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Ecuador: Pitching Eco-Tourism Against Oil Exploration

The world's rainforests are home to more than half of all known types of living organisms. In Ecuador, the Indigenous Achuar people are trying to save this precious resource from the threat of exploitation.

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Worth saving at any cost: Ecuador's Amazon forests are home to the Achuar and a precious source of biodiversity

The Amazon rainforests of South America represent the largest biodiversity in the world. Scientists believe their preservation is essential for the earth's survival.

The forests of Ecuador, in the country's south-east, are home to the Indigenous Achuar people. The tropical forests, which contain thousands of rare species of plants and birdlife, provide the Achuar with food, shelter and medicine.

The Achuar had little contact with the outside world until Christian missionaries arrived in the late 1960s. Many avoided being missionized, and the Achuar's unique identity remained largely intact.

But in recent years, a new threat has emerged to the future of Achuar traditions as well as the survival of the Amazon forests themselves.

Oil - the new enemy

Oil companies eager to take advantage of the region's rich resources are the new enemy, a local Achuar leader (photo) told DW's Lisa Schlein.

Achuar chief zu Hause

Achuar chief at home, Amazon, South-east Ecuador

"The Achuar know what oil companies produce and that they change the culture and bring disease, that they destroy the forest which is the source of food," he said.

The land and forests are also the foundation of the Achuar's religious beliefs. They fear oil exploration would destroy the earth they hold sacred. "A hole in Mother Earth could kill some of the spirits in the underworld".

Protecting Achuar knowledge

Medizinischer Unterricht im Dschungel von Ecuador

Jorge, Achuar guide, teaching about medicinal plants, Amazon, Ecuador

Oil companies are not the only outsiders to have shown interest in exploiting the rich resources of the Amazon in south-eastern Ecuador. To pharmaceutical companies, the forests are a goldmine.

Tropical plants are the source of most of the world's medicines. To some scientists - 'bioprospectors' - the forests of the Amazon are tropical pharmacies, where both the ingredients for medicines and Indigenous people's knowledge about their uses are freely available.

Scientists have repeatedly asked for permission to conduct research in the forests of south-eastern Ecuador. But the Achuar, who rely on the plants for their own medicines, as well as for soap, oil and rubber, have refused.

Organized resistance

International conservation groups like WWF as well as local partner organisations in South America are actively involved in helping the Indigenous people to protect the Amazon's precious resources from exploitation and destruction.

The Achuar have taken the matter into their own hands, establishing a political group, FINAE, which has earned them the reputation of being one of the most organized Indigenous groups in South America.

So far, the group has stopped oil drilling from going ahead in Achuar territory. But the Achuar say the oil companies have tried to bribe FINAE members, even buying them planes.

A sustainable lifestyle

In the face of threats from logging- and oil companies, an innovative project is helping to ensure the survival of the Achuar by offering them an alternative, sustainable lifestyle.

An 'eco-lodge' and reserve, developed by a private Ecuadorian tour operator in 1996, aims to protect the rainforest from destruction and to give the Achuar an opportunity to live on their own terms.

The Kapawi eco-lodge resident manager Gabriel Jaramillo says the Achuar want to continue to live "without having to cut down the forest, without having to accept the oil companies coming in. They will not be forced to do anything they do not want to do," he says.

Nearly two-thirds of Kapawi's employees are Achuar people. They are being trained in the skills of eco-tourism so that they will be able to take over the management of the lodge on its fifteenth birthday, in 2011.

Lisa Schlein, DW Radio.

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