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.


I don’t speak a word of Huaorani.  I didn’t speak a word of Huaorani before I went into Huaorani territory, and despite five days of the guides trying to teach me a few basic phrases, I still don’t speak a word of Huaorani.  (It’s a reminder that, although I have managed to learn enough Spanish to survive here, I really am terrible with languages).  This means that all my communication this weekend happened with both speaker and listener working in a second language, a situation bound to lead to a fabulous number of misunderstandings.  That said, I learned a few things from the experience, and for those of you who are dying to head into Huaorani territory for your next vacation, here are a few key phrases:

“Estabamos en la ciudad.  Ahora, estamos en la selva.”

Literal translation: We were in the city.  Now we are in the forest.

Real translation: I will now be removing 95% of my clothing.

“Esos pican un poco.”

Literal translation: Those bite a little bit.

Real translation: If that animal touches you, it will probably eat you and you will die.

“Antiguamente, usabamos [planta / animal] para [problema], pero ahora tenemos civilización.

Literal translation: We used to use [plant / animal] for this [problem], but now we have civilization.

Real translation: That traditional shit was cool, but I will now be using a chainsaw / shotgun / outboard motor to overcome this particular challenge.

“Ella quiere tomar chicha contigo.”

Literal translation: She would like to drink chicha, a fermented beverage made from chewing up yucca and spitting it out into a bowl, with you.

Real translation: My sister would like to sleep with you and/or marry you.

– – – – –

Feeble attempts at humor aside, I have a real point to make.  Learning a group’s language is step number one in anthropology for understanding a group’s culture.  Without a doubt, I would have gotten much more out of my time with the Huaorani had I spoke their language.  Still, though, I think there are some things I was able to learn specifically because I don’t speak Huaorani.  Listening to hours of conversations in Huaorani, I became attuned to the handful of Spanish words that would pepper my guides’ interchanges, words for which there was no Huaorani equivalent.  “Money” “Contract” “Job”; realizing that the Huaorani had—up until 40 years ago—had no way to talk about commerce and exchange makes me realize why it is so challenging to develop businesses and jobs in their territory.  I also heard the Spanish equivalents of words like “Government” “Representative”and “Trust fund”; once again a window into why the Huaorani have struggled to be integrated into modern Ecuadorian society, and why communicating with them about Yasuní-ITT is so challenging.

My interviews with Huaorani were, of course, in Spanish, but my capacity to directly translate definitely did not mean that I understand the meaning of what I was being told.  Over and over again, for example, opined that “Queremos que el gobierno nos deje en paz,” only to follow up with the statement “Necesitamos apoyo del gobierno” and a list of desires (gasoline, motors, canoes, etc.)  For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, these statements are somewhat contradictory: “We want to be left in peace” but “we need money from the government.” It makes me wonder what “apoyo”—directly translated as “support”—actually means to the Huaorani, and how they can reconcile it with a demand to be left alone.  It’s these kinds of riddles that make me absolutely love fieldwork and, to some extent, sad to be leaving in less than two weeks.

Pinnacle of Evolution

Pre removal of clothing.

One of the highlights of my five day romp in Huaorani territory was that I didn’t just get to spend time with my guides, but their entire families.  Transport in and out of these remote villages is expensive, so when a gringo is travelling around, everyone takes advantage of the free lift.  Among our passengers for the first three days was the father of Bartolo—my main guide—who had an unpronounceable Huaorani name that I will not even attempt to reproduce here.


Bartolo’s father was, to put it softly, pretty traditional. He has hugely gauged ears—a sign of status—and as soon as we were in Huaorani territory, he removed 95% of his clothes.  He didn’t speak any Spanish, but claimed—through a translator—that he was involved in the killings of Westerners in the early days of contact, and that he hoped that the Huaorani would return to their warrior past and kick out the oil companies by force.  As if to emphasize how lethal he was, he demonstrated to me his ability to shoot a monkey in the eye with a blowgun at an absurdly long range.

While I suppose this discussion should have scared me a bit, other parts of our interactions were a bit more lighthearted and joyous.  As we motored along, he would often declare the presence of animals that I could neither see nor hear; only after we moved up the river another 100 metres could I see anything.  When we got close, with great enthusiasm and often a lot of laughter, he would mimic their calls perfectly, whether they were a frog, bird, or monkey.  At one point during our journey, he declared that he could smell a tapir.  He hopped out and, sure enough, quickly found tapir tracks.

That is a person, FYI.

My adviser, Laura Rival, wrote the book on the Huaorani.  One of my favorite anecdotes comes in her introduction, when she described that often, during her interviews, Huaorani would tell her, “I’d love to sit here and talk to you all day about your research, but I want to go walk in the forest.” My Huaorani friend seemed to enjoy nothing more than just wandering in the forest, showing me which plants could be used for which ailments and how to find ants that taste exactly like lemon.  At one point, I turned my back to him for a few seconds; when I spun back, he had fashioned some sort of contraption out of a vine and was using it to shimmy up a branch-less tree to gather fruit.  When he came back down, he declared that the fruit was too hard to open by hand, and proceeded to create a makeshift saw out of a leaf.

