In a Land as Exceptional for Its Fragile and Fiercely Guarded Biodiversity as for Its Dwindling Population of Guardians, the Indigenous Sápara Are First in Line for a New Form of Extinction. And They Are Staking the Only Thing They Have Left Against It—their Afterlife.
Just a half turn and Manari takes a glance at her. He smiles a vaporous smile. His hands stay glued to the nine-foot pole plying us upstream, cigar-sized toes fastened tightly to the hull of the canoe that his brother Andrés built years ago out of one solid trunk of cedar.
“Have you ever been to Venice?” the visitor repeats from under her hat.
Chewed up by chiggers, Manari’s calves twinge simultaneously. We are crossing a swell of whitewater on a bend of the Conambo River, deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest. This is Sápara territory, and Manari is their leader.
“I’ve heard of it,” he responds, shaking the question off.
From where I am sitting, I can see his scapulae rotating, his carved spine, his back muscles rising and falling like piston rods: a gargoyle on a ledge, poised to jump. He is as tall as the tallest Sápara can be, jet-black hair raining on his lashes, with the full Indian features of a regal Chief Bromden: proud cheekbones, lips thick as snakes.
Every time a rock breaks the surface of the stream, he pries it away curtly with the stick, steering us clear. Manari and his eleven siblings, and practically every other Sápara in the land, grew up navigating wooden canoes along these rivers. He is almost forty now and has seen black anacondas lurking underwater for their prey, capybaras crowding muddy landing strips, and a jaguar raring to feast on his sister’s flesh. Manari has fished for barbudos, mota, kungukshi, silver piranhas, and giant catfish. He has had caimans as pets. He has eaten monkeys and frogs, and once owned a peccary that would chew on the pulp of his mother’s manioc beer, only to run, piss-drunk, back into the forest. Those were the good old days, when his father, one of the greatest Sápara shamans of all time, was still alive.
“You are like the gondolier of Amazonia,” the visitor prods. “You need only to sing.”
More than six thousand miles separate us from any gondola in Venice. The sun in the rainforest is lip-bursting and the air smells like warm green tea. At times we can hear the chirping of capuchin monkeys and the roaring of Juri Juri, a spirit buried underground by the ancient gods—or, as someone later explains, a type of bullfrog that dwells beneath the cool earth on the shore of certain lagoons.
My home for the past two days has been a pebble beach at the edge of a reserve the Sápara created within their territory—an Amazon within the Amazon. Unnamed, this wildlife nursery is a safe haven at the core of one of the richest ecosystems on earth, where monkeys can grow fat and peccaries can roam and multiply free from hunters. It is early June in 2013, and we are the first group of westerners ever to visit this sanctuary, one of the few places on Earth where nature can reboot. “If they start drilling for oil here,” Manari would say later, “where will the animals go?”
There are only a handful of Sápara left in the world who can still speak their language. But the shamans believe that when they die, and all the Sápara are gone, their souls and the souls of their people will live on, incarnated in the beasts and the plants of this land. Losing the reserve, its rivers and birds, its tigers and trees, would not only spur the physical end of this nation. It would amount to a spiritual catastrophe and the destruction of any possibility of an afterlife.
At the mouth of the reserve the night before, Manari talked about the animals he hunts, and his gods, who guide the Sápara and instruct their survival. The thick roar of the jungle was his backdrop. I took notes as he spoke. With his brother Andrés, the storyteller of the family, Manari has been writing “the Sápara bible,” as he calls it, so that their world might survive in the reserve of others’ minds:
The inhabitants of the spiritual world held a deadly war that sealed the downfall of their perfect universe. All forces fought with courage, and when almost everything had been destroyed, they called for a truce. Although the fight would continue in the spiritual world, the factions agreed to try and start anew somewhere else: a new world, a physical one, which they would build using the power of light and thunder. Piatsaw, the demiurge god of the Sápara, traveled through lightning with the mission of building the Earth, and both universes stayed connected through dreams.
The sky was clear, light blue in the afternoon, splashed with early stars, trimmed in a radiant horizon of brittle orange clouds. This is the wildest part of the forest; the river boils with fish and boas, and the salt licks on the banks are thatched with hundreds of tracks of leopards and deer, traces of secret birds, and the constant humming of thousands of still-unnamed insects.
Earlier that day, Manari had taken a dive to fish for cúa, a white, elongated frog that the Sápara deem the most delicious among the river foods. The one he caught, however, had a broken leg, a white gouge with flesh hanging from it, probably a piranha bite. After resting on Manari’s hand for an instant, the frog crawled up his arm and shoulder until it reached his head. There it perched, cuddled in his shiny black hair, and closed its eyes as if for a nap. “It is tired and wounded… We will let it go to the frog hospital,” Manari decided, as he gingerly untangled the animal and, without waking it up, placed it on a high branch that bent into the stream. Here animals have souls, just like humans do, and their bodies host the spirits of dead ancestors. A black panther that lurked around our camp, and whose tracks we saw again near the village of Llanchamacocha, holds the soul of Manari’s father, and brings him and the Sápara messages from the land of the dead.
Marco, a man with obstinate bangs and arms like trees, and Francisco, small and squirrelly, had pitched our tents under a plastic canopy held up by three wooden poles, in case it rained. After dinner, an army of a thousand frogs sang as we gathered around the fire and Manari spoke.
As I listened, lying on the pebbles of the shore, chiggers mauling my ankles and arms, my eyes were set on the constellations. I could see the stars of both hemispheres gleaming at the same time, moving slowly but constantly, a unique feature of this meridian part of the world. And when sleep spread through my legs and my waist, my arms and my chest, my neck and my eyes, I began to see the lightning and Piatsaw, and the forces that collide and explode. I heard the thunder under the moving mountains, and no matter how hard I tried to stay awake, Manari’s voice rocked me back into that in-between state, that half-vigil seesaw from where I could feel both my sleeping bag and the wonders of the spiritual world, just as I could see the flickering fires of the northern and the southern skies.
The village of Llanchamacocha is still hours upstream. We are on our way back from the reserve, taking turns with the poles. Manari looks absent, adrift, and I can’t help but remember his father’s prophecy: on his deathbed, the great shaman commanded his kinsmen to abandon their land, to move elsewhere. “The gods have spoken: our culture is coming to an end.” And perhaps he was right.
There are fewer than six hundred Sápara left in the world, according to the Ecuadorian government (although the number is subject to a long-standing controversy). This is a little more than the four hundred and twenty-five gondoliers in Venice. In Llanchamacocha, where Manari lives, the head count doesn’t reach thirty.
