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When worlds collide: oil and community tourism in the Amazon

This is the story of Huaorani Lodge, in Ecuador, the emblematic tourism project closed down by a Chinese oil company. Español

Foto cortesía de Lalineadefuego. All rights reserved.

In the heady days of the Constituent Assembly and the subsequent proclamation of Ecuador’s new constitution in 2009, there was much speculation about how the country’s ‘new economy’ might take shape. It was, they said, to be the economy of the bright new world of el Buen Vivir – Living Right or Right Living. Respect for the environment, social responsibility, greater equality and the possibility of overcoming poverty would be the pillars of this brave new world, and tourism, in particular community tourism, would be one if its main engines. But somewhere, something went wrong, and not just with the constitution.

For community tourism to work as a major element in the new order, it was clearly essential that priorities change, that the country should leave behind its dependence on oil and other primary resource projects, and place greater emphasis on the other forms of economy mentioned in the Constitution. But it didn’t happen the way it was imagined. Something did happen of course: there are new well built roads, hydroelectric projects, new hospitals, new schools; all more than necessary, but all insufficient to make the major change many had desired and expected. The big plans to build a new economy based on tourism, technology, knowledge, biodiversity, simply never took shape.

As was pointed out, those changes would surely require a lot of time, perhaps decades, and possibly Ecuador is still in the first stage, and it’s just that the great changes dreamed of are not yet visible. Or perhaps the dreams were so grand that the possibilities of making them real was always minimal in a small country whose economic and strategic weight was insufficient to support them. Or perhaps it was the fault of commodity prices; they rose so high that the logic of exploiting the sack of gold you’re sitting on was always going to win. It was an opportunity that could not be ignored. Whatever the reason, the other options were soon gathering dust.

Despite the official rhetoric, with the exception of media campaigns (even during the 'Super Bowl' in the US), the tourism pillar never really had a solid base of state support. However, the thinking went, if government aid was missing there were always people and communities who believed, and who would create their own projects. And while many failed due to lack of viability, training, or institutional support, some succeeded in spite of everything. These, it was pointed out, were the examples to follow. And as long as these projects did not run into mining or oil projects there was no problem. It was the best of all worlds. But it did happened, and when it did, the financial interests, the big companies and the state were always going to win, while small community tourism projects...

Huaorani Lodge: the new face of tourism.

One of the major projects, if not the star example of the new style of tourism was Huaorani Lodge, which opened in 2008. The project was built with in cooperation with five Huaorani communities, an Amazonian people only contacted in the nineteen fifties, and was supported by institutions such as the United Nations Program for Development, UNDP, the Rainforest Action Network, USAID, the German Cooperation Agency, GTZ, amongst others. The groundwork had been laid some years before by an award winning international tourism project: Amazon Headwaters with the Huaorani, and the Lodge, all agreed, was its natural successor. The communities chose the location, built the cabins and other infrastructure, the tourism agency TROPIC, which had been working with the communities for two decades, promoted the project internationally, while international institutions pitched in with training and financing.

Right from the beginning the new operation was a success, opening to a front page article in the UK daily The Guardian, and later winning a number of international awards. For the responsible ecotourism industry, the Lodge became an emblematic project. The project was studied because of its consultation process with the communities and because these were owners of the infrastructure, because it offered indigenous communities in the Amazon an alternative to working with oil companies and for young people to work in their own communities, a way to preserve the culture, and because one of the strongest components of the project was the protection of nature. Huaorani Lodge was the perfect example of how this new kind of tourism could work. Everyone was a winner

There were always two goals, says Andy Drumm, the Welsh biologist who started to with the Waorani in 1994. The idea, he explains, was that this forest people could engage with the Western world in a way they themselves could control, or at least exercise more control than others whose culture and environment had been severely damaged by contact with oil companies, evangelists, and illegal loggers. The second objective, Drumm explains, was to find a way to protect the rainforests of the Amazon. “We thought that if it could work”, he says, “it could be a perfect solution.”

"The Lodge gradually became profitable," says Jascivan Carvalho, the current manager of TROPIC. "At the beginning, there was nothing to share at the end of the year, as we had hoped, but the advantage was that the Lodge was providing work and income for the people of the communities.” But over time that changed. The project was recognized several times internationally, while Moi Enomenga, Huaorani leader and one of the protagonists of the project won a National Geographic Award for his work in promoting the protection of the Amazon forest. As a result, the fame of the Lodge and the number of tourists increased and with the help of UNDP, a reserve of fifty thousand hectares was planned and established together with the five communities. But in the Ecuadorian Amazon oil was always close by.

Nothing lasts forever 

In an effort to find more new fields to replace those in the North of the Amazon, around mid decade the Ecuadorian government began to concentrate on the blocks located in the center and south of the region. Although Block 21, where the Huaorani Lodge is located, had been concessioned since 1995 and later handed over to the state oil company Petroamazonas EP in 2010, exploration had never reached the territories of the five communities. It was a distant closeness you could say. And given the skepticism of many regarding the presence of oil in the area, it was easy to imagine that it would never happen.

But nothing lasts forever, and the outcome always possible and always feared became reality in December 2015. After several meetings with Tropic, and statements to the contrary, the communities of Quehueiriono, Nenkepare, Apaika and Wentaro approved an agreement between the national Waorani organization, NAWE, and Sinopec, a Chinese oil company contracted by Petroamazonas EP to carry out the seismic exploration in the block. According to the agreement, the oil company was to pay USD 1,245,240.00 to NAWE, to be distributed among the communities and in development activities of the Waorani communities in three provinces: 50% upon signing and 50% upon completion of the exploration. According to a report in the Ecuadorian national daily El Comercio, some claimed they had not received anything.

