Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Oil in Greeneland

In August 2013 Ecuador’s President Correa announced that the country would permit drilling in the Yasuni National Park. It’s been a controversial decision both within and outside the country. For me, it’s also brought back memories of a journey to that region of Ecuador 22 years ago. A story of a rainforest, oil, indigenous people, and an uninvited century.

On the Río Mangosiza (Pic: M. Robbins)
The Yasuni National Park, in Ecuador’s rainforest region, is one of the world’s treasure troves of biodiversity, home not only to predators such as jaguars and harpy eagles, but also to a giant otter and to multiple species of bats, frogs and insects. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society,  a conservation group based at New York’s Bronx Zoo, just 2.5 acres  of the Yasuni contain nearly as many tree species as in the U.S. and Canada combined. It is also the home of indigenous people from the Waorani group, some of whom have had little or no contact with the outside world.  In 2010 Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, announced a scheme to leave 840 million barrels of oil below the ground in the Yasuni National Park, if the international community could raise about $3.6 billion – roughly half the value of the oil. Very little of this was raised. The Ecuadorian Government has now announced that it will permit drilling in the Park. “The world has failed us,” he told a news conference in August 2013.

Not all Ecuadorians approve of this decision, and at the time of writing (October 2013), a petition had been started to force a referendum on the issue. Under Ecuadorian law, if 5% of the electorate sign this, such a vote must be held. If it is, the result could go either way. Most Ecuadorians apparently supported the original decision to try to preserve the Yasuni. But the Park may contain as much as 25% of the Ecuador’s oil reserves, and between a third and a half of the country’s revenue is from oil (these figures vary, depending on where you look).

The story that follows recounts a journey, many years ago, to the region where the Yasuni National Park lies. It passes no judgment on President Correa’s decision; Ecuador is a democracy and its voters will do that.

This piece is from The Nine Horizons (2014)
My journey to the jungle began in the mountains above it. At Christmas 1990 I had to leave my job in England. I had always wanted to go to South America. Friends were studying Spanish at a school in Ecuador, so late in January 1991 I arrived in Quito.  A week later, my friend Dave and I flew for the weekend to the beautiful Andean city of Cuenca.

In the town centre we pushed open the double doors of a hotel to find ourselves in a marble hall; the handsome hardwood reception desk lay at the bottom of an enormous light well. Four storeys above us light flooded through panes of glass set in an iron framework, then shone through a filter of ferns and other plants, which softened it so that the pink and grey paintwork seemed to glow. We dropped our bags, and went slowly down the staircase through the cloud of light that suffused the central space, and went to see the city. Later, after a number of beers, we returned to our baroque hotel, flung ourselves down on our beds and ordered more beer from room service. Then we discussed travelling to the jungle.

Ecuador has three distinct areas. Behind the Pacific coast lies an area of banana groves and plains; in the latter cattle are raised for export. Then the Andes rise from the plain. The mountain area is usually referred to as the Cordillera; for much of its length it is divided into a western and an eastern ridge, and Quito, the capital, lies in the fault between the two. Then, beyond the eastern ridge, the mountains tumble down in a series of foothills, becoming progressively more forested, until they end in the westernmost reaches of the Amazonian rainforest. Here begin rivers that feed the Amazon itself. This region is known as the selva (jungle), or Oriente.

In late 1941, Peru invaded the Ecuadorian Oriente and, after about six months’ fighting, seized an immense area – about half – of it, including Ecuador’s stretch of the upper Amazon. Fifty years later this area, which included the populous city of Iquitos, was widely accepted by the rest of the world to be part of Peru. But the Ecuadorians had never accepted it. Each student at our language school was issued with an exercise book. On the back was a map of Ecuador and the words of the Ecuadorian national anthem. More to the point, above the map was printed a legend in bold: Ecuador has been, is and will be an Amazonian nation.  The matter did not rest and fighting, on the ground and in the air, had broken out again briefly in 1981 and would do so again in 1995. It was after the second conflict that Ecuador and Peru did reach an agreement of a kind. In 1991, however, the two countries were heading for another war.

The war of 1941 had left the Ecuadorian Oriente truncated. But the country’s  selva was still an area the size of England. In the selva lived the indigenous Amazonian peoples, most notably the Shuar, the Achuar and the Waorani; many of the latter two groups were uncontacted, while many of the first group, although in contact with the outside world, neither had nor needed much to do with it.

However, they shared the Oriente with two forms of economic activity. First, Indigenas – indigenous, Quechua-speaking people from the poor and overcrowded Cordillera – were being settled there by the State land agency, IERAC. Second, there was the oil industry. This worked almost entirely in the northern Oriente; the Shuar and Achuar lived in the south, and the two halves were separated by a large river, the Río Pastaza. But the oil companies had their eyes on the south. And the Río Pastaza was being bridged.

Dave knew at least some of this.  “We can get to the Oriente,” he said, picking up the phone to order beer. He put the phone down and turned back towards me.  “Not just the north. It’s not hard to get into the north. I want to see the southern Oriente before it ceases to exist.”

I tried to imagine the Oriente on a map, and asked him what the largest town in the southern half was. “In the south? Macas,” he said. “The jumping-off point for Macas from the Cordillera is right here. Cuenca. It’s about 12 hours by road.”

I groaned. “Does Macas have an airstrip? Does anyone fly there? And if we get there, what do we do? Hack our way through the jungle and hope no-one puts a poison dart in our arse?”
Yes, he replied, we probably could fly to Macas. As to how one got around an area of impenetrable jungle, this was simple. We would go by boat. He was expanding on this when our beer arrived, ice-cold. I drank it and listened. In the Amazon basin one could then still – just – travel to the frontier of the known world.

I wanted a cigarette. Dave did not smoke, so I went out on the balcony. It was quite cool, but the air was calm. Nothing moved, for it was after ten, and people slept very early in the Cordillera. I looked down to the street three floors below. The silence was broken by an aged police car, one of its indicator lights broken, a rifle moving about loose on the rear parcel shelf. It halted briefly at the traffic light, which cast a dull red glow on the shiny cobbles. I looked up. The great blue marble dome of Cuenca’s New Cathedral floated above the rooftops, floodlit, as it was every night from sundown. I stared at it, forgetting to smoke my cigarette, which burned down nearly to the filter.

The next day, we made for Ingapirca. This ancient city, on the edge of a valley over 10,000ft (3,200 m) in the mountains several hours’ drive from Cuenca, and was the home of the indigenous Cañari people, who were taken over by the Incas not long before the Spanish invasion. It was a beautiful place; pale blue skies were interspersed with soft white and grey clouds above a sweeping green valley, the fields and mountains bathed in a soft, hazy light. Vicuñas grazed peacefully near the ruins. I loved it. Yet I remember the day now chiefly for two things we saw that I would remember later, when we were in the Oriente. The first was the sheer density of the cultivation we saw as we drove, first up the Pan-American highway in the bus, and then on the dirt road up to Ingapirca – which we covered on the flatbed of a camioneta, a small pickup. Every steep bank that shadowed the road would be overhung with maize that clung almost horizontally to the earth.

Near Ingapirca (Pic: M. Robbins)

The second thing I would remember later would be the fight in the village square. Dave and I had gone to the village’s only restaurant for beer and churrasco. The latter word, in Latin America, just means grilled meat, but in Ecuador it was a large oval plate with a medium-sized steak, an inverted cupful of rice, an avocado, tomatoes and other bits of salad. The beer was a large bottle, cold and good. Looking back, it seems to me that Dave and I had churrasco and beer for lunch every day we spent travelling in the cordillera.

Outside the rather dark restaurant were the people who did not get churrasco. These were the local indigenas (Ecuadorians tended to use this word for the Quechua-speaking people of the Highlands; the word indios was more used for the peoples of the selva).  They were short and dark and their skins seemed wrinkled by the sun, despite their black felt fedoras; because it was Sunday they wore shabby suits and trousers and they drank. I was later told that the villages all over the Cordillera were full of drunken men on Sunday. There was little else to do, and it was their only escape. That afternoon, two middle-aged indigenas were lurching and sparring at each other in the muddy village square; their wives hovered around them, trying to stop them, their faces contorted with misery. Later I would think of those two men in the muddy village square, and of the maize that grew on every last clod of earth in the Cordillera, and I would think of what it meant for the rainforest below.