But the woman insists: “You should learn to sing.”
Standing at the bow, the long black hair, the Brian Jones bangs, the distant gaze, Manari turns around again, just a half turn, the vanishing smile, the hands glued to the pole.
This time, however, he looks straight at her.
“Why?” he asks.
On November 28, 2013, a few months after my first trip to the reserve, the Ecuadorian government, under President Rafael Correa, closed the bidding period for the Eleventh Oil Round, its latest attempt to expand the country’s drilling frontier from the booming North into southern Amazonia. For a full year, Correa and his people had toured the world peddling sixteen pristine blocks of unpolluted rainforest to the highest tender. Four of these parcels were sold. One of them, block 79, was plotted over the Sápara reserve, on the very same pebble beach where, earlier that summer, I had laid out my sleeping bag.
In the Southeastern-most part of Ecuador, the ancestral territory of the Sápara spreads over some 1,300 square miles to cover an area nearly the size of Dubai. It sits in a valley in a part of Amazonia where echoes of the Andes still roll the hills. Between the mountains, to the west, and an endless sprawl of rainforest, to the east, this patch of virgin jungle is what the locals call Sur Oriente.
To scientists and conservationists, who began to value and tout the concept of biodiversity only three decades ago, the significance of this region is measured by the number of species that inhabit it. “This is the most diverse place in the Amazon… well, the most diverse place in the Americas, probably in the world,” American biologist Clinton Jenkins, an expert in biodiversity mapping, told me. This part of the jungle is the living expression of what biologists refer to as “diversity maxima,” the maximum concentration of amphibians, mammals, birds, and plants in a single spot. It is a trophy zone for conservation.
For the Ecuadorian government, however, the value of this land is based on how much foreign corporations are willing to pay for the rights to drill on it. Today, oil accounts for around 50 percent of the country’s exports. Since the beginning of Correa’s tenure, in 2007, the oil industry has eradicated unemployment, paved more than three thousand miles of roads and bridges, renewed twelve airports, built new regional hospitals, and paid for the creation of hundreds of public schools. By enhancing the country’s infrastructure, oil may even have raised Ecuador’s standing among the top tourism destinations in Latin America, drawing on its image as an exemplar of ecology and environmental sensitivity. If the Sápara are holdouts of the country’s Inca concept of sumak kawsay, “the good life,” Correa’s administration is offering its constituents the “miracle of Ecuador”—his campaign-slogan promise for a better, oil-fueled life.
None of this, however, holds much meaning for the Sápara, who fought for their land for centuries against the Spaniards, and for millennia against the Waorani, the Achuar, the Kichwa, and at least five other Amazonian nations—some of which, like the Taromenane and the Tagaeri, remain in voluntary isolation. This territory is the source of Sápara identity: it defines their existence and their eternity. That is why Manari couldn’t bring himself to yield to his father’s prophecy or comply with his deathbed instructions. Instead, he chose to scale up the battle, turning his people’s vulnerability into power.
The Sápara nation needed a political face, and in 1999, following his father’s death, Manari and a group of his friends joined the indigenous confederations of Ecuador. In 2001, when their oral tradition was designated a “world heritage” by UNESCO, it helped them get support to implement trilingual education in their territory (adding Sápara to Spanish and Kichwa). Around the same time, they received over two hundred thousand dollars to conduct research on their linguistic and historical lineage.
“It may have also added to the conflict between communities,” Anne-Gaël Bilhaut, a French ethnographer who lived with the Sápara for two years, told me. In 2011 Bilhaut wrote the first modern ethnography of the Sápara: Des nuits et des rêves: construire le monde Zápara en Haute Amazonie. “After the [UNESCO] declaration, there was more discrimination amongst communities,” she told me. “The money they received was administered by the NASPA (Nación Sápara de Pastaza), but the communities that didn’t belong to it—the ones south of the Conambo—didn’t benefit from it and felt isolated.”
A year later, the Sápara also joined the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which gave them an international table for their insights and concerns.
Today, the Sápara have imbued their territory with ideas that are key to the survival of the Western world: sustainability, spirituality, transcendence. If we don’t care to act on the values we preach, they seem to be telling us, it may be us who are not worth preserving after all.
“We haven’t started drilling there yet,” Italo Cedeño, an oil engineer, told me during a short phone conversation on a June morning in 2014. Ever since my trip to the reserve, I had been trying to research the interests converging on this patch of land. Cedeño works for Andes Petroleum, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation, China’s biggest oil producer. His firm won the bid for block 79. Cedeño said he had just come back from a long trip; he excused himself and suggested I call him after the World Cup game between the United States and Germany that afternoon. The United States lost by one goal, Germany would go on to win the cup, and I haven’t been able to reach him since.
My conversation with Cedeño was one of only three I managed to have with oil executives after two years of phone calls, emails, and thwarted office visits. I might have saved myself the trouble: in Ecuador, big oil doesn’t talk. On the other hand, government ministers were usually eager to engage in long exchanges, and their interviews were as amiable as sales pitches. The contrast makes sense, considering the role that the government has played in facilitating big oil’s access to Ecuador’s backyard. But hours of ministerial banter on the benefits of an oil-based economy can’t drown out the blaring silence of the companies themselves. What might happen when they start drilling in the Southeast? I went north, where the first oil barrel was extracted from Ecuador, on March 29, 1967, to find out.
There’s a steel vein running through the Andes from east to west, a warm, hollow line that sucks out the guts of the jungle, four hundred thousand oil barrels at a time. It is known as SOTE (Sistema de Oleoductos Transecuatoriano), but for those who live close to it, the roughly three-hundred-mile-long pipeline serves more immediate purposes. María de los Ángeles Criollo uses SOTE, which can reach body-heat temperatures, to keep her chickens warm at night. Lilia Melendres has turned the pipe into a TV stand.
Thick as a young kapok tree, the pipeline slinks along the Papallacta highway, twines around the Great Divide, scales the freezing heights of the páramo, near the Virgin of Our Lady of the Moors, and drains in a delirious gush into coastal Ecuador, a chemical reflux resurrecting the route first opened by conquistador Francisco de Orellana, who starved along with an army of forty-nine men in his attempt to reach the golden city of El Dorado. Although for most of its trajectory the pipeline creeps belowground, now and then its rusted spine surfaces to lurk under the sun, resting on a silent skeleton of H-shaped metallic trestles.
Between 1972 and 1974, SOTE spilled more than one hundred fifty thousand barrels of poisonous crude over untouched territories in the northern Amazonia and the Andes, the Ecuadorian rivers and the coast—and that was just one quarter of what it would eventually hemorrhage over the next four decades.
