In May 2017, a group of journalism students from MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alta., spent a week in Ecuador – four days in the Amazon rainforest – taking pictures, shooting video and talking to scientists, political observers, and indigenous people. The aim was to tell the story of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station of Universidad San Francisco de Quito, near Yasuni National Park. This is an area of extreme biological diversity and great beauty – which, unfortunately, is sitting on a sea of oil.

‘Help save this green world’

Jose Macanilla is one of the Quichua people. He has always called the Ecuadorean Amazon home, and he has seen the changes his land  has endured.

Growing up in a village near the enormous Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazonas Oriente region, Macanilla was brought up in the traditional aboriginal way, learning to know and respect the land, something he says is paramount in Quichua tradition.

That upbringing formed a set of beliefs that came into jarring conflict with his work as an oil company employee, and drove him on to become a nature guide at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, where he applies a lifetime of acquired skill and knowledge to a job he clearly loves.

“The knowledge, I learned first-hand from my grandparents,” he says. “For years, I would walk through the forest with no shoes, just like my grandpa. He would always warn me to be very careful of bullet ants, dangerous snakes and any plants with spikes. So you needed to look carefully.”

Macanilla’s relationship with the rainforest is apparent when you spend time there with him. Whenever he stops and puts a finger to his mouth, you can’t help but follow his lead and hope you’re quick and quiet enough to catch a glimpse of whatever he sees.

Macanilla has worked at Tiputini for a decade, showing visitors the flora and fauna. His connection to the rainforest springs directly from his Quichua roots. As the grandson of a village shaman, he says, he learned early that the jungle provides many remedies.

“He was able to make a diagnosis of whatever was making a person sick,” Macanilla says. “He would make this drink and, as they would drink it, he would look to the spirits for the person. He would then go into the jungle and find medicine. He was a leader and very important person to the community.”

This upbringing, coupled with years in the jungle, gave Macanilla his bedrock understanding of the region – and a foreboding that things are not going to stay the way they are.

The oil boom gripping the Yasuni region has brought many indigenous people into the industry, as companies have hired people from surrounding communities to work on projects in the area.

The income and modern amenities the oil companies bring are welcomed by many, but those who see beyond the short-term wealth have misgivings, Macanilla says.

When he worked for the oil company, he says, he was struck with a crisis of conscience, as he looked around and noticed that the indigenous people weren’t being helped; they were being exploited.

“I’ve seen Quichua or indigenous that work with machetes,” he says. “There’s never people working in the office with computers.”

At the same time, the impact of oil on the environment “made me sad and I changed my profession.”

“And now, I get to be with animals. And I like the air, and it's good, and there’s no pollution or contamination."

Now, Macanilla says, he can only hope young people will be aware that the Amazonas Oriente is their cultural and biological legacy.

“The majority of the young who study in the city, they have a different mentality from those in my generation,” he says. “The actuality is that there exists a lot of oil companies where they can make a lot more money, and that seems to be the mentality for the younger people.”

It is the responsibility of the leadership in Ecuador to give young people an incentive to preserve their environment and their way of life, he adds.

“It all depends on the parents and the professors, who help teach the kids the value of nature. If there’s someone who promotes the nature – and they can understand and help save this green world that is nature.”

– Jake Pesaruk