Back in Quito,  Dave and Alfredo started to plan the journey to the Oriente in earnest. Dave was determined to see the Southern Oriente before the oil industry, and the settlers from the Cordillera, changed it forever.

Alfredo was Dave’s teacher for much of the time he was there. He was short, stocky, in his late twenties, with jet-black hair and beard and a sardonic cheerfulness. Yet like many Ecuadorians he always seemed slightly detached with us; I think the disparity in income was a wedge between us, the elephant in the room that one never discussed. Still, we were to travel long distances together and get on well enough.

Alfredo knew the Southern Oriente and had a friend, Carlos, who ran tours on the river near Macas; as there were few travellers in the region, he must also have had other activities, perhaps connected with the nearby missions. We would fly to Macas and from there we would somehow reach a particularly isolated mission at Maizal, deep in the rainforest, where Carlos had a compound. If all went well we would then travel down the remote Río Mangosíza to the ceasefire line with Peru, a three-day journey through Shuar territory. A friend of Dave’s, Ellen, would join us; a tall, gentle midwife in her mid-thirties from New Jersey.  So would two Swiss tourists, a middle-aged woman and her daughter of about 21; this would spread the cost, which Dave thought would be about $450 each.

I had to think about this. I had quite literally to sit down in my bedroom and count the remaining dollars. I had brought about $2,000 with me, and had hoped to travel on to Chile later in the year. But the money was already running down, and I knew now that I wouldn’t. Besides, the Southern Oriente was an untouched part of the Amazon basin which contained uncontacted human beings. It was already hard to travel to the frontier of the known world; today, I suspect, it is no longer possible. I told Dave that I would come.

So it was that on March 15, 1991, when Graham Greene had about two weeks to live, we came to a place that he would have understood. Macas, cantonal capital of Morona-Santiago, was a town of about 5,000 people. As Dave had said, there were two ways there; 12 hours by bus from Cuenca, or one hour from Quito in the weekly Fokker. We took the Fokker. It was uncrowded and comfortable; drinks were served, and the morning’s newspapers were hung neatly over the armrests, looking as if they had just been ironed. At Macas we stepped into a different world. The mid-morning heat and the humidity could be felt at once. We were surrounded by mountains; not the bare towering peaks of the Cordillera, but steep, heavily-wooded peaks of 2-3,000 ft. A casual little group unloaded our bags from the tail end of the Fokker. Cows and farm-workers wandered together across the runway between the overgrown fields on either side, ignoring the Fokker as it turned at the end of the tarmac. Scythes across their shoulders, wearing tee-shirts and tatty cut-down denims, they scarcely looked like the beneficiaries of a new oildorado.

Yet Macas was in transition. Much of it still consisted of ad hoc wooden houses of one or at most two storeys, raised slightly off the ground; most were painted cheerful, if faded, colours. But they were on their way out. “There are fewer and fewer every time I come here,” said Alfredo as we took an afternoon stroll through town. The new church, finished a year or so earlier, was actually a small cathedral. It was built on a hill from which one could see the greater part of the town, with its mostly low buildings, rambling through the valley between the mountains that rose steeply above it. Wisps of cloud drifted along their wooded flanks. In the late-afternoon sun, the trees caught the low rays of light; the top branches were brightly lit as shadows crept in below. One building did dominate the skyline: the Hotel Peñon del Oriente, in which we were staying. The rest was pure Greeneland.

We needed to reach the mission at Miazal, which would be our departure point for the river; but the only practical way there was by light aircraft, and no-one at the airstrip was sure when one would be available.  Certainly nothing would happen that night. We slouched off back towards the Peñon del Oriente. On the way Dave and I stopped at the barber, not to have our hair cut, but so that Dave could satisfy his craving for comic-books. I never knew why comic-books were sold by barbers in Ecuador. They just were. Dave loved comic-books, arguing that they helped his Spanish, and a walk through a strange town would often be interrupted as Dave popped in to see if there was anything new. He made a selection. I settled for a Colombian strip called La Bestia Roja (The Red Beast).

In the Peñon del Oriente I tried to take a shower, but the water went off. Brushing the soap off my body, I noticed the posters that had been stuck at random on the bathroom wall. All were home-made, and religious; mostly photocopies of Jesus’s face with, beneath, roughly typewritten in capitals, dire warnings of what would happen to us if we ignored the teachings of El Señor. I felt a spasm of irritation at being preached at in an hotel that at $12 a night was expensive for Ecuador, and appeared to have no water. I threw myself down on the bed to read La Bestia Roja. On the first page a thug in a quilted dressing-gown was waving a cigar and a brandy-balloon at a flunkey. “Tell them to mind their own business, accursed coward, or I shall have Chinatown razed to the ground!” he rasped.

There was a knock on the tin door and it scraped open to reveal Alfredo, carrying two plastic bags.
“I just saw Carlos,” he said.
“OK. So what happens tomorrow?”
“He thinks he can sort the plane out for the morning. Depends.”
“On what?”
“On weather. And other things.”

The light plane was based at Macas, he explained, but the pilot had plenty to do, delivering medicine, mail and other supplies to the missions in the selva; some of these might be only 30 or 40 minutes’ flight away, but to reach them on the ground could take days. He tossed the two plastic bags at me. “Put everything non-essential in one of these,” he said. “Everything you can. We’ll leave it here. Use the other to line your rucksack. Arrange it so that it folds over the contents at the top. You’re going to get very wet over the next few days.” He leaned forward. “What are you reading?”

“It’s Colombian. Magic realism.”

Alfredo left, nonplussed. I returned to La Bestia Roja.  A tightly-clad blonde was talking to a Chinaman with long baggy sleeves and a moustache. Sheila, priestess of the Children of Satan, is cementing her alliance with the patriarch of the Chinamen. I dropped the book on the bed and opened the window. In the street below, the yellow light of sundown caught the faces of the children who circled around on bikes on the cinder surface of the road. A few adults sat outside the tatty covered market, in front of a wall daubed bright red with political slogans. On the other side of the street, there were low wooden buildings, one of them the post-office, painted bright blue. Bricks lifted its structure from the soft, damp ground. Greeneland.

The next day, pillows of grey and white cloud hung between the dark-green, forested mountains. There was no clear sky at all until after 11, when a pale sliver of blue appeared to the south-east. We gazed up at it, encouraged. At 12.30 we were called away from an early lunch to be weighed, with luggage, beside the informal structure where the ‘airline’ had its office. The airline was one man, a piratical barrel-chested individual with dark skin, a large moustache, longish black hair and deep eye-sockets that were further shadowed by a baseball cap; he wore jeans and a red T-shirt. He was sorry about the delay, explaining that it was not the cloud that had held him; he had had to fly to two missions that morning. But he was ready now. We flung our rucksacks into the back of an elderly American-built, single-engine, high-winged cabin monoplane. The two Swiss, mother and daughter, waved us off; they would join us in the jungle later in the day. An Indian climbed in with us, a portable stereo on his knees. Bit by bit the long, narrow plane hauled itself off the tarmac and Macas swung away below us, threads of cloud still twined round the decaying wooden houses, the concrete slab of the Peñón del Oriente sticking up like a pile of Lego bricks that has survived a child’s tantrum while the remainder lie scattered around it. 

The dragon’s-teeth mountains barely fell away from us at first. When they did do so, it was sudden. The aircraft wasn’t climbing; rather, the last foothills of the Andes were disappearing and we were over the Amazon basin, with no land so high again between here and the Great Lakes region of Africa. The airspeed indicator read 90 knots as we crawled across a skein of silver rivers that criss-crossed the light blue-green surface of the forest. Here and there, we crossed a smaller stream that was directly below us, so that it was possible to see the brown gravel bed below the clear water where it wasn’t broken by rocks and rapids.

The forest below Macas (Pic: M. Robbins)

The cloud never cleared. But it thinned, and we turned slowly through a patch of sunlight two thousand feet above the treetops. Away to our right, a long, narrow strip of emerald grass appeared, hacked out of the dark-green jungle. It seemed to take us hours to reach it, and then we came down suddenly, our wheels skimming just above the highest branches as we crossed onto the airstrip; below us was a pile of bleached aluminium, the bones of a visitor that had not made it. Then the plane bounced gently and slowed down, and we were turning at the end of the strip. There was nothing here; just trees, and a knot of three or four Indians waiting at the edge of the cleared area.

