Looking south over the Plain of Bah, in the heart of Borneo, was the last intensively inhabited valley in Sarawak that industrial loggers had now reached but they are now on the outskirts of Bario.
In the Eden-like rainforests that once clothed the equator, multinational corporations are quietly stealing the resources of powerless, largely voiceless indigenous peoples whose names still identify the mountains, the valleys, and the rivers from where oil, timber, gold and other valuable minerals are spirited away. Imagine one morning walking into the New York’s Central Park only to be denied entry at the gates as oil derricks can be seen rising up from the flowerbeds. You protest, that this is a public park and it belongs to everyone, but a stranger stands in your way waving an official document. Perhaps it has been written in a language you don’t speak, and in an alphabet you cannot read. This park is not yours, explains the stranger. In fact it never was, because it has always belonged to the government who has now leased your land to this corporation you’ve never heard of, from a country you have never been. Finally, he gleefully informs you, should you try to enter these grounds, he will have you arrested, or worse.
This is exactly what has happened in Borneo, where indigenous Dayak peoples have found themselves unable to enter forests their ancestors have hunted in for a millennium or more because a bureaucrat in an office in a city far away has given over the title to their ancestral homeland to a politically-connected corporation.
Most of the lands along the equator are sparsely populated, meaning that they are out of sight and out of mind to most of the industrial world, where the bulk of the end-consumers of commodities live. If you take away Singapore, Quito, maybe Manaus and Kinshasa, what you are left with are very sparsely populated environments where the impoverished tropical soils are unsuited to feeding large populations. Most of the bio-mass is above ground, unlike in our temperate zone where the thick, nutrient-rich topsoil stores much of the bio-mass. Cut down a rainforest and the bio-mass is gone. The forest cannot grow back. On the equator, you have a hyper-sensitive tropical environment more akin, in some ways, to the arctic. Independent industrial oversight becomes difficult because access is expensive. It is awfully easy to lose someone in the jungle and many activists have been “lost” doing such work.
In 2012, rainforest activists were being killed at the rate of one a week in Brazil.
Wary-eyed, almost elfin Batek Negrito beauty of a new mother holding her newborn child, just days old in the 130 million year old rainforest in which he was born. Near Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia. The Batek Negritos, like many forest dwelling people, can be quite aloof in the presence of strangers from outside the forest. This is a typical Batek Negrito settlement, who live in temporary, rudimentary shelters that are easily abandoned, except that polyethylene sheeting has largely replaced palm thatch and cotton clothing has replaced clothing from plant materials.
Last nail in rainforest’s coffin: First the rainforest was likely “selectively” logged once or even several times, then clear-cut, then oil palm was planted on the bare ground. Finally a major road is cut, clearly demarkating the land for permanent development. North of Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia. Batek Negritos used to live in the forest that used to cover this land and now has gained some quasi-“green” credentials under the banner of producing “green” bio fuel.
A party of Batek Negrito make their way through the old growth rainforest without getting lost. Aside for some store-bought rice, the Batek depend on the forest of all of their food. Women collect tubers (wild yams) and various forest greens, in addition to fishing to contribute staples to the Batek diet. In some river valleys, Malays colonized the riverbanks in the early 20th century and planted fruit trees but were forced out during the Malayan (Communist) insurgency (1948 -1960) when guerillas used the rainforest as their base of operations to mount ambushes. The Malay farmers never returned but many of the fruit trees from the abandoned homesteads remained productive to this day. Monoculture oil palm plantation, with the concept of land ownership, puts an immediate end to such gathering. Near Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia.
Debris litters grounds at an unfinished brick housing built at a government-funded settlement built to lure the Batek Negrito people out of the rainforest and assimilate into the mainstream cash economy outside the entrance to Taman Negara National Park. The government has tried now for several generations and failed to achieve this. Batek who work outside on the cash economy use this settlement as a bedroom community but inevitably return to the cooler rainforest at the first opportunity. Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia.
