Travels with V
Peru & Ecuador
The threat to the living jungle
Quito part one
We flew from Santa Cruz in the Galapagos back to Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian mainland. But when we bought the tickets to Quito we didn’t notice that the same aircraft that took us to Guayaquil actually after a brief stop immediately left for Quito. So we waited for six hours (!) in the airport for our booked and delayed flight. It’s a clean airport, but once you have passed the security there’s not much you can do but wait. And wait. And wait some more…
So finally arriving in Quito at night we went for our hotel. And that was something spectacular. La Porta de Cantuna had been a nunnery once, but was now something out of a fin-du-siècle movie with heaps of old stuff everywhere, mortars, typewriters and whatnot. And plants in abundance, like an internal jungle surrounding puffy old sofas that no one was sitting on.
Our room was locked and no one in the staff knew where the key was. But with a simple plastic card they forced open a window facing the corridor and could climb in through that. And open the door from the inside. This meant of course that now we couldn’t lock the door. The room was icy cold with no heating. It had no window facing the street. Breakfast was served in a garage with the big doors opened. We ate our scrambled eggs wearing thick sweaters and jackets.
But it was very central, ten meters from the Plaza San Francisco in the old town. And that’s where we met Veronica, a lawyer and activist for the rights of indigenous people in Ecuador. She told us about the atrocious abuse done to the tribes , how they had step by step been robbed of their habitats.
This had paradoxically also led to greater tensions between the different tribes, as they had been pushed together onto diminishing lands. There have been massacres where entire clans were murdered. This is what she told us:
Most of the indigenous people in Ecuador have abandoned their traditional lives with spears and blowpipes and are now more or less integrated in the civil society. They are called “contacted” here. The tool for this transgression was the church, that when exploitable resources, gold, silver and rubber were found in the jungle, removed the tribespeople from their jungle homes and had them resettle around the churches and schools built by the mission.
The roots to cultures and traditions were cut.
This neo-colonization is still going on and has accelerated as new resources have been discovered. And now it’s about oil. Oil was found here already in the 1940s but but it took about 40 years for the government to decide it wanted to be a big player in the oil business.
Huge amounts of money was spent on infrastructure and invitations to start drilling were sent to Texaco, Shell and other oil giants.
There was just one problem. Most of the oil was under indigenous land in the Amazon. And inside the National parks that were created to conserve natural habitats. And furthermore, the investments in infrastructure put the Ecuadorian government in a deep debt crisis.
Political pressure from the international community forced the government to create specific indigenous territories where the tribes even have the legal right to the land. But the lawmakers were smart, because the law didn’t apply to what was beneath the soil. Instead it was specifically stated that 1) the owners had no right to stop exploitation of the underground resources, and 2) that this exploitation could not in any way economically benefit the indigenous land owners.
Several groups that represent the indigenous tribes claims have for many years bravely but seldom successfully fought in courts for justice. The most famous battle was over the heaps of oil waste dumped in the jungle that Texaco left in north Ecuador. The company was tried in court and lost, sentenced to heavy fines for the damage. But the sentence has been appealed against, and nothing has been paid. It’s obvious that the Ecuadorian government does not want to irritate the big oil companies.
The strategy for the support groups now is to try to convince a court in the US to take on the case. The possibilities of a conviction are seen as much more likely there than in the corrupt Ecuadorian judicial system. So far they have not had much success, but they keep on fighting.
Next we find ourselves in the former home of the greatest painter and humanist in the whole of South America. And watch his excuisite collection of erotic indian folk art.