Story Publication logo May 28, 2010

Ecuador: Dead Meat



Scientists are certain that Earth is suffering impacts of global warming, and that these impacts...

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For anybody who needed convincing, the Deepwater Horizon accident has proven that tapping the Earth for oil can be hazardous for workers and the environment. But oil wells harm the people and wildlife around them even when no pipes break and no fluids leak. On a reporting trip last month to Ecuador, I got a glimpse of such insidious damage. There, in the town of Pompeya, on the edge of Ecuador's Amazonian rainforest, I saw rare wildlife dead, and stone-age indigenous cultures shattered. Few Ecuadorans know that far removed from population centers like Quito, oil drilling causes such impacts. But even if they knew, and even if they considered the price steep, the South American nation would find changing course difficult. Ecuador's largest export, oil, greases the country's financial gears; and by its nature oil extraction disrupts vast swaths of land, along with the people and creatures that live there.

Pompeya looked like other small villages I'd seen in eastern-lowlands Ecuador, where the Amazon meets the Andes, each just a handful of rustic houses clad in wide, mostly bare, wooden planks, their corrugated iron roofs rusting in the hot, damp air. But Pompeya also has a curious wide clearing, dirt packed hard, big and flat as a mall parking lot, where the narrow road in converges with the Napo River, a major tributary to the Amazon. Pompeya isn't labeled on Google Earth. It has neither a mall nor enough customers to support one. A major-league baseball diamond could fit in Pompeya's aberrant clearing; but a playing field that big would outstrip the town's sports needs.

I'd come to visit the huge lot. A friend in Quito had told me about it. The day I'd arrived it was empty, trampled and trash strewn. That Monday morning, I'd paused in the town just long enough to wander there for a few minutes, had taken the ferry across the Napo, and had gone off on other business.

The following Saturday I came back, one of hundreds of people descending on the field for a raucous weekly bazaar. As on other market days, the lot briefly filled up with trucks offloading and piling in goods, mostly legal. Smoke from small fires, grilling meat and steaming yuca wrapped in banana leaves, wafted between makeshift stalls. Buyers bickered with sellers. And police averted their eyes from transactions they were paid to prevent. I bought a bag of tangerines and another of passion fruit. I even sampled a pale grub the size of my thumb, grilled crisp on a stick.

In the few days between first viewing the empty field and returning to the busy market, I'd been somewhere that had informed my sense of the lowlands bazaar. I'd crossed the wide Napo in a motorized wooden canoe. A van had awaited me on the other side. For several days, staff members at wildlife research stations deep inside Ecuador's Yasuní rainforest had described and shown their studies to me. On long forest walks, they'd explained why scientists have concluded that the forest, which is inside Ecuador's Yasuní National Park, has more species of plants and animals than any other place on Earth.

I'd heard the spooky hoots of howler monkeys marking territory each dawn and dusk. I'd gaped at Technicolor toucans harvesting treetop fruit. I'd stared, amazed, at a phalanx of leaf-cutter ants, each bearing a green leaf fragment upright like a sail. The delicate pounding of thousands upon thousands of ant steps had worn bare a hand-wide path along the forest floor. The park is known for jaguars, ocelots, giant anteaters and armadillos—though I'd seen none of these large, rare, furtive mammals. A scientist had said they know some animals are there only because motion-detecting cameras captured shots of them.

Esteban Suárez, a biologist at Quito's Universidad San Francisco, had told me about Pompeya's market field. Esteban or one of his colleagues had gone to the Saturday market at least twice a month for two years. They'd crowded alongside buyers on the low bluff above the river, and had strained their eyes to make out which of the arriving travelers had goods for sale. The sellers, mostly Hauorani Indians who live in the Yasuní Park, usually carried their merchandise in loosely woven grain sacks that were grimy with dirt and grease and secured with frayed rope. Ferry passengers clutched such bundles tightly or, sometimes, rested them on the ferry canoe's damp floor.

More Waorani canoes paddled up the brown waters of the Napo. Stony-faced women, hair long and jet black, and squat, sturdy men in baseball caps, bills pulled down low, scrambled up the bank, lugging bundles. Buyers elbowed through the throng and greeted the newcomers. I watched the gestures of furtive transactions, the handing over of bills, and inspection of sacks. But before I'd drawn close, I smelled the pungent aroma of smoked meat. I'm an omnivore but had no desire to sample the contents of the grubby bags. Still, I have a weakness for smoked food. With some embarrassment, I must report that the tangy scent aroused hunger, not disgust.

