Even though there are more than 25,000 square kilometres of protected land in the Oriente – well over half of which is pristine Amazonian rainforest – conservationists are worried the cash-strapped Ecuadorian government is unable (or unwilling) to make sure it stays that way. The task of balancing the needs of a faltering economy against the obligation to protect some of the most important forests on the planet has been among Ecuador’s central problems for the past few decades. Meanwhile, oil activity is ongoing in several crucial protected areas, including Yasuní.
While most people would concede the oil industry has been very much a mixed blessing for the country, the indigenous peoples of the region – which include the Siona, Waorani, Secoya, Achuar, Shuar, Kichwa (who have rejected the Spanish spelling of their name “Quichua”), Cofán and Záparo – have had the most to lose. Many groups, rejecting the Western way of life, have been driven into ever smaller, remoter territories where it becomes increasingly hard to support themselves by traditional means. Their rivers and soil already polluted from industrial waste, most of the communities are under mounting pressure to sell out to the oil industry, both culturally and territorially. In recent years, ecotourism has emerged as a great hope for some groups seeking to adapt to a life in which external influences are inevitable, bringing in badly needed income, strengthening the case for the conservation of the forests within an economic framework and reasserting cultural identities.