Pink Floyd was playing on the loudspeaker of the ferry transporting us over the Rio Napo into the 2,700-square-mile Yasuni National Park in the Amazon basin in Ecuador’s El Oriente region. We had missed the previous ferry after making hours of slow progress over rutted roads through a largely denuded countryside, then had to kill an hour in a shoreside scene of extreme informality—hot sun, muddy, littered paths along the river, lazing dogs, scattered houses, a little shop, and a dirt parking lot for waiting vehicles. The scene on the other side, however, was more like Guantanamo. From the dock, my students from City College and I walked along narrow chain-link passages topped with razor wire, passed though a magnetometer, had hand luggage X-rayed and passports balefully compared to a list sent in advance, and watched our bus be taken into a camouflage-painted metal shed for the once-over. No Coke stands or pleasantries here. Instead, there were gun towers, searchlights, signs forbidding alcohol and drugs, and M-16-toting men from the Ecuadorian army and private security firms with Orwellian names like Servisafe and Servipro. An unexpected gateway to paradise.
Yasuni is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet—a UNESCO “world biosphere reserve”—a river-laced rain forest teeming with life and home to the indigenous Haorani people. And to oil. Crossing the river, we were entering Block 16, one of the giant concessions that have platted Oriente since 1967, when a consortium of Texaco and Gulf discovered huge oil reserves there. By mid-1972, exploitation was in full swing and a 312-mile-long pipeline had been constructed from the now-booming village of Neuva Loja (universally called Lago Agrio—Bitter Lake—after Texaco’s headquarters in Texas) to the coast from which the crude is shipped abroad, primarily to the U.S. The high security was intended to protect this resource, to secure the jungle against incursions by terrorists, smugglers, narcotics traffickers, poachers, loggers, and settlers. Of course, it did nothing to protect the area from the traumatic impact of petroleum itself.