Ecotourism Is All Very Well, but $3 a Day Isn't
The village of Junín is trying, not too successfully, to reinvent itself as a shrine to ecotourism. For $28 a day, visitors of the new bamboo house get three meals and forest tours
"We had tried for months to get them to listen to our concerns
about things like contaminated water," said Alirio Ramírez.
"Once we had a pile of ashes, the mining guys were suddenly interested
in talking. But by that point, the time for negotiations was over."
True, a new bamboo lodging house now charges foreign travelers $28 a night each for a bed, three meals and guided tours of the forest.
Village leaders boast of being able to find 40 kinds of orchids, rare varieties of hummingbirds and toucans and at least the tracks of jaguars, pumas, tapirs and bears. Environmental guides now list the mist-shrouded forests around here as an official "hot zone" of intense biodiversity.
But for all the effort to develop a new economy, Junín and other villages in this region remain impoverished and isolated.
Junín is part of a parish of 18,000 people scattered across several dozen communities in northern Ecuador. The village is cradled in a valley and surrounded by forests. The river here is clean and cold and remains the main source of drinking water. Most people live either directly or indirectly from small farming — bananas, aloe, miniature oranges and cabulla, a cactuslike plant that produces fiber used in baskets.
The town has no electricity, telephones or running water — not even postal service. The mud road to the nearest town is so primitive that even four-wheel-drive trucks get bogged down in the rainy season.
"The ecologists love the nature here and they love the fact that it's so remote," said Tarquino Vallejos, who owns a small farm just outside of town. "But the fact is that not one child in the community can go to secondary school. We don't have a school past sixth grade, and nobody here has enough money to send their child to another city."
Only about three families here earn a living through ecotourism; the rest live largely through subsistence farming.
While many people have deep fears about the impact of mining, many in the region argue that miners would be forced to provide roads, electricity and other services simply to conduct business.
"The mining company had promised to build us a good road and a real medical center," said Garzón Vallejos, a farmer in the nearby town of García Morena. "We don't have any of that now."
After five, largely fruitless years of trying to establish alternatives sources of growth, the frustration of people is becoming evident.
Ernesto Meza, who is 32 and unemployed, looks back on the destruction of the mining camp — owned by a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Industries of Japan — with a twinge of remorse. "The work we had back then was hard and dangerous, and I didn't like it," he said. "But the pay was three times the normal rate.
The jobs were backbreaking, mostly tied to hauling rock and equipment up and down the mountain slope. Sludgy black water, mixed with chemicals, gurgled up from exploratory drilling holes and found its way into the river.
More alarming, an environmental impact study by the Japanese government suggested that the river would have to be dammed and many families relocated.
At least as the story is now told, about 60 villagers entered the mining camp on a day when it was deserted in 1997. To avoid being accused of theft, they took all the equipment on mules to municipal authorities.
They then set fire to the tents and shelters, jubilantly declaring their intention to find healthier sources of economic growth. Mitsubishi, which was evaluating the reserves of copper and molybdenum but had not begun active mining, decided to flee rather than fight.
Decoin, a local environmental group founded by a Cuban expatriate named Carlos Zorilla, raised money from American and European environmentalists to enable the community to buy about 5,000 acres of land and set up an environmental preserve.
Mr. Zorilla also organized a "fair trade" coffee-growing association that markets coffee at above-market prices to consumers in the United States and Europe who want to support small farmers. But progress has been slow, hampered by a lack of money to buy basic equipment and by plunging world coffee prices.
A much bigger problem is the absence of good roads, a huge obstacle for farmers trying to get their products to market. Junín's inaccessibility is also a problem for promoters of ecotourism. At least eight punishing hours outside of Quito, Junín can attract only a trickle of hardened travelers, people who are not picky about amenities like running water and electricity. But new roads would most likely attract more settlers and more clear-cutting for farms and businesses, diminishing the area's appeal to tourists.
Farmers like Mr. Vallejos, on the other hand, are convinced that mining would bring roads, electricity and new opportunities.
"There is nothing wrong with ecotourism, but it isn't enough," he said. "The average worker here earns about $3 a day, and many of those people have to support families with six or even 10 children. I wish the ecologists would come and work for me for $3 a day, and see how much they like it."
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