Like most Ecuadorians, Lilia Melendres knows about the spills, and the dangers of living next to SOTE—or, in her case, on it. In 1993, she and her husband built their house on top of the pipeline in Colinas Petroleras on a lot that the Ecuadorian government had assigned to the national oil behemoth Petroecuador. Years later, when the company wanted to evict them and other settlers, it turned out that its property titles had never been officially issued. The settlers stayed.
For eight years, Melendres and her husband let the pipeline nestle naked in the corner of their living room. But when the rusty metal dandruff of the tubing started to stain the walls, she decided to encase it in concrete and tile. Every afternoon, around four, the snake briefly comes to, in a yawn of shrieking steel, and rattles the house. Melendres only hopes it will never fully awaken.
Risk always lingers around SOTE, but neither that nor the white wooden signs that read PELIGRO have deterred Ecuadorians from carrying on with their lives in the “forbidden zone,” a fifty-foot strip of no-man’s-land running along both sides of the pipeline, within which human activity is now banned by law.
Extractive industries have made a few Ecuadorians wealthy and some others middle-class, but many more have stayed poor. Every afternoon, during the sixty minutes that Melendres sits down in front of the TV to watch her favorite telenovela, the pipeline in her living room will pump the equivalent of over twenty-five years’ worth of her country’s average living wage in crude. Oil has made Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, rife with wine bars, boutique hotels, and vehicular gridlock—all the perks of a young petropolis. It has also given Melendres a place to set up her TV.
“There’s no tourism [here],” Ermenegildo Criollo says of his home, Lago Agrio, an oil town on the Ecuadorian-Colombian border. Criollo is short and wears a brown leather jacket that opens to a high potbelly. A Cofán national and an indigenous leader, in 1993 Criollo flew to New York as an early witness for the multibillion-dollar trial that a group of thirty thousand natives filed in Ecuador against oil multinational Texaco (now Chevron). In November 2013, the Ecuadorian Supreme Court found Texaco guilty of spilling more than eighteen billion barrels of oil in the northeastern part of the country and failing to clean up the mess. The tribunal sentenced Texaco to pay $9.5 billion to the “affected,” a resolution that the defense is now fighting in US courts. “Lago Agrio is Cofán territory,” Criollo says. “Here there were thousands of animals. But imagine, with the oil companies, natural gas flares going off day and night, air pollution. Now you can’t even see the birds in the sky. First came the oil companies, and then came the people, and then the roads go deeper and they scare the animals, or they simply die—and there’s nothing left.”
Criollo had six children, but two died of water poisoning. “When I was a kid, in 1964, I lived by the Aguarico River. There I first saw a helicopter fly over Lago Agrio and I hid in the jungle because I didn’t know what it was. All our water and our beaches were clean. You could fish and see the birds on the banks.” In the provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana, there are at least three hundred reported cancer cases resulting from water and soil contamination due to oil drilling, according to “Las palabras de la selva,” a study released by the University of the Basque Country in 2009.
However, it was not drilling or mining that caused the first wave of destruction in the North, but the influx of new settlers, Carlos Larrea, a researcher at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, told me at his musky office overlooking the Plaza Brasilia. Larrea’s hair and jacket blended with the tone and texture of his neighborhood, the grayest in Quito. “The oil settlers cluster by the roads that are opened to bring machinery, people, and tools into the fields. And although the land is superficially rich, the clay soil runs out of nutrients in a few years, so the migrants move to a different area and destruction spreads like a cancer.”
In front of Mercedes Jaramillo’s home, which stands near one of the first oil drills emplaced in Lago Agrio, Donald Moncayo moves a rusted metal roofing sheet that covers a hole in the ground. He is tall and handsome, slim as a sailor, with elastic legs. This is the first stop on a tour he will give me of the area’s open oil pools, which still pollute 1,700 square miles of rivers and groundwater in this land. Jaramillo steps aside, hands resting on her long, pink skirt, as she watches Moncayo uncover what was originally intended as a water well. As raindrops fall into the cylindrical space, a strong synthetic smell wafts out. Two frogs appear on one of the ledges of the pit, black and dead, glazed in crude.
“I’ll come back later to take a photo,” Moncayo tells the woman with a yawn. He is wearing a red T-shirt sporting the image of his colleague and friend Pablo Fajardo. Fajardo is the lawyer and brainpower behind the indigenous prosecution team fighting Chevron/Texaco. In early September 2015, Fajardo won the right to pursue the multibillion-dollar pollution lawsuit in Canada after a hearing before that country’s Supreme Court. “The money will help clean the oil pools,” Moncayo tells me as we drive to Aguarico 4, an oil field a couple of miles north of the Aguarico River. He has the vanishing expression of someone who has long ago forgotten what pillows are made of. In the car, he dozes off and comes to a few times before we cross the wide brown river by ferry, under torrential forest rain.
“They left more than eighteen billion gallons on the surface, and these waters are even more toxic than oil itself,” Moncayo tells me as we reach the well. Along a pebble road flanked by the lushest vegetation on earth, the smell has become sour, heavier. The field, exploited by Texaco until 1984, still oozes wastewater. “When it rains, it all drains down to the river… The water was not reinjected into the ground.” Moncayo is referring to an industry practice—enforced in the United States since the early 1970s by the Environmental Protection Agency—of pumping toxic waste back into the ground at levels far below drinking-water wells, under the most impermeable layers of rock, gravel, and soil, which is meant to protect both people and animals. As he talks, he puts on white latex gloves to open a tap, part of the wellhead, a tubing structure in the middle of the field, and pours some of the slush into the bottom half of a plastic bottle he just parted in two with his machete. “I bathed in these waters,” he tells me, and he lifts the improvised cup to my face. “From Teteyé River, which carried all the wastewater from the Lago Norte station, is where we pulled out my half-dead mother,” he says. My eyes well up in response—to the story or the fumes, I don’t know. “We took her to the hospital, where she passed away.”
In those early oil days in Sucumbíos, Moncayo remembers, none of the locals knew how poisonous these substances were. “The company people told my mother that oil applied to the joints cured arthritis… people would dip the meat in [wastewater] to make it salty before grilling it.” But rising health problems set off an alarm. “There was a priest, and one day after mass he asked the women in the congregation to raise their hand if they had had a miscarriage, which was a strange question, because that was not something we were used to seeing here. But my mother had had one, and then other women raised their hands, and all of a sudden they realized that there was something very wrong. The priest told us to start wearing shoes and to avoid drinking river water, which was almost impossible for us.”
