.  When Bartolo’s father offered to tell me some “Huaorani stories,” every single one was a tale of the forest’s animal denizens.  For the Huaorani—just as for me—the wildlife of the Amazon seemed to be inexhaustible sources of entertainment, wonder, and interest.

This appreciation for animals, though, is a bit hard to reconcile with some of the incidences of incredibly wanton animal cruelty I witnessed during my time in Huaorani territory.  One evening one of the wives of the guides was fishing with chilapa eggs, and chucked her catches onto the beach.  Not content to let the fish asphyxiate in peace, though, her kids came up and started playing with them; chucking them around, knocking them against each other, poking them with sticks.  When Mom finally finished, she started flaying the fish, still wriggling.  I wanted to say something—“Just cut it’s head off, please”—but instead I retired to my tent.  We researchers can’t be culturally insensitive, right?  (Even when we’re studying social justice—oh the irony!)

The next day, we were motoring along when Bartolo announced that he had seen a sting ray, and insisted that I take a photo with it.  When I saw him grab a spear, I knew that this interaction was going to end poorly, but I once again failed to stop him.  A few seconds later, he had skewered the ray and lifted it into the air, a huge smile on his face.  I snapped the obligatory photo and sank back into the boat, feeling read to vomit.  Bartolo threw the ray back in, but with a laugh, said that it would die because it couldn’t swim anymore.  Coming from the culture that invented factory farms, I realize I am in little place to judge.  Nonetheless, I’m almost glad that we westerners at least hide our cruelty behind slaughterhouse walls; otherwise, I’m not sure I could get out of bed in the morning.

For those of you who don’t believe that fish can feel pain, I should throw out there that the mammals of the forest don’t fare much better with the Huaorani.  Somewhat to my surprise, the Huaorani villages we visited are teeming with dogs.  Always looking to make friends, I approached a few, only to have them shy away.  I quickly saw why: they are the constant objects of kicks, and targets for rocks and trash thrown by everyone, from children to adults.  For the best, I suppose, that I couldn’t touch them; I would have only felt their ribs, and realized that they are not only abused, they are starving.  Dogs are only one of a huge number of pets the Huaorani keep around.  Among those that I saw around Bartolo’s house was a juvenile squirrel monkey, which was tethered to a pole by a string, wrapped around its stomach, no more than two or three inches long.  For the entire time I watched it, it was spinning crazily around, struggling to free itself: the result was a bloody belly stripped of its hair.

And there is the contradiction: the Huaoranis—who spend all day talking about animals, smile the second they spot a bird flying above, and keep monkeys around just for the company—are also the authors of this unmitigated cruelty.  For the Huaorani, there is a huge gulf between appreciating animals and actually respecting them, just as with the “animal lovers” of my own country who donate to the Humane Society and eat battery cage eggs.  This leads me to think that the dominant strategy of the animal rights movement—that by rendering animal suffering visible, we will convince people to change their behaviors—is a bit silly.  In the Third World, animals suffer in full view, and people are entirely indifferent.  Creating an animal ethic is a project that is much, much more complex than simply generating sympathy and awareness.

Of course, there is no better place than the Amazon to be reminded that animals eat other animals, and that even bothering to write this post—my third about animal ethics while here in Ecuador—confirms me as one of those “crazy animal people.”  There is nothing more natural, I suppose, than humans contributing to a grisly end of other sentient beings.

But that still doesn’t mean I have to like it.