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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 February 2007, 15:58 GMT
Eco-tourism hope for Ecuador tribes
By Sarah Sturdey
BBC News, Ecuador

An indigenous tribe from one of the most remote parts of the Amazon rainforest is taking over a unique eco-tourism project as a way to protect their ancestral lands from oil extraction.

Angel Etsaa
Angel Etsaa hope eco-tourism can provide new jobs

The project in south-eastern Ecuador is being seen as a blueprint for other indigenous communities facing similar challenges around the world.

One of those who hopes to benefit from the venture is 20-year-old Angel Etsaa of the Achuar tribe - he has found a new job to support his wife and one-year-old daughter.

He has just become a guide at the Kapawi Eco-lodge. He earns $150 (75) a month and wants to study management to help run the business in the future.

The commercial venture is being handed over piece-by-piece - by 2011, the Achuar people should be the sole owners.

Political struggle

It is a 20-day walk from Kapawi to the nearest town. Its 20 cabins sit on stilts on a lagoon where special plants which prevent mosquito larva breeding in the water have been planted to make visits by tourists more enjoyable.

Sixty-five percent of the lodge's employees are from the Achuar tribe. The business is supporting a local economy in a community which is only just getting used to using money.

Cristobal Callera
Mr Callera hopes for sustainable development of the rainforest

But it is not just about providing work beyond living off the land.

This place is the gateway to the Amazon Basin rainforest, one of the largest biodiversities anywhere in the world. The Achuar want to protect it along with their own culture.

The lodge is financing the Achuar's political struggle. Money is given to the Nationality of Achuar Ecuador (NAE) federation.

Cristobal Callera runs the NAE office in Puyo, the provincial capital, a 45-minute flight north-west from Kapawi.

The federation is using its funds to help protect its people and to campaign to prevent oil extraction in the territory.

They are well aware that oil extraction from the 1970s in northern Ecuador has created problems which some environmentalists have compared in both size and impact to the Chernobyl disaster.

"We are optimistic we can run the eco-lodge. The Achuar do not want the rainforest destroyed and this is the best way to protect the environment and ourselves," Mr Callera says.

Ownership battle

The NAE and other indigenous organisations are lobbying the government to protect and support local communities.

Ecuador is no longer part of our strategy. The Achuar tribe is not on board and we don't want to go ahead without their support
Charlie Rowson
So far, it seems that the campaign is working.

ConocoPhillips, a large US-based oil producer, has oil rights in the Achuar territory. But a spokesman for the company, Charlie Rowson, says Ecuador is "no longer part of our strategy. The Achuar tribe is not on board and we don't want to go ahead without their support."

The Achuar are not complacent.

The Ecuadorean government believes it can find the money to pay for its social reforms without exploring for new oil wells which could destroy both the rainforest's fragile ecosystem and the territories belonging to the indigenous communities.

The Secretary for Communication, Monica Chijua, has promised the communities they are safe.

"We are going to manage the oil wells we already have and to send oil to Venezuela to be refined before being returned to Ecuador.

"We don't have to find new oil in pristine rainforests to pay for the social reforms. Human rights and the rights of the indigenous people are a key concern," she says.

As the new government tries to satisfy the expectations of a nation where more than two-thirds live in poverty Angel is determined to make a go of his new career at the Kapawi lodge.

"It's not just about a job for me. The eco-lodge protects the forest and also our culture. That is the most important thing."

Timeline: Ecuador
29 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
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