Eme, a Waorani tourist guide, claims that he has not received any income or benefit from the oil company. Photo courtesy of Lalineadefuego. All rights reserved.

The Waorani could be accused of having a short-term vision, but in their defense, their daily reality is not that of happy Indians frolicking in a forest that provides them with everything. The State has been historically absent in the Amazon region, a fact that is the root of many of the region’s problems, and as Moi Enomenga, then President of the NAWE, stated in the same newspaper article, the people in the communities need money for medical emergencies amongst other things. The main form of contact with the outside is the plane, and as Moi pointed out, contracting planes costs money. In addition, Waorani young people are like all young people: they like to keep up. They are interested in the outside world: computers, equipment, motorcycles ... in modern life. So the communities accepted the money. They probably saw it as an opportunity in a million. As Moi explained in a US television documentary, "We work with everything, oil, tourism, whatever." It’s not that hard to understand. 

The workers and machines subsequently arrived, the seismic exploration began, and the Lodge closed. At the outset, explains Sebastián Meneses, a lawyer for Tropic, a 5,000 hectare exclusion zone was negotiated to protect the business and the forest around the Lodge, and to provide a haven for frightened animals. But without warning, he says, the zone was reduced to 1,700 hectares. "They didn’t even contact us to find out about the tourist operation, to define time zones, codes of conduct and even the coordinates of the exclusion zone ..." The options were becoming fewer. The problem, says Meneses, is that there was no consultation with Tropic, the oil company only talked to the Waorani, even though we are all partners in the project. "And they were well aware of it."

Carvalho is more direct. "Some may think that this is all about looking for compensation, that it’s only about money, and of course, the Lodge is a business. But what we have to take into account is that we’ve invested a lot of time and money in the project precisely because it’s more than a business. We started working with the Waorani more than twenty years ago because we believed, and we still believe, that tourism represents one of the few alternatives the Amazonian communities have to preserve their own culture and the tropical forests that form an essential part of it. And I honestly think we were right. It’s clearly everyone’s job to create the conditions in which ancestral cultures can flourish rather than disappear."

Less clear is why, when two parties to a venture are negatively affected by the work of an oil company contracted by a state company, the government only assumes responsibility for the harm done to one. It seems unreasonable, shall we say. The suspicion is that oil companies always prefer to 'negotiate' with the 'Indians' in the Amazon region because they have always maintained an unequal, patronising relationship with them, and therefore find it easier and less expensive.

Planes are the principal form of contact with the outside. Photo courtesy of Lalineadefuego. All rights reserved.

The end of the road?

The initial thought was that the closure would be temporary, but in a conflict between oil and eco-community tourism the latter never had much chance of winning. The Lodge and the project were dispensable. With oil workers everywhere, customers could no longer be attracted to a project whose declared purpose was to provide an alternative to oil. The objective now, says Meneses, is to see if it might be possible to open the Lodge once again. But there are complications.

One of the obstacles is maintenance. Carvalho explains that at first he hoped that the communities themselves could maintain the Lodge, but that it didn’t work out as expected. In the Amazon, he explains, infrastructure made of wood and other organic materials, like that of the Lodge, begins to rot without constant attention. Another factor was that during the eight months the oil workers were present in the area the Lodge also lost materials and equipment. “So we slowly began to realise that the closure might not be so temporary.” A number of meetings between the main stakeholders, the ministries of Tourism and Environment, the oil companies, did not resolve the problem.

"The ideal would be to reopen the lodge," says the Agency's manager, "and with the cooperation of all concerned it could be possible”. But to do that, he says, Tropic would have to repair the damages and recover lost presence in the international market. It could be done. But what seems absurd to us is to expect the Agency to pay the costs when we’re an affected party; so far the Ministry of the Environment has not been cooperating".

A letter from the Ministry states that the Agency (TROPIC) has a relationship with the NAWE (and hence the project itself) but is not within the 'area of direct social influence’, a position that at best seems naive. As a regional organization NAWE has to respond to many needs, mainly due to the absence of the State; however no-one is suggesting that NAWE’s work is tourism, the organisation clearly does not have the capacity to expertise to operate a project like Huaorani Lodge. What seems to have escaped the attention of the Ministry, says Carvalho, is that the operation of the Lodge consists of two components, Tropic and the communities, and that both are essential if the project is going to work.

Unfortunately the problem that affects the Lodge is not unique. This is the same conflict that can be seen in other parts of the country, in Intag, in Mompiche, a conflict whose fundamental cause is that sustainable projects such as community tourism, which represent a commitment to a healthier future and a healthier life, to El Buen Vivir, are considered of minor importance, dispensable. Even though the bright new world did not appear as expected, in the post oil world that must surely come, priorities have to change for a country like Ecuador. Sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, the lessons that can be drawn from this case are not encouraging. Protecting cultures and the environment is fine, goes the thinking, community tourism is fine, but if there is conflict with mining companies, oil companies, palm oil plantations, flower plantations, or the Coca Cola factory, it’s simply a matter of see you later alligator.

The lesson is even clearer given the special position of Huaorani Lodge. If the state, oil or mining companies can come whenever they want and damage the business of such an emblematic operation as Huaorani Lodge, a project that has received so much international support, what possibilities do other projects have? The pillar of community tourism does not seem particularly stable, and anyone or any community thinking about investing in a similar venture un the future will be thinking more than twice about whether that pillar is likely to come down on top of them.


This article was previously published by Lalineadefuego.

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