Batek Negrito boy swims in the pure waters of a stream that comes out of the old growth rainforest of Taman Negara National Park, a protected forest almost completely surrounded by oil palm plantations. Near Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia. Taman Negara National Park, 434,300 hectares (4,343 sq. km) of protected primary rainforest that supports tigers, sumatran rhinoceros, Asian elephants, Malaysian gaur (wild bovine), tapir, gibbons, monkeys totalling over 200 species of terrestrial animals, over 300 species of birds and over 1,000 species of butterfly. Malaysia’s dwindling rainforests are home to over 14,500 species of flowering plants and trees. This is the homeland of the Batek Negrito people.
Barren Batek Negrito settlement set up by the government outside the entrance to Taman Negara National Park, sandwiched between the great protected forest and vast oil palm plantations to the north that now occupy land the Batek would live in and wander through when it was clothed in old growth rainforest not so long ago, Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia. The settlement lacks any shade and residents often retreat from the infernal midday sun into a forest settlement where the other families from the same clan have chosen to remain and live. Public showers can be seen in the middle of the image.
Gunung Palung Nat’l Forest is one of the last protected refuges for orang utans. This young illegal logger has been lent a chain saw for the merchant in town who sells the timber. Illegal loggers have penetrated deep into the park. On a five hour hike, one way, into an orang utan research center within the park, four hours of the hike were through illegally logged forest.
Barge piled with logs from the Borneo interior is brought to one of the saw mills that line the Batang (River) Kemena, Bintulu, Sarawak, Malaysia. According to the United Nations Environment Programme – World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), 2004 World Database on Protected Areas Malaysia lost an average of 78,500 hectares of forest per year between 1990 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, the rate of deforestation actually increased by 85.1%. From 1990 to 2005, Malaysia forest cover decreased by 1.5 million hectares.
Batang Ai Dam looms in the haze from great forest fires, Sarawak (Borneo), Malaysia. Dayak longboats moored at ethnic Chinese restaurant shack beside the Batang Ai Dam beneath the haze from massive forest fires across the border in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Batang Ai, Sarawak, Malaysia, (Borneo)
The Baram River, the jungle thoroughfare for the indigenous Dayak peoples, snakes through the last great forest in Southeast Asia, the interior forest of Borneo, and into Penan territory. Not long ago, the Baram River and its tributaries were the only way from the Kelibits and the Penans to travel to the coast from Long Lellang. The journey took 10 days. For a couple of decades, tons of top soil, mostly washed away because intensive logging operations which exposes the earth to torrential rains in this watershed have turned the waters the color of cafe latte.
Since 1994, I have chronicled indigenous human rights violations and destruction of the equatorial rainforest in Borneo, and Peninsular Malaysia, first in the form of logging and then by creating vast monoculture oil palm plantations (often by subsidiaries of the same corporation), reducing the vast majority of the local population to cheap unskilled labor in the cash economy. These are the “little people”. They are little in number, often little in stature and little in the eyes of government. I am aware of a potential pejorative interpretation but just as the term once referred to the “inconsequential, great unwashed” masses, the indigenous peoples of the equatorial rainforest are often regarded by resource extractors as little more than an inconvenient hindrance standing between the corporation and the wealth in raw materials they seek.
The challenge in documenting such issues is to intimately connect the consumer in the north with the economic affect their consumption has on people living on the far side of the supply chain. If the reportage is to be successful, it must demonstrate the direct connection of the actions of more-prosperous end-consumers on one side of our planet with billions of others who either labor in poverty or become impoverished so that the end-consumers can live better, more fulfilling lives. I like to pose uncomfortable questions about the capitalist system as it is practiced today.
Recently, I’ve expanded this project into the Guinean and Congo Basin rainforests of Africa; and into the Amazon Basin, where indigenous peoples are under unprecedented pressure confronting the corporate giants of raw material extraction or even rising global powers like China. A pattern begins to emerge: well-funded outside entities reduce the most complex ecosystems on the planet to surface and subterranean commodity storehouses waiting to be exploited with the promise of huge potential profit.