Actual Huaorani may be shorter than they appear.

After three days, we reached his “village.” Most of the buildings were clapboard houses built in Western style; they belonged to his relatives, all of whom had moved to cities to work.  Bartolo’s father and his wife were the last ones living in the village, staying in a traditional Huaorani hut.  Inside was hanging meat from practically every jungle animal I could imagine.  Outside, there was a veritable menagerie of animals he had managed to trap: monkeys, guanta, parrots, armadillos, and pecarí.  Shortly after we arrived, he wandered off to the river, where he managed to “catch” fish by jumping into the water and rapidly hacking them with a machete.

This four foot tall man may very well be the greatest predator the world has ever seen.

Ecotourism Will Save Us All!

This weekend, I was the future of the Huaorani nation.

The face of the future?

This may sound like a rather strong and paternalistic statement coming from a non-Huaorani, but I’m pretty sure the four Huaorani guides with which I travelled this weekend would agree.  Indeed, ask almost anyone in the Ecuadorian Amazon what they will live off of if the petroleum stays in the ground, and they will inevitably respond, “tourism”.

At least in theory, I think the idea of an economy based on eco-tourism is an appealing one.  It provides a way for Ecuadorians to value their environment through its preservation, rather than its destruction.  Tourism is redistributive: most tourists here are rich, and the people they pay to serve them are often poor.  I like tourism, also, because it is an economic activity that doesn’t involve “production” per se: it allows us to “consume” experiences, not resources, and take home photos rather than cheap plastic crap.

Tourism seems like a good bet for the Huaorani, specifically, because—at least, based on my limited experience—it seems to fit well with their culture and cosmovision.  Like most hunters and gathers, Huaoranis historically enjoyed a high standard of living with only a few hours of “work” a week.  Tourism, hypoethtically, provides for modern necessities without obligating anyone to sit behind a desk or wear a tie.  As one guide described it, “I get to walk around the forest like when I was little, except now I get paid!”

Chainsawing our way through an obstacle... just like our ancestors.

For two reasons, though, I doubt that tourism can be the saving grace of the Amazon.  First, “eco-tourism” doesn’t seem so “eco.”  The first preparation we made this weekend for our trip was to buy eighty gallons of gasoline for our canoe.  Rather ironic, given that the point of eco-tourism is intended to allow us to avoid extracting the petroleum in the Amazon.  The river was very low, so every few minutes our guides had to hop out and chainsaw our way through a fallen tree, leaving an oil slick along the way.  Despite my vigorous protestations, my guides insisted on spearing and slaughtering various animals so I could take a picture with them.  My inner Boy Scout cried at every beach we left a mess.  And so on.

The whole idea of tourism, sadly, strikes me as profoundly anti-ecological.  It’s as simple as Newton’s First Law of Motion: objects at rest stay at rest stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  It takes energy to move people around.  By the time we’ve taken a flight half-way around the world to look at a pretty forest, the game is already up and the environmental damage is already done.  Add in long-distance trips in pick-up trucks and canoe rides, and even the most environmentally conscious guide cannot prevent a carbon emissions catastrophe.

Many guides, one tourist.

My second concern about eco-tourism is that it will never work economically.  While my guides were always good-hearted and full of laughs, their descriptions of their lives was not rosy.  Although I was paying a small fortune, they would see very little of it: most of the money tourists pay goes to food and gas and oil and equipment.  They work long and unpredictable hours and have to be ready to leave for trips on a moments notice.  One guide—age thirty-five—said that he had decided not to get married because he couldn’t put his family through the uncertainty.  There are 2,500 Huaorani, but the 25 of them that already work as guides in Coca complain that there isn’t enough work.  Sometimes they go on trips not because they think they can earn anything, but because at least the tourists provide them with something to eat.

Building a society around eco-tourism requires making economic and social sacrifices.  If I am paying a lot of money to go into the Amazon, I don’t want to see roads or factories.  In fact, I don’t even want to see clothes, much less televisions and cement houses.  Living in the “traditional” manner that tourists want to observe, though, precludes a lot of economic options.  Almost by definition, then, to make tourism work, you have to put all your eggs in one basket.

I have to wonder if the math on ecotourism ultimately works out.  How many rich backpackers are there in the world?  And how many vacation days do they have?  How many curios do they want to buy?  And how many ecolodges are vying for those tourists?  How many guides, how many communities? Ecuador is spectacular, but so are Thailand and India and Costa Rica and Kenya and any number of other places that have staked their development in part on tourism.  Not all of them can be destination number one.

As with all things, though, the key phrase is always “Show me the alternatives.” Huaorani territory isn’t going to be home to any India-style call centers anytime soon.  At the moment, it’s a stark choice between tourism and petroleum.  Young Huaorani want Western things, and for that they need money.  They don’t want to live in the traditional way–and even if they did, their population has grown too much and the forest is too contaminated to support it.  Ecotourism may not save them all, but it is also pretty much their only hope.

