Publicado en Revista GAM.01 (Graz Architecture Magazine), Graz, 2004.
Escrito en colaboración con Mónica Ponce de León

The oil pipeline relentlessly runs along the Vía Maxus, the highway that connects the city of Lago Agrio to Pompeya, and ultimately to the destinations that concern this essay: the Yasuní National Park (Figures 1A and 1B) and the Huaorani Ethnic Reserve . Contemplating the landscape (or what is left of it) through the window shield of the bus, one can infer that the pipeline was a precondition to the highway; and this, in turn, literally paved the way for tourism to reach the very heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon region. Small farms punctuate its borders all the way from Lago Agrio to the Napo River (Figure 2). The linear pattern of these residues was left scattered behind by the black-gold rush that pierced its way through the forest in the 70’s, during the Ecuadorian oil boom. The gravel road on the opposite bank of the Napo River was built in the 90’s (Figures 3A and 3B), as the result of a renewed search for crude petroleum that could refill the dwindling reserves of the 80’s.

Confusion arises after crossing the river on a barge and encountering a second check point controlled by the military (the first one is posted at the entrance of a preceding block , on the highway). It remains unclear whether one has accessed, as expected, the Yasuní National Park, or an area controlled by an oil company. It takes a while to understand the duplicity of the threshold: the National Park and block 16, run by Repsol/YPF , overlap. In the early 90’s, the Ecuadorian government, more than half of whose income derives from oil exports, had to find a way of extracting the oil buried in the grounds of a protected area without enraging either the Huaorani or the environmentalists. It succeeded only with the former, by redefining the borders of the National Park, which meant reducing its surface area in order to liberate the zones required for oil extraction. This amputation was compensated for, by enlarging the Huaorani Ethnic Reserve, the surface over which the natives have property rights; the subsoil remains the government’s prerogative. The environmentalists, instead, still find it unforgivable that a national park, in spite of its status as protected area, was subdivided into blocks and allocated to different oil companies .

The Huaorani had proved to be particularly fierce defending their territory since colonial times. When Evangelist missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics sought to contact them in the 50’s, they were speared to death. Nevertheless, thanks to the persistence of the SIL, the government managed to corner the Huaorani into a protectorate or reserve, shattering their settlement patterns and wounding their culture irreversibly.

From pursuing a nomadic existence not devoid of agriculture, for asides from hunting and gathering, the Huaorani kept a chacra close to their home; they switched to a settled life style; and their dispersion strategy of land use was substituted by concentration and the increased population densities that ensue. Such a disruption contributed to magnify the negative impact on the landscape that had already been triggered by an unfolding oil infrastructure. The latter comes as no surprise, for prospect and landing strips, wells, pipelines, highways, and the colonizers that flooded along its banks, were new to the forest. But the Huaorani had lived in relative harmony with their surroundings for centuries until introduced to Western culture by Protestant and Catholic missionaries.

Traditionally, the Huorani freely ranged through the forest, never depleting its resources at any single point, but rather allowing their tenured lands to rest seasonally. They hunted only what was required by sustenance and kept the numbers of their own population controlled (often through warfare). They built dwellings with locally available materials that could be easily reabsorbed into the environment after abandonment (Figures 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E or 4F, 4G, 4H, 4I and 4J); and they managed to remain healthy through a deep knowledge of the forest vegetation . Originally inhabitants of the forest interior, the Huaorani warriors migrated to the banks of the rivers first, and to those of the highways later (Figure 5A and 5B), where they have precarious services (Figure 6), if any at all, and scarce public spaces. Some communities have chosen to settle at the ideal points in which both communication systems intersect.

The demands of a fixed existence rendered their traditional housing obsolete, and having no other model to follow, many have adopted the alternatives provided by the colonizers or the oil companies. Their double timber structure dwelling clad with palm leaves was substituted by wooden barracks covered with zinc roofs (Figures 7A or 7B or 7C). This housing solution, often provided to the Huaorani by oil companies in order to keep them happy, has proven to be an utter failure. Not only is the zinc ill suited in an extremely corrosive environment, but also as kitchen roof. The Huaorani, who have traditionally cooked in their dwellings, the roofs of which were cured by the smoke and would allow it to vent (Figure 8), find themselves at a loss with an impervious, rusting cover. The new barracks have also failed to take into account that the Huaorani sleep in hammocks (Figure 9), for there are no support points from which to suspend them. Initially, the Huaorani were sleeping on the cement floor and started to get ill until the Yasuní Scientific Station (YSS) provided them with beds. The barracks are also extremely dark, for they have very few windows, and the space is compartmentalized in such a way, that the little light that enters the house cannot reach its central areas.

The members of the YSS , which is run by the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) sought the help of its Architecture School, for it became apparent, even for scientists and environmentalists, that a serious architectural breach had opened in this culture clash. The Huaorani could neither return to their traditional housing system, which was not meant to last for more than one or two years, nor were they satisfied with the zinc and wood alternatives provided.

