Information in Tena circulates by word of mouth. Yes, there is a local news channel, Ally TV, and radio station. But sometimes it seems that the fastest and equally reliable way of getting news is by talking to people. Through word of mouth I found out during my first week in Tena that what would have been the 10th Annual Napo River Festival, had been canceled. The event has taken place every January for the past decade and attracts people from all over Ecuador and the world. The Ecuadorian Rivers Institute (ERI), a local NGO that promotes river conservation, organized the event to celebrate the value of the river as an important natural resource and a tourist attraction. For one week a year tourists and Kichwa communities alike enjoyed rafting trips, competitions and educational seminars about the river. The event gave local Kichwa communities the opportunity to go rafting, a leisure sport that caters to tourists and is not economically accessible to poor indigenous communities.
“We had used activities to make people identify and relate to the resource, which is hard to see when you’re trying to figure out where the next meal will come from,” Matt Terry, Executive Director of ERI said.
Matt has lived in Tena for 12 years and has fought against many of the illegal mining project in the area by putting out announcement and complaints to the government. The lack of response from the government and failure of local authorities to enforce environmental laws lead him and Napo River Festival Organizers to cancel the event.
“I don’t see any reason to continue the event. We’re too worried to celebrate at this point. We cannot continue smiling and pretending everything is peachy here,” Matt said.
According to the press release on the ERI website posted on January 21, 2010, the only way the festival will resume in years to come is if “there is effective action by the government and local stakeholders to control the inappropriate activities and begin restoration of the impacted sites, and de-contamination of the rivers affected, as guaranteed by the Derechos de la Naturaleza or "Environmental Rights" of the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador.”
I have attached Matt's poster for the cancellation of the event, which was posted on the ERI website, around Tena and circulated in Quito to let people know the gravity of the situation. The event poster in past years has used a similar design. The difference is that the indigenous person playing the flute sheds a tear below his hard hat, as the river’s banks are bare from construction. The background used to have colorful flowers and green vegetation along the river banks. The illustration is a moving statement that shows the imminent danger the rivers are in.
A local I interviewed about the river festival said that people are split here—some are against Ivanhoe and some are in favor. “We’ve conserved for years and economically we haven’t gained anything,” he said. People view oil drilling as their only source of income, which is sometimes the case in the Kichwa communities. Many indigenous in the region don’t make it past elementary school. They lack the training and resources to create sustainable work alternatives like agricultural production and tourism projects. The material compensation that companies like Ivanhoe give to communities creates a cycle of dependency, complacency, and manipulation. Why refuse jobs and a new school and a volleyball court? The value of money trumps the value of ensuring health and safety for future generations through conservation. Handouts are degrading to communities and enforce a hierarchy in which Ivanhoe becomes the owner of the community. Communities become more focused on material gain than cultural traditions and sometimes families are split between those who are against and those in favor of the company.
Those who support Ivanhoe here may either be unaware of the environmental consequences of oil exploration and/or more interested in handouts from Ivanhoe than conserving the land and rivers for future generations. Ivanhoe handouts have come in the form of Christmas candies, T-shirts, Ivanhoe-brand calendars and sponsorship of events like Carnival. There are real opportunities for sustainable development through community tourism and agricultural production. Unfortunately, the infrastructure and organization is not in place to capitalize on these money-making alternatives for poor Amazonian communities, which makes companies like Ivanhoe an attractive source of income, especially for politicians here. I’ll elaborate more about dirty politicians, agricultural development alternatives, and my encounter with the Director of Sustainable Development of Archidona in my next blog. First I want to introduce an alternative to oil exploration that has both financial and environmental benefits.
Community tourism has saved one community from having an oil company in their backyard. My neighbor Salomon is a Kichwa tour guide who started a community tourism project in a small Kichwa community in Napo province called Chuba Urku. When the community wanted to grow, Salomon and his father proposed a tourism project in which they would build cabins in the community and bring tourists who arrive in Tena to the isolated land reserve with 1600 héctareas of preserved land to explore. Though there are already two oil wells on this land, no company has exploited because the community came together and took a stance against oil exploration. In June 2009 Salomon and the president of the Chuba Urku community attended a community tourism conference in Guayaquil along with about 170 other Amazonian communities. The meeting resulted in a resolution to prohibit oil exploration in communities with established tourism projects for the next 30 years. Salomon said that 30 years is not enough.
Alternatives likes the Chuba Urku project are sustainable, economical and empowering for the communities. Many communities living without clean water, electricity or secure sources of food feel that they have few options other than to accept Ivanhoe handouts with open arms. Perhaps if more communities had alternative sources of income, like cacao and wayusa fields, community tourism or selling artisan crafts, they would be more financially poised and culturally empowered to defend their natural resources. I've attached some photos of the first well site in Nueva Esperanza. More to come!
Word on the street
This brings me to the gossip section of my blog. To give you the most up-to-date news on the Ivanhoe project, I’ll pass along the pure word-of-mouth information I get.
• According to various sources, Ivanhoe has been illegally negotiating with communities in Nueva Esperanza and Puerto Napo. According to the law, money Ivanhoe gives to communities must go through the state, making it the government’s responsibility that communities receive Ivanhoe’s handouts. However, Ivanhoe has been negotiating directly with community members, leaving them at great risk of being lied to and manipulated. In Nueva Esperanza, community members asked Ivanhoe to build a new road for them because the road is too dangerous for pedestrians when oil equipment and trucks are passing by. According to one source, an Ivanhoe truck nearly killed a child who was walking on the side of the road. Ivanhoe workers responded by saying that they’d build a new road if they can build another well in the town. Building another well in town would be completely illegal. The environmental impact report only accounts for the implementation of four wells.
• In Puerto Napo, community members are negotiating directly with Ivanhoe and refusing to communicate with local government authorities because the president of the Junta Parroquial (the most community-based level of government) of Puerto Napo, has a history of personal negotiations with oil companies. More on corrupt government and politicians in my next blog!
• The people of Nueva Esperanza and Cotundo, the communities closest to the first well site, have said that they are against the project. We are working with a community leader to put out an international email campaign on behalf of the people of these communities and facilitate workshops on the environmental impact of the project.
Taking action: What can you do?
• Donate to Amazon Watch
• Spread the negative news about Ivanhoe