Self-help in the Amazon jungle

Large-scale pollution and modern farming techniques are taking their toll on the Amazonian rain forests of Ecuador, but tourism may just provide the panacea.
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Before We left the Huaorani Indian com- munity of Quehueire Ono, deep in the Ecuadorean Amazon, we called at the home of a shaman, Mengatohue, and loaded our dugout with spears. Our course down the Shiripuno river to the bridgehead, known as El Puente, passed through disputed territory, occupied by the neighbouring Shuar tribe.

Two years ago, a 12-year-old girl died in Quehueire Ono. From contact with her spirit, the Huaorani claimed a Shuar medicine man had caused her death, which had to be avenged. So, the Huaorani killed three Shuar. Such incidents are rare. Still, the spears seemed a good idea.

Four days earlier, I had flown to Quehueire Ono from Shell, a small settlement reached by a spectacular six-hour drive over the Andes, from Ecuador's capital, Quito. I had heard that the Huaorani had set up a unique, self- managed eco-tourism programme to sustain the future of their community. I was curious to see how one of the Amazon's fiercest and most independent tribes could also be its most welcoming host.

Visitors have not always been appreciated here. In 1955, when a "vulture with a raft on its back" brought in the first evangelical missionaries, the Huaorani attacked it with machetes, then killed its pilot and passengers. Little over a year ago, tourists were being turned away. When we arrived, however, it seemed as if the whole community came out onto the sunlit grass runway to greet us.

At our camp that evening, our Huaorani host, Moi, described how oil companies had polluted Ecuador's rain forest over the past 25 years, making it the worst example of toxic contamination in the Amazon. Moreover, their access roads had encouraged colonists to settle and develop farming practices that transformed the landscape.

It is in direct response to such devastation that the Huaorani began their programme. Whereas many of the world's tribes justifiably feel threatened by tourism, the Huaorani intend to control it, only welcoming guides they respect, from whom they receive US$10 per day for each guest.

This revenue will pay for education and emergency medical needs, and for outboard motors for their dugouts, increasing their hunting range. It will also make oil company "bribes" and offers of temporary employment less tempting. Thus, tourism will help to keep the community together and will not harm the forest.

"In the beginning, there was a raft..." Moi explained to me next morning, as we sat with his neighbours. He passed me a bowl of chiche, a mildly bitter drink made from raw manioc, chewed, spat out, and left to ferment for three days. "The raft broke up, and its pieces floated off to become different nations."

"Man came from a tree," Enqueri, a neighbour, interrupted. "A pegonca tree."

"A giant tree," Moi added, "made into a canoe, from which everyone came."

"...up which," Enqueri went on, "a squirrel climbed to heaven. When the squirrel beats its tail, then lightening strikes."

"You know how the woodpecker flies?" Moi made a swooping movement with his hand. "The woodpecker flew the hills into existence."

"Do you believe in God?" Enqueri suddenly asked me. If my own beliefs sounded even less plausible than theirs, at least they added to a spirit of cultural exchange. Meanwhile, a pet two-toed sloth hauled its way across the ground, as though it was dragging the hills into existence. A marmoset sat by the fire, picking sweet potatoes from a pan. A blue-headed parrot - its "crack ... crack ..." followed wherever we went - perched by my side.

"Isn't this shaman Mengatohue's parrot? I questioned the two men.

"Sometimes," Moi smiled. "And sometimes it's Mengatohue himself."

For the first time, the Huaorani Indians plan to write down their beliefs in their own language, which is unrelated to any other. They hope that visitors' curiosity about their culture will deepen their own, sustaining knowledge and skills as part of the community's daily life.

During my time in Quehueire Ono, I saw how to build traditional houses from bamboo and mon palms, bound with vine, and watched canoes being chipped from the hollowed-out trunks of canelos trees, then heated over the fire to harden. I was shown how to weave hammocks from strips of palm fronds, boiled, dried, and wound into twine, and how to craft blow darts from nampa palm, notch their shafts with piranha teeth, and seal their tips with curari, poison made from the grated bark of ome palm, percolated through a vine filter.

I trekked with shaman Mengatohue along mudluscious hunting trails through flood-plain and terra firma forest, as he pointed out medicinal plants, such as gata herbs, whose crushed roots, taken in solution, ease malaria symptoms, and analgesic willagen vines, and others, with more general uses, like the yacabe leaves, which protect your teeth, and ungawara nuts, whose rich oil helps to condition your hair.

