Amazon – Rigs in a rainforest (2013)

Amazon – Rigs in a rainforest (2013)

The Yasuni National Park is much in the news these days, mostly for the wrong reasons. Located deep in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, this 9,000 square kilometres of reserve forest, arguably the richest biodiversity hotspot on the planet, was “discovered” a few decades ago by oil companies ever questing for new reserves. The oil reserve in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oilfield within the park is estimated at 850 million barrels, a resource too sumptuous and too precious for a developing country like Ecuador to leave in the ground for environmental reasons. Yet, extracting this resource is certain to destroy one of the last remaining rainforests on the earth, not to mention disturbing the way of life of indigenous peoples living in the forest, as it has already done elsewhere in the park. Ecuador’s fledgling economy is overly dependent on oil export revenues. Most of the oil that is currently exported comes from the ecologically fragile Amazon region. Ramping up oil export revenues any further will necessarily mean going back to the same region, implying a huge environmental cost to what is considered a global natural heritage.

Oil Juggernauts

Oil juggernauts operating in the Amazon for some years have already left a vast trail of devastation. For about 20 years from 1971, Texaco, an American multinational, then the sole operator of Ecuador’s oilfields in the Amazon, reportedly dumped 16 billion barrels of toxic waste in the rainforest, apart from displacing indigenous people, who now live in slums around Quito, the capital.

The Ecuador government is fighting a $27-billion lawsuit, one of the largest in the history of such lawsuits, against Chevron, which has since taken over Texaco, claiming compensation for cleaning up the damage caused to the environment.

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has made an offer to the world worried about the ecological depredation resulting from drilling in the area. In a proposal termed the Yasuni ITT initiative, Correa has suggested that the world pay Ecuador $3.6 billion in return for not drilling in the rainforest. He argues that after all, this compensation is only half of what Ecuador will earn if it exploits and exports this oil. But so far, there seems to have been few takers. If no commitments are forthcoming, Correa plans to put the proposal to drill oil in ITT to a popular vote. Meanwhile, Petroamazonas, Ecuador’s national oil company, seems to be going ahead with its drilling elsewhere in Yasuni, ably helped by PDVSA, neighbouring Venezuela’s experienced national oil company.

But we are going to Yasuni for the right reasons—to have a glimpse of the primordial rainforest before it is destroyed by oil rigs and men in safety vests and helmets. In any case, ITT is only a small part of Yasuni, and there is still enough left for wildlife and nature enthusiasts eager to venture into some unspoilt wilderness. Our journey takes us first to Coca, a bustling oil town on the edge of the forest, reached by a short flight from Quito.

In Search of Cinnamon Forest

Coca is also called Puerta Fransisco de Orellana, after the Spanish adventurer who tracked the origin of the Amazon river. But that was incidental to Fransisco de Orellana’s main quest—of finding the cinnamon forest, which was believed to be somewhere east of the Andes. So he built himself a raft, enlisted a few hundred able-bodied men, both Spaniards and local people, and set sail downstream of the Coca river. He lost almost all his men and suffered huge setbacks, but never wavered in his quest, which first took him down the Coca to the Napo, one of the major tributaries of the Amazon, and thence downstream into Iquitos in today’s Peru. Fransisco never found his cinnamon forest, but the world is richer for the knowledge it gained of the course of the Amazon. No wonder then that Coca is named after him although the local people and the airline companies simply refer to the town as Coca.

Coca sits at the confluence of the Napo and the Coca, both of which originate somewhere in the highlands of the Andes. Coca town, an unremarkable, oil-stained urban conglomeration bang in the middle of the virgin rainforest, is the landfall point for all the resources taken out of the forest. Oil brought to Coca in barges from the rigs installed in the jungles is transported through a pipeline to the Pacific port of Balao from where it is shipped to refineries in Colombia and Venezuela. Logging is also big business in this region, where every year some 300,000 hectares of rainforest disappears under the gigantic mechanical timber harvesters. Logs are floated down the Napo to reach Coca from where they are shipped to sawmills. I am reminded of a similar sight in another pristine rainforest on the other side of the planet, Borneo, where the Kapuas river was clogged with millions of logs floating downstream to the sea for export to sawmills in Malaysia and elsewhere (Frontline, January 13, 2012).

Coca airport, barely a room attached to an airstrip, is teeming with oilmen from various global corporations, proudly displaying their multinational affiliations on their T-shirts. However, there are a few other travellers like us heading into the jungles. Our jungle lodge has sent a pickup from the airport and we are escorted to the boat jetty a few kilometres away. From here, we board a small motorised speedboat that will take us into the jungle and to our lodge in about six hours. We sail upstream of the Napo. The river, at least a kilometre wide here, is abuzz with boats and barges, and the banks are a beehive of activity. Our boat speeds like an arrow through the river, raking up a fine spray in its wake. Frequent sandbanks require our pilot to zigzag through the waters, keeping close to the coast.

Tropical Paradise or Tragedy of Development?