The pilot stretched.“Welcome to Miazal International,” he said, grinning. “Please do not forget your belongings. Please do not smoke until you enter the terminal building.”

He opened the door and we clambered out. The climate hit me at once, even more than it had at Macas – which was two or three thousand feet up in the foothills. Moving out from under the shade of the wing, I felt as if I had had several cans of strong ale.

Two of the welcoming committee were for us. Pedro and Bartolo were Shuar Indians, members of the fiercely independent local tribe who lived in the Southern Oriente, and were said to still shrink heads when the mood took them. There was a myth among foreigners that, if you knew the right people and had a few hundred dollars to spare, you could still – so to speak – visit the factory. This will not have been true. Historically, Shuar and Achuar Indians had shrunk the heads of enemies killed in battle, but they had done so for complex ritual reasons and would not follow the practice when not at war. The Shuar do reject much that comes from outside, not because they do not understand it, but because they do. But I would learn more of them later.

Pedro and Bartolo did not look as if they shrunk heads. Dressed in T-shirts and cut-down jeans, they escorted us to the bank of a nearby river, where our transport was waiting, guarded by a mongrel dog. The transport was a pair of crude dugout canoes. Long – 25 ft or so – and very narrow, they seemed almost to clasp your hips. They were awash with an inch or so of water and oscillated wildly from side to side with each thrust of the oars. The dog jumped ship and swam to the bank. I wondered whether I should follow his example. But then we slid out from the shade beneath the trees. The sun was warm on my back; the water of startling clarity, each light-brown pebble distinct on the riverbed. The banks were thickly forested, but now and then a tree would twitch. Birds darted across the water and there were butterflies, too – bright splashes of yellow and blue and purple in the thick, still air. I liked it here.


Near Miazal (Pic: M. Robbins)
Carlos’s father had helped to found the Catholic mission at Miazal. Two decades on, Carlos himself had founded a different sort of mission on the other side of the river. It was a staging-post for the travellers he guided around the wilderness of the Southern Oriente. The building itself resembled a Wild West stockade, wooden walls surrounding a small open space where one could sit and eat; basic wooden cubicles lined the outside walls on the side nearest the river, with slatted shelves for beds. As we arrived, a large bright-green parrot sat peacefully on the stockade. Later it would escape in the night and crash about in the rafters, causing a domestic crisis.

The mission itself was a mile away on the other side of the river. The latter ceased to be navigable here, shooting out from a series of cataracts into a deep pool below high, steep banks; it was spanned by a wood-and-rope suspension bridge 40 or 50 feet above. The walkway was just three feet wide. I was good with heights but did not like this, and strode across quickly, unsettled by the way the bridge pitched and swung from side to side. For Ellen, who feared heights, it was too much and she inched across with Alfredo guiding her, his hands on her waist.

We were not on our way to the mission just now. We wanted to swim. The humidity had increased as the day wore on; it had clouded over and it felt threatening and close. We scrambled down the bank to the pool below the cataracts, and stripped to our underpants. I was slower than the others and by the time I got into the water, they had nearly reached the opposite bank. I set off in a relaxed breast stroke, enjoying the cool clean water after the sticky day. I was not in a hurry, but wondered why I was making so much less progress than they had. I looked across the surface to see Dave sitting on a log on the opposite bank, looking rather grave. The current seemed very strong as I approached the other side.  I looked up again. All three of them looked rather concerned. As I approached them the current began to tug at me. I grasped the log, remarking only that the undertow seemed strong. Then I saw that the level of the river was already two or three feet above where it had been when I entered the water; the log was almost submerged now, and Alfredo was scrambling onto the riverbank.  We had been caught by a flash flood; our Wellington boots were with our clothes on the other side. I was marooned in the jungle in my underpants.

Two or three locals from the mission appeared on the opposite bank.  Grinning, one of them gathered our clothes and moved them up the bank, while the other picked up our Wellington boots and made a signal to say that he would bring them across the river. Some 20 minutes later they appeared with the boots and we followed them rather sheepishly through the jungle. It was a tricky route, hanging onto roots and lianas that often came away in one’s hands, threatening a plunge into the still-swollen river 30 ft below. I did not know, but suspected, that there were five days of this ahead of us. Back at the lodge I changed into clean clothes, but I could feel damp sand still sticking to my body.

Later that evening, we visited the mission. There we met two priests, one young, one old.

The young one was tall, brusque, smartly dressed in dark trousers and black vest with clerical collar, although he was far from anywhere. He wore glasses and had neat, short, thick brown hair. I guessed he was about my age, which was then 33. Must go, he was saying; we have a class to prepare for first communion; and with that he shook hands with Carlos and strode off, calling to some Shuar student in clear, ringing tones. He did not look Ecuadorian. He was probably European.

We knew Raoul was. In fact he was Belgian, but had been in the region for 35 years. He wandered slowly towards us, smiling; his rough hair was down below his shoulders; he was deaf and was probably 70. Carlos talked to him in a loud, clear voice. He talked for a little while about the mission’s vaccination programme, and then wandered gently away. Later we passed the little shack where he lived on the edge of the mission. The Shuar children had chalked a huge shining sun on the door.

The Miazal mission was oddly like an English public school. Rows of buildings edged a large open space which was marked out for football; gaggles of 11-18 year olds ran through the dust from class to class. In the kitchen, cheerful cooks prepared the evening meal. Under their feet, two quiet, immensely shy little girls gazed up at us with vast eyes. When greeted, they giggled and covered their faces, pleased but confused. Carlos, who was short, barrelly, pugnacious, strode towards the dressmaking class with us in tow. The teacher politely broke off to allow us to explain why the girls were there. Shuar men, Carlos opined (and he ought to know as he was half Shuar himself), treated their wives as useful machinery, summoning them from bed to fetch bowls of chicha, the local home-made beer, at whatever the time of night. The mission taught girls to produce items they could sell for hard cash, making them more important in the economic life of the community, and raising their status.

Later he talked more about the spirit of the mission. The Catholics, he said, trod carefully in the jungle. The children prayed, but it was explained to them that the God they praised was the same one as their own Creator God, who sits at the head of a pantheon of five. The four lesser gods, which include an anaconda and a bird of the jungle, are, they learn, unique to the Shuar – but not therefore wrong. “Everything possible is done to ensure that what they are taught here does not undermine their own tribal life,” Carlos continued. “When they’ve finished their schooling here they’ll go back to their own villages, where they’ll have spent much time anyway during their education. We don’t think it’s a good idea to split people apart from their communities and they’re not encouraged to head for the town.”

I found it hard to reconcile Catholicism with the beliefs of the Shuar, whose priests and elders must drink a hallucinatory drug in order to induce nightmares; their struggles with the demons therein will earn them the respect of their people. And they do have five gods, even if one of them is paramount, and interchangeable with the Pope’s. Why did the Catholics come here at all? But the missionaries could have argued that they had no alternative, and there was good reason to hear them out.

The hold of the Catholic church was being undermined in Ecuador. In the Cordillera, nonconformist evangelists were gaining ground, while evangelical Protestant missionaries had been in the Oriente for some 30 years. As yet, they were confined to the Northern Oriente, across the Río Pastaza. They had a simple purpose. A few weeks earlier, staying in an hotel in the northern town of Otavalo, I had found the magazine of an American missionary group. Clean-cut faces of young missionaries off to spend 40 years in the Third World shot penetrating stares from the well-produced pages; their dedication, their desperation to save souls was screamed from every headline. There was little else. The traditional Catholic missionaries, by contrast, showed a quiet determination to spread vaccines with the word of God.

Should they all, Catholics included, just leave the people of the forest alone? The Catholics insisted that the rest of the world would come here, whether they did or not, and that they should come here first and help the Shuar build up their own defences in their own way. Some weeks later, across the Río Pastaza, I would understand this better.

That night, we sat around the wooden table in the stockade, lit by hurricane lamps.

“Music,” said Carlos. “You want music?”