At this point, it becomes apparent that the natives and even recent immigrants to the Amazon have had to adapt to the shifting conditions that evolve from their interaction with multinationals. In a continuous process of displacement, they have found in logging, hunting and agriculture the main means for sustenance. Many survive as labor force for the oil companies, and in some cases, for the narcoindustry. In this state of affairs, locally managed ecotourism is being promoted by many conservation agencies and the Andean Regional Initiative (an extended version of Plan Colombia) as the most viable and sustainable economic alternative that might help to alleviate the pressures exerted upon the rain forest and its local communities. Those committed with the environment, who believe it is possible to “save the world travelling,” perceive it as the only activity capable of competing with others of an extractive nature, like logging, or an illicit fashion, like planting coca.

Nevertheless, ecotourism is listed amongst eight factors considered as “threats” to the environment by an interdisciplinary group of researchers who joined the workshop seminar “Sustainable Development and Conservation in the Yasuní National Park” (2001). But when compared to oil exploitation, corruption, colonization, logging, hunting, fishing, agriculture and cattle raising, the alternative of ecotourism is defended as the most benign.

There are several reasons why tourism can become a threat if it is not well managed. From a cultural point of view, it can severely alter socio-economic and belief structures. The patterns of leadership among the Huaorani, for example, have drastically changed. Young adults, whether men or women, who can speak Spanish have replaced the traditional leaders of each community -old males (Figure 10). Often, they find themselves enacting rituals and festivals to fulfil what they think are tourist expectations, while eroding their symbolic meaning and upsetting the calendar that the community used to follow traditionally. Furthermore, the income generated by this industry, if not fairly distributed, can unsettle the socio-economic balance between communities and degenerate into resentment; or it can produce inflation that might render the area to expensive for the local populations. Another factor that should be taken into account is that tourism tends to be a seasonal activity, which produces sufficient revenues during some months of the year, but calls for complementary economic activities in the remaining ones. Furthermore, if successful, tourism can trigger new immigration into a region and indirectly encourage adjacent, spontaneous urban growth.

From an environmental point of view, making sites accessible to tourists through roads, paths and airports can degrade the ecosystems. Trees and bushes must be removed in order to open up space for lodges and/or camping areas; and when treading the forest, tourists can destroy seedlings along the pathways while unintentionally introducing exogenous species. If visitors are not environmentally conscious, they can promote the extraction and commercialization of wildlife; whether to quench curiosity regarding local cuisine, or by buying souvenirs made with local flora and fauna, or simply because tourist attractions, like monkeys, might be trapped into informal ‘zoos’ (Figure 11). Transportation, on the other hand, depends on fuels that increase the danger of spills and contaminate the water, air and land of protected areas; which goes without saying that outboard motors cause high levels of noise, and their spikes can wound or kill river fauna. The amount of waste also tends to increase drastically, in order to satisfy the greater demands of even the most frugal tourism.

Now, with all this claims against it, why is ecotourism, nevertheless, perceived as the lesser evil. Why has it become a source of hope for developing countries? Compared to other economic alternatives, it has several advantages. Because ecotourism “sells” the environment, it must protect it in order to remain viable. Many areas which are now protected by it, would disappear otherwise. Ecotourism raises interest in local cultures, and could potentially help them become financially autonomous. The Huaorani, for example, are very enthusiastic about receiving visitors in their communities and sharing their culture with them. This interaction increases their self-esteem and leaves them revenues, not only from the entrance fee they charge, but also from selling crafts as souvenirs. (Figure 12) When asked how he would like his new house to be designed, a Huaorani leader responded that he would like it to have a second floor for his guests. Many local communities also perceive ecotourism as an opportunity to receive training in different fields, as tour guides, chefs and managers, for a responsible ecotourism depends, to a large extent, on local participation and decision making. Ecotourism also improves the quality of life of local populations, for it brings services, jobs, and health facilities. It also calls for safety and a secure environment, which stimulates governments to fight activities like narco-terrorism. Educational programs for all agents involved in it -visitors, local populations, travel agencies, tour operators, etc.- are also fundamental to render it sustainable. Facilities could emphasize hybrid programs that intermingle entertainment with research, education, and even volunteer work. Tourism is also desirable because it denounces irresponsible management of protected areas, and indirectly contributes to control and monitor its impact. Taking into account that visitor numbers must be limited and never exceed the carrying capacity of a specific area, and that a clear set of rules must regulate visitor behavior in delicate environments, ecotourism truly becomes a source for hope.

It is important, therefore, to clarify what is exactly meant by the term ecotourism. Definitions are varied. The World Tourism Organization (WTO) defines it as “a form of travel for pleasure that has a low impact on the natural and cultural environment, gives the visitor a better understanding of the unique qualities of the place being visited, contributes to the well being of local people and promotes conservation.” But due to the novelty of the term, it is being applied indiscriminately to describe tourism infrastructures that in no way deserve the prefix eco. If one takes into account that, according to WTO, 50 million people travel abroad annually for ecotouristic reasons, and that the number is expected to rise, it is not surprising that marketing campaigns have often misused the term in order to attract clients from this segment of the economy. After all, the so-called smokeless industry provides 127 million people with a job, and it is estimated that by 2010, international tourism will rise to 937 million, almost twice the current amount.