We are now walking on an improvised bridge made of tree trunks suspended in oil slurry, a viscous blend of crude, dirt, and underbrush. There are three open oil pits in the area, Moncayo tells me. But there are more than three hundred in the province, each one the size of a tennis court, deeper than a diving pool, filled with crude residue and wastewater, dug into the ground without insulation. The pits are sometimes visible, but for the most part they remain hidden in the forest that grows back around them, or over them, as if ashamed of the spectacle. “These not only pollute but are dangerous to animals and cattle,” Moncayo says. His hands, wrapped in new latex gloves, reach out for clumps of oil, the dead soul of the earth, which then bleed from his fingers back onto the ground. “More than twenty-four thousand farm animals drowned in these pools, and Texaco never compensated the ranchers.”
Downhill, behind a thick line of trees, we find a stream that smells like a Brooklyn gas station. The contrast between the greenery and the odor is disorienting. When Moncayo pokes a branch into the sand on the shore, a chemical rainbow surfaces like a deadly viper, circling and twirling as it moves downstream with the flow. Today, without clean water, animals to hunt, or fish to catch, there are limited options for the young Cofán to stay on their land. Tourism has become unviable, and the only work available is generated by the same industry that has decimated the area.
“I miss the freedom we had before,” Criollo told me at the offices of the Unión de Afectados por Texaco. “When I was a kid, I could go up, down, to the jungle, and I could do that freely. But with the oil companies I cannot do that anymore. I cannot even be clean. Your feet are constantly stained with oil, and there’s no way to wash it out with water, hot water or sand.”
Lago Agrio presents a cautionary tale, and the sight along the SOTE on my trip back to Quito is a vivid reminder of this. In the North one can witness the real dimension of a looming future for the rest of the Amazon. Within a couple of years, the Sur Oriente, the new oil frontier, could easily become its successor.
On my way back across the continental watershed, I see neither cougars nor spectacled bears, despite their abundance as outlines on road signs. I do, however, see a lot of the red, rusted iron anaconda, steaming at dawn, its compressors waiting like lairs along the way, and then suddenly, behind them, the village of Papallacta, nestled motionless in the mist of the cloud forest, its main pumping station floating in the cold haze like the spitting image of the fourth circle of hell.
Our car barrels down the hills toward the Amazon basin as if pulled by the orange sun that rises before us. One year has passed since I last visited the reserve. A five-hour drive will take us to the edge of the jungle to catch a plane “inside,” as Ecuadorians refer to the parts of their country beyond the reach of roads.
Political changes have not favored the Sápara in the past year. Yasuní National Park and its one million hectares of biodiversity are being drilled for oil despite a public referendum that was overwhelmingly against it. Amid the turbulence, Manari has arranged to have his reserve mapped, by foot and by boat, each corner of this unexplored territory marked and indexed. He thinks the map may give the Sápara a better shot at protecting their land in an international court. But for that, its boundaries have to be clear.
We’ll be running against the clock: we have less than a week to survey some fifty thousand acres of virgin wilderness with a few portable gadgets and an improvised team of Sápara scouts to guide us.
But we are also coming with geographer Carlos Mazabanda. During the drive he sits shotgun, alternately dozing off, talking to the driver, checking his phone, and fussing with one of the GPSs he’s brought. (It looks like it may be broken.) He is short and obsessive, and has a generous smile that pops up on his round, tan face without warning or apparent reason. “We’ll be walking four to five days,” he tells me as our car passes a small white house with a stenciled sign painted on the front: LADRÓN COGIDO SERÁ QUEMADO VIVO (“Caught thief will be burned alive”).
I close my eyes and try to rest, but a photo of a dead Tagaeri flashes through my mind. He is facedown in the mud, six spears rising from his back like blooming tulips. The Tagaeri and Huaorani, two of the indigenous groups in the Sur Oriente who have decided to stay removed from the West, are in a constant state of war. Last year, south of Yasuní Park, a group of Huaorani wiped out a Tagaeri village and kidnapped its children. The images have haunted me ever since. Both tribes are Sápara neighbors. Both have land disputes with the Sápara, and tomorrow we’ll start mapping these contested lines on foot.
The mist in the fields flanking the highway hovers like green halogen gas. In May 1992, hundreds of thousands of natives camped on these roadsides for weeks. And then one morning, they began to walk toward the capital city. The march had started deep in the rainforest, at the most distant villages and settlements scattered in the farthest reaches of the Ecuadorian jungle. It streamed along rivers and drained down roads for several days, blocking traffic and worrying the government, until all that human force thundered its arrival at the foot of the presidential palace. Quito was sieged and native Ecuadorians demanded property titles for their territories. Cornered, then-president Rodrigo Borja rushed an order, and the Instituto de Reforma Agraria drafted the boundaries and assigned property rights to all the territories in the Amazon basin. The process lasted three weeks, and for three weeks the city was held hostage. When the institute delivered the ransom, the natives went back home to find out how imprecise the process had been. The Sápara were assigned their territory, too, but boundaries had become extremely confusing.
In 1992, maps were not just a new concept for the natives—they were alien, and contradictory to their relationship with Pachamama (Mother Earth). Amazonians had always had an exhaustive understanding of their domain, but it was experiential, grounded in life and traditions. The nations in the forest were historically transhumant, and their territories overlapped in use, were flexible; boundaries, like the lands and rivers that bore them, were mutable and forgiving. But when the government imposed the grid, it brought with it a set of new values. Tribal warfare soared, and with the incursion of oil companies, the Oriente became embroiled in a debate between those communities who welcomed oil exploration and those who wanted nothing to do with it. More than two decades later, the map has become an indispensable shield in the natives’ struggle to retain a foothold on their own land.
When asked by Manari what he thinks of the idea of turning the reserve into a national park, Mazabanda adjusts his rectangular glasses, as if preparing for a lecture, but simply stops at the diagnostics: “I don’t think it will work. Look at what they are doing to Yasuní.”
If there was ever a protected area in Ecuador, it was Yasuní National Park. One of the five most biodiverse spots on the planet, Yasuní was declared a biosphere reserve and cultural heritage site in 1989 by UNESCO, and an “intangible area”—a region perpetually closed to extractive activities—by the Ecuadorian government in 1999. Nine years later, when the constitutional assembly wrote the groundbreaking Montecristi Magna Carta, the first constitution in world history to make nature a subject of law, ecological groups gained an unprecedented legal framework with which to safeguard the park. In 2007, Yasuní made international news when the Ecuadorian government commissioned Roque Sevilla, a conservationist, entrepreneur, and former mayor of Quito, to engineer a financial instrument, the Yasuní ITT Initiative. The notion was simple and visionary: keep the oil in the park underground and have the developed countries of the world—the polluters—pay for it to stay there.
