It was a surreal experience to visit the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in Ecuador last March. Surreal because there was an emotional tug-of-war going on inside me to enjoy the ecological wonders of the area, while at the same time uphold the principles of ecotourism.
With respect to the ecosystem, I felt very alive during my five days in Cuyabeno, which may have been attributable to the facts that I was no more than steps – or arm lengths away – from caiman alligators, anacondas and poison dart frogs, or that I was completely disconnected from the rest of the world since there was no electricity, Wi-Fi connection, or phone signal. However, at the time, I felt alive because of all the different (and lyrically noisy) life around me in the form of birds, monkeys and pink river dolphins as well as because of the gorgeous night sky with all its constellations in full view that rendered me speechless. (Watch the video Nature, wildlife, customs, and heritage of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve)
As for upholding the principles of ecotourism, Cuyabeno rendered me aghast. As I’ve previously mentioned, true ecotourism focuses on the discovery of a natural or wildlife habitat in a manner that maximizes local economic and social goals, and reduces the possibility of environmental degradation. In other words, among other advantages, local people should continually benefit from the tourism activity occurring on their lands.
However, from what I witnessed, the indigenous Siona, Quichua, Secoya and Cofan tribes of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve are not directly profiting from tourism – they are being exploited by it.
Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve was created as part of the national park system of Ecuador in 1979. While the indigenous tribes who call this land home still technically own the land, sadly, apart from low-level job opportunities including being lodge cleaning people, bus drivers and motorboat operators, they have not directly benefited from these so-called “eco” tourism activities.
Effectively, lodge developers came in and offered one-time cash payments to the tribe landowners for the right to long-time leases. However, once the rental agreement was put into place, the tribe members could not continue to profit from how their land was being used.
In addition, in an effort to spur tourism to other parts of the country outside the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador dropped the requirement last year to charge park entrance fees to tourists. Coupled with the ongoing legal battle with the oil companies that run the pipeline through (and have had six oil spills in) the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, the resulting situation leaves indigenous tribe members to have their hand out to tourists for donations.
The suggested donation is $2 per tourist interaction. As an example, we were invited to a shaman’s home (above) to talk with him and receive a blessing. A shaman is a holy man of the tribe who is revered for his knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs. This was an amazing, humble man who honestly portrayed his rather scary rite-of-passage experience toward becoming a shaman. However at the end, I saw visitors who simply walked away rather than give a donation.
One particularly telling interaction and discussion occurred when our group visited a local woman to help make yucca bread, a staple of the indigenous tribe’s diet. Our host was a strong, proud woman who could very much handle a machete. The harvest and preparation of the yucca was quite surprising as she used her machete to quickly cut a 5 foot tall tree’s branches and remove its bark to reveal the milky white inner core. Because yucca is a fast growing plant, she simply planted a left-over branch back into the ground.
Then, our host taught us how to wash, shred, drain and cook the yucca in her kitchen, which consisted of a hut with a thatched roof, slated wood “walls”, a dirt floor, a table, a fire pit and a hollowed-out log on the ground for her “prep area”. The process from harvest to sampling took less than 20 minutes including Spanish-to-English translations of instructions.
Watermelon was available to everyone while we watched the yucca being prepared and surprise visits inside the hut from a couple of community monkeys, although completely unsanitary, provided some comical moments. At the end, our host politely held her hand out for a donation.
I asked our guide, who is from Quito, where the money would go and the guide’s response was heartbreaking. It helps them to send their children to school and to buy fuel and food for their family.
It’s astonishing to me that with the hundred or so tourists that come into Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve daily, there is no local school or medical facility in the wildlife reserve, even though hundreds of people live there. Also, while fuel runs about $1 per gallon throughout Ecuador, the price is still quite steep for the indigenous tribe members, who receive little subsidy even though the pipeline runs through the wildlife reserve.
Again, this isn’t true ecotourism and while I realize that there are many political, economic, and social issues to resolve, the whole experience made me question whether the community really wanted to develop Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve as a tourism destination in the first place or were left without a choice given their economic situation.
Editor’s Note: Because of my limited interactions with the local indigenous people, I did provide information about my experience both verbally and in writing to Quito Turismo, Jamu Lodge, and the Rainforest Alliance. While Jamu Lodge disagrees with my perception of having indigenous tribe members in management positions at the lodge, the Rainforest Alliance did acknowledge that there are some “security, safety, labor a, d community development issues in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve” and that they are trying to strengthen their sustainable tourism verification criteria and work with the local tribe members and resolve these issues within the next three years.