Conservation through conversation

Written by Katie Surrey-Bergman

Three thousand miles by plane, two and a half hours by car over the high-altitude mountain ranges of Quito, an additional six and half more hours down the Amazon river by single-motor boat and we arrive at the tiny village of Gomatan, set between the riverside and the jungle which would be our home for three days.

My advisor, Leah Gerber and I had arrived at this remote location as part of a project through the Global Consortium for Sustainability Outcomes, along with several other researchers from universities and institutions around the world.

Arriving at the village that is inhabited by a single-family unit, we were greeted by the entire group standing on the shoreline, outfitted in the traditional dress and with chants of the Waorani people; the men, women and even children decked out in beautiful beads and feathers, with bright red clay upon their faces.

We were welcomed into the community immediately and would spend the next three days living close together, sharing meals, stories and even a game of soccer.

Snippets of conversation, some in Waorani, some in Spanish, English and even German, flowed endlessly, as did much laughter and joviality. Despite our varied backgrounds, we all were here for the same purpose: to find a sustainable solution to an all too familiar environmental problem.

Like many other indigenous groups, the Waorani people have been unable to avoid becoming victims of changing times and increasing environmental pressures, despite their limited interactions with modern society.

Over-fishing and hunting have led to the depletion of many of the native plant and wildlife species in the area, not just those that serve as food, but also the more exotic mega-fauna, like the jaguar and capybara, that have traditionally brought tourist dollars to the region. We all felt the collective sadness as the family shared stories of their previous interactions with the various species that today are mere ghosts.

As part of a team of scholars from ASU, Leuphana University, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and University of San Francisco in Quito, the aim of the trip was to initiate work with the community to develop alternative economic opportunities that would enable the people to receive income without putting further strain on the dwindling natural resources.

Several members of the community have already started their own cottage industries which include the creation of chocolate from the local cacao plants and braided jewelry and goods, that are sold at the markets upriver. The new project hopes to support these existing endeavors, while also creating opportunities for new technology and language training.

It is the hope that through establishment of a small tourism program and increased academic initiatives, such as volunteer and study abroad opportunities, more awareness can be brought to the plight of the area. Hopefully this will in turn foster further research investment that will sustain the project and create new opportunities for ecological preservation.

Much of the conversations in the workshop revolved around plans for upcoming grant proposals and the requirements that would necessary to bring future students and researchers to the area. However, there was also much talk about how to best incorporate the interests of the community members themselves. So often ecological conservation projects assume the best course of action, but do not actually include the perspectives and opinions of the people most closely involved with the issues at hand.

Over the course of the three days, the researchers spent many hours speaking with the members of the community, both the women and men, about what opportunities they wanted to see brought to the area and what trainings would benefit them the most.

In this small yet monumental way, this project is trying to make a difference, but in the right way from the beginning: taking great care to ensure that not only will these measures bring sustainability to the area, but also be sustainable themselves. I believe that it is only through this type of cross-cultural dialogue that initiatives like this have any chance of making lasting success.