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.
As these new influences have transformed the goal of subsistence hunting into commerce (with significant impacts on local wildlife), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has called for the creation of new roads in Yasuní National Park. At the same time, they design and support efforts to improve the living conditions of indigenous groups without threatening their internal social organization or the integrity of the natural ecosystems where they live.
For example, working with the 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 release them again in the Napo and Tiputini rivers.
The WCS also seeks to ensure that local people play a central role in the management and governance of the PNY, providing assistance in community mapping and management planning, territorial demarcation and strategies to mitigate conflicts between different indigenous groups. It also works to build the technical, financial and administrative capacities of indigenous organizations.
All these efforts help local communities to function autonomously while managing resources sustainably and improving their quality of life. As economic development is invading wild places that have not previously been disturbed throughout the world today, conservation groups must increasingly assist the affected communities in an organizational way, while involving the local population as Managers of biodiversity. The work of WCS in Yasuní shows that these collaborations are essential and attainable.
By Galo Zapata | Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ecology and Wildlife Management Coordinator for Ecuador