The steamy Amazon jungle, the "lungs of the planet," requires no introduction, but Ecuador’s share of it – known locally as the Oriente – just might; it's often overshadowed by more developed ecotourism destinations in Peru and Brazil. The rain forest here – a complex system of towering trees, winding rivers and lagoons, and primeval marshlands and swamps, where a staggering array of flora and fauna find haven – comprises one of the most biodiverse and ecologically precious places on earth. All this, overseen by fascinating indigenous tribes who have long served as stewards to the rain forest's heritage.
When I touched down in Coca earlier this month, I felt a keen sense of adventure and excitement about experiencing this pristine slice of natural paradise. We hopped into a canoe and set out along the Napo River, a tributary to the Amazon, en route to a leading eco-resort Sacha Lodge, which borders Yasuní National Park.
Soon, though, my idyllic jungle visions were disturbed – a strong smell of petroleum permeated the air: We were riding into the Amazon on a veritable river of oil. The result of a spill on May 31, which was caused by a landslide that ruptured a section of pipeline run by Petroecuador, Ecuador’s state oil company, 11,000 barrels of crude oil were released into the Amazon's waterways. Coca was left without clean drinking water.
Our naturalist guide, Jorge José Fabre, dipped his hand into the dark, gooey muck, then struggled to clean off the oily film that coated his hand. "You see how difficult it is to remove? You can imagine the feathers for the birds."
We passed by children playing near the oil-coated riverbank, cows grazing, locals washing their clothes. Fishing here is a major local food source.
Notably missing was any sign of cleanup (which is still, reportedly, slow-moving). Fellow traveler Marna Leslie reflected, "We were astounded that we did not see any signs of a recovery operation taking place, especially since the local communities depend on the Napo River for their drinking water, and the wildlife depend upon it for their very lives."
Sitting amongst this boatload of travelers, with their furrowed brows, I wondered: Can the oil and ecotourism industries here coexist?
Guillermo Zaldumbide, owner of Sacha Lodge, responded, "I think it's possible as long as the oil industry respects the tourism industry and understands it," citing Alaska as a successful example.
Leslie added, "In terms of the tourism economy, people come to the Ecuadorian rain forest to experience nature at its purest, untouched and unspoiled by man. With the amount of oil exploration that is now taking place in the Amazon Basin, the government needs to make this a priority or risk a decline in ecotourism in their country."
The consensus amongst Ecuadorians is that oil, its largest export, is an economic necessity, and while an end to drilling is not feasible, more responsible industry practices are.
Travelers can help conservation efforts via eco- and cultural tourism to the region, providing a sustainable economic alternative for local communities, which demands a pristine natural environment and the preservation of local culture to attract its clientele. Much of the oil has now moved on to the waterways of Peru and Brazil and tourists to the Ecuadorian Amazon will not be largely affected by the spill, short of viewing some accumulation of oil on the riverbanks, or potentially coming across sick or injured wildlife.
Want to help or learn more? While no major volunteer-driven cleanup efforts are currently running, you can take instant action via these three sites:
What do you think – can ecotourism and the oil industry in Ecuador coexist?