Yasuni National Park is the home to the majority of the world’s Waorani people as well as other indigenous tribes and even a couple small tribes of uncontacted groups.
It is also home to vast underground reservoirs of crude oil, which Ecuador has exploited for decades, leading to widespread pollution and vast roads that open up the forest to colonizers, illegal loggers and pillagers.
The film deals with the complex history and politics of the region, while also highlighting how daily life has changed – and stayed the same – for the Waorani across Yasuni.
Deep in a forest brimming with life, an indigenous tribe struggles to survive against the onslaught of a greedy corporation bent on stealing the natural resources beneath their home. Sound familiar? Sure, this is the plot of James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster hit, Avatar. But before that, long before that, it was the real story of the Waorani tribe in the Ecuadorean Amazon, who have spent decades trying to save their forest home from oil exploitation. Now, a new film, Yasuni Man – with intimate access to some of the most remote Waorani communities in the world – explores the tragic history of this biodiverse corner of the world.
Director Ryan Killackey, told Mongabay in an interview [in full below] that he thought it was “disheartening….that the global community was more interested in financially supporting a film about the assault of fictitious planet filled with amazing biodiversity and indigenous culture, rather than our own planet Earth where an identical story was unfolding in Yasuni.”
Yasuni National Park is the home to the majority of the world’s Waorani people as well as other indigenous tribes and even a couple small tribes of uncontacted groups. But it is also home to vast underground reservoirs of crude oil, which Ecuador has exploited for decades, leading to widespread pollution and vast roads that open up the forest to colonizers, illegal loggers and pillagers.
But in 2007, Ecuador tried to change the story. The country proposed to leave the oil beneath the ground in Yasuni’s most remote block, known as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT), if the international community paid in $3.6 billion into an UN-run fund. Not only would this have left a vast section of the park unassaulted, it would have allowed indigenous groups – including uncontacted groups – the ability to shape their own future. The ITT-Initiative survived seven years, before Ecuador pulled the plug claiming it wasn’t getting enough international support.
Yasuni Man follows those who lost the most when the ITT-Initiative failed: the Waorani. Focusing on a community that has still maintained its distinct culture, the film shows the struggle to save the park through their eyes. The film deals with the complex history and politics of the region, while also highlighting how daily life has changed – and stayed the same – for the Waorani across Yasuni.
“To me, the Waorani are like mythological figures,” said Killackey. “They are one of the very few indigenous people that were successful in keeping outsiders from coming into their territory and exploiting their forest. This was done by their aggressive and just defense of their home territory, and making sure that people feared entering.”
But all this may be rapidly changing. The story of Yasuni doesn’t end with Yasuni Man’s credits, but leaves open the possibility for a variety of futures, including potential violence.
“I only hope that my film Yasuni Man can be a catalyst to make change and bring awareness to impacts of our consumption and how it threatens the natural world that every living being relies on,” said Killackey. “Now that the film is complete, it is now in the hands of the world’s people to decide if we are willing to save Yasuni and everything that it embodies.”
Yasuni Man is debuting on October 7th at the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival in San Rafael, California. Additional show times are listed at the end of the interview.
AN INTERVIEW WITH RYAN KILLACKEY
Mongabay: Why Yasuni?
Ryan Killackey: For several years, I was a biologist working on a variety of conservation projects with species like wolverines, pine marten, and fisher, but reptiles and amphibians were my passion. After several years running a field crew for the Montana Natural Heritage Program studying amphibian and reptiles, I decided to take a break from research to focus on photography and film and followed my passion to a place with record diversity of frogs. Naturally, I wound up in the Amazon of Ecuador, in the world’s most biodiverse forest. For a year I worked as a naturalist guide for Sani Lodge, an ecotourism project owned by the Quechuan community of Sani Isla. Their territory straddles the Napo River, the southern half of which is the northern boundary of Yasuni. After learning an enormous amount about the forest’s biodiversity and meeting many amazing people, I also learned about the impacts of the oil industry. At the end of my stay at Sani, in early 2006, I had the opportunity to visit Yasuni with a friend of mine, a spectacular herpetologist by the name of Dr. Morley Read. Morley was doing an EIS on amphibian diversity in proximity to the Maxus oil road. Here, I was first directly exposed to the issues surrounding the biosphere. I also gained access to several Waorani communities as well as the oil roads, pipeline and oil platforms inside Yasuni.
