Encounter with A Rain-Forest Indian Culture to Earn Needed Cash Income, a Small Village in Ecuador Lets Ecotourists Share Jungle Life

Article excerpt

UNDER a full rain-forest moon as big and bright as a light bulb, the thatched roofs of Capirona are coated in white silver. Running by the little village, the swift but shallow rapids of the Rio Puni are the only sounds in this warm jungle night.

Sacha mama hermosa. Beautiful mother jungle.

About three years ago, an oil company, helicopters, and chain saws were headed this way. Unlike most other scattered inhabitants who form communities in the jungles of Ecuador's Amazon basin, the Quichua Indians here resisted. The result is new life for Capirona, an enterprising village that took the initiative to create an opportunity for an ecotourist encounter with a rain-forest culture.

In essence, the Quichuas are sharing their culture in order to save it. Their effort is one of the few tourism projects initiated and operated by Indians in the Ecuadorean rain forest.

"The only thing we have is the rain forest to leave our children," says Tarquino Tapuy, a Capirona community leader. "It is our life and culture."

Over the past 20 years, oil, lumber, and gold exploitation of the Ecuadorean rain forests has led to widespread pollution and destruction. Tens of thousands of rain-forest acres continue to be deforested each year. Cattle pastures on cleared forest lands have expanded by nearly 30 percent in the past decade.

Pacified by gifts and promises, few Indian communities resisted the initial incursions into their territories. Government encouragement of the exploitation, and of new settlers, slowly awakened Indian tribes to action.

Today, the cry is for a moratorium on oil exploration and for alternative uses of the rain forest.

"Sustainable development is what we want," says Valerio Grefa, president of COICA (Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin).

Capirona's version of this started when the community began to realize that their strength was in their unity. When oil-company helicopters came unannounced several times to make clearings along the river to do the seismic experiments that precede drilling, the community became concerned.

"They arrived without permission," Mr. Tapuy says, "and said they would pay us. But we are like insects to them. We said we didn't want them here. They offered us a volleyball and a net."

On the third visit, a handful of soldiers jumped out of one of the helicopters and fired machine guns in the air.

"We didn't know what to do," Tapuy says, "but about 15 of the women from the community, with machetes raised, went to the soldiers and said, `Who gave you permission?' The military backed up. Another helicopter came, and when one of the soldiers stumbled as he got out, he dropped his rifle. One of the women grabbed it and threw it in the river. All the guns pointed at the woman. She said, `Go ahead and shoot.' But they backed away."

Even political pressure from a local legislator failed to deter the Indians. "The legislator told us we had to negotiate and ask for things," Tapuy says. "He said we had to let the oil company go through. Not here, we said. We won't give our habitat away." The oil company did not return.

When a lumber company sought to expand its operations near the lands of community members, many did not agree to sell the trees. "The consciousness has been raised," Tapuy says. …