Riches above, wealth below

June 10, 2011

I’ve visited different parts of Ecuador’s Amazon jungle many times both as a photographer and as a tourist. I even covered a border war there and always found the jungle to be beautiful, in all situations. But nothing ever impressed me as much as a recent tour of the Yasuni National Park, home of the Waorani people and arguably one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth.

Apart from containing more species of trees than in all of North America, the Yasuni also contains some 20 percent of Ecuador’s oil reserves. For that reason it is also the focus of a novel initiative that the current government has launched to the world: In exchange for not drilling for crude in a 200,000-hectare area of Yasuni National Park, the government is asking wealthy nations, foundations and individuals to give it $3.6 billion. The proposal to the international community is to replace some of the income that Ecuador will not receive by keeping the petroleum underground, and prevent the contamination that comes from exploration,  production, and consumption.

They’ve given potential partners until 2024 to pay up, or watch the Yasuni’s oil being exploited. Last September, Chile became the first contributor with $100,000. There are other offers from France, Belgium, The Netherlands,  Spain, Italy and Norway.

Just to reach Tiputini I had to take a 40-minute flight to Coca, travel two hours by boat to Pompeya, 90 minutes by bus to the Tiputini River, and then another four hour boat ride to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station.

The Station belongs to Quito’s San Francisco University, which only accepts visits from students, biologists, environmentalists, professors, and of course journalists. The requirement to justify the visit and the restrictions imposed make it a difficult permit to acquire. My goal was simply to document Yasuni’s wonders that justify the campaign to keep the oil underground.

I wasn’t allowed to set my own itinerary in Yasuni. Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF, which holds some of the existing concessions in the park, controls the access in the same way that a country’s immigration and customs departments work in an airport. Their orders were, “No photographs until we reach the river.” It was obvious that cameras make them nervous.

But in spite of that, as soon as I stepped into the boat the magic of Yasuni came together, bringing together my eye, camera and imagination as if into one instrument. I couldn’t help but wish that everyone could experience it. Every moment in the forest is unique. The tranquility that it imparted made it easy for me to work, except for one doubt – whether to concentrate more on still photos or video. Thanks to today’s cameras I was able to do both.

“A jaguar and its cubs that often walk along here,” said Mayer Rodriguez. At 68, Mayer is the Station’s most experienced guide. He was born nearby and has roamed the Tiputini River for the past 50 years.

To tour the jungle with him is an educational and touristic adventure in so many ways. He knows how to walk in the forest, and where to look. He knows the native and English names of all the plants and insects. The purpose of our visit was to see the aboveground wonders, and learn the importance of keeping the underground resources in their place.

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