“The Ecuadorian Amazon is home to everything that seems like it shouldn’t exist: scarlet macaws that look like flying rainbows, morpho butterflies with tiny crystal scales that reflect iridescent blue in bright light, frogs disguised as dead leaves, black caimans that poke their regal, bumpy heads out of the water banks, and fireflies that glow in the rainforest nights. A monkey threw a piece of fruit at me, a butterfly licked sweat off my arm, and the forest engulfed me with secrets older than the ice age. But all this life from the canopy trees to the pink river dolphin to the little metallic beetle is fragile, and the propaganda and natural gas fires from the petroleum industry seem too horrific to be real. People are getting cancer from petroleum-coated streams while their chocolate plants are diseased and subject to market rates that perpetuate the cycle of poverty and lack of access to heath, health care, education, and political rights. Cultural sovereignty for indigenous communities is being slashed and burned like forests making way for palm oil plantations, as if coexisting with such an intense ecosystem for centuries did not merit the dignity of upholding land rights and sovereignty. People should not have to rely on foreign students like me buying bracelets and beautifully woven plates to survive when they used to rely and thrive on the forest that amazed me in my short visit.”
These powerful words written by one of my friends that is studying with me describe more perfectly (and concisely) than I could what has been on my mind since taking an excursion to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Before I explain more of what I mean, I would like to share one more little anecdote of only my own to further develop for you the beauty of this part of the world because I can’t just leave it there.
It was the last night that I was going to spend in the Tiputini Biological Research Station, a pristine and remote location that is only accessible by canoe on the Tiputini River, part of the headwater system that leads to the Amazon River. The air was humid and warm, much like a South Carolina summer night, except that you could hear the sounds of tropical birds and the constant dripping of water trapped in the natural vases of rainforest bromeliads. The sky, from what little of it I could see outside the laboratory through the treetops, was clear and radiant with the light of millions of stars. When it was time to retire for the night, I couldn’t have been less ready. I wanted to stay out there all night bathing in the sounds, smells and feeling of the rainforest.
Another of my good friends from my class and I were in complete agreement over this, so we decided to do exactly what we wanted…stay out there all night. We both had hammocks and sleeping bags, all we needed to experience the nocturnal Amazon. We hiked for about 20 minutes in the forest to a particular Ceiba tree that we had watched birds from early that morning. This was the perfect spot to spend a night in the rainforest. We climbed all 60 meters of that tree and hung our hammocks in the uppermost branches of it. From where we were swinging, we could see over the treetops of the rest of the surrounding forest for miles and miles, probably as far as Brazil I betcha. This was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced, hands down. I know I said that about all of the scenes I recounted in my last post, but that was before I came to the Amazon.
Hanging there in that tree, we watched a lightning storm miles off in the distance for hours. We discussed the amazement we felt and imagined the travels of every ray of lightning that departed from the clouds and reached the earth – moving too quickly, I think, to properly take in the beauty of the journey. However, in this moment, I felt like a friend to that lightning storm. We were connected by a simultaneous existence in this place, only moving in opposite directions to reach the destination. I imagine being added to a list of hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of people who decided that they were friends with the lightning. I am willing to wager, though, that I am one of the first light-skinned friends of the Amazonian lightning.
I pictured the countless indigenous South Americans who have sat in trees in the middle of a night, befriending lighting from a distance as I did. I wondered what they did when the lightning got close. Was his company too much to handle? Did he become an enemy or just that friend who is harsh sometimes, but that you still want to spend time with because the good times are really good? I’m not sure if I had enough time to ponder this one before my dear friend approached me. He invited his other friend, rain, for company, and he yelled with thunder for a while, before he was ready to move on to spend time with other companions. I knew that it was nothing personal; he’s just like that. I decided not to hold it against him and that we will still be friends. I couldn’t let him ruin such a perfect last night in the rainforest.
It may seem crazy to you that I could imagine the lightning as a real, interactive being like a human friend, but I’m not the first and only one. The Ecuadorian government went so far as to grant rights to Nature back in 2008 in Article 71 of their constitution: “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” It was the first country to grant rights to anything besides human beings, as if Nature too needed protection by law because it is important, interactive, and beautiful. When I learned this, I was thrilled and grew even more in appreciation of this place I am in. Unfortunately, there is an error in the law that keeps this amendment from being fully effective.
The Ecuadorian government sees people’s land being only that which can be seen from the ground, up. What exists below the topsoil layer that is seen does not belong to the landowner, but to the Ecuadorian government. On these grounds the government has entered property and drilled for oil because oil only exists underground, therefore it is not the property of the inhabitants of the earth above it. Because of this, the government continues to drill for oil believing that the law justifies their actions. Fortunately for them they only experience the benefits of drilling for oil: economic gain and good relations with oil-demanding nations. The negative consequences all fall upon the citizens of the rainforest who are living on top of this precious commodity. Oil drilling sites require the construction of roads for infrastructure, which has opened up the Amazon for further development and we all know that development means deforestation. Not to mention the cancer rate, miscarriages, and birth defects of this region of Ecuador exceed the national average by several times – results of one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the world. The list of the repercussions that these Amazonians are experiencing continues on and on; this is only the surface of the issue.
While visiting the Amazon, we were given the chance to see for ourselves some of the effects of the oil exploitation on inhabitants of this region. I felt like I was re-living my experience of watching the documentary “Crude,” but in real life. This documentary about the Chevron-Texaco oil-drilling crisis in Ecuador was one of the main reasons that I decided to spend time studying in this country as an Environmental Studies major because it is issues like this that we will be dealing with in our future. To experience it first hand changes your perspective on it. We stumbled upon a family farm across the road from a waste pool that had leaked and traveled downhill to this family’s land. My boots got stuck in the petroleum-saturated earth and I got something of a headache from the stench of the crude. Their land was covered with shriveled cacao fruits and coffee plants, the remnants of what used to be the family’s livelihood.
My heart really began to ache hard for these people the longer we conversed with them because I realized the gravity of their situation. The family has no product or trade by which to make money and, without money, the family cannot move homes and get out of their waste pool of a farm. This family could quite possibly be stuck there forever and die off one by one of cancer or some other disease caused by their contaminated drinking water and food. I found myself wanting to give them every bit of money I had to empower them to leave, but that was just one family in the midst of thousands that are dealing with this same issue. It is going to take the force of an army or a ton of other people with the same compassion in their hearts to make a change for the sake of these people.
I will never forget this trip to the Amazon for a number of reasons. I experienced so many thrills and so much beauty, unlike anything else I have seen on this planet, but I also experienced some of the deepest sadness I’ve ever experienced in my life as well. It was an emotional week and one that I believe has changed my worldview. Every issue, especially those that involve many different countries, is way more complicated that it ever appears to be at first glance. There are so many stakeholders within this issue, that any solutions will inevitable hurt someone. Heck, we as car-driving, plastic-using US citizens are stakeholders who rarely think about the implications that our frivolous joy-rides around town might have for the indigenous tribes of the Ecuadorian Amazon. I’m so guilty of this, I’ll be the first to admit, but I won’t leave this country without thinking twice about how my lifestyle affects others – even if they are on the other side of the world. It seems that I’ve had that realization over and over this semester, and it may sound cliché, but I sincerely will not be able to leave this country that experiences so many of the consequences without having a new perspective on my lifestyle. If it takes reliving my time with the campesino family or my magical night in the canopy of the Ecuadorian rainforest then I will a thousand times over so that I never forget or take for granted its pristine worth and beauty that I so mindlessly destroyed before.