Is this ecotourism? Plight of the indigenous tribes of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve

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.

shaman blessing at cuyabeno wildlife reserve

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.

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2 Responses
  1. Avatar
    Benjamin Taghavi-Awal

    One day Fair Travel | Ecuador will try to make the change you propose. Btw. The model is open source if interested to share or implement 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Dr. D. Vreugdenhil

    It is sad to see how sometimes one’s intentions are so thoroughly misunderstood.
    As a young scientists, I was part of the United Nations team that selected almost all the national parks in Ecuador in the mid-seventies ( In 1978 10% of the country was declared protected. But being protected by law does not necessarily mean that an area really is protected.
    In 1983, while living in another country, my former counterpart and then director of Cuyabeno, contacted me and asked me to come to Ecuador and advise on a pressing problem with illegal settlement in the area. As a new oil road had given access to the park, settlers were moving in at an increasing rate and started cutting down the forest.

    On a joint evaluation between the park director and myself, we came to the conclusion that the boundaries of the then 150,000 ha Cuyabeno Parks should be redefined and that the invaded areas should be declassified, BUT that is was still possible to extend the park East to the border of Peru, almost all of it being virgin forest. The Government very rapidly followed up on the recommendation, and extended the area to 600,000+ hectares, providing also shelter to the Secuyas, Cofanes y Quichua Indians along the Aguarico River.

    But I stressed the Government of Ecuador, that unless alternative sources of income would be provided to the region, that the area would be lost forever, because protected areas under stress without economic benefits are bound to be converted for alternative uses. As tourists would not be able to enter this area on a day’s visit, an overnight facility was needed, and I recommended the Government to allow the construction of cabins at the Cuyabeno Lake.

    The Government agreed, that given the urgency of the situation, it would grant a license to whichever bonafide touroperater would be willing to construct a facility. I personally went to see the major local tour operators and lobbied for the construction of cabins. NO Ecuadorian tour operator was interested. During a brainstorming with the director of the national park service, I suggested that I would be willing to try to round up some capital to build a facility, IF the park service wanted that. The director made it vary clear that he would be most grateful if I could do that and that such operation would be granted a license for construction and operation. I went out to try and find some investors. NO interest ANYWHERE! As I had recently moved house and sold my house, I had made a little profit. Loving Cuyabeno so much, I decided to not use that money to buy a new house, and make it available for Cuyabeno. By law, only corporations could be involved in tour operating, so we incorporated Neotropic Turis (http://www.neotropicturis,com), and after years of legal procedures we received all the legal requirements and licenses to build the Cuyabeno Lodge.

    As part of the deal, we built a patrol house and work station for the National Park Service, and on my own suggestion we pay an additional fee for anybody staying at our lodge. When we started, we did all the construction with the Sionas. We only brought in master craftsmen and has them supervise and train the work being done by the Sionas. Lots of things went wrong and often they had to be done a second time. As a result, we spent twice the amount of money compared to have in contracted out to regular workers form elswhere, but we felt this was the proper thing to. For the first 5 years we flew in a doctor to the Siona community to check up the entire community. We had to discontinue this when we ran out of money. We organized a training course for the Sionas to work with tourists. Even though we had obtained a license to operate our own motorized canoes, we always hired that service from the community.

    One can imagine what it is like to start tourism in an area that is internationally completely unknown. We started with the first group in 1986 rounded up from acquaintances. No international operator was interested. I went to see all the major players in the USA and Europe. Nothing. Meanwhile the investment climate in Ecuador was and still is horrible. From a commercial point of view it was completely irresponsible what I had done. Moreover, both my wife and I worked for this for years, without taking a penny out of the company, and more than 20 years later we still never have. We have other jobs and regarded this as our contribution to conservation. Read a bit about our history here: It was not until 10 years later that other tour operators followed suit.

    Now, 20 years later, Cuyabeno received 12000 visitors per year with a growth rate of 20%/y. The Sionas, are among the wealthiest indigenous tribes in Ecuador with a very high level of employment. No other tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon has that. Whenever there is a medical emergency in the community we take the person out and often pay for his/her costs in the hospital.

    Only in the last 3 years have we been having some returns that allowed us to restore and upgrade our facilities, but none of my investment has ever been repatriated nor have I ever received a penny for 20 years of dedication. I dedicate my entire life to conservation (for instance my unpaid website

    I really don’t know what more we could and should have done for both conservations and the community. I gave away the money I should have put into my pension. My initiative has created a very high level of employment and relative wealth to a community that before lived of fishing and hunting, had not medical attention, no school, etc. But suggestions are welcome, we are always willing to improve and learn.