Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 17 ECUADOR – CUENCA TO THE AMAZON RAINFOREST

Ecuador

Ecuador is named after the equator. Here the sun rises and sets at 6am and 6pm every day with very little change. The national tree of Ecuador is the cinchona tree which produces quinine which is used to treat malaria. It is the world’s largest exporter of bananas and they provide the majority of the world’s balsa wood.

Voting is compulsory in Ecuador for citizens aged between 18-65. 87% of indigenous Ecuadorians live in poverty on average and in some areas, this is hideously high at 96%.

Ecuador has the world’s first and second designated UNESCO sites, the Galapagos is number one as well it should be, and the historic centre of Quito is number 2.

In common with Bolivia, Ecuador also recognises the rights of nature in the constitution and not in law. As well it should because it is one of the most megadiverse countries in the world.

There is currently a $9.51 billion dollar lawsuit against Texaco in the Aguinda vs Texaco case. The Ecuadorian citizens brought the case because of the pollution in their rainforests and rivers that was causing major health problems like cancer. The case was made in Ecuador in 2003, at this stage, Texaco had been taken over by Chevron. The Ecuadorian citizens were awarded $25 million in damages after the pollution sites had been investigated. Chevron lobbied the US government to drop Ecuador as a trading partner over this. More back and forth followed and Chevron was later asked to pay the higher sum of $9.51 billion to Ecuador. This payment has been blocked as Chevron has accused them of fraud and bribery.

Chevron took another case to International Arbitration saying that Ecuador had violated an investment treaty and after much-wrangling Ecuador was told to pay $112 million to Chevron. The case continues as Ecuador try to get their original proceedings upheld through the jurisdiction of other countries.

When I was there I was informed that there was pollution from spilt oil that hadn’t been cleaned up. So what is the cost apart from people’s health? The rainforest as always, and alongside the precious biodiversity are isolated tribes who are seriously threatened by oil exploration. Parque Nacional Yasuni is also a concern for environmentalists as drill permits were issued in 2014. 

From 2007-2017 President Correa seems to have made positive changes for Ecuador. He reduced poverty by no small measure and increased GDP by 4%. He increased public investment by 19% and put it into healthcare and education. Looking after your workforce increases the economic gains for your country? Never. Although he did default on foreign loans and annoyed the US. 

Universities were built and this delivery of knowledge into eager brains has spawned various projects across the country, hydroelectric dams, a new airport and a metro system for Quito are all happening. Metro de Quito will have 15 stops and they expect it to be finished in 2019. Ecuador is also building a research village called ‘Yachay’ in the North of the country. Yachay is a Kichwa word for knowledge and hopefully, this will add to global knowledge.

Our first stop was Cuenca and we were originally not intending to spend too much time in Ecuador but we were very wrong about that. English Tom in Rio told me that there is a lot going on in this small country and he was right.

Cuenca

Cuenca is a nice colonial city, a gem amongst some of the other cities of Ecuador which certainly do not have its charm. It also has some really good places to eat which were amazing for us as we were starving after our trip from Peru. We went to an American style restaurant and absolutely stuffed ourselves. 

Now, Cuenca is actually where the Panama hat came from so after a sleep we visited the Panama hat ‘museum’ which was essentially a big shop. We tried on the hats and didn’t really learn anything. I made friends with a French guy while a shop worker behaved inappropriately towards Steph in a back room. Now I take harassment very seriously but at the time we just shrugged it off. 

The French guy suggested visiting the Museo del Banco Central ‘Pumapungo’ which contains ‘tsantas’ also known as shrunken heads’. I was pleased that Steph went for it as she was not a fan of museums.

After this cultural interlude brought to us by our fellow European, we suggested going to the cinema. We ended up seeing Brides at War featuring Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway so that he could enjoy some high culture too.

We got the bus to Banos which was one of my most favourite places in South America, little did we know this would change the course of our trip.

Baños

You might be thinking that ‘banos’ means toilets and you would be correct. I still have a soft spot for this valley village, absolutely jam-packed with awesome things to do, places to drink and places to eat. Steph and I were here for a few days and we did lots of adventure activities and drove a buggy around the local waterfalls, went horse riding and went canyoning down a waterfall. 

One evening we travelled up to the top of a hill to watch the glowing lava from the Tungurahua volcano. I drank aguardiente which they presumably give you so that you’re too pissed to notice if you’ve actually seen any lava or not. I make sure that I drank a toast both to Greg who was following the trade wind and to the Pachamama.

