Decline and Loss of Indigenous Cultures – Conservation Strategy, Problems


Medical Help, Overpopulation, Traders, New Demands, Electricity, TV

Example: The Upper Amazon Rain Forest in Eastern Ecuador:


Exploited Natural Beauty, Wildlife Extinction, and Problems of Cultural Survival


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last 8-14-06



Ecuador consists of three large segments:  the western lowlands along the Pacific; the highlands, including the double chain of the Andes (the “Avenue of the Volcanoes”); and the vast eastern lowlands forming part of the Amazon watershed and rain forest.


The eastern segment of the country can be subdivided again into two parts;  the northern part has been opened to oil and gas exploration, but the southern part is still being kept in its natural condition. 


In the northern part, where oil and gas exploration and extraction are permitted, many roads have been built to provide access for equipment and for building pipelines.  Towns sprung up.  More roads were built, projecting to some extent from those towns into the rain forest.  As soon as roads were built, settlers arrived from the impoverished western provinces, slashed and burned the forest along the roads, and established small subsistence farms.  The remaining pockets of virgin forest were logged for the best trees.  The edible wildlife was hunted to extinction.  The indigenous Indian villages deteriorated – the young went into the towns and the old could not maintain their lifestyle or culture without the young.


The southern part of Ecuador’s Amazon Rain Forest is inhabited by the Achuar Indian tribe.  They used all their limited political power and were strongly supported by environmental groups to keep their area off-limits for oil and gas exploration or exploitation – in order to maintain their traditional way of life and culture.  So far, they have succeeded.  But what will happen in the not so distant future?





About the Rain Forest:


We stayed for a week at the Kapawi Lodge, the most remote of all the tourist accommodations in southeastern Ecuador’s Amazon Rain Forest.  The lodge is reached by a combination of a one-hour small-plane flight above an uninterrupted forest canopy, a 10-minute walk to the banks of the wide Pastazza River, and a 15-minute boat ride upstream along the smaller, winding and swift-moving Capahuari River.  Another 5-minute boardwalk leads to the Kapawi Lodge composed of some well-provided, small huts on the edge of a lagoon offering very good accommodation.  Well-trained, knowledgeable, and friendly naturalist guides offer day or night excursions on foot and by boat.


The rain forest contains some gigantic trees and many midsize ones forming a canopy that still lets enough light through for a dense undergrowth to cover the ground.  Narrow, winding trails formed and used by humans and animals cross the forest in an irregular pattern, most of them beginning and ending at a river.  These rivers may be small creeks with little current, but converge to ever wider ones to form the Amazon tributaries.  Those among the rivers, which begin in the uplands, carry meltwater from the Andes, have a turbulent flow, and carry lots of brown sediment.  The principal river of that area, the Pastazza, is of such width that one cannot observe any wildlife from one bank to the other – making it more desirable to cruise along the smallest tributaries or walk along the trails.  On walks along the trails one can observe everything up close, but the view is restricted to the immediate environment by the density of the forest.  Boat rides allow a wider view.


The rain forest impresses immediately by the very large variety of species among plants, insects, birds, and animals – many appearing in small groups but none in great concentration.  Within a few hours of walking, one can see a stick insect here, a tarantula-like spider there, leave-cutter ants crossing the trail, occasionally a large, deep blue butterfly, or a tiny, colorful poisonous frog sitting on a leaf, and, occasionally, a bird here and there, mostly of greenish-gray color.  But, surprisingly, only very rarely are there any large animals (monkeys or anything else) or colorful birds with yellow or red feathers. 


The forest is largely silent except when a bird emits warning calls.


But there are also the exciting and exotic encounters.  During a night excursion by boat, we had the exciting experience of hearing a tapir youngster call out to its parent from one side.  Then the mother animal answered from the other side.  Suddenly, the large mother tapir jumped into the river just in front of our boat, illuminated by our flashlights, looked at us in great fear, and swam to the other side to save her youngster!  Our naturalist tour guide indicated that he had rarely seen a tapir and never had such an experience as we during that night!


