Game: Cracking Down on Ecuador’s Illegal Meat Trade

May 3, 2012 • The Farm, Theme • Views: 1595

by Aliyya Swaby:

In the morning of June 11, 2011, the Ecuadorian navy publicly burned a heap of confiscated wild animal meat in front of their offices in Coca, a jungle town in the country’s northeast.

Illustration by Kate Liebman

The smoke from the bonfire and the smell of the meat were carried away by the wind, enveloping a small mob outside the building’s gates.

“Give me a leg!” one man heckled the naval officers standing by the fire.

He, like the other onlookers, had been a potential buyer of the contraband material and now watched his goods turning to ash before him. Earlier that morning, the buyers had arrived at the weekly open air market in Pompeya and looked out at the indigenous hunters arriving in motorized canoes on the Napo River, hoping to spot white sacks concealing smoked haunches of wild pig or even monkey. The meat came from Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon, one of the most biodiverse forests in the world.

The illegal meat trade used to function with ease; local police officers were known to take bribes to look the other way. But that day the Ministry of the Environment, an autonomous governmental body in charge of policing the wild meat trade, had sent a boat of naval officers to shut it down. More than 1,500 pounds of animal meat were confiscated and burned, according to Javier Vargas, a provincial director of the Ministry. It was the most drastic governmental action taken against the indigenous hunters and meat suppliers since the market opened almost two decades ago.

Yet since that day, illegal trade has increased, underpinned by the development of an underground meat market that has proven hard to regulate. If the hunting continues at its current rate, scientists predict animal life may soon disappear altogether in Yasuní. Overhunting depletes natural resources and is changing the shape of the forest. It is now difficult to find large monkeys in the forest, and hunters resort to selling large rodents and wild pigs

The trade entered Yasuní a year after oil company Maxus Ecuador Inc. did in 1993. The company built the Pompeya Sur-Iro road, which cuts through more than 87 miles of national park. A year later the indigenous Waorani and Quichua people living along the road started selling wild meat in Pompeya, a small town located three miles outside of the park.

Spain-based Repsol is currently the only oil company allowed in the park, bound by contract with the Ecuadorian government to strictly control access to the Pompeya Sur-Iro road. Ecuador’s economy is dependent on business from companies like this. But Repsol also offers free bus transportation to the indigenous communities living along the road, which allows hunters to travel farther and hunt greater quantities of meat.

The Waorani, responsible for the bulk of the meat at the markets, used to be nomads but now mostly live in established communities. Repsol has brought the Waorani access to otherwise unaffordable benefits like shotguns, gasoline, Western medicine, and even indoor soccer fields. The company gives them these gifts as “compensation” for drilling on their land, said Remigio Rivera, Repsol’s director of community outreach. Some Waorani even have jobs doing manual labor for the oil company in the forest.

Rivera said Repsol is helping the Waorani learn how to become productive citizens of Ecuador, instead of isolated peoples, something he said is necessary in an age of increased globalization.

But Waorani culture is rapidly disappearing with the forest, said Gloria Irumenga, a Waorani woman who lives in Guiyero, a community along the road that supplies much of the meat at the markets. With a soft voice and a baby nestled in her arms, she describes her life in simple terms.

Irumenga and her family live in a house made of a palm tree native to the region. But a few of the 15 houses in Guiyero are made of concrete—those are the ones the oil company built for them, she said.

Most Waorani are bilingual, Irumenga said, speaking Spanish in addition to their native language in order to communicate with the oil workers and scientists sharing the road. They wear modern clothing, instead of the clothes of their ancestors, and they eat less wild meat, instead traveling outside of the forest weekly to buy groceries.

It is more difficult to find game these days than in the days of her mother and grandmother. “The animals are disappearing. [Hunters] now have to travel three hours to hunt,” she said.

These indigenous groups rely on subsistence hunting, Vargas said, and they are allowed to under law. Commercial hunting is illegal, but the Waorani and Quichua have been selling meat ever since they first made contact with the outside world in the 1960s. Foreign natural resource development companies have facilitated the trade, and the permanence of the weekly market and the accessibility of the road have only amplified it. Today there are wild meat markets in at least seven cities or towns, near the rainforest in northeastern Ecuador. The market at Pompeya is the largest.

Among the biggest group of consumers  of the meat are locals, including those whose ancestors within one or two generations used to live in indigenous communities but have since moved outside of park  boundaries, according to Esteban Suarez, a professor of ecology at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and former scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

“It is what helps them to keep some sort of attachment of the forest that they might have had when they were kids and don’t have now because they live in Tena or Puyo or Coca,” he said. “They consider it to be a really healthy meat.” For special events, like weddings, one buyer could order hundreds of pounds of wild meat.

Businessmen also buy meat at the market to sell to restaurants at higher prices.

While at WCS in 2008, Suarez produced a comprehensive scientific article that found that almost half of the meat brought to the Pompeya market over a period of three years ended up resold at restaurants in Tena, a town 145 miles away. Demand from restaurant-goers is high; the restaurant owners make five times more money from the trade than the hunters.

“This means that if they can’t get meat from Pompeya, they will go elsewhere,” Suarez said.

The vendors seem to be aware of this dynamic. Sources say the trade, active as ever, has continued underground since the June raid, faced with constant authority presence at the market. Vendors are making special arrangements to sell before governmental officials arrive at Pompeya, said Juan Carlos Armijos, professor at La Universidad Catolica, who has been working in Waorani communities for eleven years.

He said the Waorani use the money they make selling meat to buy groceries and large quantities of alcohol. Canoes departing from towns like Pompeya are often weighed down with more beer than groceries.

The Waorani are not likely to stop selling anytime soon.

“The young people see [the wild meat trade] as a business. If they want something, they tell their parents and their parents have to hunt to get it for them,” Armijos said.