He asked each off us in turn and we all said yes, although I was not sure what he meant. I expected to see a ghetto blaster appear but no, he meant to get the older children from the Mission to come over and sing. So he and I and Alfredo and Dave went off into the night, crossing the swinging bridge in the dark, and walked through the blackness until we saw dim lights in the mission ahead. We pushed open a door and a chorus of voices welcomed us. Someone passed us a bowl of chicha, and we drank. Then several of the students stood up; one held a guitar; another, a slim girl of perhaps 15, led the way back down the path towards the stockade. She laughed and sang as she walked and when she reached the bridge she moved swiftly across it. She was singing El Condor Pasa.  I followed her, watching her bare heels and her strong, slim calves by the light of a hurricane lamp; this time I crossed without fear. Still singing, still laughing, she led the way into the stockade, where bottles of banana liquor waited on the rough wooden table.

The jungle is no place to have a hangover. The morning light has a gentle gold quality to it, but it isn’t cool. The rash of damp sand on my skin combined with the banana fumes to produce a real malaise as I sat on the slatted bed, listening to Alfredo address us on jungle realpolitik. He was stretching my Spanish, but I understood. Before we started out on our journey down the Río Mangosíza, probably tomorrow, we would have to pay a bribe.

“It’s quite sudden,” he said. “Carlos went to see one of the local Shuar chiefs yesterday, before we flew in from Macas. This man announced he needed $50 to get one of his children to Quito for medical treatment.”

“And we’ve got to pay this?” asked Dave. “Was that actually said?”
“It was strongly implied.”
“It’s blackmail,” said Ellen. “We want to pay blackmail?”
“Do we want to travel down the river?” Carlos shrugged.
“Has anyone said we can’t anyway?” I asked. “We aren’t asking him for any favours, are we?”
“No. But we’ve got a long way to go through his territory.”
“And that’s all we get for the money?” said someone.
“Maybe a good meal,” said Dave.

At this, everyone laughed; $50 was a month’s wages in Ecuador, two months’ wages for some.

“Oh, let’s pay the bloody thing,” I said snappishly. I started burrowing in my rucksack for my matches. They were wet.

Alfredo handed me his lighter. “Sorry,” he said, smiling ruefully, and went off to find Carlos and tell him the gringos would stump up. I worked it out in my head and felt mean. We were assuming that the chief did not really have a sick child. If he did, $7.50 a head was absolutely nothing.

My pique dissolved along with my hangover as we walked through the jungle on brown earth paths sprinkled with pools of light. After an hour or so, walking turned to clambering, up and down steep river banks; and then to wading, through rivers that came up to our necks. It was not an easy journey. The currents in the river were strong, and the scarps above the river were high enough to worry Ellen. More than once I put my weight on a dodgy root. But two or three hours of this brought us to one of the loveliest places I had ever seen. We were at a point where the river flowed between high, rocky banks. It was crystal clear, cool, about 40 or 50 feet wide, and it curved past a small pool into which three waterfalls plunged 30 feet or so from the rocky cliff above. Clouds of spray rose from the pool, catching and refracting the midday light which shone down into the gorge. Butterflies drifted through the warm air in profusion. I realized that there was not only spray, but steam. The waterfalls were hot springs, gushing out at about 55oC. Hunks of bread appeared from Pedro’s sack, along with tins of tuna and beer. We settled down, fully clothed, in the warm water. I offered Alfredo Teacher a cigarette. He took it with pleasure, as his own were soaked.
“How did you keep them dry?” he asked.  “An English gentleman always keeps his cigarettes dry,” I replied loftily.  I put them back in my hat and put the hat back on. He laughed, and launched himself backwards into the water. I took out my camera.

Hot springs (Pic: M. Robbins)
“For the London Times?” he called, grinning. I fired the shutter. I still have a slide of Alfredo floating cheerfully on his back in the warm water, the sun glittering off its surface; he is wearing his white sombrero, shirt, trousers, boots and cravat, and there is a cigarette between his lips. He looks very cheerful. I think we all were.  We were only the second group of Europeans to see the falls; three Swiss had reached them the previous year, presumably with Carlos’s help.

We returned straight down the river. The best way was to float down, lying back suddenly in the water so that air was trapped in your shirt and boots; then you aimed feet-first through the gaps between the rocks. Now and then you needed to swim, so you turned over and around, hoping you didn't bash yourself too badly on the river bed as you did so. Once I lost concentration, and found myself floating out of the slow current I had chosen and towards a fierce little rapid. I wedged myself between two rocks for a minute or two, and then Pedro and the younger of the two Swiss women came across the rocks and pulled me onto a boulder. I felt a bit of an ass. I felt a much bigger one later. Back at the stockade, I took off my shirt and plunged it into the water to get rid of the grit. As I did so I tumbled off the bank and into the pool, bashing myself on the side. I was then very thin, and the blow bruised a rib. I had done this many times; once, in Sudan, underweight after malaria, I had leaned over into the boot of a Land-Cruiser and caught my rib-cage on the sharp edge of the spare wheel. That had been agony.  With a sinking heart I realized that this meant some weeks of discomfort. Later that night, I lay on my thin, sandy mattress trying to breathe without my chest exploding. It would prove to be a mild bruise, but would still plague me for three weeks.

On our third day in the jungle we took to the river again, but this was a bigger one. It was the Río Mangosiza, and this time we had more than shirts to keep ourselves afloat. From the mission, a two-hour walk through the trees brought us to a bluff, down which we scrambled to a yellow beach on a wide, fast river. Two long dugouts were there with their owners, Shuar in T-shirts; they were not taking us, however. They watched, expressionless, as we embarked on two 12ft aluminium speedboats with outboard motors, arranged ourselves with all our gear, and strapped on our life-jackets. The guides did not wear them. Even if they had felt comfortable with such things, the jackets would have impeded their movements when they were guiding the boats through rapids and shallows – something they would have to do often.

On the Río Mangosiza (Pic: M. Robbins)
The engines started; a whiff of exhaust hung on the air, and then we headed east. There was no point in asking where. Alfredo said he did not know; either Carlos had not decided, or had not told him. The banks to either side were thickly wooded, but here and there we saw breaks in the vegetation, with oblong structures that had walls of narrow planks that had been turned at an angle so that the walls were actually grilles, allowing the air to pass through. They had steep thatched rooves. Shuar stood and watched as we went past. If we waved they waved back; otherwise they simply stared. Around us were small mountains of a few hundred feet, a sign of the Andes scarp which was still less than 100 miles away. The usual threads of cloud nestled between them, and as midday approached the mist deepened and the sky turned grey. But the rain did not break until about one, boring down as we climbed the steep bank to one of the longhouses to visit the Shuar.

The Shuar were a paradox. Their religion, their way of feeding themselves, their customs, remained much as they had for thousands of years; a self-limiting population, held down by health hazards and their environment. That was how they wished to remain. Their isolation was only partly a reflection of their ignorance of the outside world; it also reflected a healthy skepticism as to how much that world would really do for them. Beyond Macas, in Sucua, was the Shuar Centre. Partially-funded by the Government, it was however an ancient tribal meeting-place which may have predated the conquistadores; now it operated as a cultural focus and campaigning tool, as well as mounting exhibitions about Shuar life and maintaining a small zoo for the visitor. Going to Sucua some days later, we would see a noticeboard on which were pinned items about threats to tribal life not just in Ecuador, but as far afield as Irian Jaya. “Do Shuars vote?” I asked Alfredo. “Good God, yes,” he replied. “Their chiefs will organize a light plane to get to the polls if they have to.” Unlike many peoples for whom it was already too late, the Shuar had the sophistication to protect their simplicity.

The house we had come to visit was perfect for its site. Not only did the slatted planks keep out the rain; the earth floor was raised by an inch or two off ground level, and was perfectly dry. The head of the household presided over his court from behind a crudely-cut table, and was plump and jovial. His age was impossible to determine. Cuys – guinea-pigs, which have always been eaten in South America, and are bred for the pot – scuttled, squeaking loudly, in and out of a small enclosure that had been built for them in the corner. Women and children remained behind the master, the infants looking gravely at us. A young woman held a boy of about two in her arms. She was smiling at him, rocking him, and there was much love in her eyes. But the child’s belly was badly swollen, probably by parasites in the drinking water.They brought us sticks of maize, which they served us on palm-leaves on the earth floor. With them were whole catfish, bony but tasting a bit like trout. There was also chicha, a drink made from maize in the Andes but from manioc here. The manioc is chewed by the women, spat out and fermented; it had a strong, cheesy smell and bits floating on the surface. I cannot pretend I liked it, but it did me no harm.  