Another time, we saw a raucous bunch of disheveled looking huatzins in the bushes next to the river.  These belong to the oldest of all species of birds, the youngsters still having claws at the center joint of the wings as the very first birds of dinosaur times had.  They prefer to eat the leaves of a poisonous plant which renders their own meat poisonous to all predators and which emits a horrible stink when rotting – therefore the name “stinky turkey” and their carefree life.  We also once heard the shrieks and saw a few diminutively small monkeys (not much larger than squirrels) in one of the few fruit trees in the jungle. 


Why are there so many more species of all organisms in the rain forest, and why are they seldom seen in greater concentration?  There was no all-extinguishing ice age in these parts of the world, as there was in all the North-American and European areas.  Yet, there have been many climate changes.  This may explain the origin and retention of the large variety of species.  Any large concentration of one species would lead to a consequent concentration of specific parasites and predators – favoring the evolution of a wider distribution and mix of species.


A significant portion of the tourists in this remote area are birders.  “Birding” is a competitive collecting activity – collecting the sighting of as many bird species as possible.  Bird books for all parts of the worlds indicate all the bird species to be found there.  A true birder attempts to have seen as many species all over the world as possible.  We met one birder in the forest who claimed to have already seen 2,800 bird species.  He wanted to see 115 additional specific species at Kapawi that were still missing in his “collection”.  He had binoculars, a camera with a very large telescopic lens, a pouch with a large book showing all the birds of Ecuador (over 100 species of hummingbirds alone), and a rather subdued female companion without binoculars, whose only duty was to write down the name of the species of bird that this birder briefly called out when he discovered it – often far away, on a high branch, seen as a tiny black spot against the bright background sky, but identified with certainty as a “tawny-breasted, spotted, immature so-and-so”.  


The multitude of wonderful plants and animals (and often their aesthetic beauty) leaves one impressed not only with the foundation of creation that made this grandiose development possible, but also with the intensity of diverting evolution resulting in this variety within only the last approximately 250 million years of the Earth’s existence.  One must travel through the jungle to gain this overwhelming experience.



About the Indigenous Indians:


The Indians in this area all belong to one tribe, the Achuar.  They live in very small villages on the banks of some of the rivers, widely distributed, but reaching each other occasionally by boat.  They are guided by elected village elders and, occasionally, by shamans (a combination of priest and healer).  They were not always peaceful.  We learned that only some 20 years ago, one village had heard that the shaman of another village had threatened them.  They sent out a war party to kill him and his whole family.  That other village returned the attack, killing more people.  But all that warfare has stopped.  The villages now concentrate on some new problems and threats to their traditional lives.


A village may consist of a few banana-leaf-covered huts around an open space and surrounded by some vegetable gardens with steps leading down to the river where long boats are tied up.  In times past, a village might have had 20 to 30 inhabitants in three of four families, including many children – and some “free-range” chickens.  Many children died early and the adults rarely lived longer than 30 or 40 years.  The old people, who could not work, gather food in the forest or hunt any longer, were led into a remote part of the forest, provided with a little to eat and abandoned.


The missionaries have changed this behavior.  Now the government sends medical teams to the villages several times per year to distribute medications and teach hygienic lifestyles – but no birth control, Ecuador being catholic.  Few children die, and the adults may reach 50 or more years of age.  Consequently, villages may now have 40 to 60 inhabitants and that number is rapidly growing.  The vegetable fields get larger, but the soil in the Amazon River watershed is very poor.  It was indicated to us that only 4 percent of the forest floor is suitable for agriculture. 


The Indians need protein food to supplement their vegetable diet.  Their scrawny chickens suffer from parasites and often die soon.  They have some small fish tanks, but the fish have to be fed and water has to be carried up from the river.  The men used to go hunting with poisoned arrows and blowpipes.  Now, traders come up from Peru and sell them cheap guns, ammunition, textiles, and plastic products in exchange for exotic feathers, captured animals, or other rare forest products. 


Consequently, the forest is void of all large animals and of all birds with colorful feathers, especially, since each adult male among the indigenous finds it necessary for his self-esteem to possess a crown of yellow and red feathers worn on festive occasions or when visitors arrive. 