Radio Silence

To my shock, there is a vegetarian restaurant here in Coca.  This is very, very good news, as I have reached the point where the prospect of another plate of rice and beans is borderline soul-crushing. And to think, it was all of three blocks away from my hotel this entire time!

It is fitting that I would discover this restaurant yesterday, because today, I am leaving.

I´ve spent the last few days frustratedly trying to find something “exciting” to do this weekend.  I figure that if I´m spending six weeks in the Amazon, I need to come back with a picture of me half eaten by a python or dodging spears.  Yesterday, opportunity struck, in the form of a Huaorani friend who offered to take me into their territory for a few days.  He seems like a nice enough guy, although the lengthy discussion of how, in traditional Huaorani custom, if you do something wrong they will kill you was a bit disconcerting.  Still, I had a George Bush and Vladimir Putin I-looked-into-his-eyes-and-saw-a-good-man moment, and am going to let my trust in humanity get the better of me.

From a research point of view, I am really excited about this opportunity, which I think will be the cherry on top of my thesis.  Everyone seems have to have a strong opinion about the Huaorani: about half say that they still live like savages, and the other half says that they are all rich off of oil company largesse.  I don´t get the impression that many of these people have ever talked to a Huaorani, though, and while my own lack of Huaorani-speaking-skills and limited time means that I won´t be able to accomplish too much, I do think I might be able to add something important to the discussion.

This could be a total scam, of course, and I could spend all day waiting at my hotel for a guide that never comes.  But in the event that he does, this blog will be silent for the next few days.  If I don´t come back by Tuesday, you can look for a body near Shiripuno and Bameno.  A soldier got eaten by a python the other day.  That is all.

Location, Location, Location

I rarely have to ask more than a handful of questions in my interviews here: as soon as I mention “oil” and “Amazon” in the same sentence, people here can go on for hours.  It’s better that way, of course, since it allows me to stick to a few Spanish paragraphs of explanation of my research which I have pretty much down and avoid them realizing that I might not actually understand anything that they are saying (that’s what recordings are for).  I was a bit surprised—though I shouldn’t be—when one of my interviewees wanted to know my opinion of Yasuní-ITT.  Perhaps more surprisingly, I said I wasn’t sure what to think anymore.  Not sure what to think about the “initiative to change history” and “big idea from a small country”?  What kind of a cynic have I become?

Many of the biggest problems with Yasuní-ITT can be explained by looking at a map.  Yasuní is a UNESCO biosphere reserve; the park is its nucleus.  The reserve also includes Huaorani territory and an “intangible zone” for the isolated indigenous groups.

Protected Area, Indigenous Territory, Intangible Zone: Good

This is only one way to look at the territory.  The territory is also overlayed—or maybe, carpeted—in oil concessions (the yellow parts are oil blocs – Yasuní-ITT is the yellow hatch in the corner).

Oil Concessions: Not so good.

When we are talking about “Saving Yasuní Park” we are actually talking about one corner of the park, which amounts to about 10% of the total area of the reserve.  There are some big questions that this raises: if Yasuní is such a natural treature, why only protect 10% of it?  And why protect ITT, when the adjacent Bloc 31—recently leased to Petrobras—has a higher level of biodiversity?

One strong argument for Yasuní-ITT is that it protects the ancestral territory of the Tagaeri and Taramonene.  Except it doesn’t.  The ITT Bloc is inundated most of the year, which unsurprisingly makes permanent settlement hard.  It is, at most, territory that these groups pass through while hunting part of the year.  To date, though, there is no evidence of isolated pueblos in ITT.  All the evidence we have about these groups—hidden houses, footprints, spears, and killings of illegal loggers and colonist families—comes from Armadillo.  And Armadillo is outside the park, outside the reserve, outside the Intangible Zone, outside of any sort of protection.  In fact, although most of the reserves of Armadillo have long since been exploited, the Ecuadorian government is currently preparing to squeeze a few more drops from the ground.  So once again the question comes up: why not Armadillo?

So how did the government select ITT as the corner of the park to protect, if not based on isolated groups or biodiversity?  Somewhat paradoxically, for “The World’s First Post-Oil Development Proposal”, the ITT bloc was chosen because that’s where the oil is. The amount of money Ecuador is asking from the world community to protect the park is based on the price of oil—half of its value at market prices.  That is to say, if tomorrow the price of oil skyrockets back up to $120 a barrel, by this logic the natural treasure of Yasuní suddenly becomes twice as valuable.    Increasingly, I am realizing that “post-development” proposals like Yasuní struggle to achieve credibility precisely because we are still locked into a developmentalist, extractivist mindset.  ITT does little to break this way of thinking; it just promotes a new way to use oil as a form of wealth.

All this said, it is important to remember that the choice at ITT is not between this proposal and some sort of anarchist ecological utopia.  It’s between this proposal and extraction—and given the history of oil extraction in Ecuador, I’ll take the ITT proposal any day of the week.  But, now that other countries like Guatemala and Peru are already talking about replicating ITT on their own territory, it’s time to give some serious thought to how this model can be changed and improved.