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Sarah Lozanova headshot

Ecotourism Creates Livelihoods for Indigenous People in Cuyabeno, Ecuador


The motorist gained momentum to maneuver across a low area where tree branches block the Cuyabeno River in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. A loud hum from the two-stroke motor rang out through the air as it revs in preparation.

It is the dry season and Willian Toro, our nature guide, hasn't seen the river this low for a dozen years. It is normal to have a short dry season, but the season is lasting longer than usual this year. Some of the lakes in the reserve have dried out so much that only a few puddles remain, encrusted by dead fish and thirsty tree roots.

The 12 ecolodges of the Cuyabeno are closing until the rains return and the river level rises. The guides and cooks return to nearby towns for a break, and the canoe motorists return to their indigenous communities located within the reserve. Ecotourism is a main source of income for the roughly 2,500 indigenous people in five groups who reside here.

My husband, two young children and I spent five days exploring the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in Northeast Ecuador, while staying at the Guacamayo Ecolodge. The lodge provides meals and daily guided excursions for groups of tourists to explore the jungle.

Located far from the power grid, solar panels charge batteries that provide a modest amount of power for lights and to charge electronics. The lodge is made of wood, with a thatched roof of toquilla. Biodigestors process human waste, while food and drinking water are brought in by canoes. River water is pumped to the showers, toilets and sinks, thus the water has a slightly tan color.

Only the indigenous communities are allowed to fish and hunt in the jungle for their own consumption. These communities rely on subsistence agriculture and income from the ecolodges.

A successful relationship with ecotourism has created economic opportunities within the reserve and the indigenous communities, helping to keep young people from seeking employment outside of the reserve. Several of the nature guides at other ecolodges are from indigenous communities, as are all of the canoe motorists.

The school teacher in the Siona community in the reserve is from the local community. This allows her to offer bilingual education in Spanish and the tribal language, Paicoca, one of the four indigenous languages spoken by the people of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.

Jairo Alvarez, nature guide for Guacamayo Ecolodge, however, believes that the educational opportunities of the indigenous people is quite limited and is an area ripe for improvement. He says the Ecuadorian government has helped successfully educate them in using ecotourism as a source of income, but he sees lack of awareness around waste disposal and recycling in particular as an issue. There is also an effort among some of the ecolodges to incorporate indigenous people in more staff positions.

Our group toured two communities and had the opportunity to help make bread from ground yuka root, toasted over a fire. A shaman from the Siona community explained how he studied for 15 years for his role and the importance of the use of Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea used for spiritual purposes.

The motorized canoes used to transport visitors around the reserve are owned and operated by the indigenous communities. Trading in two-stroke for four-stroke motors seems like an obvious way to make the ecotourism industry more sustainable. The motorized canoes are the primary means of transportation, but some lodges also use some paddle canoes. Although more expensive, switching to four-stroke motors would be an improvement, but this is beyond the control of the ecolodges as the operation of the boats is controlled by the indigenous communities.

The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is divided up into zones, with different indigenous communities having domain over various areas. For an ecolodge to be constructed in a given area, an agreement must be reached with the local tribe and approved by the federal government.

"You have to have an agreement with families in the community or the president," Alvarez says. "You then have to show this deal to the government, and they require that the whole project is involved in conservation to minimize the impact to the environment. Sometimes it is hard [to get approval for a proposed ecolodge] because there are always new measures required to protect the environment."

The nearest town is Lago Agrio, which is largely dependent on the petroleum industry. Now that both oil prices and extraction are in decline, many people are left unemployed. Working in the oil industry used to be highly regarded, says Alvarez, but is no longer since the decline.

The effects of the decline in the petroleum industry are felt throughout Ecuador and is largely blamed for the sluggish economy.  It also creates budgetary problems for the government, which relies significantly on income from the oil industry.

Our guide, Willian Toro, used to work for the petroleum industry before finding employment as a cook in an ecolodge. He took advantage of every opportunity to learn about the local ecosystems until he was able to obtain his certification through the reserve as a guide. Now fluent in English, Toro was largely self-taught.

During every activity, Toro scoured the landscape for interesting flora and fauna to point out to us. Our group saw a river dolphin, several species of monkeys, an endangered Scarlet Macaw, a two-toed sloth and a scorpion, among other things.

"The Cuyabeno in Ecuador is much more beautiful than the Putumayo in Colombia and the tourism industry is much more developed," explains Jaime Amir Sotelo, a cook for Guacamayo Ecolodge and a Colombian national.  Located several miles away as the crow flies, neighboring Colombia has not created reserves and protected these precious ecosystems to the same extent, and tourism has been developed primarily in other regions of the country.

On our trip out of the Cuyabeno, the water level in the river made navigation especially difficult. A large  downed tree blocked our path up the river and there was a man with a chainsaw attempting to clear a path, but he was unable to make the cut deep enough to be successful.

Gradually, more and more canoes congregated due to the obstruction, filled either with indigenous people or tourists. Some of the men stood on the log, attempting use body weight to break the obstruction. Finally the men successfully used a motorized canoe to break the trunk, and the stretch of the Cuyabeno River was once again passable.

Few if any of the ecolodges in the reserve remain open due to the low water levels, and more have closed since our visit as they wait for the water levels to rise. The lack of rain puts strain on the indigenous communities which have difficulty traveling around and rely on the income from ecotourism. When the rains return, the ecotourism industry will soon greet new groups of tourists eager to view the marvels of the Amazon up close.

Image Credit: Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova headshotSarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

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