The Monkey Hunt
Amazon Teen Exchange Program Benefits Community
The Spider Monkey Hunt started in Quito, Ecuador in a small classroom on the tenth floor of the Universidad Católica’s (www.puce.edu.ec) Tower One. Students in part of a traditional exchange program from a university in the U.S. went to Ecuador to take intensive Spanish classes. In addition to their regular coursework, they could choose a service-learning class about the Amazon. To prepare for their fieldwork trip for the Social Ecology of the Amazon they had to read about the ecology of tropical rainforests, about the pros and cons of ecotourism, about petroleum's polluting history in the Ecuadorian Amazon, about anthropological research methods, and about the emergence of Ecuador's Indigenous groups' participation in the political sphere. We met with an oil representative, an environmental and human rights activist, and a leader from the Indigenous community in Quito. Armed with this knowledge we set off for the long trip.
A 10-hour bus ride brought us down the Andes mountain range into lush, lowland tropical forest. Except, the forest isn't there anymore. In its place are cow pastures and small agricultural plots. Along the road we stopped at an oil well and waste processing pit. The heat was suffocating and there was no shade. We were shocked to see a shimmery rainbow of petroleum oozing along the ground and into the water near the sites. The waste pits are uncovered, allowing the toxic waste to run off into the watershed when it rains. We had read about this in books, but nothing compares to actually seeing it with your own eyes.
Finally we arrived at the Tiguino River and set out for an hours-long canoe rides into deep, virgin rainforest. It is disturbing that we had to travel so far to actually see primary forest, only 30 years after oil development began in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Even so, it was rewarding because we saw indicator species such as macaws, tapir, capybara, monkeys, and parrots. We also saw turtles and caimans sunning themselves on the river's edge.
The Huaorani we visited maintain an essentially hunter-gatherer life on the edge of modernity. The elders are the main keepers of traditions, while the younger generation seems to prefer the lure of discotheques and jeans. Nevertheless, the native language is still spoken by all and a majority of the houses are still built in the traditional thatched roof style. In order to resist the oil companies, the community has chosen ecotourism as its main market economy activity, now that the Huaorani have come to rely on the benefits of aluminum pots, sugar, salt, vegetable oil, outboard motors, rubber boots, and manufactured clothes. In the week we spent in the Amazon we learned more than one could ever learn in a semester in an anthropology or ecology classroom.
As a vegetarian, I never thought I'd enjoy the thrill of a hunt, even less that I would one day want to kill a monkey. But I found myself with students running through the forest as fast as I could, hunching over and ducking my head to keep the branches out of my eyes as I frantically tried to keep up with our leader, one of the Huaorani elders. He still hunts with the "cerbatana," or blow gun, and uses poison darts, dipped in curare, to stun monkeys and birds (larger animals are hunted with long spears).
At last, we cornered the spider monkey. It was a sad sight, but the Huaorani only kill what they need to eat, and they let the monkey populations regenerate by leaving some areas for a time. We saw how they prepare the monkey for cooking and how they make the poison darts. We visited Huaorani houses and learned how to process chambira, the fiber they use to make hammocks and woven bags.
As in any new environment it is easiest to make a connection with the children first and the U.S. students hit it off immediately with them. Soccer games and general laughing went on the whole time. One night we held a cultural exchange with each group sharing songs and dances.
As the community service part of the experience we spent an afternoon painting the one-room school. We brought six gallons of sky blue paint and 12 paint brushes and rollers. A fun time was had by all, and everyone was proud of the paint job at the end of the day. We were offered handcrafts, which we bought to continue supporting the economy of the community.
On our return to Quito and the classroom, students were motivated to see what they could do to help the village and change the situation of rainforest destruction. They formed committees to work on different projects for the rest of the semester. One group purchased school supplies for the Huaorani school, another worked on tourism planning to assist the community in running its own indigenous tourism business (we went through an outside tour operator), the activism committee wrote letters to oil companies and Congress, and the last committee put together a digital slide show to present back home.