Sometimes, however, the “little people” successfully defend their forests, as was the case for the Saamaka Maroon people, Africans who threw off the chains of slavery and carved out entirely African societies, in the Amazonian forests of Suriname, when they slipped away from Dutch Colonial plantations in the 17th and 18th centuries. Suriname signed a Memoranda of Understanding in December 2010 for US$ 6 billion with two Chinese companies for mega-infrastructure projects including the construction of a deep water port in the capital, Paramaribo and a railroad which would open up its pristine, trackless interior to exploitation directly through Saamaka land, connecting the capital with Manaus, Brazil, in the heart of the Amazon. The Surinamese parliament voted down this project due in no small part to the political power of the Saamaka since the The Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared them to be indigenous people under international law. For the Saamaka, there are still a wide array of multinational timber and mining interests from China, Canada and the United States coveting the natural resources on their land.
Pristine Amazonian forest for as far as the eye can see in Suriname’s interior. Powerful multinational logging corporations do not view this untouched forest as a treasure trove of bio-diversity, they see easy profits in “green gold” waiting to be exploited.
Rainforest crowds the perimeter of a gravel quarry run by China Dalian International in a tropical downpour. Suriname descended into civil war from 1986 to 1992 and some of the fiercest battles between Ronny Brunswijk’s “Jungle Commando” and the Surinamese army were fought in this area. Safety messages for workers are written in Chinese on a wall on the right, as all the workers and supervisors seen on site were Chinese nationals, except the bored security guard at the front gate. Near Moengo, Suriname.
A Saamaka Maroon mother prepares rice with her children in front of their home in a village near Djumu five hours by boat up the Suriname River from the end of the road in Atjoni. In 2010, the government of the Peoples Republic of China offered Suriname US$ 6 billion to build a railroad/highway from Paramaribo to Manaus, Brazil right through this watershed in exchange for logging access to the trackless interior rainforests of Suriname.
Saamaka Maroon man takes a drink on a hot day near handmade sluice box used to separate gold from the soil and foul water cuts into the soft earth. Saamaka Maroon artisanal miners works independently adjacent to the Canadian-run Rosebel mine, scouring out entire watersheds, to extract gold from the riverbed using mercury (quicksilver) to enhance recovery of gold. Large quantities of toxic, mercury is discharged into the watershed, which contaminates fish stocks, poisoning a primary source of protein for the local Maroon population. In the end what is left is an inorganic poison wasteland where once stood one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Near Brownsweg, Suriname.
Tattered ocelot pelt, listed as an endangered species by CITES (Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species), nailed to the wall of a housing compound set up by a road paving crew for China Dalian International that are paving the road from Brokopondo to Atjoni deep in Saamaka territory in the Amazon rainforest, Suriname.
Old growth Amazonian rainforest within Saamaka Maroon territory under the 1762 treaty with the Dutch colonial administration. Brownsberg, Suriname.
Saamaka Maroon mother with her newborn child in front of her house in Ben Dikonde, near the village of Djumu, Boven Suriname (Upper Suriname River). Suriname. The Maroons, a general name derived from the Spanish, “cimarron” used in Hispaniola to refer to escape cattle that took to the hills, are descendents of Africans who escaped slavery on foot centuries ago to live deep in the Amazon much as they had in the rainforests of West Africa. Maroons refer to themselves as “Busikonde Sembe” or “People of the Bush”.
Artisanal gold mines snake along water courses deep in a sea of trackless Amazon rainforest. More often than not, these illegal mines are worked by Brazilian “garimpeiros” miners. Suriname.
Maroon woman holds up feathers that are an ingredient of traditional medicine she is selling at the Maroon market in Paramaribo. Suriname.
Men and women must pass through separate portals at this sacred Saamaka gate at the edge of the forest. Djumu, Boven Suriname (Upper Suriname River), Suriname.
Creole and Maroon residents of Parimaribo walk in the historical riverfront district celebrating the Keti Koti (“Cut Chain”) Slavery Emancipation day in Suriname. Maroons celebrate the holiday, though their ancestors escaped from slavery, while Creoles suffered from slavery until Keti Koti Emancipation on the first of July in 1863, though there was a 10 year transition period until 1873 when all slaves could walked off of the plantations as free people.