Mongabay: At what point did you decide to turn your work in Yasuni National Park into a film?
Ryan Killackey: It wasn’t until a few years later that I met a Waorani by the name of Otobo Baihua. He invited me to visit his family in the Waorani community of Boanamo, a three-day boat ride into the core of Yasuni. I was a changed person when I returned. Soon after my visit, I read two very important articles by my friend Dr. Matt Finer and his colleagues – “Ecuador’s Yasuní Biosphere Reserve: a brief modern history and conservation challenges” and “Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park”. It was then that and I knew I had an important story to tell.
Mongabay: Tell us about the Waorani. What drew you to this particular indigenous group?
Ryan Killackey: To me, the Waorani are like mythological figures. They are one of the very few indigenous people that were successful in keeping outsiders from coming into their territory and exploiting their forest. This was done by their aggressive and just defense of their home territory, and making sure that people feared entering. I really think that without the Waorani, Yasuni would have been exploited long ago.
Mongabay: How did you get such intimate access to the Waorani?
Ryan Killackey: I was introduced to Otobo by my friend Tom Quesenberry and Mariela Tenorio, former directors of Sani Lodge and proprietors of El Monte Sustainable Lodge, in Mindo. Otobo invited us to visit the Waorani communities of Boanamo, Bameno and Nuneno. He wanted to show me his culture, show me his home. He knew that I was a photographer and documentarian and thought that I could help expose what has happened to his forest and to his people after the arrival of oil companies. I also imagine that he hoped that the exposure I could help bring would help his fledgling ecotourism project, Otobo’s Amazon Safari, get momentum.
Mongabay: You’ve traveled in regions where uncontacted natives live – known for their hostility against outsiders – did you ever feel afraid for your life?
Ryan Killackey: I never felt afraid from my life because our approach was to intentionally avoid coming in contact with the people in isolation. I also felt that if I was doing something from the bottom of my heart that I would be kept safe. Also, it didn’t hurt that I was traveling and protected by strong warriors from the Baihua family.
I also made this film to defend the rights of the people in isolation as well as the contacted Waorani clans. What I am trying to show in the film is the desperate situation in Yasuni that has been heavily exacerbated by outsiders, and that the rights of these people have been grossly abused.
Mongabay: Can you tell us about your biological surveys? Has the research from this been published?
Ryan Killackey: I decided to create the rapid inventory and mega transect studies because very little data actually exists on the biodiversity of Yasuni. The only studies carried out and data collected in the biosphere are in the north portions of the reserve – at the Tiputini and Yasuni Biostations, and along the Maxus oil road. The data from the latter is kept confidential by the oil companies.
I didn’t want Yasuni Man to be just another documentary film. I thought that publishing hard data could be used as a powerful companion piece to the movie. Our research supports the claim that Yasuni is mega diverse and that there are numerous factors that are threatening the very existence of the people and wildlife that call Yasuni home.
I was also compelled to find a way to help that Waorani find a sustainable income. In the 21st century, nearly 60 years after first peaceful contact, the Waorani have very few options for finding employment. What jobs do exist are typically found in extractive industries that destroy their forest and diminish their culture – oil, timber, bush meat, and gold mining. I thought that they could learn more about biological research and develop new skills that are more conducive to protecting their forest and allow them to celebrate their heritage. Having hard numbers as to what is found in their forest in terms of biodiversity would also give them baseline data so they can track how their forest is changing in regards to their own impact as well impacts that are out of their control, like climate change and oil extraction. To me, assisting scientists and having a small ecotourism project is way better for the Waorani than letting oil companies, loggers and miners run rampant.
As far as the data goes, I can’t disclose too much until it has been published. My team and I will be making an announcement with the official publishing dates for both studies in the coming months. We already have the publisher lined up and expect that the data from both research projects will be disseminated sometime in January.
Mongabay: Yasuni is a national park. Why is oil exploitation allowed at all?