The idea “came from the people… [who] suffered the exploitation of oil by Texaco,” Sevilla told me at the offices of his company, Metropolitan Touring, the largest tourism operator in Ecuador. A man of hoarse voice, big hands, and cowboy slenderness, delivered in blue plaid shirt and jeans, Sevilla was not only the technical mind behind the “polluters pay” initiative. He was also a well-connected cheerleader who had won over three key European countries—Germany, France, and Spain—but didn’t bother with the United States. “We knew that this type of idea wouldn’t have wings in the US Congress.”
Sevilla sent the full proposal to Correa on December 15, 2009, the day before it was to be signed at the United Nations, and on the same day received the president’s rejection—Correa didn’t like the wording. “He wouldn’t accept the word donations. It should be aportes, ‘contributions,’ but not donations,” Sevilla said. A second initiative was drafted and signed in October 2010, but by then the world was in the red after the subprime crisis, and the idea never gained traction. The project was finally abandoned in 2013, but, according to an investigative piece by journalist David Hill that appeared in the Guardian in February 2014, Correa had been in backroom negotiations with two Chinese companies all along and had never really intended to leave the oil of Yasuní underground. One of these companies was Andes Petroleum.
Hours after the Guardian published Hill’s piece, the Ecuadorian ambassador to the UK, Juan Falconi Puig, denied the allegations in a letter to the editor.
We reach the town of Shell, at the edge of the Amazon wilderness, at 9 a.m. sharp and head to the offices of Aero Tsentsak airlines. The place is a small concrete box with a fiberglass roof in corrugated green. It could almost pass for a New York bodega if it were not overlooking a massive runway shared by a strip mall of airline storefronts—some private, some governmental, some pared down to a bus stop. A deluge has put a halt to all flights as the space becomes instantly dank and loud, so we pace around, shouting our conversations over the throttle of an unrelenting rain. By the entrance, a five-foot-by-five-foot loading platform overflows with white plastic bags and muddy boots, wet cardboard boxes and beach coolers. A stainless-steel digital scale with red fluorescent numbers dominates the room. Aero Tsentsak belongs to the Achuar, the first indigenous nation in Ecuador to own and operate its own airline. They use the scale to weigh both passengers and luggage before packing them snugly into their fleet: two four-seater Cessnas and a six-seater Islander—all three circa 1975—which fly constantly in and out of the Amazon rainforest.
Shell is a stale little town split in two by a ruthless highway. Built out by Royal Dutch Shell in 1937 as a beachhead for oil exploration, it was abandoned by the company after ten years of fruitless drilling and the countless attacks of avenging spears. Created for oil, the place had its name carved in flesh and preserved by the natives as a warning. Still, it serves the industries that feast on the jungle—oil, tourism, commerce, and politics—and works as a parting landmark between us in the West and the wide green of the East.
At Aero Tsentsak, Mazabanda, the geographer, unfolds a map that wraps around the reception countertop. We all lean over it.
“Here it is super dangerous: people get lost in this mountain, and there are tigers!” Manari warns us, pointing at a spot on the map. “You can hear guns blasting, too.” He looks unusually concerned, but we all know it’s not about the tigers. Right after the mapping expedition, he will have to fly to Torimbo, an Achuar village rooted like a tooth in the middle of Sápara territory. He will need to convince the neighboring villagers not to negotiate with Andes Petroleum. Years ago someone tried to kill him in Torimbo, and he believes that he would be dead now had the bullet not gotten stuck in the gun’s chamber.
“We won’t go above this,” Mazabanda tells us, a smile appearing on his face. “Here there are Tagaeris, so we’ll reach a high point around there,” he traces a circle over the Tagaeri land, “and stop here,” he says, tapping on the paper.
Mazabanda was part of the team that championed and won a groundbreaking case in 2012, when the Argentine oil company Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC) began looking for oil by seismic blasting near the Kichwa village of Sarayaku. The natives accused CGC of scaring off the animals with the explosions, and started to protest its operations. Threatened by the natives and pushed by CGC, the Ecuadorian government sent in troops and closed all traffic over the Bobonaza River, which provides key access to the area. But allegations of ethnocide soared, and the company packed up and left. On June 27, 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of the Kichwa: Ecuador had violated Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which warrants protection of indigenous people in their own territories.
“They militarized Sarayaku, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t do it here, too,” Mazabanda tells me as soon as I prompt him to talk about the chances of an oil charge into Sápara territory. The best defense against that, he says, is international law, which means that the reserve has to become official soon.
Right after his success with Sarayaku, Mazabanda joined Pachamama Foundation, an NGO that would soon become a target for the federal administration. Two consecutive international failures—first the Sarayaku case and then the Yasuní ITT Initiative—put President Correa under glaring national scrutiny: polls were showing that eight out of ten Ecuadorians were against oil drilling in the Sur Oriente. Meanwhile, Pachamama was creating alternatives to oil in the area by sponsoring new ecotourism and commercial ventures, and promoting research on sustainable development. These programs brought exposure to the region at the worst possible time for the oil companies who were weighing their options there.
The government shut down the NGO in December 2013. A few months later, Correa did an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, during which he denied having closed Pachamama without legal due process. Ruffled by a question on the subject, he then accused the organization of inciting violence at a march against the government’s decision to drill in Yasuní. The shuttering of Pachamama was the government’s Rubicon and the final straw in a long series of betrayals to PAIS—the same leftist political alliance that, with its indigenous coalition, had brought Correa to power. From that point on, the president would never again be able to claim to be a defender of indigenous rights.
When we finally arrive in Sápara territory, it’s 4 p.m. The storm has pummeled the landing strip into a pool of mud the consistency of warm chocolate cake. Our small propeller plane swims to a stop after dodging a flock of chickens and a grime-caked giant peccary, and parks next to the first building in Llanchamacocha, exactly where I had landed a year before. I see the school, a stilted structure, closed and empty like the husk of an insect, and the volleyball field, striped with skid marks topped up with rainwater, barren and still.
Twenty minutes into a walk downstream, however, I start to notice changes. Marco, the man with arms like trees, and Rosario, his wife, have built a three-hall eco-lodge by the river in a clearing where the air smells like damp grass and warm sand. Tourism, they believe, is a new strategy against big oil. The dining area is a massive, oblong cabin, with cathedral palm-leaf ceilings lit by two forty-five-watt bulbs hooked up to a solar panel. Mazabanda and I sit at a pambil-wood communal table, elbows on the table, chiggers on the elbows. Rosario and her friend Maricel, a single mother with desolate eyes, are squatting a few feet away on a tree stump by the fire, flipping plantain slices into a blackened frying pan. Last year, Maricel gave birth to her daughter Naku mid-flight on her way to the hospital. Naku means “jungle” in Sápara.