In Cameroon, US-owned Herakles Farms and its subsidiary, SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SGSOC) proposed carving out a massive oil palm plantation in Southwest Cameroon in one of the last unbroken masses of Guinean rainforest in West Africa. The plan called for the creation of a vast oil palm plantation (69,975 hectares/148,000 acres) on a 73,086 hectare (180,599 acres) concession (ten times the size of Manhattan) leased for 99 years on land linking two national parks, two forest reserves and one wildlife sanctuary. After years of effort by local activists like Christopher Achobang, in concert with Greenpeace, the size of the proposed concession has been reduced to roughly 20,000 hectares (49,421 acres) leased for 3 years, that could be transformed into a 99-year lease at a later date. The concession still covers an area more than twice the size of Manhattan. Less tropical forest means fewer leaves. Fewer leaves, which absorb carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), means accelerated global warming and climate change. It all works in concert.
For all the uncertainty in Suriname and Cameroon, those two examples represent rare bright spots in a rather bleak roster of land and human rights violations along the equator. The Ecuadorian Amazonas region seemed to be shaping up as a 21st century role model for finding balance between commerce and conservation, while balancing the greater good versus respecting human rights and the environment when dealing with the consequences of drilling for oil.
In 2011, an Ecuadoran court fined Chevron US$ 19 billion in a lawsuit brought by residents who claimed greatly elevated rates of cancer from petroleum contamination by Texaco on their land. That victory was short-lived. In 2014, US District Judge Lewis Kaplan overturned the Ecuadoran court ruling by finding the Ecuadoran plaintiffs’ American attorney, Stephen Donziger, employed “corrupt means” to win his case against Chevron, who now owns of Texaco, for contaminating the environment and health-related issues to residents living in areas affected by Texaco’s operations there, starting in 1964. Kaplan’s decision means that Ecuadoran villagers cannot claim any of the money due them from the Ecuadoran court’s ruling. After two decades of court cases, it is back to square one for the Ecuadoran plaintiffs.
Villager in Ayang Atemako cuts down a bundle of oil palm fruit on the village’s own small artisanal farm. Villages cannot compete with large plantations because the plantations can afford the massive amounts of fertilizer needed to yield larger, higher quality fruits. The farmers of Ayang Atemako use no fertilizer at all. Most of the palm oil produced here is for local consumption. Oil palm trees are native to West Africa. Southwestern Cameroon is on the edge of the region formerly known as the “Oil Rivers”, because of palm oil, not petroleum, extending from the Niger River Delta of Nigeria into Cameroon. From the 1870’s, the British, Germans and French jockeyed for control to break the so-called “African Mafia” of middle men who held a monopoly over palm oil, a much sought commodity to make lubricants for machinery and soap. Now palm oil is used for bio-fuel, cosmetics, and foods by major buyers including, Nestle, McDonald’s, Unilever and Walmart.
Grabbing a peek at what is supposed to be out of sight: Herakles Farms’ massive, illegal oil palm plantation because, at the time of writing Greenpeace says that Herakles Farms, through its subsidiary SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SGSOC), has failed to obtain a presidential decree making all land clearance operations illegal. Talangaye, Cameroon. Only by hiking covertly through an adjacent forest, led by a Herakles Farms employee was it possible to show this nursery which was to be the first step in creating vast oil palm plantations (60,000 hectares/148,000 acres) on a 73,086 hectare (180,599 acres) concession (ten times the size of Manhattan) clear-cutting forest on land linking two national parks, two forest reserves and one wildlife sanctuary. But now, according to Greenpeace, the size of the proposed concession has been reduced to roughly 20,000 hectares (49,421 acres), still more than twice the size of Manhattan.
Road from village to farmers’ plots reduced to a rain choked pond, perfect to breeding malaria mosquitoes, by logging trucks which use the road to penetrate into the pristine interior forest. Herakles Farms’ concession would be very close to this location, though Herakles would clear-cut the forest to convert it to an oil palm plantation, completely decimating the environment and dislocating farmers.
Women farmers return to the village of Sikam over a logging road bridge built to selectively log north of the village. Now Herakles Farms wants to clear-cut the forest to the south and convert the land to a massive oil palm plantation. Cameroon.