Ryan Killackey: This is probably a more appropriate question for the Correa administration, but if it were my decision, there wouldn’t be any oil development in this area at all, especially if the native population were against it in the first place. But, from what I know about oil production in Ecuador, their reserves in the Amazon and specifically the oil below Yasuni are substantial contributors to their economy. It is sad that a country has to make these kinds of decisions. Extracting an extremely volatile resource with a market value that rises and falls without notice is a major problem. As Ivonne Baki, the former Ambassador to the U.S. and Director for the Yasuni-ITT initiative told me, “All countries that depend on oil they have a curse because they don’t develop anything else.” And very rarely do indigenous people benefit when oil is found below their land.
I think countries like Ecuador need our help. It is such an amazingly beautiful country, with spectacular biodiversity and truly fantastic people. The U.S. has long been the biggest consumer of Ecuador’s oil making Americans partially responsible for the current quagmire surrounding the biosphere. We helped create the mess and we should be helping to find solutions. The citizens of both our nations should tell our governments that profits don’t come over the rights of people and demand that we improve our relations with indigenous cultures and protect biodiversity, not only in Yasuni, but all around the world.
Mongabay: Before its demise, what was your view of the ITT-Initiative?
Ryan Killackey: I thought the ITT Initiative was a good Idea, minus all the strings attached. But I never got the idea that the government was fully invested in the idea, and, to its detriment, the single biggest consumer of the Ecuador’s crude, the U.S., wasn’t even in the negotiations.
I also saw a disturbing parallel between the film Avatar and Yasuni. At the same time that the Yasuni ITT Initiative was being promoted, the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar was breaking box office records. It was disheartening to me to see that the global community was more interested in financially supporting a film about the assault of fictitious planet filled with amazing biodiversity and indigenous culture, rather than our own planet Earth where an identical story was unfolding in Yasuni, and the world took no notice if it. Avatar’s earnings were close to the $3.6 billion dollars Ecuador and the UN was trying to raise to protect the ITT oil block.
Mongabay: Why is oil so destructive to the reserve?
Ryan Killackey: Oil is destructive because of the obvious reasons such as oil spills. But more importantly and more harmful is the linkage between oil itself and the secondary forms of destruction. Once governments find oil, they partition the forest into oil blocks and typically sell them as concessions to the highest bidder. Then to extract the oil, you typically need to build the infrastructure to bring the oil to market. That comes with the building of roads to access drilling platforms and maintain the pipeline. Once the road is bulldozed into the pristine forest, this scar creates an access corridor that brings colonization, deforestation, over-hunting and the rise of bushmeat markets. Even more, there are people in isolation who are defending their territory that rely on healthy populations of game to sustain their communities. With the influx of colonists and the impacts that succeed it, there is only an increased probability of violent confrontation between the people living in isolation and those working and living on the oil roads (oil workers, loggers, and colonists).
Mongabay: How do you think Ecuador could get off its fixation on oil revenue?
Ryan Killackey: If you have never been to Ecuador, all I can say is you have to go. The sheer abundance of natural capital is dumbfounding. From the west to the east you have the Galapagos, followed by a massive coast filled with different forest types like the tropical dry forest of Parque Nacional Machililla. It then rises to the cloud forest and then into the Andes. Eventually, it drops 20,000 feet (6,500 meters) into to the Amazon basin. That’s just insane natural capital, and one of the options that has not maximized its potential is ecotourism.
I think the scarier question is what happens to Ecuador once their oil is gone, and that day is coming fast. What will they do to fill that economic void? It appears their solution is just as impactful and as dirty – increased mining, increased logging, increased agriculture and more hydroelectric dams. I think with a stronger focus on protecting the biodiversity for the pharmaceutical and tourism industries, Ecuador would have better long-term economic success. Most medicines are derived from rainforest plants and Ecuador has that in spades. This could really help as long as the pharma companies are kept in check and prevented from stealing the intellectual property from Ecuador’s forests and only profiting abroad like that have been known to do in the past.
I also believe that capitalism is a very outdated and flawed economical and social system that doesn’t work. It really appears to be driven by greed and what people can do for oneself. It’s time to evolve.
Mongabay: Is ecotourism a way out of this mess for indigenous groups? Or does that bring its own problems?
