By Galo Zapata
Along Ecuador’s eastern border with Peru sits Yasuní National Park (YNP). At close to one million hectares, Yasuní is the largest expanse of protected lowland tropical forest in the country. Designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989, the park is one of the world’s biodiversity jewels, containing at least 170 species of mammals, well over 596 bird species, more than 382 fish species, and a fantastic variety of flora.
Yasuní National Park and its surrounding area are also home to the last representatives of the Waorani and Kichwa ethnic communities, which have co-management agreements with the Ecuadorian government over land within YNP. If Yasuní’s unique biodiversity is to be conserved, the government, conservation organizations, and other local stakeholders must work in tandem with these groups.
This is especially so given the growing pressure in Ecuador to exploit its vast natural petroleum and gas deposits. The construction of roads to facilitate energy exploration has provided access to previously wild areas. While it is possible to manage access to oil roads in order to reduce the movement of indigenous people into new areas (and the deforestation that often goes with it), these roads can have significant impacts on wildlife and their ecosystems.
In certain cases, oil companies have provided financial subsidies to encourage the use of roads by local people. Limited to the immediate surroundings of their community, traditional hunters would have never killed more than two or three animals in any single day. Today, local hunters can kill as many animals as they can carry to the edge of the road, where free transportation will give them a lift home or to a nearby market.
Because these new influences have transformed the goal of hunting from subsistence to trade (with significant impacts on local wildlife), WCS has advocated against the creation of new roads in Yasuní National Park. At the same time, we design and support efforts to improve living conditions of indigenous groups without threatening their internal social organization or the integrity of the natural ecosystems where they live.
For instance, we have been working with Kichwa and Waorani communities to promote financial and environmental sustainability through community-based natural resource management projects. Such partnerships have helped protect two species of river turtles through community-based participatory management strategies, in which local people are trained to collect turtle eggs, raise them in captivity, and re-release them into the Napo and Tiputini Rivers.
WCS also seeks to ensure that local people have a central role in the management and larger governance of the YNP, providing assistance with community mapping and management planning, territorial demarcation, and strategies to mitigate conflict between different indigenous groups. We have also worked to build the technical, financial, and administrative capacities of indigenous organizations.
All of these efforts help local communities to function autonomously while managing resources sustainably, and improving their quality of life. As economic development encroaches on previously undisturbed wild places across the globe today, conservation groups must increasingly assist impacted communities organizationally while engaging local people as stewards of biodiversity. Our work in Yasuní shows that these collaborations are essential and achievable.
Galo Zapata is the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ecology and Wildlife Management Coordinator for Ecuador.