Jatun Sacha is a lovely place. Comprising 2500 hectares of easily accessible primary rainforest, it is one of the last little paradises around Tena.
Or so it seems…
Promoting the conservation of ecosystems through technical training, scientific research, environmental education, natural resource management, and community development involving local peoples surely can’t be all that bad, even if it meant privatizing many square metres of ancestral indigenous territories. After all this was government policy in the 1970s anyway, and better the land goes to an eco- humanitarian project than some overweight cattle farmer. ¿No?
The place is always buzzing with young and keen volunteers who rest their tired bodies in colourful hammocks under tropical canopies after a long day of planting, digging, sowing, collecting, counting and measuring. They make friends, fall in love with each other, and buy their beer in the next village’s shop. They learn much about the rainforest and its non-human inhabitants, often returning home – happy, sunburnt, their insect bites mostly scarred – with half a dissertation under their arm.
However, the well-equipped and -staffed botanical gardens and research stations of the Jatun Sacha Foundation have been deeply involved with pharma-giant Pfizer and Shaman pharmaceuticals, channelling research results, plant samples and inventories towards their commercial laboratories. The RAFI (now the ETC Group) communiqué linked to above speaks of some projected illegal export of 9000 species – all for the profit of Pfizer and the Botanical Garden in Missouri with which one of the Jatun Sacha founders is closely affiliated. Here is an excerpt:
Biology students and professors from the allegedly Opus Dei controlled Universidad Católica in Quito have over many years been witting- or unwittingly involved in what basically amounts to trafficking Ecuadorian species to the Pfizer laboratories. For how many of the exported samples the necessary permits have conveniently been forgotten, is unclear. According to a long-standing local activist, the Ministry of the Environment continues to lament the fact, yet points its finger at its lacking funds and control capacity.
Smuggling plants, however, is not just a violation of national and international legislation, but also part of the processes undermining indigenous peoples’ efforts of self-determination and their rights to the protection of their collective bio-cultural heritage – (for the best recent summary of the issues involved in protecting indigenous peoples’ heritage from erosion and misappropriation, please download “Banishing the Biopirates” (.pdf) from IIED).
Apart from its links to the pharmaceutical industry, Jatun Sacha is also a partner of Conservation International, which is accused of “neocolonialism, green imperialism, and being a “multinational conservation company“:
[A] growing number of people are questioning Conservation International’s credentials as an environmental organisation. The complex global web of partnerships, collaborations, initiatives and projects which Conservation International weaves is as expansive as it is mind boggling. Its major corporate supporters include Cemex, Citigroup, Chiquita, Exxon Mobil Foundation, Ford, Gap, J P Morgan Chase and Co., McDonalds, Sony, Starbucks, United Airlines and Walt Disney. Conservation International claims that its corporate supporters “know that their customers, shareholders and employees share a common concern about protecting the environment.”
With such friends one should think that the Foundation had, if not a sustainable conscience, at least a sustainable cash-flow – which leaves you wondering why certain of their (indigenous) full-time employees have not received any remuneration for the last several months of their labour. Jatun Sacha charges it volunteers substantially, of course, which makes it even more awkward to leave their workers unpaid.
So – in case you were thinking about volunteering in Ecuador, think twice about where exactly you want to do that and spend some time finding out more about Jatun Sacha or any other glittering organization luring in to quench the thirsting youth of the global upper/middle classes. There isn’t really a ready-made program to save the trees and fight the global pharmaceutical corporations who steal, pillage and plunder the Amazon and indigenous peoples all around the world. Organizations like Jatun Sacha are nothing less than another long, sneaky arm of capital, greenwashing its most ruthless perpetrators.
Coming to Ecuador we recommend you consider volunteering for smaller, independent foundations, such as Fundación Ishpingo in the Amazon or for example Golondrina, if you want to see the North-West of Ecuador.