Tag Archives: ecuador

Christmas’ long strange trip to oil towns in the Amazon

A Christmas nativity scene in Coca, Ecuador. Coca is a rough, booming oil town on the edge of the Amazon, one of the hubs of the rapidly expanding oil and mineral extraction industry in the region.

Coca sits almost exactly on the equator, yet the nativity scene carries marks of the temperate zone: the meandering, anastomosing cultural rivers of Christmas. One stream was born in the deserts of the Levant, another in the forests of Northern Europe, yet another in the imaginations of department store marketing executives in the US. They all wash against the shores of Coca’s Napo river, merging into wells of local culture and the flow of five hundred years of Christian colonialism in the region.

The main tableau features Middle Eastern figures with Old World farm animals, set against a backdrop of the Andes. Some tundra animals also make an appearance: reindeer arranged along the Andes’ foothills.

cocaMore reindeer, dressed in European holly and pine, hang from plastic boughs of boreal spruce:

reindeerSnowy European gingerbread houses intermingle with post-colonial Andean villages:

snowhousesvillageIn a town just down the road, the total lack of snow in this ever-hot climate has not prevented creative constructions of snowmen at many street corners:

snowmanLike Christmas celebrations everywhere, people have created a cultural syncretism, a mash-up of our inheritances. Christianity has some opinions about its own power and the status of other systems of belief. Therefore Christmas nativity scenes in Coca, as is true around the world, exclude many dimensions of local human and non-human diversity of life. So syncretism has its limits, and these limits deracinate Christmas from local soil.

In the Western Amazon, this unrooting has profound political and ecological consequences (more on these later). It also results in a great loss of aesthetic opportunity for community celebrations. The tropical forest could add some spectacular local color to a manger scene. Might a tapir or shaman be allowed into the picture? Might we, in North America, let bison and medicine women into the circle? Locavore religion? We shall see.

sunrisesunsrise2And a clearwing butterfly, surely a suitable symbol for a tree angel?

clearwing

Eastern Ecuador: Amazonian forest

Leaving the frontier town of Coca, our journey took us several hours by motorized canoe and truck, following roads built by the oil companies and rivers built by the prodigious rains. After a day’s travel, we arrived at Tiputini Biodiversity Station, located in what ecologists believe is the richest place on the planet for plants and animals. In one hectare of forest, a team of good taxonomists can find more species of plant than live in all of North America. A walk along a kilometer of forest trail will yield the same for birds. Nine or ten species of primate live here. Invertebrate animal diversity is phenomenal, but mostly unquantified. Humans have lived here for thousands of years, building cultures beautifully adapted to the forest. And now: oil. This area, along with similar places in Peru and other parts of the western Amazon, sits atop some impressive reserves of fossilized sunlight, a commodity valuable to any country, but especially to places that are not wealthy and are striving to keep their economies and governments thriving. So human culture, the forest, and all the connections within and among these are in rapid transition.

A few images from my visit:

Flaring gas from an oil production plant on the banks of the Napo River:2014-09-01 Ecuador 034

Climb the tower to the rainforest canopy, forty five meters up:

2014-09-02 Ecuador 022Looking down from high in the canopy:

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Rainforest vista refracted through a water drop: 2014-09-04 Ecuador 061i

Zebra bromeliad in canopy:

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Toads the size of dinner plates:

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“Scorpion spiders” the size of Thanksgiving serving platters (unless I have misidentified this, the common name belies its taxonomy; the creature is neither scorpion or spider, but and amblypygid, or “tailless whip scorpion,” a member of a strange and ancient order of arthropods):

2014-09-04 Ecuador 141Ants of many kinds, including leaf-cutters:

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And bullet ants, reputed to be the most painful of all insect bites, a hypothesis I was able to test when one dropped down my shirt collar and nailed me (they sting and bite simultaneously), then got me again on my finger as I yanked the ant off my shoulder.

But bullet ants are not quite as painful as rainforest DIY dentistry:

2014-09-04 Ecuador 181Back in the canopy, a cocoon spun by a moth larva:

2014-09-02 Ecuador 373Saki monkey (genus Pithecia), seldom seen here. Primatologists disagree about which species this is:

2014-09-03 Ecuador 248Woolly monkeys:

2014-09-02 Ecuador 252Crested owl:

2014-09-02 Ecuador 196Paradise tanager:

2014-09-03 Ecuador 363Young caiman in the Tiputini River:

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Huck Finn’s spirit is still alive on the Napo River:

2014-09-05 Ecuador 085Oil depots are expanding, as Ecuador moves ahead with opening Yasuní National Park and surrounding areas to road-building, seismic exploration, and drilling.

2014-09-01 Ecuador 067Much of the oil will reportedly be used to pay down high interest loans from China (Ecuador has, in the past, suspended paying part of foreign commercial debt, so now enters into these other forms of borrowing). The oil also fuels human motion, making photos like this possible, the Andes on my return:

2014-09-05 Ecuador 182My thanks to Universidad San Francisco de Quito and the Tiputini Biodiversity Station for their welcome. Especially Dr. Esteban Suárez, Pablo Negret, José Macanilla, Mayer Rodríguez, and the students from the Institute for the International Education of Students, led by Eduardo Ortiz, René Bueno, and Gladys Argoti in Quito and Lee L’Hote and Melissa Torres in the US. All the opinions expressed here are my own, not those of hosting institutions.