Shuar house, Río Mangosiza (Pic: M. Robbins)
The Shuar were about as far as it was possible to get from me, both culturally and geographically. There was no direct communication. I could speak some Spanish, but they could not. Those in the towns who did, sometimes spoke it strangely, as they had only the infinitive in their own language. Neither, in line with their climate, did they have dates or years or seasons. What would they need them for? Ask a Shuar how old s/he is and you would not get an easy answer. They lived by fishing and planting maize in a place which had no fierce climatic changes, and plenty of rain and strong sunlight to make things grow. When, after a few years, the ground was exhausted, they moved on, and the jungle reclaimed the small patch of land they had used. They also hunted, and used poison darts, albeit with care – judging the amount of poison for a blowpipe arrow is an acquired art, for too much can poison not just the prey but whoever eats it. They liked personal ornaments and decoration, although the authorities, alarmed at the use of feathers from endangered species, now insisted that they only make these for their personal use, or use more common types of birds. Their technology had developed to the point they needed it; the houses and canoes were adequate for their uses.

It seemed an idyllic life, but of course it was not in every way. Later that day, we moored at the beach where we would camp for the night, and Carlos visited a nearby Shuar household to see if they would receive us. They could not, for the wife was so gravely ill with an abscess that it was not clear if she would last the night. Alfredo borrowed some tetracycline off one of the Swiss, and in the morning the woman was dramatically better. Carlos left a supply with her, hoping that she would follow the dosage he suggested.

Dawn on the river (Pic: M. Robbins)

A little tetracycline to save a very sick woman. It seemed simple enough, but the Shuar had no source of supply for such things; what would it have been? I asked Alfredo Teacher if it would really be so difficult to provide a community nurse who would travel through the area once a month by canoe, carrying a supply of simple medicines. His answer was that it did not happen. In Quito, another teacher told me that the public hospitals even there did not have supplies of drugs and dressings. Part of the reason was that no-one in Ecuador was even supposed to pay tax unless they were earning a salary that was quite high even by Western standards. Even then, it was rarely collected. (Like much else in Ecuador, this may now have changed.)

I had problems of my own, albeit less serious, that night. We pulled onto a beach for the night. Ellen, Dave and I crammed into a tiny tent and slept in sleeping-bags on the hard, crumpled groundsheet.  My rib hurt like hell. Pedro, Bartolo, Carlos and Alfredo did not help matters by drinking rum and talking loudly round the campfire until after three, despite attempts to shut them up. I was probably more fragile than they were in the morning.

But a memorable morning. By 11, I felt I was living a dream, roaring down a remote river in a speedboat towards the frontier with a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other. It was not even raining; the clouds were thin enough for a weak ray of sunshine to come through now and then, and I felt pleasantly warm.

Although internationally regarded as a frontier, this was, as I have said, a ceasefire line. Fighting in the air and on the ground had broken out again only 10 years earlier, although cynics had claimed that the incident had been allowed to happen by the then Ecuadorian president, Jaime Roldós, to distract attention from problems at home. Roldós himself died shortly afterwards with his wife in an air crash which some believed to have been engineered by the CIA. The war broke out again four years after I passed that way; now, it seems, the matter has been settled. In 1991, however, there was an uneasy peace. The nearest we went to the ceasefire line that day was a river junction about 20 minutes’ run upstream from it. There was an army post at the junction. It appeared deserted, although there was an Ecuadorian flag flapping flaccidly at the head of a pole on the cliff above us, and scraps of toilet paper clung to the bank below. Carlos went ashore and obtained permission for us to pass. We pulled away; as we did so, 15 or 20 soldiers, suddenly visible, stood on the cliff and waved.

For half an hour we travelled up another river, the low mountains of what was now Peru rising on our right, before stopping at a beach that would be that night’s campsite. On the opposite bank was a scarp of about 10 feet in height, beyond which lay a lagoon, where there were alligators. The afternoon was spent portaging one of the boats, minus its motor, up the scarp and through the forest – a messy business as it was now raining. Bunches of wild bananas appeared here and there through the drizzle. We rowed across the lagoon looking for the alligators; we saw little of them, but now and then the silence of the humid afternoon was broken by the sudden sound of a rifle-shot from the lagoon – in fact, an alligator’s tail smashing into the water. It was another fiercely uncomfortable night. I was now covered with damp grit, and it seemed to be in every orifice. In the small hours it rained heavily, and we piled up the gear at either end of our tiny tent, sleeping three abreast and trying not to roll over on top of each other. Attempts to shift position were met with a thunderclap of pain from my right side.

Tomorrow, we would leave early for the roadhead at Morona. I was sad to leave the jungle, but I was also happy. Few people had come this way, and I had seen the headwaters of the Amazon, and the people who lived there, very much as Francisco de Orellana must have seen them in 1541. A few weeks later, north of the Río Pastaza, I would see what might become of them.

There was nothing at Morona, simply the narrow gravel track that came down to a broad, shallow part of the river. Yet that startled in itself.  Morona was, in fact, the end of the known world, the end of civilization; beyond it lay the tangled skein of rivers that only men like Carlos really knew.

We unloaded our rucksacks from the boats and walked up the shallow bank, to see an object from another world: an old bus, the hazy sun gleaming gently on its sun-dried paintwork. The driver greeted us briefly and we climbed the ladder at the rear to deposit our luggage on the roof. Then we shook hands with Carlos, Pedro and Bartolo and the bus pulled away. We were bound for Macas.

At first, the journey bored me, and I regretted leaving La Bestia Roja in my rucksack. I quickly forgot about it.  The track twisted its way up into the hills in pouring rain; to the left lay an abyss, to the right a wall of scree down which cascaded a mini-Niagara, which seemed it might dislodge the rock and bring it down on our heads or, worse, soak the road away from its narrow toehold on the mountainside –  there was no tarmac to hold it together. Later, on the long road from Papallacta to Lago Agrio in the Northern Oriente, Dave, Alfredo and I would spend five hours waiting for a landslide to be cleared, but today were lucky.

After a few hours we came to the first cluster of buildings. There was an airstrip there, and an Army roadblock, manned by military police in fatigues and caps, American-style.  We descended from the bus with our passports. I expected to be nodded on after a brief inspection, but we were not. We were still in a sensitive area; looking back, I suppose it was not obvious what we were doing on the road from Morona. We were asked why we had no stamps to confirm that we had arrived in the selva from within Ecuador. We explained that we had arrived by air. Unconvinced, they ordered our rucksacks to be brought down from the roof of the bus, and inspected everything, even the packet of disposable razors in my bag; the covers were slid off the heads. There was an atmosphere of polite suspicion. La Bestia Roja was tossed back into my rucksack without interest, but the Arabic visas in my passport caused concern. At length we were allowed to go. We climbed back on board the bus, apologisng to the other passengers for the delay. They seemed unworried; indeed, unsurprised.

But now the sun cut through the vapour, and improved my mood. Indeed it was one of the few days I spent in the Oriente when it did not rain in the afternoon.  I had thought of Macas as remote, but compared with Morona it was the centre of the universe. The 10-hour journey from the deep selva  to Macas would take us through settler country, where the overspill from the Cordillera was encroaching slowly on the virgin forest. Signs of habitation would appear slowly at first, then with increasing frequency. It was a strange and beautiful time-lapse journey through history. Sometime around three, we passed through the first settlement of any size; Huambi, a small wild west town about 30 or 40 miles from Macas. There was a post office and a cluster of empty, sleepy bars, a Catholic church and an Evangelical chapel, all built of wood and painted bright, warm colours. The wall of the school was decorated by a vast, colourful map of the world.

