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Encounter With A Rain-Forest Indian Culture

To earn needed cash income, a small village in Ecuador lets ecotourists share jungle life

UNDER a full rain-forest moon as big and bright as a light bulb, the thatched roofs of Capirona are coated in white silver. Running by the little village, the swift but shallow rapids of the Rio Puni are the only sounds in this warm jungle night.

Sacha mama hermosa. Beautiful mother jungle.

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About three years ago, an oil company, helicopters, and chain saws were headed this way. Unlike most other scattered inhabitants who form communities in the jungles of Ecuador's Amazon basin, the Quichua Indians here resisted. The result is new life for Capirona, an enterprising village that took the initiative to create an opportunity for an ecotourist encounter with a rain-forest culture.

In essence, the Quichuas are sharing their culture in order to save it. Their effort is one of the few tourism projects initiated and operated by Indians in the Ecuadorean rain forest.

"The only thing we have is the rain forest to leave our children," says Tarquino Tapuy, a Capirona community leader. "It is our life and culture."

Over the past 20 years, oil, lumber, and gold exploitation of the Ecuadorean rain forests has led to widespread pollution and destruction. Tens of thousands of rain-forest acres continue to be deforested each year. Cattle pastures on cleared forest lands have expanded by nearly 30 percent in the past decade.

Pacified by gifts and promises, few Indian communities resisted the initial incursions into their territories. Government encouragement of the exploitation, and of new settlers, slowly awakened Indian tribes to action.

Today, the cry is for a moratorium on oil exploration and for alternative uses of the rain forest.

"Sustainable development is what we want," says Valerio Grefa, president of COICA (Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin).

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Capirona's version of this started when the community began to realize that their strength was in their unity. When oil-company helicopters came unannounced several times to make clearings along the river to do the seismic experiments that precede drilling, the community became concerned.

"They arrived without permission," Mr. Tapuy says, "and said they would pay us. But we are like insects to them. We said we didn't want them here. They offered us a volleyball and a net."

On the third visit, a handful of soldiers jumped out of one of the helicopters and fired machine guns in the air.

"We didn't know what to do," Tapuy says, "but about 15 of the women from the community, with machetes raised, went to the soldiers and said, `Who gave you permission?' The military backed up. Another helicopter came, and when one of the soldiers stumbled as he got out, he dropped his rifle. One of the women grabbed it and threw it in the river. All the guns pointed at the woman. She said, `Go ahead and shoot.' But they backed away."

Even political pressure from a local legislator failed to deter the Indians. "The legislator told us we had to negotiate and ask for things," Tapuy says. "He said we had to let the oil company go through. Not here, we said. We won't give our habitat away." The oil company did not return.

When a lumber company sought to expand its operations near the lands of community members, many did not agree to sell the trees. "The consciousness has been raised," Tapuy says. "We have one border now and will defend it."

But through all this, the economic base of the community, growing corn, was providing diminishing profits. "It's a six-month process from [seed to harvest]," Tapuy says, "and when the 40 or so people finish [the cycle], there is little left over after debts are paid. Agriculture was not sustaining us."

Tapuy and others had been aware that a guide from another town was bringing tour groups into the rain forest. "He'd grab someone from the community and pay him a little money to walk them into the rain forest," Tapuy says. "The guide got all the money, and the community was arguing over it."

With Tapuy's urging, the community decided to create a small cultural center at Capirona, providing modest overnight accommodations for adventurous visitors. Besides earning money, the villagers share their knowledge of the jungle, local foods, cultural traditions, and everyday life.

"Our first year, we had two tourist groups," says Cesario Andy Aguinda, one of the Capirona guides, seated near the large meeting house, "and the community was disheartened. But now we are doing much better."

Situated on an embankment above the Rio Puni, the village is a cluster of wooden, thatched-roof, raised buildings with bamboo siding.

Tourist sleeping accommodations are dormitory style for about 20 people. Meals are cooked by village women. "We don't want to develop much more to become rich," says Cesar Vargas, the coordinator at the village. "We just want to keep our health and work together."

Much of the money earned is used to improve facilities. The guides and cooks are paid. Western-style showers and toilets are being built, but the remoteness of the site precludes any electricity. Two outboard motors were bought to help transport harvested corn in dugouts down the river.

Getting to Capirona requires a strenuous two-to-four-hour hike through the hot, humid jungle wearing a backpack and knee-high rubber boots. Along the way, the guide shares his jungle knowledge with details about the vibrantly colored butterflies, ant mounds, animal trails, big ants with big pinchers, and parasite leaves that grow on tree trunks in overlapping fashion and eventually smother the tree.

"We still plant and harvest corn," Mr. Vargas says, "but the people are not as worried as before. They know there is money here in an emergency, and they can pay it back. We also want to improve the children's school."

The Research Expeditions Program of the University of California, Berkeley, is helping the village with a management plan, as well as creating bilingual brochures and a trail guide.

During a three-to-five-day stay, visitors participate in a minga, a community work day. At night, they join in community dancing and share songs or dances from their culture.

"You are curious about us," Mr. Aguinda says, "and we are curious about you. People come here and get to know the rain forest through us. Yes, we are undergoing change as Indians, but we want people to know the truth about us and how we live."

* To contact Capirona, write: Senor Tarquino Tapuy, FOIN, Calle Augusto Rueda, C.P. 271, Tena-Napo-Ecuador. Jean Colvin, Director, U.C. Research Expeditions Program, U. of California, Berkeley, CA 94720 Tel.: 510-642-6586.

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