Written by Nicole Lussier

A scarlet macaw screeching overhead, a pink river dolphin chasing your boat, a caiman basking in the sun; the flora and fauna of the Amazon Rainforest are truly incredible. The Amazon is, of course, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, with over 1500 species of birds, 430 mammals, 16,000 species of trees, and 70,000 species of insect per acre. We’ve all heard of the negative impacts that deforestation and habitat fragmentation have on this ecosystem. I’ve learned in several classes how monoculture farms are destroying the biodiversity of the forest, how oil extraction is tearing down hundreds of thousands of trees and destroying the homes of already endangered animals. I’ve even been told how indigenous peoples have been removed from their land and pushed to the side while new companies and oil rigs move in daily. I had been told this upsetting story over and over again, however, no amount of reading or research prepared me for the reality of the situation in the indigenous neighbourhoods of Limoncocha.

For a few days, I was blinded by the beauty of the forest. The talk of palm plantations and oil extraction was swept from my memory as the rainforest consistently took my breath away. Each day brought a new adventure, from chasing down Golden Tamarins to get the perfect picture, to trekking up a 45-meter tower to look for mixed-species bird flocks. As we pulled away on our final boat ride, being chased by the pink river dolphins, I couldn’t help but wish that I had had just a little more time to explore the place that I had dreamed of visiting ever since I was a child watching National Geographic. 

The Amazon was incredible; however, the bliss of the rainforest was put to an abrupt halt once we visited a local community that had been severely impacted by an oil spill. Although illegal in the Ecuadorian Constitution, the government turns a blind eye to the hundreds of drilling sites throughout the national park. Over 23,000 people live in the area surrounding the Amazon rainforest, and all were greatly impacted when 19 billion gallons of oil and 17 billion gallons of crude oil were dumped into their water supply. For years, the local river ran black. Now, 40% of people in the area have developed cancer because not only are there chemicals in their drinking water, but they are also consuming it in their food and air. No matter where they went, they could not escape the effects of the oil spill. Government-employed doctors had blamed “smoke from the cooking fires” or “dusty roads” for the mass illness. Yet our local guide dug not even half a foot down into the ground before pulling up oily water.

What was equally as surprising is that as we left our biodiversity station, we were informed that the busses and boats we had taken to get there were supplied by a nearby oil company. Several research facilities rely on the oil companies for transportation and emergency medical services, since most of the stations are underfunded and almost a day away from the closest hospital.

It felt strange to go into the experience as a conservationist who had been taught how cruel the oil industry was and how they were severely negatively impacting local biodiversity and communities, only to find out that if I had gotten bitten by a venomous snake or broke my ankle that I was at the mercy of the neighbouring oil company to fly me to safety.

I witnessed the struggles of those not born with the privilege of living in a developed nation, and how unsustainable developments not only impacted the biodiversity of the Amazon, but also the communities of people around them. Far too often in conservation, we overlook the people who are also impacted by environmental injustices. At that moment I felt small, isolated, and angry- like there was nothing I could do could help these people or the rainforest. Then I felt lonely, and that my mental struggles were so trivial compared to the real struggle of the communities. An immense feeling of privilege set in; that in a few days we would be heading back to the city, eating out at restaurants, and that in just a few months I would be back home sleeping in my own bed, where food security is something I’ve almost always had.

And so I’m left with questions: What do I do now? What can I do? What should I do?

As conservationists, it’s easy to travel somewhere, conduct fieldwork, and leave. Return home to wherever we live, mess around without data, and hopefully publish a paper or two about our work. But after being exposed to the catastrophes and injustices communities are facing every day, I feel like that can’t be enough. Selfishly, I’m hoping that it will make me feel a little less guilty about my privilege as an ecologist and conservationist living in the US who gets to visit places like the Amazon for their research. Ultimately, my biggest hope is to inspire other conservationists to speak up for those whose land we utilize for our benefit, and to call attention to the injustices happening around our field sites.

For more of Nicole, check out @nicolesabiologist on Instagram