An innovative ecological project is under way in a remote part of Ecuador's rain forest. Located in the southeastern corner of the country, near the border with Peru, the goal of the Kapawi project is to save the forest from the destruction that has occurred elsewhere in the Amazon jungle.
The sounds of crickets, frogs, and birds greet visitors who arrive at the Kapawi lodge as the sun begins to set.
The compound consists of 20 thatched huts, similar to those found in the Achuar community, the tribe that lives in this part of the Amazon. In keeping with its conservationist philosophy, the Kapawi Eco-Lodge and Reserve uses low-impact technologies, such as solar energy, and has a vigorous recycling program. About 60 percent of the employees are Achuar.
The Kapawi Eco-lodge and Reserve was established in 1996 by a private Ecuadorian tour operator named Canodros. It is run in partnership with the Achuar community, which shares in its profits. In less than 10 years, the ownership and management of the project will be turned over completely to the Achuar.
The resident manager of Kapawi, Gabriel Jaramillo, said one of the ideas behind the project is to provide the Achuar with the tools they need to be able to preserve their community and the rainforest. The Achuar want to avoid the fate that has befallen many of the indigenous communities in the Amazon.
"The Achuar people have an alternative way of living for the rest of their lives without having to cut down the forest, without having to accept the oil companies coming in and they can keep on living and changing probably, but on their own terms. They will not be forced to do anything they do not want to do," he explained.
Much of the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador has disappeared because of government policies that allow oil exploration and encourage logging. Petroleum companies defend what they are doing by saying their activities benefit Ecuador's economy.
About 50 percent of the country's national budget is funded by oil earnings.
The oil companies also say they respect the rights of the indigenous peoples in the Amazon and are spending large sums to protect the Amazon's environment. Rainforests cover less than six percent of the Earth's surface, but are home to more than half of all known species of living organisms. Ecuador's tropical forests contain more than 15,000 plant species. Conservationists fear the last remaining rainforests could be consumed in less than 40 years if the current rate of destruction continues.
The Achuar people had very little contact with the Western world until the arrival of missionaries in the late 1960s, who persuaded them to stop their practice of killing their neighbors.
But they have not abandoned all their old practices. They remain wary of outsiders, especially those who want to change their way of life.
A visit to the home of an Achuar leader in a nearby community, reveals the depth of opposition to the oil companies. His comments are translated by Luis Die, one of the guides at Kapawi. "He is explaining why the oil companies are the new enemy. He says that (the Achuar) are very proud of the pristine jungle. This is the forest that gives them everything they need. So, they do not want the pollution that the companies are going to bring. They know, they have been told by people, what oil companies produce and what they bring. That they change the culture, bring disease. That they destroy the forest, which is the source of food," the Achuar leader said.
The Achuar have formed a political organization called FINAE to prevent oil exploration in their part of the Amazon. Because of its isolated location, no oil drilling yet has begun in Achuar territory.
But the manager of Kapawi Lodge, Javier Montezuma, said leaders of FINAE have visited other areas of the Amazon rainforest and have seen how the search for oil has led to the destruction of the physical and cultural life of indigenous communities. This is why, Mr. Montezuma said, the Achuar are so firmly opposed to oil exploration on their territory.
"We know the oil companies already are trying to buy leaders of the FINAE, paying them. You know giving them free tickets in and out, free planes. But, fortunately, they are against that. They do not want the oil people here," Mr. Montezuma said.
The Achuar are very protective of their land and of their forest resources.
Guido, an Achuar guide, said initially, his people were suspicious of the Kapawi Lodge developers. But now he said they see Kapawi as a benefit both to them and the forest.
The Achuar, like the forest that surrounds them, have been around for a long time. They are doing everything they can to ensure that that relationship continues for many more years.