Q: How do I know Yasuní National Park is the most biodiverse place in the planet?
A: Because on Saturday mornings, that diversity is on sale in Pompeya.
I´m not quite sure what I was expecting to discover this Saturday, but I certainly didn´t plan on finding anything as disturbing as I did. One of my interviewees told me that if I really wanted to know what was happening in Yasuní, I needed to go to the market town of Pompeya, just early enough to catch the first boats coming in from the Rio Napo. I asked around and found a few biologists who travel there every weekend, and at 5:00 a.m., off I went.
The route itself was an interesting one. In 2005, petroleum companies built the Ecuadorian equivalent of a superhighway straight into the heart of Yasuní National Park. We had to show our papers to use it: access is 100% controlled by the private companies, and the rumor is that even park guards need to ask permission in advance. As part of their strategy for winning over the local population, the companies also provide subsidized transportation to surrounding indigenous communities.
The result is that, for the first time in their history, the Huaorani are able to take their traditional subsistence hunting and commercialize it, with disastrous results. The “market” is an informal affair; there are no stalls or tiendas, just a handful of trucks waiting around for boats to come in. At around 7:00 a.m., the hunters start to arrive. Occassionally they bring the entire animal, hooves jutting out of blood-drenched burlap bags or a tail hanging limply from plastic wrap. Other times, it´s just a leg or a torso. The Huaorani look out of place: uncomfortable wearing clothes, much less haggling over prices. It´s clear they don´t know how to play the game; one woman selling an armadillo asks for $50 – an absurdly high price – and then gets 50 cents – a complete rip off. It doesn´t seem like a huge quantity of meat – I see probably 20 to 30 animals change hands – but the biologists assure me that, thanks to overexploitation, there are now entire tracts of the park without picari or guanta.
There is, of course, a certain amount of guilt I feel as a Westerner watching this unfold. The entire market is propelled by idiot tourists who want to eat “jungle meat.” Even as a vegetarian, though, I don´t feel much better: you, me, and everyone we know are implicated in the whole affair to, insofar as we live off of petroleum. It´s oil that destroyed these peoples´ traditional livelihood, oil that drove them to put their forest on the auction block, oil that introduced them to new “needs” and “necessities” that makes money an unavoidable part of their lives.
For all this blame that falls on Western shoulders, though, it´s hard for me not to get mad at the hunters themselves. I suppose there´s nothing particularly cruel about hunting a tapir using a spear or a blowgun, as hard as it is for me to stomach. The live animals, though, are another matter. When I saw the first bag twitching, my heart sank: the market is not just a place for the trafficking of meat, but also for live animals, to be pets or zoological spectacles or, occassionally, to be slaughtered later. The animals don´t understand what´s going on, but you can see it in their eyes – from monkeys to tortoises – that they know that this is not where they belong.
And to what end, all of this? The real driving impetus behind all of this comes not in bloody burlap bags, but in twelve packs. The money paid out for the meet stays in indigenous hands for only a few minutes, before it is turned over to beer wholesalers. Beer is being moved in unfathomable quantities: every boat coming in from downriver unloads crates and crates of empty bottles, and leaves with them filled. We estimate that 12,000 bottles are purchased in one morning – that´s $12,000, every week, for communities without schools, without health centers, without jobs.
Don´t get me wrong: I support the right of poor people to drink beer, and feel like I have no right to frown on people engaging in activities of which I myself partake just because they were born poorer than I. But the whole situation was so massively fucked up that I can´t even figure out who it is, exactly, that I want to be mad at, who I want to throttle. The saddest for me was a Huaorani boy with a baby Armadillo. He and his friends clearly delighted in tormenting it, whipping it around by the tail, stomping on it, throwing it against the wall. Eventually the parents walk over, but not to interrupt – just to join in.
I am reminded that people who are recipients of a lifelong ass-kicking rarely respond by turning against their oppressors. We hope that the downtrodden will band together and fight against the neoliberals, against the petroleros, against the central government. But they don´t. Instead, they look for someone or something weaker to kick. After a while, the Armadillo stops struggling. It gives up, resigned to whatever it has coming. What can you do, after all, in the face of wanton and uninvited cruelty? I think both of us are wondering the same thing.