Although the people are outraged to be losing their goods in the confiscations, it is easy to sneak meat past the Ministry, said Miguel Tega, a Waorani teenager who lives in Dicaro, the largest Waorani community within influence of the road. “They just hide it in a backpack.”

(Swaby/TYG)

There is also a possibility that the bulk of the wild meat market might move away from Pompeya, said Galo Zapata, a WCS scientist, which would make it difficult for the organization or the government to track it.

WCS does bimonthly surveys of the market, with the use of indigenous informants, though it has been harder to perform them accurately since the recent government interference, Zapata said.

People are more secretive about the trade and often refuse to give information. A report consolidating these surveys shows a general increase in the average amount of meat sold per market day between 2005 and 2011. But since August, it has been almost impossible to measure the exact amount of meat being sold, Zapata said. People sell small quantities of meat at the market in order to keep the government distracted from the undercover activity.

The government has a reputation for apathy when it comes to the wild meat trade. In fact, many officials supposed to be preventing illegal sales either turned their backs or partook in the activity themselves.

Vargas said the Ministry only became centralized enough to deal with the issue in the past several years, since he became provincial director for the province of Orellana where most of the meat is sold.

Soon after, the Ministry became involved in the most successful long-term effort to date, culminating in the raid, which involved three non-governmental organizations and several national and provincial governmental bodies.

The initiative aimed to attack the trade through three strategies: strictly controlling the markets, educating the local buyers about its environmental harm, and offering the sellers economic alternatives to selling the meat. One branch of the project, aimed at tourists from within Ecuador, set up an advertising campaign used on national flights, hotels, and buses to dissuade them from eating the meat.

Scientists and officials agree that the amount of meat being sold in the open at the markets decreased after the project began, a fact corroborated by WCS survey reports. But this does not account for the meat sold underground, outside of the markets.

(Swaby/TYG)

And the project has been short lived. Funding ran out at the end of June, a few weeks after the Ministry’s dramatic meat-burning operation, preventing any of the organizations from continuing to work on it.

The Ministry has had to continue the project alone, and despite its presence at the markets seems to be at a loss for how to deal with the underground trade. Ideally, surveillance at the markets would be more thorough, leaving no opening for secret deals. Instead, WCS survey reports from this year show that Ministry control efforts have severely declined since June 11. Local Pompeya police, not national naval officers, carry out the control operations. They show up at the market about once a month at 8:00, hours after the majority of the sales are complete. The amount of meat sold openly at the market has increased from an all-time low of 190 pounds in June 2011 to more than 1,500 pounds in mid-August, the WCS report shows.

But the Ministry says it is pulling its weight and that oil company Repsol should begin to take some responsibility.

“We don’t live at those sites. It’s hard for us to get there,” said Alonzo Jaramillo, an official at the Ministry. “We can only carry out the law. [Repsol] isn’t doing their part of the work.” Vargas agreed that the company has failed to execute their promise to control movement in and out of Yasuní through the Pompeya Sur-Iro Road.

But Rivera said that it is impossible for the oil company to do any more than it already is to solve the problem, especially without governmental cooperation. The agreement, he said, was made mainly to stop outsiders from getting into the area, not to stop the indigenous people from traveling through it.

“It’s hard for us being on [Waorani] land to control them,” he said. Additionally, he said, a few Waorani have their own vehicles, which Repsol has no basis to control.

But scientists believe the restitution is destroying the communities.

“Even if you forget about wild meat, what happens with the Waorani when the oil company leaves after there is no more oil?” Suarez asked. The company would leave in place the road that has led to major destruction in the forest, while taking with them the free benefits the Waorani have come to depend on.

Many groups have been working with the Waorani to find economic alternatives to hunting and living off of the oil company.  Irumenga’s community, Guiyero, grows yucca and cacao to sell at the markets, and even has a few domesticated farm animals.   The Ministry and WCS are working on a project in Waorani communities to restore the population of Yasun’’s river turtles,  whose eggs the Waorani eat.  Waorani communities are also developing their own projects. Manuela Ima is one of the leaders of the Asociacion de Mujeres Amazonicas Waorani de Ecuador (ANWAE) a small women’s organization that offers financial alternatives to illegally selling wild meat. They encourage communities to grow crops to sell at the markets instead of meat. ANWAE works with Waorani in three provinces and 34 communities, including Guiyero and Dicaro along the road. Anyone is welcome to learn, Ima said, though women are particularly invested in the issue.

“The women are worried about their children,” she said.

There are more than 300 Waorani committed to the cause, and the Waorani’s main governing body, Nacionalidad Waorani del Ecuador, has committed its support. Ima wants to expand efforts, but is worried that it will not be feasible, mainly because the organization is low on funds.

These projects are successful within their small scopes, but are unlikely to make pervasive change without increased effort from the Ministry and Repsol. The illegal meat trade is not a government priority, and the oil company would rather bribe the Waorani than restrict the sales.

By building and managing the road, the oil company began a problem it is not willing to remedy. By allowing Repsol to continue in Yasuní’, the government dealt a grave sentence to the national park and many communities that live in it.

In Guiyero one night in July, it was dinnertime after dark. Irumenga heated up a piece of peccary meat over the fire for her family. The wild pig was fresh, hunted by the men just that morning, and the meat sizzled over the gas oven. To supplement it, there was white rice and chicken in individual plastic containers, groceries from the town. Irumenga’s small house was filled with women and children who laughed and talked while eagerly eating platefuls of the mix. In the thick forest beyond the clearing, the birds called louder in the nighttime, signaling what’s left.

Aliyya Swaby ’13 is an Environmental Studies Major in Pierson College. Contact her at aliyya.swaby@yale.edu.

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