Ecuador: Darwin's Family and Other Animals ; Joan Smith Was Intrigued by an Eco-Friendly Project with Indians, but Even More Impressed by the Islands' Wildlife

By Smith, Joan | The Independent (London, England), May 13, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Ecuador: Darwin's Family and Other Animals ; Joan Smith Was Intrigued by an Eco-Friendly Project with Indians, but Even More Impressed by the Islands' Wildlife


Smith, Joan, The Independent (London, England)


The plane was waiting on the airstrip, a narrow clearing in the rainforest next to the fast-moving current of the Rio Pastaza, a tributary of the Amazon. "Who wants to be co-pilot?" asked a man with a demented grin; the plane was an eight-seater, even smaller than the single-engined Cessna that had brought us over the Andes a few days before. That earlier flight had been scary enough, but this aircraft looked even flimsier.

"Swiss, very safe," the pilot assured us. Soon we were revving up, churning up clouds of soil that almost obscured the Indian children who had come to watch the tiny plane take off. At first we were low enough to make out individual trees. As we gained height, the foliage merged into a dense green mass that reminded me of a huge head of broccoli.

Unnerving though these flights are, they are the only practical way to get in and out of the Amazon basin in south-east Ecuador. The alternative, in a part of the country where there are no roads, is to go by motorised canoe - pleasant enough for a morning, but serious journeys can take 20 days. It is hardly surprising that many of the Achuar Indians who live in the rainforest have never been outside it; some of the older Achuar speak no Spanish and have no idea where their visitors - mostly Americans, but with increasing numbers of Europeans - come from.

Some of the innovations that result from contact with the wider world are welcome, chiefly education and modern medicine. How to do it in a way that benefits the Achuar is the question posed by the relatively new industry of eco-tourism. At Kapawi, an eco-lodge near the Peruvian border, the Indians are co-operating with a project that is trying to do just that.

This is not, it has to be said, an experience for people used to holidays in five-star hotels. We arrived at Kapawi as it got dark - which it does with great suddenness - and were shown to our thatched huts via a high boardwalk. The lodge relies on solar energy, which means that the lights are dim at the best of times. Reading is impossible after sunset and my first night at Kapawi was a sweltering nightmare of stale bedding and unfamiliar external noises.

Things got better around 6.30am, when there was enough natural light to venture out on to the balcony. The morning air was not exactly fresh but my spirits rose as I looked out on to a lagoon, spotting huge blue butterflies and small yellow birds. I had already declined an invitation to go out in the canoe at daybreak to look for parrots, but after breakfast I joined the others for a trek into the forest.

The Achuar are not farmers but hunters, moving from place to place and living in large family groups. When we visited one of these communities, we found their huts perched on a high bank. The head of the family, a weather-beaten man in his fifties named Walter, explained through an interpreter that he had chosen the site 10 years ago and was building a school for his expanding family. His wife never addressed us directly - the Achuar are both patriarchal and polygamous - but offered bowls of chicha, a type of beer made with chewed manioc.

The visit was oddly formal until there was a scrabbling noise and a long snout appeared over the wall of the hut. As the inquisitive newcomer ran up my arm, poked its snout into my hair and tried to steal my earrings, the guide explained that this was the family's pet coati-mundi, a species of raccoon. We were immediately invited to meet the rest of the family's pets.

One was a kinkajou, a shy animal with a face like a bear. Another was a young boa constrictor. About five feet long, its body as thick as a man's arm, it came coiling out of its wooden box and wrapped itself round one of Walter's sons. I am not fond of snakes and was relieved to discover that this one appeared to have lunched recently and was keen to return to its post-prandial nap.

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