The rain is still coming down strong the next morning. “We’re not going anywhere,” Mazabanda tells me. “When it rains in the jungle, nobody moves.” Just then, we hear a distant four-stroke engine, a swelling rrrr rising from the river. Mazabanda grins in surprise. Moments later, a group led by Manari and Francisco appears on the jetty, dripping.
“The Conambo is overflowing,” Manari announces. We will be able to use the outboard engine. The storm is on our side, and if we can keep up with the current, we may even be able to complete the mapping in two days.
The boat darts downstream like a long insect, escorted on and off by yellow kingfishers and clouds of bats. Awakened by the sound of the motor as we approach, they all escape together in flock, gliding over the water into the bowels of drift trunks stuck in the current, or the bushes on the shore.
The storm has tipped over trees, blocking the waterway at several points, so at times we find ourselves speeding full throttle toward solid columns of horizontal wood, unlikely bridges perched at head level, ready to knock us into the river unless we dodge, weave, bob, twist, or slow down to a stop. It is usually Francisco who clears the path. He is the one who dives into the water, boots on, machete in hand, to lift the canoe past a trunk or a branch, leveraging the vessel on his shoulder, a tiny Atlas who can barely hold the world.
Francisco is short and fibrous. The Sápara call him Tio Rango (Uncle Rango), which gives him an aura of familiarity and kinship. People say that, back in the day, he was Manari’s father’s bodyguard. Whether he was or not, he is certainly the village’s muscle. He has curious black eyes and a staccato voice tuned to give orders but used mostly to crack jokes in Kichwa that everybody seems to love. His left front tooth is missing, and he unsuccessfully tries to conceal this fact with a sparse mustache and a hesitant beard. His hair is short, but abundant enough to cover the mark of a cracked skull, a memento of the war between the villages of Llanchamacocha and Morete Cocha, after the latter welcomed Italian oil behemoth Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli to explore and drill on Sápara territory in the ’70s. The company is still embedded in the jungle, near Morete Cocha, on Kichwa land. And, like Francisco’s scar, it remains hidden. “They did this with a machete,” Francisco shows me, parting the hair with his gnarly fingers. “We also had machetes and shotguns. It was quite a fight.”
Every time we reach a new point of interest, a landmark or a border, Mazabanda turns on his GPS, a small plastic gadget that could pass for a yellow walkie-talkie. He then taps a few words and numbers on the keyboard, and a gray point shows up on the display. “It gave an accuracy of five meters,” he announces, after reading the signal on the screen. As soon as the coordinates are affixed to the device, we start hiking again.
Mazabanda wants to get back to the city soon. The World Cup has started and Ecuador plays on Friday. But these walks uphill along unmarked swamps can go only so fast. The hikes are strenuous, and soon the cadence of the march, the heat, and the humidity put us in a trance.
Francisco is also in a hurry to get the mapping over with. Later in the week he will go to Shell to stock up on ammunition, making the two-day return trip on foot because firearms are banned on planes.
“Here the Taromenane come to hunt for chorongo monkeys,” Manari says after we have passed dozens of salt licks patterned with hundreds of tracks and have reached the beginning of a trail that runs parallel to the river. Someone long ago had marked the spot with chonta leaves. “The Taromenane can speak the monkeys’ language.”
Manari’s remarks are not mere asides. Article 57 of the Ecuadorian Constitution grants intangibility to territories in use by nations in voluntary isolation and expressly prohibits any extractive activity to take place in those lands. The Taromenane and the Tagaeri, both un-contacted, have been seen farther north, around Yasuní. Their presence here, if it was officially reported, could fast-track the reserve’s intangibility status.
“If only we could document this,” Mazabanda tells Manari, although he believes it’s highly unlikely that the Taromenane have been settling this far south. And besides, even if the Taromenane were postmarking wedding invitations from here, it is naive to believe that the government would willingly give up on what it considers its own property.
The state has eminent domain over its strategic resources, Alberto Acosta tells me later that month on a sunny early morning at his office, which overlooks the green hills of Quito. Acosta, a professor at FLACSO (the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences), was president of the assembly that crafted the groundbreaking Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008, and, before that, he was Rafael Correa’s minister of energy and mines. “[In the Southeast] there are no national parks or reserves which would be protected by Article 407,” Acosta says. “And, as far as I know, there are no nations in voluntary isolation, either, which could have sheltered the area under Article 57. Those are the two articles that protected Yasuní. But the 407 was bypassed with the approval of the National Assembly.”
If this is what happened to a protected territory, the lack of landmark status could make the Sápara reserve even more vulnerable. But by designating the area as communal-use land—a plot used by the entire nation—Mazabanda’s map, the Sápara’s last resort, will put the reserve under the supervision of the ILO, sheltered by the same Convention 169 that protected the people of Sarayaku in 2012.
The primary rainforest is the lushest part of the jungle, where trees grow the tallest and the river is engulfed by shadows. Deep in the woods, we scare a group of red monkeys, who flee, jumping on the tops of trees. Amaro Cocha, “the boa’s lagoon,” is the hangout of Amasanga, “the perfect hunter.” Mythical only to outsiders, he is a furry human who can kill boars with one dart of his blowgun. “But we probably won’t see him,” Manari says. He is a master in the art of camouflage. “Like the Tagaeri,” he explains, “he could be right in front of you now, and you won’t notice him unless he wanted you to.”
Back by the river we see the guarumus, blond-wood trees of dark-spotted, paper-like sheaths, competing in height with the runa caspi, “the human tree,” which draws spiritual energy from the oil lagoons that spread underground, and the guayacans, the hardest wood in the jungle, standing tall, bark of spectral white, fluorescent like the skin of the just-dead.
When we board the canoe on our way to Virgin Cocha, “the virgin’s lagoon,” Manari grabs a black lump from a branch hanging over the river. They’re cicada eggs, and we are supposed to chew on them if we want to become handsome.
“Cinco vueltas,” Francisco says. Five turns. He balances on the hull of the moving canoe and points with his right arm at a remote spot to the east. Ahead—five turns of the river ahead—Nina Amaro, “the fire boa,” awaits.