The Congo Basin rainforest crowds a pristine beach littered with dugout fishing pirogues (canoes) at the village of Ebodje, Cameroon. This entire village and shoreline lies within the new Chinese-funded Kribi deepwater seaport’s 260 square kilometer land use area which calls into question whether there will be an Ebodje village in the future at all. In addition to the main deepwater seaport, the plans call for a liquid natural gas (LNP) and iron ore ports to be built to the south in the direction of this pristine beach. An industrial city of 80,000 people is planned just north of the main port, as well as a railroad and an iron ore mine nearby where now there is largely rainforest. Ebodje is a typical rural village squeezed between the rainforest and the Atlantic. Most villages, like Ebodje, are inhabited by the majority Bantu peoples strung out along a slender unpaved road. There are also several Bagyeli Pygmy semi-nomadic communities near the coast road, where they trade with the Bantu and then return to the deep forest, where they hunt and gather forest products. The balance of this timeless African economy is about to change forever.
Clouds of dust and odd hillocks left to allow electric wires to remain in place in building site for the new US$567 million Chinese-funded Kribi deepwater seaport under construction by the China Harbour Engineering Company. 85% of the funding is coming from China, with the remaining 15% coming from Cameroon. Most analysts agree Cameroon lacks a highly trained workforce, meaning that its people will miss out on employment opportunities generated by the project. The seaport’s 260 square kilometer land use area which will extend from roughly 35 km (21 miles) south of Kribi another 30 km (18.6 miles) south to the border of Equatorial Guinea. In addition to the main deepwater seaport, the plans call for a liquid natural gas (LNP) and iron ore ports to be built to the south in the direction of this pristine beach. An industrial city of 80,000 people is planned just north of the main port, as well as a railroad and an iron ore mine nearby where now there is largely rainforest.
Motorcycle accident on the way to market. Two men and a 2 m + long barracuda were thrown off the motorcycle when the slippery barracuda shifted, threw off their balance and face first on the main dirt track that serves as the highway to Kribi. Large fish like this barracuda are caught from dugout pirogue canoes. Grand Batanga, Cameroon.
Tractor trailer, that shares this unpaved main highway between Kribi and the Kribi deepwater seaport with pedestrians, motorbikes, etc., has run off the road and tipped over. This route is poised for huge change with new, massive US$567 million Chinese-funded Kribi deepwater seaport under construction by the China Harbour Engineering Company and a proposed satellite industrial city slated for 80,000 residents but it is already dangerous for residents who share it with heavy vehicles. Cameroon.
Chutes de la Lobe waterfall along Cameroon’s wild southern coast is one of the few waterfalls that empty into the sea. Near Kribi, Cameroon.
Member of the Bagyeli Pygmy people, Eikanda Marie, Jean Danet’s wife, breastfeeds her infant son in their settlement near the boundary of the US$567 million Kribi Deepwater Seaport under construction the China Harbour Engineering Company. Apparently the promised benefits of the infrastructure project has not trickled down to this Bagyeli community. Cameroon near the border of Equatorial Guinea. Their settlement sits lies within the new Chinese-funded Kribi deepwater seaport’s 260 square kilometer land use area. In addition to the main deepwater seaport, the plans call for a liquid natural gas (LNP) and iron ore ports to be built to the south in the direction of this pristine beach. An industrial city of 80,000 people is planned just north of the main port, as well as a railroad and an iron ore mine nearby where now there is largely rainforest.
What is unusual, perhaps unique, about this region is that the pristine, untouched forests are actually downstream because the population centers of Ecuador sit high up in the Altiplano of the Andes. Texaco and others started at the foot of the Andes and made their way south and east building roads where squatters settled in behind them, pushing the indigenous people further into the forest, or drawing them out of the forest altogether into the lowest, most impoverished level of the cash-economy. Contaminants from all this activity are carried downstream into otherwise pristine habitats.
