by Aliyya Swaby:
Five hundred pounds.
That’s how much wild meat the navy burned in the courtyard of their offices in Coca, Ecuador, on the afternoon of June 11, after confiscating it at a meat market in Pompeya earlier that morning. The smell of it burning was carried outside of the gates of the naval building and onto the streets where I watched along with a group of angry people. My guide for the weekend, Diego Naranjo, who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society, told me the public burning was supposed to be a warning to the vendors and potential buyers of the wild meat (in Spanish, “carne de monte” or “carne silvestre). The Ministry of the Environment, an autonomous governmental body for environmental policing in Ecuador, was responsible, having asked the naval officers to interfere at the market.
I was at the Pompeya market earlier that morning after waking up at 4 a.m. and taking an hour-long taxi ride through the jungle. Diego narrated to me what was happening as canoes of indigenous people (from the Waorani and Quichua tribes) arrived at the port on the Rio Napo along with sacks of meat and other items that they were going to sell at the market. The local Ecuadorians had already set up large tents with everyday items such as tools, clothing, and some food. The indigenous people would sell their goods and use the money to buy these mundane items from the locals, Diego explained.
Usually this process goes uninterrupted, but the Ministry of the Environment has been harsher in the past few months. That day, they sent four marine officers to the port and they confiscated all of the meat from the canoes. The vendors and buyers were angry and frustrated at seeing the source of their money taken away, and even angrier when it was burned later that afternoon.
When I spoke with Galo Zapata from WCS my first week in Ecuador, he told me he thought this tactic would only cause the meat markets to move somewhere more hidden and would prevent them from being tracked. Or, more extremely, it could create a black market for wild meat among the indigenous and local people.
But Javier Vargas, the provincial director of the Ministry of the Environment in Orellana (a province that includes Coca and Yasuni), disagrees. When I talked with him at his office this past Wednesday, he said he thinks the Ministry’s other tactics to prevent the bushmeat trade, including educating the indigenous vendors about sustainable living practices, will help dissipate the illegal practice instead of forcing it somewhere else. In the past, the policing of the market has been sporadic and corrupt — local police took bribes to look the other way. But Vargas said now that the Ministry is more centralized, it plans to work harder to stop the trade.
It’s hard to believe that these will end a practice that has been going on for more than two decades in Yasuni, but it seems like the efforts to stop it are now more genuine than before.