Nobody can get near the Nina Amaro, Manari tells us. “It lives in the mud, it’s black, and its back is all burning embers. The tip of its tail is fire red. When you approach the lagoon, the boa roars like a thunder, or a machine gun, and it makes you stop. Your blood freezes. If you carry on, it’s just because you don’t want to come back.”
“Did you ever see it up close?” Mazabanda asks him.
“No. But my father did.”
Once, years ago, Manari recalls, an old lady was fishing with barbasco (the poisonous root that the Amazonians use to stun fish). “She saw a lot of electric eels and started catching them by hand, but she felt uneasy because there were so many and they were so easy to catch.” Then the woman noticed one that looked different. “It was six feet long, and when she tried to grab it, it stabbed her in the chest with its tail. The woman lived, but nobody has fished there ever since. It was the Nina Amaro. That place is sacred; we need to be careful with the animals.”
The stream is generous with big fishes: the carachama, three feet long with a chest as broad as a man’s, and the bagre, skimming the rocks of the riverbed. But there’s not a single boa in sight. “In August, in this part of the river you can see the baby snakes everywhere,” Manari tells us. “All different colors: black, coffee with milk, striped, on both banks of the river.”
It has stopped raining overnight, so the Conambo has become shallower and difficult to navigate. On our way downstream, we pass an encampment where we see four people hunting for monkeys in a no-hunting zone. Manari shouts something at them in Kichwa from the boat, but we keep moving until we reach a dark blue stream of water, where we stop for chicha, a lightly fermented manioc beer, milky and fibrous, which is at the core of the Amazonian diet and travels well as a condensed pulp, to be mixed with water when needed.
“These creeks all have different flavors. It’s like our Coca-Cola,” Manari jokes as he passes the bowl around.
Farther downstream, we stop at the place of the first fire boa. Manari asks Mazabanda to mark a cautionary point on the GPS. An opening in the river has created a churning lagoon. “Don’t touch the water,” Manari warns, as he explains that the current can pull you down to where the Nina Amaro lives.
“It doesn’t like to be disturbed,” Francisco says. When Mazabanda suggests we get closer to mark the site more accurately, Francisco counters with an embarrassed smile. “It’s like a dragon. Just mark it from here.”
We keep moving, passing between what the natives call mountains, no higher than hills, secondary bumps of the Andean belt. These are sacred places for the Sápara, where their spirits live and where they will spend their afterlives. “This is where our dreams come from,” Manari tells me. “Here we talk to our elders. Mountains are sacred to us.”
The comment takes me back to one afternoon in Quito, when I asked René Ortiz, former OPEC secretary general, what would happen if huge reserves of oil were found under the Holy Land. Would he drill in Jerusalem, or Mecca? A thick, expansive man, fastened into a plum-colored striped banker’s suit, Ortiz answered with secular words, summarizing the point of view of a worldly industry. “It’s just like when oil was discovered in the Seine, right underneath the famous Notre Dame church. You can’t put a drilling rig on top of the church or next to the church!” he said. “So you have an industry that developed ‘horizontal drilling.’ In other words, this is the surface. You drill this way, vertically, until you find the field, and then you turn, and then you go this way, so you can reach underneath Notre Dame without being next to it.”
What Ortiz doesn’t mention is that the longest horizontal wells nowadays can’t go much farther than ten miles, and that even if they could, the Sápara would still consider the process a desecration of their land.
On our way to Juri Juri Cocha, we have reached Camuncuy, Manari’s birthplace. The air hints of fresh vanilla ice cream and pesticide, powdered cocoa and warm gravel. I have tried to take note of these scents for days now, but it just dawned on me that this is an impossible task. The forest never smells the same, and its ever-changing olfactory nature makes for a constant shift in the senses, triggering small but incessant readjustments in the way I perceive my surroundings.
“That’s the eagle that sings at noon,” Manari announces, pointing at a bird far up above us. I check my phone. “It’s 11:21,” I say. “That’s why it hasn’t sung yet,” he retorts.
Another Nina Amaro left here by the elders may be blocking the way. “It lives under the mud because otherwise it would burn down the forest,” Manari explains. “Last night I dreamed of a snake, so be careful.”
Dreaming is what guides the Sápara. Through their dreams they talk to their ancestors, learn about plants and animals, and plan their days. “Their creator, Piatsaw, gave them their capacity to dream when he became wind,” Anne-Gaël Bilhaut, the French ethnographer, tells me. “The Sápara don’t deny that there are other nations who can dream, but they think they have a greater capacity for it. They even train their babies to dream using medicinal plants. I don’t think other nations have done this.”
Sitting on the sand later that day, Manari tells us about a dream he had the night before. “I found a little man in the black lagoon. The lagoon is on Achuar territory,” he says. “The little man, toy-sized, was sick and turned into a kingfisher, a big one, very sick.” As Manari started to heal it, Jimpíkit, a blind Achuar shaman, showed up and spoke to him: “‘This lagoon doesn’t belong to you; you need to leave.’ And so I did,” Manari said.
Our return to Llanchamacocha is getting closer, and so is Manari’s flight to Torimbo. His dreams are setting off an alarm about the perils ahead.
“Not all of them agree on keeping the [oil] companies out,” Bilhaut tells me. “The [Sápara] groups upstream and the ones downstream mutually deny each other’s territorial claims, but they both have rights over the land… the problems and tension between communities have been happening for hundreds of years, long before the oil boom.”
But when I ask her what she thinks would happen if the Sápara eventually agreed to oil drilling, Bilhaut is unambiguous: “They would lose their culture. In terms of their daily life, where will they hunt, where will they fish or find the animals? What would they dream of?”
On our way back to camp, the bats come back to flank the boat as we move upstream, following us in our final hours until midnight, when we make our entrance into Llanchamacocha. The moon is giant in the sky, and shines through the thick green of the tree canopy and the portentous gray of the Amazonian clouds.
The village is asleep. We are greeted by the grunts of two baby boars in their kitchen pen. As I doze off, the sounds of the jungle make my tent feel like a precarious shell, a thin veil between the warmth of my body and the darkness outside. But when a storm hits hard around me, the tent becomes womb-like, thicker and sturdier than a ten-inch concrete wall.
The boars are to be released soon, Rosario has told me. Tagged on their ear with red ribbons, they will head back to the jungle, where they will stay until they reminisce about the flavor of the fried plantains, sweet rice, and fish bones that they were fed in captivity. When they come back, they will bring their friends, the wild boars that will become food for the Sápara. The red ribbons will hopefully still be there, to keep the bait boars alive.