Baños is based around their spa waters (hence the name) and we had a ‘spa treatment’ in our hostel which involved having a sauna in a box and having our colons massaged by a guy with a hose. We also went for facials and a Swedish massage and as they were Thai I got the usual questioning of my cultural heritage, something I will discuss in a later anecdote. 

On top of this we went to a cafe for food and their film that night was ‘Original Sin’ and Angelina Jolie was naked – hurrah! And there was cake! It was the best night.

It was in this same cafe that our fates were decided as a woman approached us asking if we wanted to volunteer at an animal rescue centre. Bizarrely I’d been looking into doing that very same thing. Famous last words as we agreed to join her and we met the other couple that she knew who wanted to do it too.

The next day we visited a ‘monkey garden’ that we’d heard about which turned out to be a monkey sanctuary just a short taxi ride away. We were thrilled to have capuchin monkeys and squirrel monkeys jumping all over us. A coati took a great shine to me and sat on my knee possessively like a cat. I read somebodies travel blog to see if I could find out whether the sanctuary still exists and during their recent visit they went down to the river and there was a rescued river otter that wanted to play with like a dog. I didn’t know whether to be jealous or sad for the otter. I do absolutely love otters and any chance to be near them is time well spent. 

During our visit, I went to the toilet and there was a capuchin monkey aggressively masturbating whilst staring me dead in the eye. Little was I to know that this would become such a run-of-the-mill event that I wouldn’t notice anymore. As great as Baños had been, it was time to put some graft in and hopefully save some animals – but nothing is ever that easy.

Puyo

We met Helen, Kirsty and Ivan in Baños, travelled to Puyo and then we went to the supermarket. We bought things like plates and cutlery as well as food because these had all apparently been taken from the centre when the previous manager had left under odd circumstances leaving her crazy cat behind in the rush.

I was annoyed at having to pay for things for the centre when we were essentially doing Helen a favour but no-one said anything and we split it five ways, obviously, I was happy to pay for the food. Helen bought a TV and a DVD player so at least that would give us something to do.

We arrived at the centre in darkness and all I could see were beady eyes in the darkness and I had no idea what creature they belonged to. There was a blue and yellow macaw running around and one of the capuchins had escaped and was on the loose in the volunteers sleeping quarters. Before I tell you about the utter madness that was the rescue centre, let’s talk about the Amazon rainforest.

The Amazon Rainforest

As we are currently in the Amazon rainforest I thought I would elaborate on the ecosystem that supports all these incredible animals. I have seen the Amazon described by the National Geographic as an ‘incubator of life’ and having lived there for a short while I wholeheartedly agree with this succinct description.

Brazil has a 30% share of the tropical rainforest of which 50,000 square miles were deforested between 2000-2005, logging initiatives have been introduced but the effect has been pitiful. This mass deforestation could lead to drought as it has done already in some areas which would cause human misery on a large scale.

Now, the rainforest is full of absolutely marvellous goodies from cosmetic products to medicinal substances and there are plenty more potential discoveries still to be made that can improve our lives for the better. Bioprospecting is the growing business of collecting and testing jungle products to see how they can be utilised for our needs. This is certainly a career move that could lead you to discover an anti-ageing ingredient or cure for a disease and that could definitely help you to get laid. The possibilities are endless and thrilling to imagine.

In terms of medicinal plants, the Amazon has a lot to offer, some of the most notable of these are the cocoa tree, trumpet tree, wild yam, cinchona, coca, opium poppy, castor beans, white trillium and foxglove.

It has been estimated by the National Cancer Institute that 70% of the world’s cancer-fighting plants are found in the rainforest. A new drug developed by a private pharmaceutical company to treat HIV is harvested from a tree in Borneo. Anyone working for a business that has invested in a medicinal product from the Amazon that stood up in clinical trials could be onto a goldmine, as long as they preserve the forests. Native communities may be more inclined to reveal their secrets if they knew that their habitat was safe as well and a trust in the people that were asking those questions.

There is controversy surrounding the current building of the Belo Monte Dam in Northern Brazil which will be the largest in the world when completed. It is claimed that it will provide electricity for 23 million homes. The problem is that its construction will tens of thousands of indigenous people altogether but they went ahead anyway.