As the bus wandered slowly through the forest in the warm, gentle light of the afternoon, the settlers climbed on and off with their children, a racial mix as anarchic as the colours with which they painted their houses. A woman of Indian descent had twin infant girls in identical red dresses, their faces similar; but one child was as brown as mahogany, the other blonde. A beautiful girl of about seven with Spanish eyes and ivory skin rubbed shoulders with a plump blonde teenager who could, like many in those foothills, have been of German descent; this had been a refuge from the Depression for many. There were squat men with Indigena faces, a n Afro-Caribbean or two. As we lumbered out of Huambi in the golden light, we passed mile upon mile of settlers’ shacks nestling in the trees; some smarter than others, some just huts, others with two storeys, brightly-painted, with flowers in the garden. All were jacked up on bricks against the rain.  Indeed, people had come out to enjoy today’s sun. As the afternoon wore on and the light turned yellow and orange, Latin girls with great flashing eyes perched on fences, wearing old-fashioned skirts and blouses and enormous cheap earrings. They seemed proud and sexy, cast members from West Side Story, transported to the jungle.

Back at the Hotel Peñon del Oriente I had a new room. There were even more religious slogans pinned to the walls, roughly typed on bits of card. The religious maniac had however not translated the instructions on the electric shower-head, which were in Portuguese. I put my filthy clothes back on and went in search of Alfredo, hoping he could translate them into Spanish for me. He was out. Sweating and grimy, I stumped back to my room, remembering that I was missing Miss Ecuador on television.

But we were done with Macas and the Southern Oriente. As flights to Quito were rare, we would return by road. I wanted to see Baños, a spa town in the Eastern Andes that was said to be most attractive. We decided that, rather than climb back into the Cordillera via Cuenca, it would be better to cross into the Northern Oriente, transit it briefly and climb the pass from Puyo to Baños.  Puyo was only about 100 miles to the north, but between us and it lay the Río Pastaza, a major river that was being bridged. As the bridge was not finished, we would hire a car to take us to it (there were no buses along that track) and cross in an engineers’ cage. On the other side we might, with luck, pick up a bus or a lift for Puyo.

We left Macas on a cold wet morning. A friendly driver took us northward through the selva in his decayed Japanese car; after an hour or two we arrived on the banks of a steel-grey river that ran between gravel banks and islands. In the distance, low mountains were capped with cloud. On the opposite bank was the Northern Oriente. The driver grasped our hands warmly and wished us a smooth journey; the tired car swayed away across the gravel, its exhaust mixing with the wet mist as it crunched towards Macas. Across the river was a tall two-span steel bridge, some hundreds of yards long; but there was no roadway across it, just a cable that carried a steel box. I could see Ellen turning pale.

“Oh God,” muttered Ellen. “Will you be all right?” I asked her quietly. "Yes, I think so,” she said.  We crammed into the steel cage, which was only just big enough for the four of us; Alfredo pulled the steel mesh door shut and we pulled on the rope and rumbled slowly away from the bank. At first we were a hundred feet above the river, but then we slid close to the rushing, boiling-cold water below. Ellen seemed to be holding her breath. I glanced at her with real regard. She was no soft case; as a midwife, after all, she delivered children – I cannot stand the sight of blood. Yet there had been times during the journey when I had sensed that she had not signed up for quite this. Still,  she never complained, until the night we returned to Quito, where she cornered Dave outside the toilets in the Hotel Colón and gave him a piece of her mind, while I sat in the bar nearby, watching the aftermath of the first Gulf war unfold on CNN. For the moment she held her peace.

Crossing by cage (Pic: M. Robbins)
After many minutes, we thumped into the north bank of the Río Pastaza and disentangled our limbs before stepping out of the cage. Here it was a building site, contractors’ lorries churning all to a muddy wasteland, the rain collecting everywhere in light-brown puddles. In a small shack above, we found a tired young woman selling drinks. Yes, she said, there would be a bus to Puyo in two hours. She brought us coffee and Coke and retired into the shack to breast-feed her child, a speck of femininity in a sea of hard hats and rain-filled ruts. We settled down to wait, saying little. Alfredo and I smoked, exhaling clouds that floated slowly away on the thick, damp air. I watched the men being winched up to the final span of the bridge in steel cradles. In a week’s time they were due to close that final span, and everyone in the Southern Oriente knew what that meant. Change was coming.

That night a truncated American school bus took us from Puyo to Baños on a vertiginous track that wound into the foothills and on up into the Tunguruhua range, climbing into the high Cordillera in just over two hours. By the time we arrived in Baños it was getting dark. Baños is a tourist town, and we had no trouble finding a small, clean, cheerful hotel, where we shaved and showered before going out in search of a good meal. The change in pressure, and temperature, had restored my appetite, and I devoured a huge pizza and swallowed half a bottle of smooth Chilean Gran Reserva before flopping into bed. We were all very tired.

We awoke the next morning to find ourselves in a peaceful and attractive town in a deep, narrow valley, surrounded by the peaks of the Tunguruhua range. There were white churches aplenty here, and many tourists, American and European; the local speciality, a type of toffee, was made in shops open to the street, and pyramids of colourful sombreros, red, white, black and purple, stood ready for sale on the street corners. We walked slowly up the nearest mountain, aiming for the white cross that towered 1,500 ft above the town. Two hours later, we arrived at the foot of the cross. It was quiet; nothing stirred except the long stalks of grass. There was some hazy sunshine, and it was gently warm. To the east we could clearly see the crack in the Tunguruhua range through which the track ran back to Puyo and the Oriente. At the other end of the town, which was laid out like a relief-map at our feet, we could make out the white stone cemetery. A funeral was making its way slowly towards it. It had about a mile to go. I watched its progress. Later we descended to the town and visited the cemetery ourselves. The white tombs, crosses and small mausoleums were divided here and there by bright red flowers; in the distance, the white twin towers of the church in the main square rose against the grey-green peaks, themselves brushed by wisps of grey cloud that crowded into the steep valleys between the sunlit slopes. It was good to be back in the mountains.

I was running out of money now, and would soon return to England. But Dave and I had one last journey to make together.

The track that had brought us out of the selva to Baños had not been the main route into the Northern Oriente. That lay some way to the north, across the Papallacta Pass. A week or so after Easter I arrived at the main bus station, the Terminal Terrestre, at five in the morning. Alfredo and Dave were already there, sitting in the deserted cafeteria and sipping black coffee. They were discussing a plan, later abandoned, to explore riverine caves at Archidona, where you waded in through the entrance to find yourself in a huge colony of vampire bats. We boarded the bus for Lago Agrio, stepping over the boy who collected the fares; he was asleep on the transmission tunnel. Bit by bit the interior filled up with oil workers and their families. We nosed out of the Terminal Terrestre. Quito and its suburbs fell behind as we dropped some 2,000ft into the valley east of the city, and then began the long climb to the 14,000ft Papallacta Pass. Before long the bus pierced the clouds, and I turned behind to look back across the carpet of white. Many miles to the west, back beyond Quito, the serrated peaks of the Pichinchas punched through a pillow of clouds in the thin early-morning light.

Beside us ran the Trans-Andean pipeline. This thin thread of silver steel stood four or five feet above the ground on tripod legs, and wound its way over some of the world’s highest passes, rising from near sea-level in the selva to the summit of the pass and dropping to Quito before running on up the Western half of the Andes, finally dropping to the Pacific oil-terminal near Esmeraldas.

Towards the summit, the sealed surface ran out. As the bus wound its way along the narrow dirt road, bodywork vibrating from the strain on the engine, we crossed and re-crossed the rivers that ran down from the Papallacta watershed. Two or three hours out of Quito, passing over a turbulent stream, I saw through the mist that the current was going the same way as we were. We had begun our descent into the forest. It was a long descent. Sometime in the early afternoon, we were still in the foothills; then we were blocked by a mudslide. A grader arrived, but it was clearly struggling. Bored, we walked some way back up the road to a small wooden shack, to try and beg something to eat.  In front of the hut we found a man of perhaps 30, with an Indian face, tee-shirt, shorts and flip-flops; all four looked tired and worn. His wife looked older. Several children were scratching about in the yard with the chickens. The man greeted us politely, but he had no food to sell us. “You will have better luck at the house up the road, perhaps,” he said. “Unless you would like me to kill a chicken for you. You see, we are a little poor.” It was an understatement. But he took a forked stick and knocked some grapefruit down from his trees. He would accept no payment.

