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?

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.


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.


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.

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.

La Revolución Ciudadana Está En Marcha

If laws on the books were all that mattered, I’d put Ecuador way ahead of the U.S.  The new constitution gives a formal right to existence and protection to “nature”, and, somewhat more practically, offers civil unions to gay couples.  Ecuador has nearly open-borders and strict gun control; almost the inverse of the U.S., where we regulate people but not the things that kill them.  The government is taking serious steps to shift the energy grid—already 47% renewable—away from fossil fuels, complemented by schemes to give away free fluorescent lightbulbs and encourage public transportation.  Moreover, all poor families now receive a monthly stipend of $30—not much, but enough to ensure a minimal level of subsistence and dignity.  And, like all civilized countries in the world, Ecuador has done away with the death penalty.

Laws, of course, don’t by themselves count for that much.  Ecuador has had fifteen-plus constitutions, and all have been—on paper—very progressive.  Still, though, if you walk into a government ministry, you get the sense that—with the administration of Rafael Correa and the 2008 Constitution—this time it’s going to be different. Far from sclerotic, the ministries I’ve visited buzz with activity; civil servants working long past 5 p.m., hammering away at excel spreadsheets and pounding out fancy reports that talk about “Long-term planning,” “Economic diversification,” and “Buen vivir.” Perhaps my favourite image came in the Ministry of Patrimony, where I saw a woman dressed in traditional Kichwa garb presiding over a corner office, typing away and rocking out to an iPod, pausing only to fire off instructions to much whiter underlings.  I am quite confident that this could not have happened two decades ago.  The Ecuador of the 21st century, this all seems geared to project, is no banana republic.

All this machinery was on display yesterday at the Cancillería de la Republica, where the government and the United Nations signed the agreement creating the trust fund that makes Yasuní-ITT a reality.  I suppose some of the trappings of the event—Ecuador’s most important people rolling up in fancy SUVs, doors opened by military men in dress uniform, and a red carpet leading up to Ecuador’s Salón los Próceres—are pretty standard affairs for corrupt third-world governments.  What I appreciated, though, was the way these formalities were appropriated for something quite novel.  In the Cancillería, under the gaze of portraits of Ecuador’s military heroes, in this bastion of conservatism and tradition, the Vice-President signed documents declaring Ecuador’s intention to be a post-petroleum eco-state.  In the front row were representatives of the Huaorani indigenous nation.  When we sang the national anthem, we did so in a half-dozen languages, as befits a “plurinational”country.

In my time here, I’ve been reminded why I used to declare F.D.R. my hero, and announce my intention to, someday, become a U.S. Senator.  There’s something inspiring about the potential of the state to decide something and make it so: “Okay, we’re going to fight climate change now.” I remember I used to draw up lists of laws that I thought the country needed, figuring that someone, at some point, needed to tell people how to behave properly; to respect the poor, protect the planet, and live in harmony.  The government of Rafael Correa is, as far as I (and the pollsters) can tell, enormously popular, because—despite making plenty of mistakes along the way—it is doing just that.  Ecuador is changing, a fact that the government trumpets on billboards across the country.  I can’t help but think, if only Barack Obama had the guts.

One day later, as I finish writing this, though, I’m back in the Oriente, 21 minutes away by plane, but a world away in reality.  The pro-Alianza Pais grafitti has disappeared, replaced by slogans denouncing Correa: Neoliberal!  Assassin!  False Socialist! Here—in what Sarah Palin might call the “Real Ecuador”—people aren’t expecting anything from this new administration.  Governments come and go, they make promises, and people scrape by all same.  And I realize that, as fun as it is to talk to government officials who talk about 30 year goals, my work is here.  I’ll learn more about how to fix the country from the old man in the Encebollería down the road than I would had I stayed in Quito and begged for an interview with the vice-President’s office.  Sadly, Yasuní—and the planet—can’t be saved by legislative fiat.