From the air, Coca seemed like a tropical paradise, cocooned in lush vegetation. However, the ground reality is somewhat different. As your boat speeds through the river, you spot periodic gas flares on the banks, testifying to the presence of oil production. Associated gas that emerges from oilfields cannot be evacuated without pipelines and hence is flared on site, sending up plumes of smoke that drive away wildlife. Barges laden with giant machinery and oil tankers sail past, headed towards the most remote interiors of the jungle where the machinery will plough through primordial landscape, flattening centuries-old kapoks and ficuses and churning up the undergrowth that hosts multitudes of unique amphibian, mammalian and insect species.

En route, we pass a clearing that leads to Tiputini, the epicentre of the recent drilling controversy. A new 19-kilometre road has been built after clearing pristine jungles so that oil workers in hard hats and high boots as well as drilling machinery can be moved easily to the site. Travellers are discouraged from foraying into these areas. They are usually escorted to and from the jungle lodge so that they do not stray. In any case, without the help of the local people and sturdy canoes and unlimited time, it is impossible to venture out.

Our boat speeds through at a steady clip. Both the banks are dense with huge, tall trees and thick underbrush, but every now and then there are telltale signs of raw red earth where some equipment or the other must have been dragged through. For hours we spot no villages, no signs of any human habitation, except for passing boats and barges. The weather, at first quite hot, turns humid and then it begins to pour. Equatorial weather is quite predictable—hot, humid and wet. After about six hours, we alight at a small jetty from where we are taken in a paddle canoe through a creek overhung with thick green canopy. Our lodge, built entirely of local materials such as wood and thatch, sits lonely and mysterious on a small island in the middle of a lagoon.

Napo Lodge

The Napo Wildlife Centre, run by the indigenous Anangu community, appears to be a dream refuge in the middle of complete wilderness. There is not a hint of any human habitation for several miles around, and our guides confirm this that this is indeed so. Yet, the lodge provides every comfort, including its own satellite dish and wi-fi connectivity. The forest around is too wild for any crops to be cultivated, and therefore, all the food, including seafood, is lugged all the way from Coca in barges and canoes.

The Napo lodge is surrounded by stately kapoks on which hundreds of raucous yellow-rumped caciques have made their nests. Also called oropendolas, these are a species of passerine birds, which weave pendulous nests. Like mynahs, they argue and quarrel incessantly and make a huge racket from dawn to dusk. After sunset, when the caciques fall silent, the cicadas take over and set up their own symphony. If you think the rainforest is a silent haven from the noise of city traffic, perish the thought. The rainforest is one of the noisiest places on earth where the celebration of life takes the form of vociferous expression by every living creature, including the insects, in fact, especially the insects.

After a hearty lunch of typical Ecuadorian food that packs a lot of plantains and berries, we set out again in our paddle boat to spot game. Our naturalist guides, though young, have considerable experience in scanning the canopy or the undergrowth for movement. Their alert eyes spot creatures that we might have missed otherwise. A sloth clings to the top branch of a tree and remains completely motionless, almost like a teddy bear. Smooth-billed anis, as prolific as crows in Chennai (India), congregate on the lower branches of the trees, quarrelling noisily over the best resting places for the night. Amazon kingfishers, with their telltale striations, take flight as soon as they spot us.

Log Turns Deadly

Our canoe glides noiselessly through the murky waters of the creek when suddenly a floating log seems to have sprouted a big eye that stares straight at us. I am startled and take a sharper look only to find it is a caiman with just its face above water. Caimans are the American counterparts of crocodiles although not as big, aggressive or fearsome as the latter. We stop the canoe to get better pictures. If the caiman had lunged at the canoe, it might have capsized. Jairo, one of the guides, tells us that the caiman is so powerful that it can easily upset a canoe, but he assures us that this one is fed and satiated and so is unlikely to attack us. Then he goes on to tell us stories about caiman attacks around the lodge. Suddenly, the caiman twitches its tail, which was hitherto hidden in the water, and reveals its impressive size, all of eight feet. We take our cue and paddle away to a safer distance, just in case. Jairo also tells us how caimans and river otters share the same turf and there are frequent conflicts between the two species in this part of the Amazon.

The Amazon jungle is home to a unique bird species called the hoatzin, the size of pheasants and just as colourful. There are many hoatzins around our lodge, constantly flitting from tree to tree. These swamp creatures are clumsy and very noisy; they groan, grunt, croak and hiss and set up a constant racket. Although they are winged creatures, their digestive system is akin to that of cows. These vegetarian birds have stomach chambers that help them digest their meal through fermentation so much so they present a challenge to scientists trying to classify them.

Snail kites are devouring their last meal of the day before they retire for the night. We stop the canoe to watch a kite dash a snail against a tree branch to crack it open. These kites are a gregarious freshwater species of the wetlands; their diet is almost exclusively snails. There are other wetland birds such as snake birds and pond herons. It is a sheer delight to paddle through the creek at sunset, watching the dazzle of the setting sun through the chinks in the forest canopy. Fireflies light up our path as we row back to the lodge. Our guides are still pointing out spider monkeys, woolly monkeys and other animals and birds in the forest canopy, but in the fast-fading light, we can only decipher their outlines, if at all. At dinner time, a group of howler monkeys assembled on the surrounding trees provide some haunting music as we tuck into equatorial plantains and bananas.