A nice man; but he was also a reminder that, if the oil companies had packed up and left the Oriente that year, nothing would have been solved, for the Shuar, Waorani or anyone else. There would still be internal migration from the highlands above. Since the 1960s, a failure to implement effective land reform had driven some Indigenas in the Cordillera to occupy land unilaterally, sometimes with difficult results. In the meantime, there had been a policy of relieving the pressure of a burgeoning rural population by settling landless campesinos in the virgin territory of the jungle, through the official land agency, IERAC. This had implications for the ecosystem in which the tribal peoples lived.

That system was and is delicate. There were several hundred species of trees, including mahogany and what used to be called cigar-box cedar, although it was now little used for that. The roots of the trees are long; tear them up, and there is little strength left in the remaining soil. And they were being torn up. I had always believed that this was being done by wicked capitalists from North America, Europe or Japan, but in Ecuador at that time, at least, apart from a little very selective commercial logging, they had little to do with it. Neither was large-scale beef-cattle ranching a major factor. When I returned to London in May I was put in touch with an Oxford-based consultant who had worked with Britain’s Overseas Development Administration (later known as DfID).  “There is a certain amount of clearance by commercial palm-oil companies, but most of it is done by small farmers,” he said. I had heard a theory that clearing land at the base of a valley could cause landslips above, especially in the mountainous Southern  Oriente. He replied that landslips were more common below cultivation than above it. “The main worry is where you get gullies in cultivated fields, in which the water concentrates. It can then run down and destabilize whatever is below it. In fact in the lower slopes of the Andes, where you get landslips, most of the trees have already gone.  I think that you can paint a dramatic picture in all the Andean countries,” he said, citing the example of Santa Cruz in Bolivia, which faced real danger and destitution. In the case of Ecuador’s jungle areas, he suggested, the lack of coordination and efficiency by Government agencies had much to answer for. “Given the appalling situation in the highlands, space does have to be found.  The problem is that settlers are sometimes badly-advised by the land agency and their agriculture often fails. People then sell up to large owners, move on and start again – so you get maximum environmental damage and minimum economic gain.”

Swimming near Shushufindi (Pic: M. Robbins)

This was in 1991. Ecuador has of course moved on since. However, deforestation has continued in Ecuador. Terra-i, a collaboration between (among other institutions) the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia and King’s College London, has apparently found that between January 1 and March 7 2013, some 9,075 ha of Ecuador's forests were cleared; and that this represents a 300% increase on the same period in 2012. Whatever the oil industry may have done in the Oriente, it is far from clear that it has been the main driver of deforestation.

We arrived in Lago Agrio sometime after sunset, the western horizon still glowing orange, the streets lit by shops that lined walkways below the overhangs of ugly concrete buildings. The shops were bursting with goods: portable hi-fi, clothes, luggage – especially luggage. There were expensive hotels in Lago Agrio, and many restaurants. Housewives, out shopping, were casually but expensively dressed by Ecuadorian standards. They looked cheerful. The odd Chevrolet or Nissan Trooper swept by, sometimes with a gringo in the passenger seat. This was oildorado. But the roads were mud and cinder. In the morning an ancient taxi took us along the cinder roads through a jungle punctuated by clearings, in which there were Christmas trees atop wells for gas and oil. Just north of Lago Agrio stood the refineries of Texaco and CEPE, the state oil company. They had a clean, modern 
The Lord Alexandra (Pic: M. Robbins)
look here; lots of fresh paint and silver steel. Now and then an orange flame would rise in the distance, pretty against the blue sky and the bright green vegetation. We waited to cross the mile-wide Río Napo on the ferry. As we stood by the landing-stage, large dumper trucks ploughed through the shallows half a mile away, probably building a bridge. The hot damp air was tinged with diesel. The ferry turned slowly around to drift down on the current. It was called the Lord Alexandra. I was reminded of some of the cocktail menus I had seen over the last three months: one might be offered a Gras Hoper, a Tonkollins or, in one alarming case, a Blood of Mary.

Our route beyond the Río Napo wound through the little settlements that now dotted the region. There was Proyecto, for instance, which was what its name implied – a few clapboard houses, the odd pile of rubbish in the streets and several bars. Shushufindi was similar, but a bit larger.
It was also in the news. The following August, the government was due to allocate blocks for the secondary exploitation of the Shushufindi oilfield. The reserves were thought to amount to 3,045 million barrels, but not all of this would be recovered; this was secondary extraction, meaning that oil not extracted under its own pressure in the first phase would now be pumped out using gas, of which there was plenty in the area. Ecuador thought that about 44% of the Shushufindi reserves could be brought out this way, enough to make the field viable well into the next century.

But Ecuador would not benefit from this as much as it should. Later, in Quito, not long before I left at the beginning of May, I spent an evening talking to Radu. A Romanian by birth, and an oil engineer, he was a friend’s landlord, and now and then we all had a beer. He ran an independent oil consultancy, and he thought that the government was making a mistake. “They’re simply letting blocks to the overseas oil companies,” he explained, “instead of having the state oil company contract them to extract the oil on its own behalf. This means less control over the process for Ecuador, and less revenue.” Some Ecuadorians were very concerned about this. However, as one told me, it was not possible for Ecuador to extract the oil itself. 
Near Shushufindi (Pic: M. Robbins)
Substantial capital would be needed to hire foreign companies such as Texaco and Conoco to drill on behalf of the government, instead of simply leasing blocks to them so that they could extract the oil for their own benefit. Ecuador was paying a third of its overseas earnings to service its debts, and could no longer afford it. This was serious. The percentage of oil earnings clawed back from each barrel was crucial to this small country. In 1985, for example, oil revenues had accounted for 66% of foreign earnings in $US. Then the price of oil dropped, and the oil industry’s contribution to the exchequer dropped to 45%. In the past, OPEC had approved Ecuador’s upping its exports in such a situation, but the country could only go so far down that road; the export infrastructure, like the reserves, was limited. In 1991 things were far worse, for the Gulf War had sent prices tumbling to $15 a barrel as the markets anticipated stronger US influence in the Middle East. By April 1991, projected oil revenue for the year was $130 million down on 1990 – and this in the middle of an economic crisis. No wonder Ecuador could not afford to incur further debt in order to exploit Shushufindi on its own terms.

But there was an optimistic slant to Shushufindi, one that might make it worthwhile nonetheless. What would come out of the field’s secondary exploitation was light crude. South of the Río Pastaza, in the Southern Oriente, lay untapped reserves which were nearly as big. They were unexploited partly because of their location, but also because they were of heavy crude, and could not easily be pumped through the Trans-Andean pipeline. However, if they could be, they would become economic. If the heavy crude was mixed with the light crude about to come on-stream from Shushufindi, this would come to pass.

Like Lago Agrio, Puerto Francisco de Orellana was booming too. This tatty town, better known as Coca, was as far east as you could go in Northern Ecuador before coming to thick jungle that runs down to the Peruvian border about 200 kilometers away, close to the point where Ecuador met Peru, Colombia and, nearly, Brazil. This jungle had never been explored by outsiders. The frontier between what was known and what was not was mostly the Río Napo, an immensely broad river that eventually flows into the Amazon.

We stood beside the river at sunset. There were steel-grey clouds in the sky, but they finished some way above the eastern horizon, which was light and clear; silver and yellow flecks of light bounced off the surface of the river, and a little yellow sunlight filtered through to the landing-stage where the people of Coca’s waterfront were washing and drying their clothes. I wondered if they drank the water as well. Cholera had by then crossed the border in the south; already the first case had been reported in Lago Agrio, where we had spent the previous night. In another week a number of people would die in Chimborazo province, in the high Cordillera. By July, 375 Ecuadorians would be known to have died from the disease.

Over there in the forest, however, worse things might be happening. There was probably oil there too. In the previous 10 years, more and more local tribespeople had been shifted off their land and onto ‘reservations’. The London office of Survival International claimed in March 1990 that 700 of the Waorani people had been kicked off their patch by PetroCanada, which wanted to drill. They were settled in shacks along the oil communication road, where they were supplied with the same rations as the oil-workers: “Powdered drinks, sugar and tinned tuna... They have now become a community of refugees, living on the fringes of the oil-camps,” Survival International alleged.