And then, I saw a big black plastic bag being blown by the wind across the open space in the center of the village which we visited, ending up in the branches of the surrounding bushes, where it will stay for a while.  Modern times were approaching.


The great aspiration of a village is the establishment of a landing strip for small airplanes, in order to obtain medical help in emergencies.  Their vegetable gardens attract rodents and the rodents attract poisonous snakes with the result that women and children working in the gardens suffer from snake bites.  Fast help may be needed!  Additionally, there are the usual accidents of rural life in the woods.    


The next big aspiration of a village is the possession of an electric generator, to drive water pumps and provide some light at night.  But as soon as electricity arrives, there are TVs – bringing the end of the traditional culture for the young who begin to long for life in the cities – where, unschooled for better jobs and lacking city aggressiveness, they form the lowest underclass.


The Indians once lived in a cashless society.  But now, the ecotourism (we, the visitors) and the traders allow them to sell some of their handicrafts – wonderful necklaces for women and nicely decorated earthenware – or to work as eco-tour guides, or as staff in the few lodges.  Their efficient and friendly services are appreciated.


Progress is hoped for by the indigenous in terms of more income, a better food supply, a supply of clean water in larger quantities, and better, faster medical care. 


This would result in further substantial population growth, resulting in the need for more cash, soon exceeding all possibilities for adequate income in a strictly protected natural environment.  But a cash-based society is actually needed to decently support an ever larger population – for the purchase of fertilizers, pesticides, parasite protection for the chicken, electric power, more plastic household goods, and, then, also TVs – resulting, consequently, in the loss of the young generation to city life, and an end of the traditional culture.



Are there any alternative strategies for the preservation of nature in the forest and of traditional culture for the indigenous Indians – even if only for a limited time?  New ideas may occur in the course of time.  Here are some:


-        Family planning and birth control must be introduced to the indigenous.

-        The chicken in the villages must be treated against parasites and offered better food in order to live longer and yield more eggs or meat.  Advice and assistance are needed.

-        Additional protein food may be derived from farming Talapia fish, a vegetarian fish species that could be fed by plants available from the forest environment.

-        The water for such fish farms could be obtained from pumps that are mechanically driven by the current flow of some of the swift-flowing rivers.

-        All hunting should be stopped in the forest.  Colorful birds (including yellow, blue, and red ones), as well as large mammals (monkeys and others), should be reintroduced and strictly protected – to serve as a very important added attraction for ecotourism.

-        Ecotourism could be largely expanded in an absolutely responsible manner (as is so well done at Kapawi Lodge) – with additional modest lodging even directly in the small villages and boat connections between them.

-        It should be investigated whether a limited commercial cultivation of valuable medicinal or decorative plants for export from the forest would be possible.

-        The “entrance fee” for tourist lodging in the forest area of presently only US$10 could be substantially increased, at least to US$ 50 or more, even to $ 100 once the forest offers more animals, colorful birds, and also colorful butterflies (it is $ 100 for the Galapagos Islands).

-        The waterways connecting to the west are blocked by rapids – and should be kept closed – otherwise the avalanche of settlers will arrive – as they attempted once before from the south, from Peru – where another part of the Achuar tribe lives.


From a business point of view and in order to protect the indigenous culture, the market one would aim for would not be the cheap mass-tourism.  It would have to be selective upper-echelon tourism.  This requires the improvement of the “product” – the nature experience – and would allow an increase of the price – the “entrance fee”.


Consequently, the nature experience – mainly the viewing of more large animals (large monkeys, tapirs, or other), colorful birds (including yellow, red, and blue ones), and colorful butterflies – is of central importance. 


More ideas are needed.  For example, in Africa, we visited a lodge that had installed (with great success) a salt-lick for the large animals.  They arrived in large quantities for easy viewing from the lodge terrace.  Also, a nicely hidden tower into the forest canopy could be added to the Kapawi Lodge, as provided by other lodges.


More “marketing” of the Kapawi Lodge and South-Eastern Ecuador could take place.  Kapawi is very little known among Peru-Ecuador tourists.  Tourists going to Cuzco-Machu Picchu or the Galapagos via Quito could be intrigued to have a stop-over at the Achuar territory!