I recall what Manari had told me a few days before about these unusual—and to other tribes, questionable—survival techniques. “The Kichwa and the Achuar believe that the ‘good living’ is just for humans, just for them, that everything has to revolve around mankind. We see this differently. Sumak kawsay has to work in balance. Life is collaboration, and we are all a part of it. Man is not the center of everything; neither his way of seeing things. We are only a small part of creation, just like nature, or the spirits.”
A few hours later, through the walls of my tent comes a different kind of grunt, deeper and muted. Immediately after, a massive shadow slips across the field and slides into the open kitchen. With all lights off and everyone asleep, I become paralyzed as a sharp, sour smell fills the air. It is then that I realize that it’s the mother boar, now pacing around the corral by the fire, covertly checking on her captive litter.
The visitors landed at twilight, their plane hiding behind a storm that lit the sky crimson and pearl. Their timing is uncanny: Manari and Mazabanda have just flown out to Torimbo, and Francisco left earlier in the afternoon for Shell, to buy rounds for his rifle. That I am here as witness is a mere stroke of luck—I had extended my stay at the last minute.
It is a cold night in the jungle. Whirls of moist wind slap our faces as we warm our feet by the fire. A low whistle makes Marco rise and walk to the high bank of the river. Andrés, Manari’s brother, is ferrying the two men past the lodge, down to Francisco’s. Although they were told he wasn’t home, they insisted on meeting Francisco’s wife to question her about the family business: nine chickens and a manioc garden, the core of their sustenance economy, none of which is traded for money. Andrés makes only momentary eye contact as he waves at us wanly from the river below. Marco remains silent; no one speaks.
Later that evening, on their way back, the visitors stop to spend the night at Marco and Rosario’s lodge. They look and move like Top Gun Mavericks from a parallel universe: short hair, combat boots, gray camo pants, but for their eyes, lowered and shaded by baseball caps. Each carries a camcorder and a point-and-shoot camera. When asked by their hosts for the purpose of their visit, the men repeat a litany they already offered at the landing strip: they work for INEC (the National Institute of Statistics and Census) and are polling local families for the national economic survey. Francisco’s name had popped up in one of their databases, and they wanted to talk to him.
INEC is not an unfamiliar presence in the jungle. Census-gathering is routine: the natives have come to know exactly how the census is conducted, who the census people are, and when they can be expected to show up. The fact that these two have arrived without notice, exactly when Manari and Francisco are gone, is enough to make them suspect. The timing is also telling, given the Sápara’s current efforts to gain legal protection for their reserve. Marco and Andrés recognize the visitors not as INEC but as military. To them, the message is loud and clear: the invasion has begun.
“I don’t want them to have a photo of me,” I hear Rosario rage, in clear Spanish, the next morning.
After a breakfast of coffee and fried plantains, I clean up my tent and get ready to head to the landing strip. I’m scheduled to fly out in the afternoon. I watch from the kitchen as the visitors start shooting video footage of the lodge’s structures, the supplies, the children, and the two women. One of the men has grabbed Maricel, Rosario’s friend, by the waist while the other takes stills. Later I hear them talking to each other about the Sápara women, their features and their bodies. These comments, I think at first, are the expected echoing of a patriarchal society, combined with a perverse xenophobic curiosity. But it doesn’t take me long to notice something else.
Rosario is livid. “They want to know our faces to arrest us for terrorism,” she yells in front of them. The men ignore her, trying to pretend that they haven’t heard a word. Rosario’s claim is not far-fetched. In the Sabatinas, the long speeches that Rafael Correa broadcasts on national radio every Saturday, the president has developed a feared tactic: mentioning the names of journalists and others whose activities have displeased him. Critics, academics, and indigenous leaders have been threatened, detained, and prosecuted, and recently leaked documents suggest that the Secretaría Nacional de Inteligencia has been surveilling and collecting information on groups and individuals who oppose oil extraction in the Amazon. The public bullying has succeeded in muting dissent in Ecuador. Beneath the understandable alarm in Rosario’s tone that morning, however, there’s something else I can’t identify at first—an awareness that feels darker and more devastating than the palpable threat of modern-day politics in Ecuador. It isn’t that this has happened before. It’s that it has never stopped happening.
The first documented encounter between westerners and American natives was chronicled by Christopher Columbus in his journal of 1492:
As I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us… They all go completely naked, even the women, though I saw but one girl. All whom I saw were young, not above thirty years of age, well made, with fine shapes and faces… Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them, for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their javelins being without it, and nothing more than sticks, though some have fish-bones or other things at the ends. They are all of a good size and stature, and handsomely formed… It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion.
The account doesn’t read as an encounter between cultures, but as a culture coming across its possessions. For Columbus and his men, the meeting was a tally. The primordial colonizers of America were auditors. Their job was to count inventory. Five and a quarter centuries after that first meeting, nothing has changed.
Ecuador is a battleground for precedents—economic, ethical, and legal. The Sápara know this. They are not chance casualties of progress. They are the obstinate survivors of a global war that the rest of the world is losing fast. If they win, their reserve will set the standard for a new kind of progress; if they lose, the coordinates of the reserve will mark the place of their extinction, and herald the moment when ours begins.
On the flight out of the jungle, the scene of the night before keeps replaying in my head, urging me to find a clue, to decode a hidden meaning. “They have never been here before,” Rosario had burst out in the kitchen, anger flashing in her piercing black eyes. “Not for this, nor to check on the teachers, whether they are doing a good job or not. It’s strange that the government is so interested in us all of a sudden!”
The grilled crabs and fried plantains were ready at eight, but the maito—a light, buttery stew of potatoes, catfish, and piranha—would simmer in the wood fire until Marco came back from the emergency summit that the men had organized at Llanchamacocha. As we waited, Ipiak, the couple’s only daughter, drew butterflies on a piece of paper by the light of her headlamp, while the two pet baby boars fought over fish bones in their pen by the fire.
The visitors had been assigned contiguous bunks in a cabin a few yards uphill. Rosario told me she hoped they would get attacked by rabid bats, and laughed at her own joke. “These blanquitos, they are always afraid of something when they come here. I don’t know why they don’t just stay home.”
Hours later, from inside the tent, I could see at some distance an incandescent glow. It was Maricel’s computer. She had spent the night at the lodge to power her laptop with Marco’s generator. She watched a movie, her baby daughter, Naku, asleep by her side. In the black hole of the jungle, her white mosquito net beamed like a halo, silver and electric blue, igniting her profile with an eerie fluorescence, a flickering cameo in absolute darkness, the soundtrack outpowered by the deafening cúa chanting to the invisible moon and the stars.
This article was made possible in part by a James B. Pendleton Grant from the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.
Illustrations by Francisco Galárraga
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