Many of the visitors from across the Napo bore bananas, coffee and less familiar forest fruits. But the ones with cooked Yasuní Park creatures aroused my concern. They'd smoked the meat to preserve it. In my few hours there, I saw—smoked—the same animals I had just seen alive in the forest. And I also saw those shy animals that visitors to Yasuní rarely glimpse on the hoof. I saw a man buying a smoked cat-sized, splayed, flattened agouti—a common forest rodent. A restaurant owner bought a smoked monkey that looked uncomfortably like a shrunken human corpse, for $20. Hindquarters of wild deer and a turkey-like guan sold quickly, as did other animal parts, perhaps from pig-like peccaries. One man bought a live tortoise as big as a frying pan, to help cure his uncle.

Back in Quito, I had a normal lunch (a panini sandwich) at a university cafeteria, before meeting Esteban—the scientist who'd started the forest meat research. He'd published a paper about Pompeya in 2009 reporting that his researchers had recorded 47 species sold at the market, including 18 species of mammals, 9 of birds, 4 of reptiles and many sorts of fish. They'd estimated that during the years' 60 market-day visits, Hauorani and Kichwa Indians had sold more than 11 tons of wild meat, much taken within Yasuní Park.

The practice is illegal—indigenous people may hunt for subsistence but are prohibited by Ecuadorian law from vending animals they've killed in the park. I'd seen two policemen at the market, ignoring meat sales just a few feet away. My driver commented that meat middlemen griped about the bribes the officers collected.

Esteban said that Pompeya's was smaller than many other wild meat markets in South America and Africa. He said that, considering Yasuní 's vastness—it's the size of South Carolina—hunters sell relatively little.

But demand for wild animal meat is rising. Between March 2005 and May 2007, the amount of meat traded on market days tripled. Species slow to reproduce cannot survive under such pressure. Esteben said hunters have driven some animals to local extinction. "We are actually emptying forests," he said. He fears the park becoming cleared of all animals big enough to sell. Trees and other plants would suffer in turn. The animals disperse seeds, for example, and trim plant shoots. The loss of animals would ripple through the ecosystem for decades and centuries. Yasuní would become far less diverse.

Esteban's research paper, with a title that begins "Oil, Wild Meat Trade and Roads" links Ecuador's unchecked oil industry to Pompeya's meat market. It provides details about how oil companies turned some of Ecuador's indigenous people—who had lived sustainably in the rainforests for centuries—into enemies of the forests. Three decades back, before Ecuador grew into a major oil producer, indigenous people had the Amazonian lowlands mostly to themselves. They hunted with blow guns and poison darts, and had no market for their meat. Tens of thousands of immigrants followed oil money into the lowlands. And some had a taste for wild meats. Immigrants' money, in turn, gave the Hauorani and Kichwa tastes for modern conveniences such as gas stoves, electric lights and, now, iPods. The Indians also acquired a taste for western food and drink, especially beer. Their skill in hunting brought in the cash to supply their new tastes. Many native hunters gave up poison darts for bullets.

Oil developers also built the roads and transportation webs that have expanded natives' hunting territory and opened markets. A new 100-mile oil road that pierces to the heart of Yasuní starts right across the Napo from Pompeya. That's probably why the market is where it is. A Spanish firm, Repsol, operates the road. Its guards control traffic. They permit oil workers, scientific researchers, indigenous people and the occasional journalist through a fortified gate. They don't let homesteaders through. This protects Yasuní. But the same company provides Hauorani free transportation, inadvertently subsidizing the wild meat trade. Esteban said "good intentions" caused "terrible effects" on native communities and the forests around them.

Before leaving the Amazonian lowlands I visited a state administrator who, on paper, oversees laws prohibiting wild animal sales. I'd wanted to ask why nobody had halted the wild meat sales. Then I saw the tiny dilapidated government office building where the official worked. I had realized that he surely lacked the clout to overcome the powerful parties that exploit Ecuador's forests.

The official greeted me politely. To my surprise, he had worked for Esteban Suárez, studying the Pompeya market; In fact, he's a coauthor of the meat-market paper. His bookshelves sagged with wildlife guides. He'd hung a poster of Ecuador's most colorful birds on the office wall. But, in the bland euphemisms of bureaucrats everywhere, he acknowledged that he can't possibly stop the illegal meat sales. The problem is "complex." He must work with "other institutions." I realized, sadly, that he was right. I had imagined that all he needed to do was to get the police to arrest the buyers and sellers. But, as he explained, the meat sales would just move somewhere else if he tried such a bumbling tactic.

In forty years of oil drilling, Ecuador has produced 4.5 billion barrels of oil worth more than $100 billion. Foreigners have taken away most of this treasure. Nonetheless, up to one-half of the government's income comes from oil revenue. Ecuador has huge loans against future oil income. The country has become addicted to oil. Keeping up the habit will require invading even more native lands and building even more roads. It's easy to predict the impacts. Preventing them will be, to say the least, hard.

Correction: This post was updated June 3, 2010 and June 14, 2010.



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