Ecuador's Oriente

A rain forest in trouble

THE Northern Oriente here is a blend of misty rain forest, dense jungle, and high canopy known simply as ``Oriente'' to Ecuadorans. In reality it is a tropical lowland rain forest that spreads east from the Andes and ignores any man-made boundaries to become the humid Amazon jungle reaching all the way through Brazil.

What has brought controversy to the Oriente are humans. Colonists began pushing into the jungles in the 1950s. With oil exploration in the late 1960s, roads were sliced through the Oriente. They brought destruction to the jungle, lots of Western culture to indigenous tribes, and oil revenues to the national government.

Oil towns like Lago Agrio, Shell, and Shushufindi still have elements of wide-open frontier towns alongside churches and schools.

The indigenous Oriente tribes, mainly Quechua and Shuar, now fight further intrusion to protect their way of life and the species-rich jungle. Scientists estimate that there are as many as 12,000 species of plants here and up to 10 million kinds of insects. Don't look for wildlife: The tapir, howler monkey, jaguar, harpy eagle, and other animals are endangered species. Only butterflies and other insects are not.

Not much soil exists in the rain forest. Soil nutrients circulate quickly; trees don't have deep roots. Rain and humidity keep the days and nights moist and hot.

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