Headwaters of the Amazon 

The Amazon has the largest river basin in the world, covering as much as 40 per cent of South America and discharging a fifth of all the fresh water that flows into the oceans and seas. At its narrowest, the Amazon is 1.6 kilometres wide, and at its widest, it is 10 km in the dry season and swells up to 48 km after the rains. However, the Amazon is not a single river but an entire river system, a tangled skein of major and minor rivers supported by streams, creeks and rivulets, most of them originating in the Andean highlands sprawled across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The river gets the name Amazon when it reaches Iquitos. By this time, it has already gathered an impressive volume of water from many major rivers such as the Putumayo, the Madeira and the Napo. The Napo constitutes, along with other rivers, the headwaters of the Amazon.

The source of the Napo is in the Cotopaxi National Park, an hour’s drive from Quito. Napo itself emerges out of the confluence of the JatunYaku and the Misahuallí rivers. The Napo Wildlife Centre is situated in a remote lake quite recessed from the main river and is accessed through an hour-long canoe ride through meandering creeks.

Our foray into the jungle begins quite early the next day. Like all tropical rainforests, this part of the Amazon is also wreathed in gossamer mist, rendering it indescribably beautiful and seductive. While most of the game in the forest is still slumbering, the simians, like us, seem to believe in getting a head start to the day, swinging nonchalantly through treetops in search of those juicy ripe berries and tender shoots.

Capuchin monkeys move in groups. We watch fascinated as a mother coaxes her slightly grown-up baby to take the leap. She has a younger one clinging to her middle. Eventually, the youngster plucks up the courage and crosses over to the next treetop. For the next few minutes, it is a procession of capuchins moving silently from one canopy to another.

According to National Geographic, this stretch of the jungle is home to at least 10 primate species—red howlers, Titi monkeys, woolly monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, pygmy marmosets and equatorial sakis, to name a few. As we paddle through the forest, we get a fleeting glimpse of some of them leaping and swinging near the canopy, which is so high that it is out of range even for my 400 mm telephoto lens. After a few frustrating attempts at capturing the monkey moments, I train my long lens at the forest floor where a swarming insect universe is preparing to go to sleep, having foraged all night through the steaming foliage.

River otters in pursuit of their breakfast make a guest appearance as they pop their heads out, eye us suspiciously only to dive back into the murky waters of the creek. For the most part, you only hear them and not see their whiskered visages.

The paddle canoe drops us off for a trek through the undergrowth. Giant kapoks with massive buttress roots trip us up on the forest floor. The trees soar like Ionian columns into the canopy. The curling tendrils of the bromeliads that strangle the tree trunks in a tight embrace festoon the lower branches. They host armies of big red ants that will travel up your elbows and arms to torment you should you decide to hold on to them while negotiating a particularly slippery patch on the ground. We spot a poisonous snake curled up on the ground, waiting for us to pass. A turtle makes its way patiently through the forest floor, running the gauntlet of parasites on its path.

Our lodge has erected a high viewing tower, which leans on a giant ficus. We climb to the top to get a toucan’s-eye view of the canopy stretching as far as the eye can see. It is a great place to be in the early mornings to see wildlife unravel itself and at dusk to watch the birds return to their roost. A fig tree has burst into bright red fruits. Naturally, it attracts all creatures like a magnet. There is raucous brawling between the birds and the simians over the choice pickings offered by this tree. But mostly, we can hear them rather than see them despite the telescope installed so thoughtfully on the platform by the lodge authorities. The Socratea trees are called walking palms because their stilt roots, ever in quest of better nutrients, can shift slightly.

The Anangu community 

The next day, we visit an Anangu community centre where the women give us a glimpse of their way of life. Anangu are Kichwas, a derivation of Quechua, the native tribes in this part of the world. The women weave, cook, clean and go about their daily chores, ignoring the presence of the gawking, camera-wielding tourists. They wear machine-made clothes, indicating the penetration of “civilisation” into this remote outpost. We are told that all but three or four communities belonging to the Waorani tribe, have been cooperating with the Mestizos (as the descendants of Spanish and Quechuas are called), adopting the latter’s way of life in measured doses. The Waoranis are not contactable, says Renee, our Anangu guide. Oil companies that attempted to operate in Waorani territory have been rebuffed.

Next, we paddle to the salt lick where thousands of parakeets and parrots of multifarious hues crowd around for a bite of their daily medication. Renee tells us that the nuts and seeds that constitute these birds’ daily diet contain many toxins, which the minerals in the clay neutralise. The birds, he says, will have to visit the salt licks at least once in two days to remain healthy. How the birds figured out this remedy, of course, is a mystery. We wrap up our visit to the jungle with a visit to another clay lick frequented exclusively by the gorgeously plumed macaws.

(Published in Frontline dated July 26, 2013)


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