In order to counteract such distortions in the definition of ecotourism, WTO and other agencies concerned with conservation and tourism, have set themselves the task of delineating a set of guidelines and standards that may serve to evaluate whether an infrastructure can be categorized as eco or not. Regarding the facilities, which is what concerns us as architects, the recommendations always remain too general. Even the special legislation that regulates tourism in protected areas of Ecuador fails to provide a clear image of what makes architecture green.

It is suggested that facilities should be simple sheds in the style of vernacular architecture, but adapted to modern use and technology. That recycled or locally available materials traditionally used by the natives, be integrated into the design. The importance of choosing an appropriate site and of occupying the least surface area possible is emphasized. One form of architectural camouflage or another is highly recommended so that the building can “blend into its surroundings” and become less noticeable to animals. Ancillary facilities like trails are also expected to integrate into the landscape and to prevent erosion, by being covered with wood, for example. And, of course, all attempts to verbally describe eco-architecture call for alternative energy sources, and proper disposal, treatment and management of waste. In terms of landscape design, it is recommended that native vegetation be used in the gardens.

The “ecolodge” has been the most common response to a raising demand for “ecodesign techniques” and the main spreading alternative to conventional construction systems. And because novel circumstances call for innovation in design, several institutions are supporting the development of architectural models or prototypes that could be inserted into fragile ecosystems, causing the least possible impact while at the same time satisfying basic standards of comfort for tourism. The United States Agency for International Development is involved in the conservation of the Gran Yasuní-Napo Tropical Rain Forest Landscape, and among projects of a different nature, it supports those that propose alternative methods of construction and design for housing and tourism facilities in the rain forest. The Government of the Common Wealth of the Bahamas and the InterAmerican Development Bank launched a competition in 2001, with the purpose of stimulating architects in the Bahamas to design an ecolodge facility that could later serve as an example for the Caribbean region. Other common responses include camping grounds, bungalows, huts, and the local community guest house, which has been developed in an attempt to provide the local communities with more control over the resources generated by tourism. Unfortunately, most of the infrastructure that is being deployed to accommodate tourism in the Amazon still lacks a clear set of guidelines regarding methods of construction and materials; a clear symptom of which is that all kinds of accommodations, ranging from five star hotels to camping grounds, have been characterized as ecotouristic (Figures 13A and 13B).

Truly creative responses have yet to be developed, and it has been in an attempt to fill this technical gap that a joint research studio was undertaken by the Graduate School of Design of the University of Harvard and the Facultad de Arquitectura y Diseño of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador. The main purpose of the studio was to research the possibility of developing light, dismountable construction systems made of components and joints that can be easily transported and reused (Figures 14A, 14B and 14C). All of this taking into account the nature and properties of the materials to be deployed and the type of insertion (and consequent trace) to be made into the landscape. We believe that dismountable structures offer an adequate response to the needs of fragile ecosystems like the rainforest, precisely because the basic premise of their design is that they can be dismantled and removed. This condition widens the range of possible materials to be used, for these do not need to be biodegradable any more. One common criticism that arises at this point, is that it if non-biodegradable components are left behind under the assumption that they should be removed, the impact on the ecosystem is high. But as it has been explained before, responsible ecotourism strongly depends upon education and an increased environmental awareness. As with other crucial matters, like waste management, one can only hope that environmentally conscious people will understand the importance of removing or reusing the components, in the same way they comprehend that products with less quantities of packaging are more desirable in a trip to the rainforest.

To conclude, it must be said that this attempt to provide alternative methods of intervention better suited for the Amazon rain forest than the thoughtless transfer of construction techniques commonly used in the Andes or the coast, has proven a feat. But we believe it is timely that appropriate models for implementation in the Amazon basin be developed, and that the impact of what up to now has been categorized as eco-tourism be studied and documented. Hopefully, the debate surrounding this subject will find a greater audience, whose cooperation might help develop better prototypes for ecotourism, and ultimately, for housing and existing urbanities in the Amazon. They direly need help.


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We would like to thank all members of the Yasuní Scientific Station for their hospitality and generosity in sharing their knowledge with us; to Hernán Orbea Tráves, Dean of the Facultad de Arquitectura y Diseño of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, and to Toshiko Mori, Chair of the Graduate School of Design of Harvard University, for their unconditional support to this research endeavor; to the Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, without whose financial support this experience would have not been possible; to Rafael Garrido, for his knowledge and unremitting belief in the importance of sustainability and the environment; to Michelle Addington, for her sharp analysis of energetic and technical parameters, and for her keen human insight; to Logan Granger, for his unremitting interest in architectural and urban issues related to South America; and last but not least, to our students, Soledad Anda, Susana Bazante, Michael Flynn, Katherine Guerra, Matthew Hall, Jéssica Hallo, Isamu Kanda, Irene Kang, Patricia Ledesma, Carolina Lloveras, Yuliang Lu, Soraya Mayorga, Chloe Redmond, Adam Semel, James Setzler, Marzuki Stevens, Paul Tebben, Christian Weier, and Gabriela Zuquillo, without whose enthusiasm and creativity this joint research effort would not have been as enriching, and to whom we owe credit for most photographs.