One day, I followed the fresh tracks of a jaguar.

Around us was one of the richest ecosystems on earth. Wherever I looked, there was something to learn, something to enjoy. The Ecuadorean Amazon, or "Oriente", contains over 8,000 species of plant. One hectare here may comprise 450 types of tree - more than in the whole of Western Europe. Almost 500 species of bird have been recorded - a third of all those in the Amazon, in only 2 per cent of its area.

Several of the Oriente's tribes, namely the Cofan, Secoya, and Quichua, are developing their own indigenous community programmes. None will offer such comforts as those of Kapawi, a new ecological reserve, 150km south of Quehueire Ono, close to where the Pastaza River crosses the Peruvian border. This is a joint venture set up between a Galapagos tour operator, Canodros, and OINAE, an organisation that represents the interests of local Achuar Indians.

At the heart of the reserve, a million-dollar luxury lodge nestles on a lake. Canodros employed the Achuar to build the lodge, in traditional style, and are training them to manage it so that in 15 years they can become sole owners. Meanwhile, the company pays them land rent of US$2,000 per month, plus 7 per cent of profits.

It is a bright initiative, and a brave one, given the challenge of creating luxury in such a remote jungle location, where ants eat through the leads to your solar power system, cookers and fridges have to be delivered by canoe, and a light aircraft is required for doing the laundry, having fresh food delivered, and non-biodegradable waste removed.

Visits to communities here, such as that of Wachirpas, on the Pastaza River, follow respected guidelines, for example, tourists must not look directly at Achuar women - who turn their heads away when serving chicha - as it may cause jealousy.

Like the Huaorani, the Achuar are hunter- gatherers, who also grow crops around their homes, such as papaya, guava, potato, manioc, forest grapes, and bananas. Their ancestors are said to have rafted down river until they reached the sky where they became Orion and the Pleiades, by whose movement they devised their calendar, and organised their daily lives.

Contact with missionaries has undermined such beliefs. In the church, in the acculturated community of Kapawi, a series of drawings illustrates parables from the bible with scenes from Achuar life. An incongruous match. Our guides did admit that believing in their own gods and those of the church could be confusing.

Canires, our host at Wachirpas, combed his hair and straightened his clothes before posing for his photograph. Then he asked uneasily if the picture would show him naked. There is a risk that the luxury lodge technology and training may introduce skills to communities for which they have no other use, and tempt some "trainees" to seek work elsewhere. However, it is hoped to attract more private enterprise to similar schemes - for example, papaya and honey farms - that will create further employment opportunities within the region. There is also a welcome sense here that the forest still holds sway - Kapawi's computer modem refuses to work in such humidity.

The same could not be said at El Puente where we moored our dugout and left the Shiripuno behind. The birds here perch on telegraph wires. Beside the bridge, a mechanical pump stands in a wire cage, like an exhibit from another world. Beneath your feet is the tarmac road that follows the pipeline to the frontier town of Coca - a place where the dusty streets are doused with waste crude, and you can feel the oil being sucked from the ground.

Past ramshackle stores of settlers selling spirits and groceries - how strange to see fish in a tin - the road reeled us in to the world we knew. All too soon, the songs on the truck radio were songs I remembered, and the beauty of the twilit forest something I never wanted to forget.

"At the end of the rainbow," Moi had told me, "is a place where the clay is good for making pots."

The Huaorani are practical people. They believe their eco-tourism programme is their best chance of survival. This is not a romantic ideal they are fighting to sustain. This is their life. In their language, "Quehueire Ono" means: "The river, where it is good to live." !


GETTING THERE: Iberia Airlines (0171 830 0011) has return flights Heathrow to Quito for pounds 560. Book direct, or through Passage to South America (0181 767 8989) which have a range of tailor-made itineraries to Ecuador.

STAYING THERE: The Huaorani request all visitors to Quehueire Ono be accompanied by Andy Drumm, ecologist, guide, and owner of Tropic Ecological Adventures (00 59 32222389), who organised this visit. Book Tropic direct, or through Passage to South America. Arrangements for Kapawi can be made through Quasar Nautica, whose English agent is Penelope Kellie (01962 779317). Rates: pounds 130 per person, per night, plus pounds 120 flight from Quito.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Ecuadorian Tourist Information (0171 584 1367), Ecuadorean Embassy, 3 Hans Crescent, London SW1.