Ryan Killackey: In the Amazon of Ecuador, people typically have a lower standard of education compared to the more populated and affluent regions of the Ecuador, like the Andes or the coast. What this means is that people who live here have fewer options for employment. What opportunities they do have are typically found in the extractive industries – petroleum, timber, gold mining, hunting bushmeat or raising livestock – all detrimental to the Amazon basin ecosystem.
One of the few more sustainable alternatives is tourism. It is definitely a big improvement on the alternatives, and the people who live in these areas have a natural inclination to become wonderful naturalist and guides because of their time spent in the forest hunting and gathering.
My dear friend Domingo Gualinga, who sadly passed away a few months ago, was just this kind of person. He worked in all the harmful options that were presented to him, but his ability as a naturalist blew my mind. This is the guy that taught me nearly everything I know about the Amazon. Things like finding animals are not done by the eyes, but rather the ears and nose. He came from the impoverished Quechuan community of Sani Isla and established himself as one of the most sought after birders in the region. He and his family saw the positive impacts that tourism brought as well as benefits of a sustainable industry.
But, tourism is not a sure thing and has a dark side. Trips commonly use excessive amounts of resources such as gasoline and motor oil to get tourists into such remote spots. Tourism is also a luxury for most people and tourism can be greatly impacted by things like rising gas prices and poor economic forecasts.
Another tactic is being employed by some indigenous communities like in the Surui Tribe in Lapetanha, Brazil. Their “Surui Carbon Project” quantifies the value of the forests diversity. Quantifying the positive return of what is in their forest creates potential opportunities for preserving natural capital for industries like pharmaceuticals. I’d like to see this idea more widely spread through regions around the world were people need and want alternatives that don’t destroy their homes and the futures of their children.
Mongabay: What can people do about a problem that for so many of us is so far away?
Ryan Killackey: Well, the first step is recognizing you are part of the problem. The U.S. – specifically California – is the largest consumers of the oil beneath Yasuni. We just don’t see the impacts because they are hidden deep inside the forest. Correa’s administration has been very good at suppressing journalists and keeping them out of Yasuni’s oil developed regions. Out of sight, out of mind.
I think you need to actively make a choice to be aware of your own impact. As far as the oil goes, get on a plan to lower your impact and heavily reduce your use of fossil fuels. Vote for elected officials that promote the conservation and the just treatment of minorities and indigenous people. Be aware of where the resources you consume come from. I wish Californians actually know that they are the number one consumer of Yasuni’s oil.
I also think it is important to make it know that when you see injustice anywhere. Document it! The issues presented in the film and are not singular to Yasuni. I think if you look more closely, stories like Yasuni Man are all around us. An eerily similar story is unfolding right now in North Dakota with The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. They are fighting to protect their home from what they consider a massive threat to their survival, the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Mongabay: The problems you present seem so intractable. What gives you hope that things can change? Anything?
Ryan Killackey: I’m not quite sure if things can change. Sometimes I feel like this is a lost cause. Ecuador is not my home, but the U.S. is. When I see the injustice that our country has brought to Ecuador it makes my blood boil and I think that the people in both our countries must demand better from our elected officials and from our corporations who partner with those governments.
I’m also worried about how complacent our cultures have become. Take me for example. I didn’t know anything about these issues in Yasuni until I forced myself to participate in the debate. Eventually, I developed an empathetic eye to the pressures all of the people in Amazonia are up against. I think part of our human evolution is to grow and standing up in an unjust world is something our citizens need to do more of.
When I first made this film my goal was to save Yasuni. I only hope that my film Yasuni Man can be a catalyst to make change and bring awareness to impacts of our consumption and how it threatens the natural world that every living being relies on. Now that the film is complete, it is now in the hands of the world’s people to decide if we are willing to save Yasuni and everything that it embodies. So I would ask the reader, how far would you go to save it all?
Yasuni Man Showtimes:
Mill Valley Film Festival:
Screening #1 – World Premiere
Friday October 7th @ 3pm
1118 Fourth Street
San Rafael, CA 94901
Sunday October 16th @ 11am
Cinemark Century Larkspur 4
500 Larkspur Landing Circle
Larkspur, CA. 94939
Thursday October 13th @ 6:40pm
1 Canon’s Rd.
Bristol BS1 5TX