President Rafael Correa proposed the Yasuni-ITT Initiative in 2007, to forbid drilling for petroleum in this core area of Yasuni National Park, if and only if international donors raised US$3.6 billion, equal to half the value of the estimated oil reserves lying below. (Oil drilling is already taking place inside Yasuni National Park, which begs the question, what exactly is a national park for, if it does protect the environment under its jurisdiction from oil drilling?) The initiative failed spectacularly, raising only US$13 million in actual donations. The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, through which the Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini Rivers run, which would have forbidden oil exploration in this protected bio-hotspot, was officially terminated on 15 August 2013. Although 78% – 90% of Ecuadorans oppose oil exploration in this extremely sensitive ecosystem, the government will now allow oil companies to enter it.
These local crises, taken together, constitute a full-blown global crisis. There is a clear pattern where, even if the indigenous inhabitants ultimately win a legal battle or two, they are losing large swathes of their ancestral homelands. Sometimes they lose all of it. I have yet to encounter a project in the equatorial rainforest that has met company proclamations of inflicting minimal harm on the environment.
The Rio Napo already a broad river 50 km (31 miles) from the Andes stretches out into the Amazon Basin. Coca, Ecuador.
“Afectado” (Affected One): Davo Enemenga, a Huaorani man whose ancestral land has been contaminated by oil exploration by Chinese government-owned, Petro Oriental. “They promised to help us (the local Huaorani residents) and and did not, says Enomenga. They caused us problems. They paid us nothing, no cash (his word, “silver” coins or cash). They cheated us”. Proveta, south of Coca, Ecuador. According to the company website, “PetroOriental S.A. are companies established through capital provided by state-run firms from the People’s Republic of China. These include: China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) with 55% shareholder participation and China Petrochemical Corporation (SINOPEC) with 45% shareholder participation.”
Petroleum-laced water fills a concrete pit from where it often overflows from the exhausted drilling site and continues to contaminate Jose Aveiga’s land. The oil company paid Aveiga US$12/year to occupy this hilltop on his 80 hectare farm. Cattle droppings can be found around this pit because the cattle drink the contaminated water. In turn, the family consumes the beef and dairy products from their herd. Via Auca near the Rio Tiputini, Ecuador.
“A petrolero” (oil company worker) watches a tanker truck filled with petroleum from an open-air restaurant as it rolls through central Dayumi along the Via Auca, clogged with shops and pedestrians (including a mother carrying her baby above the wheel to the right). Ecuador. Via Auca is a road that extends south from the city of Coca. Coca began as a solitary airstrip for a military outpost in the mid-1960’s. The Huaorani were referred to as the “Aucas” or “savages” by their indigenous neighbors, the Kichwa. The Via Auca, which extends south from Coca opened up territory where the “uncontacted” lived.
A traditional communal lodge used by Huaorani hunters and their families when they go into the rainforest, but they must be careful in the forest here because a breakaway group of self- imposed uncontacted (no contactos) Huaorani, called the Taromenani, live nearby. In 2013, a Taromeneni war party murdered Huaorani elder, Ompore Omeway and his wife, Buganey in this forest near the boundary of Yasuni National Park. The Huaorani retaliated, massacring roughly 20 Taromenani. There has been no resolution to this conflict, exacerbated by the encroachment of oil companies into the last pristine rainforests, including Yasuni National Park. Near Yawepare, south of Coca. Ecuadorian Amazonas.
“Afectado (affected person): Water, highly contaminated by petroleum waste, gathers around a slurry-waste injection compressor inspected by Jose Aveiga, the landowner. The slurry-waste injection compressor is supposed to safely return waste petroleum slurry safely thousands of meters back into the earth from where the petroleum came at this exhausted well, but it leaks petroleum waste into the environment, where it has soaked into the water table. Cattle manure can be found around this pit because the cattle drink the contaminated water. In turn, the family consumes the beef and dairy products from their herd. Via Auca near the Rio Tiputini, Ecuador. The oil company paid Aveiga US$12/year to occupy this hilltop on his 80 hectare farm. Via Auca near the Rio Tiputini, Ecuador.
“Afectados” (Affected Ones): Oil derrick towers above students, with their pet toucan, in front of their elementary school, where they must endure the noise, noxious fumes and the dust raise by heavy trucks associated with the petroleum business. Near Dayuma along Via Auca. Ecuadorian Amazonas.
