In 2011, I volunteered in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I discovered a delicate yet complex world teeming with life and giving life. Seeing this ecological wonder in person is life-changing to me.
My summer in the Amazon took me to a little village deep in the heart of the rainforest. To get there, I travelled from Quito, through the Andes Mountains to a little town bordering the Amazon River Basin. I climbed into a small plane and flew over an endless sea of trees with a serpentine design carved through it. Viewing the Amazon Rainforest from the sky left me in awe.
The Amazon Rainforest represents over half of the planet’s remaining rainforests, and scientists estimate there are at least 390 billion trees there. I have always thought of the world as being a living, breathing entity and the largest concentration of green vegetation and trees is in the Amazon rainforest.
During the drier seasons when the sun is at its brightest, the trillions of green leaves within the rainforest stretch towards the light in order to soak up as much sun as possible. They absorb the sun in combination with carbon dioxide and water to use as fuel for their organism’s activities. The result from this seemingly spectral process is an immense amount of oxygen being released into our atmosphere.
The Amazon is the most biodiverse region in the world, and rainforests in the Americas are consistently richer in species than the rainforests in Africa and Asia. Here in the Amazon Rainforest you can find a vast array of species ranging from bacteria to plants to mammals—all creating a delicate, balanced system. The common denominator of these various species is they are extremely adapted to rain and humans are just as much a part of this environment as well.
When I first arrived to the village that I would call home for the next few months, I immediately noticed (because it was all around me) the rainforest. I walked into the forest and gazed towards the sky. The trees were like straight towers one after another making a thick green tent over our heads. Flora can be crudely categorized there. As I mentioned, there are tall trees that form the canopy. Then there are the vines, flowers and other plants which utilize the tall trees as a means to reach more sunlight and rain. Below these giants and their occupants are ferns and shorter trees. Then there is the dark forest floor which is surprisingly full of life.
The next part of this delicate, balanced system, and a common encounter I had, is animals. Exploring the Amazon by foot, I noticed insects thrive in this environment and act as the garbage disposal for all of the dead matter (plants and animals) that have reached their final days. My hikes also led me to discover birds, which add beautiful color and sounds to the forest, making their homes in the canopy along with strange mammals that like to avoid the wet forest floor.
Naturally, their hunters, mainly reptiles, also find refuge in the tall trees. By boat, I discovered unusual fish, pink river dolphins and other fascinating water animals.
One more final part of this balance is the people. I lived with the Achuar community of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Achuar do not distinguish themselves from their environment (I believe it is safe to think that about most indigenous groups of the Amazon). Their knowledge of the medicinal purposes of plants to how to responsibly harvest wood for construction to hunting animals is so deeply interconnected to and dependent on their surroundings, it seems as if they have superbly adapted to their part of the rainforest. They even have adapted their livelihoods within the rainforest to a new emerging economy. Many logging, mining, and oil companies would like to have access to their lands. But instead of participating in that industry, the Achuar are developing ecotourism as a means to protect their way of life and home. Their views on environmentalism are actually extremely encouraging to think about. The United States’ model is to set up a national or state park to protect areas: humans can visit, but they are not entirely a part of the protected area. The indigenous peoples of the Amazon have proven to the rest of the world they are deeply connected to their environment, therefore that their way of life should be protected as well.
I witnessed and learned some amazing things in the Amazon: how humbling nature can be, how to master animal-spotting, how to say hello in Achuar (Wiña Jai); but, learning about the delicate balance of the Amazon Rainforest ecosystem and how to protect it was a life-changing lesson I would like to share with the world.
To learn about how you can visit the Ecuadorian Rainforest in the Amazon and experience the Achuar way of life, check out our small group tour to the Amazon Rainforest.