In July 1987, the indigenous people had struck back. Mgr Alejandro Labaca, Bishop of Coca, and Sister Inés Arango travelled beyond the Río Napo to speak to a group of uncontacted Waorani, or Huaorani, Indians. Mgr Labaca knew that the oil companies would be coming, and wished to make the first contact himself in order to try and protect the Waorani’s interests. The oil companies cooperated to the extent of providing a helicopter. Mgr Labaca left instructions that no reprisals should be taken if he and Arango were harmed. They were, being transfixed by 21 spears, each 12 ft long. Looking across the Río Napo, I reflected that it had happened less than 50 miles away.

The killing of Labaca and Arango did not prevent the Church from trying to protect the rights of the tribes, and in 1988 the Bishops’ Conference actually signed a treaty with the Government which, it hoped, would prevent further incursions. Meanwhile an area of just under 10,000 sq km across the river from Coca had already been designated a national park in 1979. This was the Yasuni National Park.

In fact, so far as I could see, the attitude of Ecuadorians who did want to exploit the selva was not necessarily anti-Indian. Rather, it was a rejection of the concept that they were separate communities and should be left alone. This attitude was best summed up in 1972 by Guillermo Rodríguez Lara, the then military ruler of Ecuador. “There is no more Indian problem,” he argued. “We all become white men when we accept the goals of the national culture.” To the ears of a modern Western liberal like me, this is racist. But it was not meant to be.  I heard something similar from Radu, the Romanian oil engineer, when I returned to Quito. We were sitting outside a bar on the Avenida Amazonas in the centre of Quito. He had been talking about the coming development of the oil industry in the Southern Oriente. I asked him, didn’t it mean that the Shuar would go the way of the Waorani? Live in shacks? Get our diseases? Eat tinned tuna?

“Look,” he said, “right now these people in the jungle wake up, work, eat, go to bed,  breed. That’s all. They know nothing of nothing. There are no books, no music, no medicine,  no art. There is no reason for them to be alive except to keep themselves that way. What kind of life is that? Think what we can bring them. You will see. It will be good for these people.”

As he spoke, something moved behind his chair. It was one of the street kids that scratched a living along the Amazonas, selling flowers and cleaning shoes. Further behind, nearer the kerb, a man with twisted legs dragged himself slowly on his belly towards the Colón.

I liked Sacha when I first saw it. That was in late afternoon. We had paid off the taxi in Shushufindi, taken a bus to Proyecto, and then boarded another bus for the two-hour journey to Coca. This was a bus in the local style. It had a Japanese van chassis with a wooden open-sided structure on the back, immensely strong, roofed over, with a luggage rack up top. There was a platform behind for the guard/conductor to ride on. The old and infirm travelled in the cab at the front, while the rest sat on benches in the wooden frame behind. The benches were under cover, but they were not comfortable, and it was hot. So when a bus finally reached Proyecto sometime after three, Alfredo, Dave and I scrambled onto the roof with our bags.

The first time that the bus met something coming the other way, it pulled over to the side of the narrow grit road to avoid it. The nearside wheels scrabbled sideways, and I thought we would tip over, but this strange vehicle was more stable than it seemed. It was quick, too, and the slipstream on the roof was cool. Too cool, in fact, but every now and then we would pull up to let someone off into the undergrowth at the roadside, where his shack nestled amongst the trees and long grasses, the only decoration on the wood or corrugated iron being the political slogans that they splashed across every vertical surface. As the bus slowed, warm air would touch the face gently; then we would be off through the jungle again at 35 or 40 miles an hour, the coachwork swaying as the bus cantered along the narrow dirt carriageway.

Just before five, we passed through Sacha. Another frontier town; low wooden sheds strung out for a mile and a half on either side of the widened road, pickup trucks circling slowly in front of shops, men in hats. School was out, and there were shoals of teenage girls, smartly uniformed in grey skirts and vermillion blazers, unexpected, as if someone had shipped an English grammar school down the Río Napo. The girls chattered, pinched each other, giggled, waved and nudged at the sight of foreigners perched atop a local bus. Their hair was long, glossy, clean and immaculately combed and their uniforms quite perfect, right down to the long white socks. And the sun was shining, the late-afternoon glow that I liked so much, the world seen through a warm-up filter. Yes, I liked Sacha.

But the next day it looked different. It was about two this time, but it was colder and there had been a little rain on the way from Coca; on top of the bus again, we huddled in waterproofs. Someone was turfed off the bus just outside Coca. Papers not in order.  Snuck across the border from Colombia. “How long have you lived here, then?” I heard a policeman asking him. “Two thousand years,” came the pained reply. By the time we reached Sacha the rain had stopped, but it was overcast and humid, and my face felt dirty. We ate – not well; the lunch of the day at a cheap restaurant, beef stew with rice preceded by yaguarlocro. The latter is a soup of dumplings floating in fat. I ate raw intestine of camel in Africa but I couldn’t eat this. I pushed it aside, feeling a bit sick. The previous night we had drunk too much cheap sweet Colombian rum in our hotel room in Coca. In the morning I had taken a shower in our hotel bathroom. It was dirty, and had used toilet-paper piled up high in the bin in the corner. No-one had emptied it. It stank.

I tried the stew. The air felt thicker, damper.
“You wanted to see a dirty oil well,” said Alfredo. “An ugly one.”
I nodded.
“We’ll find one.”

A little outside the town, on the main road to Coca, there was an oil installation. It was some way back from the road, but you could see the tall steel pipes through which the gas was being flared off, the bright orange flames clear against the grey sky, threads of black smoke curling upwards from their heat. We turned down a partially-surfaced track nearby, and walked for a mile until we reached a clearing. There was a steel oil tap there. A few yards away was what might once have been a small lagoon, about 50 ft wide and 400 ft long. It was now filled with solid oil-waste that had crystallized in the sunlight. We threw stones on the surface, but they didn’t sink. The clearing smelled like a dockyard. Not far away a line of eight or nine pipes swung through a gash in the jungle.

Texaco had been the company mainly responsible for oil exploration in the Northern Oriente. Other companies had joined them now, but it was still their symbol that seemed to appear everywhere in the Oriente and they were, with Conoco, the first to bid for the new Shushufindi blocks. In Britain I contacted them through their London press office. 
At Sacha (Pic: M. Robbins)
Through ‘phone and letter, I asked: were they responsible for this? If not, what do they think would be the technical reason for it? Were they interested in the Southern Oriente? And do they have any fund for contributing to the development of the area in which they are working? I received no reply, apart from a tentative query, relayed from America, as to who I was.

Unknown to me, however, others were asking questions too. Two years later, in 1993, a group of Ecuadorians from the Oriente sued Texaco, alleging that the pollution from the company’s operations had damaged not only the environment but the health of people in the region.  The company had, it was said, discharged huge amounts of toxic and carcinogenic waste into open, unlined pits like the one I have described. It was also alleged to have burned off oil spills, creating heavy smoke and soot. Nine years later the US court decided not to hear the case on the grounds that it was better brought in Ecuador. In 2003 it was, although Texaco had by then been bought by Chevron.  In 2011 the latter was ordered to pay $8.6 billion in damages and clean-up costs, and to make a public apology – or, if it did not do the latter, to pay $18 billion, a sum that eventually became a $19 billion judgment.  Chevron has not admitted liability; it has appealed, and has also filed racketeering charges against the plaintiff’s legal team. In September 2013 Correa himself lost patience and called for a world-wide boycott of Chevron.

We walked back towards the main road. Where there was tarmac on the track, it was liberally covered with sticky oil waste, giving off a tarry odour in the humid, overcast afternoon. Towards us came a settler family, a man and his teenage sons. Perhaps they were from the highlands, and had swapped shawls and bowler hats for the tee-shirts and flip-flops they were wearing now. They passed us without comment, their faces quite expressionless, their flip-flops sticking on the tacky tarmac. I thought of hot waterfalls plunging into a clear, pebbled pool and multicoloured butterflies and a young mother with a little boy; his stomach was swollen, but she was smiling at him, and rocking him back and forth, very gently.

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Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.