Ecuador: Kichwa Community Commits To Eco-Sustainable Tourism

On the banks of the Napo River and in front of the Yasuní National Park, Sani Isla holds out against the oil industry.

Sani Isla is the name of a Kichwa indigenous community of a thousand people living on the banks of the Napo River, in front of the Yasuní National Park. In recent years, the community has had to face the expansionist efforts of the oil companies, first the US oil company Occidental Petroleum (OXY) and then the Ecuadorian Petroamazonas Company.

The first one left, and the second one has begun to operate within neighbouring Yasuní, a world treasure trove of biodiversity and home to some ethnic groups living in isolation. After some hesitations, however, the community of Sani Isla has chosen the path of eco-sustainable tourism, craftwork, and forestry, distancing itself from the sirens of the oil companies. At least for the time being.

The Napo River is one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River. It rises on the flank of Cotopaxi volcano and flows into the Amazon after crossing 702 miles, the last 414 in Peruvian territory. It flows through the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle, crossing the Yasuní National Park, among others.

The river, wide and deep enough, is mainly navigated by canoes and small motor boats. But sometimes it is also travelled by barges transporting trucks used in the oil industry. It is precisely oil that is endangering the fragile balance of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Travelling along the river it is not unusual to observe oil towers crowned by the typical flame that burns excess gas, in addition to the excavations that have been made in some sections of the left bank of the river.

In Sani Isla, an inscription engraved on a wooden tablet explains that the community, with the support of two organisations, the US based Rainforest Partnership and Ecuadorian Conservation and Development, has been carrying out a work project for women in the community since 2010. There are 34 women working there, divided into five groups that alternate weekly, producing crafts, with everything from necklaces, bracelets, to earrings and handbags, made with seeds and vegetable fibres collected in the forest or cultivated for this purpose. The products are sold to tourists who visit Sani Isla, as well as to those who arrive in Coca – about three hours away by river – or are staying in nearby jungle lodges.

The jungle lodges have a rather limited environmental impact both by the small number of tourists that they attract due to their high cost and by their ecologically sustainable practices. In any case, no human activity produces an impact comparable to the devastation inherent in any oil activity (exploration, drilling, extraction, and transport). The community of Sani Isla knows this very well because its relationship with the oil companies has caused a division in its midst in the past.

In 1998, community leaders signed an agreement with OXY to allow oil exploration in its territory to take place on 20,567 legal hectares. As compensation, they had an ecotourism structure built, the Sani Lodge, which has been operating since 2000 and is fully run by the community, something that generates a significant income. Fortunately, OXY found no oil and left. It was replaced by Ecuadorian Petroamazonas (from the state-owned Petroecuador), which was already operating in the area and with which it signed a new agreement. But discontent began to grow among the inhabitants of Sani Isla who had realised the dangers that the oil industry brought with it. So in December 2012, the community assembly rejected this agreement, opening a legal and political dispute that is still in the process of being resolved.

“At one time”, says Mariska, a resident of Sani Isla, “the community worked with the oil companies, now it only works with tourism, which is better because tourism does not pollute”.

In Sani Isla everything belongs to the community, there are the community structures, some built in a traditional way, with timber and foliage roofs, others with brick; along the Napo River are the houses of the individual families. In the middle, there is a soccer field. On the sides, there are small parcels of land cultivated with forest products, especially cacao.

The largest structures are two simple brick constructions of rectangular shape, single-story, with large windows, and a flat roof. In one of them, there is a blackboard and school benches on which some books rest. In the other, a few meters away, there is a large room with plastic chairs where meetings are held.

At the health post, there are two young people, a woman and a man, sitting around a table on which there is a blood pressure gauge, some disinfectant bottles, a jar with cotton balls, and some notebooks. Both introduce themselves as Elizabeth Orbe and Charles Belzu, doctors.

“I’m a community doctor”, explains Orbe. “I work for Petroamazonas. We both serve all the communities in their area of influence. It is a work performed in agreement with the Ministry of Health. The most common health problems are dermatological, respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments. Often, poor hygienic conditions are the cause of many diseases.”

“I work for the Ministry of Health and I’m a specialist in family medicine”, says Belzu, a Bolivian graduated in Cuba. “We usually come on Sunday because there are community meetings that take place on those days. We also make home visits when there are elderly people or pregnant women who are unable to travel or who cannot afford to do so”.

As for the pathologies resulting from pollution, Belzu explains that “as far as we are concerned, we have not identified problems caused by pollution. The government allows crude oil extraction but demands attention for the environment”.

Outside the health post, on an orange wall, a small plaque reads “This construction was built by Occidental Petroleum (OXY) in agreement with the community in 2002.”

A young man sitting on a bench at the entrance says, “Now [OXY] is gone, now Petroecuador is here. My name is Cirilo and I am a health worker in the Sani Isla community”.

A health worker here is a kind of generic nurse. “The people who come to me often have skin problems because of mosquitoes. And then there is the issue of water: there is no drinking water here. We have to purify it or buy it in Coca. As for the doctors, they come only on Sunday”, he says. About this ambiguous relationship with the oil companies, Cirilo has no doubt, repeating several times and without hesitation, “They come here and pollute. We have to be very strict with them”.

The river is no longer full of fish. It is difficult to say whether the cause is overfishing or pollution of the water caused by oil spills. The last emergency dates back to June 2013, when the polluted Napo waters reached the province of Maynas, in Peru’s Amazon jungle.

– Paolo Moiola

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