By Alexandra Wells
The Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve, located in the Amazon forest of Ecuador, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. However, the park’s abundant natural resources and rich biodiversity also makes it a target for exploitation, namely in the form of logging and oil drilling.
This reserve is not only home to over 1400 species of animals, including 130 globally threatened species, but also to multiple indigenous communities, such as the Waorani and Kichwa, who are represented in the short film “Disappearing Voices” that concluded Ohio University’s 2022 Sustainability Series at The Athena Cinema. The event began with a panel including the co-producers of “Disappearing Voices” Megan Westervelt and Jorge Castillo, as well as Moisés Ahua, a Waorani youth representative from Yasuní National Park. Ahua states that his goal now is to reach a bigger audience and raise awareness for the problems that the Waorani are currently fighting.
Exploitation of the oil under the Yasuní National Park has been ongoing since the 1970’s. Attempts to keep oil reserves untouched, even by previous Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, have failed.
According to Castillo, who is Native Ecuadorian, opening oil roads allows access to illegal hunting and logging, causing the biosphere to be in a race against time due to pollution.
The roads and pipelines also disrupt the wildlife and indigenous communities in the region, introducing invasive species, as well as scaring away animals and forcing communities to look much further for food when hunting. The oil extraction itself has also led to many oil spills, including a spill of 6,300 barrels of oil this past January.
However, the social impact once the oil companies leave may be even more devastating. When it is no longer cost-effective for the companies to extract in the area, within 20 years, according to Westervelt, the services provided by the oil company and government will most likely leave as well.
According to Westervelt, many Waorani communities have become “dependent on the services provided by oil companies, in terms of transportation on buses between communities, education provided to their children through high school, and health services.”
“The big question that we have is what’s going to happen when they [the oil companies] are gone,” Castillo says.
The short film “Disappearing Voices” shows the changes in the ways of life of the Waorani and Kichwa communities, opening with a scene of a Waorani woman preparing poison arrows while speaking about how the community’s diet and methods of hunting have changed.
As the film progresses, several people highlight the fact that their indigenous traditions may change, but will not disappear. As said by Carlos Licuy, a member of the Kichwa community of Pompeya, “No one can take away or stop us from practicing our traditions, because although we grow old and die, our grandchildren continue our customs.”
One goal of the producers of the film is to empower indigenous communities to tell their own stories by giving them the tools to do so. This was accomplished by giving cameras to the community members, as well as training and support.
”As we move forward, we’ve become advocates for the storytellers themselves in trying to match an interest in telling stories, with the tools and training we have access to,” Westervelt says. Their efforts resulted in a photo exhibition where 50 indigenous photographers participated.
Westervelt highlights the importance of giving the storytellers the opportunity to be behind the camera. “Trying to make those connections is so important for us,” Westervelt says, “but [we are] never trying to speak for the storytellers themselves.”
Currently, community members are interested in a new project to create their own material to be incorporated into the education system in the region.
“They want their own cultures and cultural traditions to be woven inside the classroom,” Westervelt says. “They want to take a little more control, and to do that, they want to follow some of the elders in the community and take their pictures and record their songs, and really bring that in.”
Once “Disappearing Voices” was complete, the co-producers were able to show it to the communities that were represented. Westervelt reflects, “Just the excitement people felt on seeing themselves or their friends and family, on this big screen, and the story being told that they can really relate to, was pretty magical.”
From the Waorani community of Guiyero, Humberto Ahua remarks, “My grandchildren have to prepare themselves to tell the story of Yasuní to people from every part of the world who come to visit us. Today and forevermore, they will remember how we were before, and how we live now. They will be the future leaders of the community for the people of their generation.”
To learn more or get involved, visit InitialEyes, the non-profit organization launched by Westervelt, and Tropical Herping, a conservation company Castillo works for as the environmental visual communicator.
Featured image provided by Megan Westervelt.