In Brazil, there are more uncontacted tribes than any other country in the world which puts the government in the unusual situation of monitoring them from afar by aerial photography. The country’s Indian affairs department FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio) estimates that there are up to 70 of these groups that live in the rainforest. There are of course famous pictures of tribal people aiming arrows at low flying aeroplanes which is a fairly natural reaction to the intrusion.

In the state of Acre, the theory is that the indigenous tribes could be the survivors of rubber boom slaves. There are believed to be up to 600 people living in 4 tribes, and they are very lucky to live a relatively peaceful existence in designated areas. There are groups in Rondônia, Mato Grosso and Maranhão which have become fragmented and are effectively hunted for their land by loggers and ranchers which is pretty frightening.

All the murders that are associated with this rainforest domination are truly sickening and often not known about or reported. I think that being murdered for being an indigenous forest dweller, a local person with objections or a conservationist without any effort towards compromise or collaboration is a sign of individuals beyond reprieve. It is certainly an industry which in certain situations will bulldoze the bodies in its path and this mentality has the potential to take human beings down a dangerous road.

One impressive feat of survival who shown by an Awá tribesman in Karapiru who was confronted by the gunmen and escaped into the jungle and lived in solitude for ten years before making contact and joining another Awá tribe. This ability to survive is the mark of a truly impressive human being and to lose this knowledge of how to live in complete independence from other people and material goods would be devastating.

In 2017 the Brazilian airline Gol paid £1 million in compensation after damaging the Caiapó indigenous reserve in a plane crash in 2006. The Caiapó tribe understandably would not revisit the crash site that they considered to be polluted and cursed by the dead after the 154 passengers lost their lives. Their settlement had to be rebuilt elsewhere.

This was a great win for an indigenous tribe especially as the chief Raoni Metuktire travelled the world with Sting to highlight the plight of the rainforest.

Yossi Ghinsberg is an Amazon survivor who knew very little about the environment he was in, he was one of the many Israeli travellers that travel around South America every year and he became lost in the rainforest. In Bolivia, he travelled in a group with three other lone travellers from Austria, Switzerland and America, so it is not surprising that this group of very different cultures ended up having a disagreement. They set off to find a little-known tribe and parted ways when the Europeans continued into the rainforest on foot and he rafted down the river with his American friend, Kevin.

Unfortunately, the raft went over the waterfall taking Yossi with it although Kevin managed to swim to shore. Yossi was then entirely alone and was forced to live on fruit and eggs. He even fought with a jaguar using a lighter and insect repellent to fashion a makeshift flamethrower and scare the beast away. There was a flood and he was starving and in pain, he also hallucinated that a girl was walking alongside him.

After a few days in this state, he collapsed from exhaustion by the side of the river. Incredibly Kevin had made contact with local villagers and they were searching the river by boat and had almost given up, by chance they had landed the boat upstream as they were struggling to find somewhere to stop, and there was Yossi, unconscious but alive.

This experience consolidated his faith in Judaism, as he believes a book of Kabbalah with special powers from his Uncle Nissim helped to protect him. Kevin also converted to Judaism after marrying an Israeli girl and moved into a Kibbutz near Jerusalem.

It shows how faith has such a strong part to play in survival whether the survivors are believers or not, sometimes hallucinations can even keep people alive by giving them hope. Their travelling partners, Karl and Marcus sadly did not return from the rainforest so this is a story of luck as much as it is about survival.

A major study has estimated that it would take 300 years to catalogue all the tree species in the Amazon. So far 12,000 of the trees have been registered but there an estimated 4,000 out there ready to be classified hopefully before they are chopped down and lost to science. This excellent research that will assist conservation of this incredible place was aided by the digitisation of museum records which means that we have a research network to preserve important stuff around the globe – progress!

More research has shown that we are responsible for the increase in forest fires as even in protected forests people practise selective logging and this fragmentation increases the likelihood of fires. This is why we have more forest fires than ever around the world. It is very much not normal for a rainforest to burn, it is supposed to be wet and therefore not flammable.

Wildlife is affected as endemic bird species find it much harder to thrive in disturbed forests. These holes in the canopy that we create dry out the vegetation below and tropical forest needs to retain its cycle and without moisture, it becomes very sick and the wildlife suffers.

The scientific conclusion is that not only do we need to protect forests, we also need them to be pristine and undisturbed in order to thrive.

In the next chapter, we will find out how animals fare after they have been rescued by humans from other humans. It isn’t pretty but it was an unforgettable experience.

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