Crisis Under the Canopy: Tourism and other problems facing the present day Huaorani. Randy Smith, Ediciones Abya-Yala, Avenida 12 de Octubre, 14-30, Quito, Ecuador. ISBN 9478-99-090-9. Price: between $7 and $12 US in Quito.

Reviewed by:

Steve Cisler
Apple Library
At about 1 degree south latitude, in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin, live a people known as the Huaorani. The author of Crisis Under the Canopy, a 37 year old Candian who worked most of his adult life for Bell Canada, is an amateur in the best sense of the word. He has traveled extensively in the Brazilian, Venezuelan, and Ecuadorian Amazon, particularly in El Oriente where the Huaorani and other tribes live.

This book is part of an investigative report by the Rainforest Information Centre (RIC) in Quito whose director, Douglas Ferguson, writes:

"...the center of the 'story' is the existence and tenacity of the last wild paradise and the damage that tourism has done to a recently pristine tribe.

"...If the Huaorani as a people do not remain bound together as a cultural entity there will be no one to defend the forest at the headwaters of the Amazon."

However, Smith's report (in Spanish on the left page and English on the right) portrays a situation much more complex.

Whether or not the Oriente is "the last wild paradise" it certainly is an area of greater biological diversity than most other tropic areas, even in the Amazon. The area also holds oil and gas deposits that are a major export for the government of Ecuador, a country that is trying to raise the standard of living for all of its citizens and to avoid some of the problems encountered in Peru and Colombia.

The Huaorani, also known as the Auca, or 'savage' in the Quechua language, used to be an extremely violent people. They were presecuted during the 1875 to 1925 rubber trade and were sold as slaves in Iquitos, Peru, and Manaus, Brazil. Anthropologists estimated that the tribe has a homicide rate of 60% (40% from inside the tribe, 20% from outside attacks) in the mid 20th century.

Since the rubber trade there have been contacts by Protestant and Catholic missionaries in the 1950's, anthroplogists, and in the 1970's by oil exploration teams and in the 80's and 90's by tourist guides and their clients. The book focuses on the latter group rather than oil and religion, as Joe Kane did in the recently published essay in the 9/27/93, New Yorker, "With Spears from All Sides" which is quite different from Smith's book. Smith's is the product of a much more prolonged contact with the Huaorani, whereas Kane, as a journalist, came, probed, experienced, and then left.

I was vacationing in the Oriente and read the book, took some notes, wrote this review, and tried to contact the author in Quito.

He was in the Oriente and phoned my hotel in Quito, but I had managed to get lost in a biological preserve near Quito, and when I arrived in my hotel room, it was too late to call, and I was exhausted. I returned to the U.S. early the next morning.

Smith is extremely sympathetic to the Huaorani, but he is not a blind romantic. He is aware of the forces that break down the Huao culture and also those that tend to help keep it intact. Some parts of the missionary efforts fall into the former, and some fall into the latter. He acknowledges the assistance of the Ecuadorian military and also relates some unfortunate contacts between the Huaorani and naive environmental groups.

Tour groups and adventurer/guides seek to extend contact with the Huaorani as well as other tribes with whom there has been little or no contact.

Smith and the RIC have performed two concrete acts (aside from this valuable report): a census of the Huaorani communities and a demarcation project to mark off the Huaorani territory by cutting a 5-6 meter swath and planting it with different varieties of palm trees. The project brought many Huaorani members together to talk, to learn, and to work together on the strenuous and dangerous month-long affair.

Smith interviews tourists, guides, and Huaorani about the effects of tourism. He recommends that a tourist center be developed where Huao will staff it and the tourists will avoid going to the villages which have been affected strongly by contacts with outsiders. Although Smith and others want to minimize contacts, they are well aware of the forces working against that: missionaries, oil company gifts and subsidies, highland Indians moving on to land bordering oil line roads, or Indians marrying Huaorani and then bringing their own relatives into the community. The Huaorani are a very individualistic people, and some communities want more contact. It is clear that culture is not static and that change is inevitable. What is tragic is the rate and kind of changes so far. What is encouraging is that the Huaorani are sometimes the pro-active change agents--as when they decided to stop killing each other--and that they have on their side someone with the energy and knowledge of Randy Smith.