“Afectados” (Affected Ones): A Huaorani grandfather, suffering from a skin condition, spends quiet time with his grandchild in a traditional thatched structure. He says that “petroleros”, or oil company workers, suggested that petroleum be used as a skin lotion. It was presented to him as one of the “benefits” that oil exploration would bring to the village of Yawapare off of Via Auca. Then, he developed patches of irritation on his legs. Yawepare, Ecuador. Via Auca is a road that extends south from the city of Coca. Coca began as a solitary airstrip for a military outpost in the mid-1960’s. The Huaorani were referred to as the “Aucas” or “savages” by their indigenous neighbors, the Kichwa. The Via Auca, which extends south from Coca opened up territory where the “uncontacted” lived.
Ecuadorian boatman, Ronny Cox, stands before a massive buttressed roots of a Ceibo tree in the core ITT block of Yasuni National Park, only accessible by boat and then on foot. President Rafael Correa proposed to forbid drilling for petroleum in this core area as part of his Yasuni-ITT Initiative in 2007, if and only if international donors raised US$3.6 billion, equal to half the value of the estimated reserves lying below this bio-hotspot. (Drilling for oil is already taking place in other areas of Yasuni National Park.) The initiative failed spectacularly as only US$13 million were raised. The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, through which the Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini Rivers run, was terminated on 15 August 2013. Although 78% – 90% of Ecuadorians opposing drilling in this sensitive environment, the government has begun to let oil companies in.
The floating world of Rio Tambococha in Yasuni National Parks core ITT section, as rafts of vegetation encroach upon the pristine “black” waters. President Rafael Correa proposed to forbid drilling for petroleum in this core area as part of his Yasuni-ITT Initiative in 2007, if and only if international donors raised US$3.6 billion, equal to half the value of the estimated reserves lying below this bio-hotspot. (Drilling for oil is already taking place in other areas of Yasuni National Park.) The initiative failed spectacularly as only US$13 million were raised. The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, through which the Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini Rivers run, was terminated on 15 August 2013. Although 78% – 90% of Ecuadorians opposing drilling in this sensitive environment, the government has begun to let oil companies in.
Witnessing and documenting “sustainable selective” logging in Borneo immediately reveals the practice is neither selective nor sustainable. Petroleum exploration in the Amazon leaves behind crude oil to contaminate the water table entering the human food chain through drinking, cooking and washing. The Bakun Hydroelectric Dam in Malaysian Borneo, which displaced about 10,000 indigenous Dayak residents, and inundated an area the size of Singapore, was designed to deliver electricity to distant cities. Electricity is even exported to Indonesia and Brunei while completely bypassing local rural residents, carried by high tension wires passing directly over Iban Dayak longhouse communities who receive no electric power from them at all. River courses in Suriname’s interior are hydraulically blasted all the way down to the bedrock, spoilt with mercury, in the pursuit of small amounts of gold. In two decades of documenting on three continents, scars and poison have been the norm. This leaves almost nothing but hardship for future generations. Something’s got to give. Far from pushing aside the “little peoples” of the equatorial rain-forests, who have lived for centuries in balance with these fragile ecosystems, the industrial north should be seeking them out to learn from them. In part, our long-term survival may depend on their wisdom.
James Whitlow Delano has lived in Asia for over 20 years. His work has been awarded internationally: the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica’s Oskar Barnack, Picture of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, PDN and others for work from China, Japan, Afghanistan and Burma, etc. His first monograph book, Empire: Impressions from China was the first ever one-person show of photography at La Triennale di Milano Museum of Art. The Mercy Project / Inochi his charity photo book for hospice received the PX3 Gold Award and the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts. His work has appeared in magazines and photo festivals on five continents. His latest award-winning monograph book, Black Tsunami: Japan 2011 (FotoEvidence) explored the aftermath of Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear disaster. He’s a grantee for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, for work documenting the destruction of equatorial rainforests and human rights violations of indigenous inhabitants there. In 2015, Delano founded EverydayClimateChange Instagram feed, where photographers from 6 continents document global climate change on 7 continents.
James Whitlow Delano