Award-Winning Doc 'Yasuni Man' Is Now Available to Stream for the First Time
Among its many devastating impacts, the coronavirus has brought ecotourism to a halt in the Ecuadorian Amazon. But you can still visit the region from the safety of your couch, while supporting its Indigenous communities, by streaming Yasuni Man.
The award-winning documentary transports viewers to the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve, an imperiled pocket of the Ecuadorian Amazon that is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. After touring the festival circuit for about two years, the film made its debut on major streaming services Aug. 25. If you watch Yasuni Man within the first two weeks of its release, a percentage of the proceeds benefit the Amazon Emergency Fund to help the region's Indigenous communities fight COVID-19.
Yasuni Man tells the story of Ecuador's Indigenous Waorani people and their fight to protect the area of rainforest they call home. The film follows Director Ryan Patrick Killackey as he visits the home of a Waorani man named Otobo Baihua and his family in the Yasuni community of Boanamo.
The movie alternates between telling the complex history of Yasuni and showing unprecedented footage of daily Waorani life. Killackey's camera follows Baihua and his family as they hunt for monkeys with blow darts, grind yuca to make a drink called chicha and introduce visiting scientists to the wildlife in their backyard.
But Yasuni is also home to more than 40 percent of Ecuador's oil reserves, and the film details the conflict between fossil fuel companies, the Ecuadorian government and different communities of Waorani over the future of this unique ecosystem.
As the forest and its inhabitants face new threats from fossil fuel extraction and the coronavirus pandemic, Killackey says the film is more relevant than ever.
"I actually don't think Yasuni Man will ever become irrelevant because our global community is not taking steps to stop the crisis that's happening in Yasuni and other biodiverse places," Killackey told EcoWatch.
Yasuni Man was filmed over five expeditions between 2011 and 2016, but Killackey said not much had changed since then in terms of the underlying pressures on the reserve and its inhabitants. However, Ecuador's worst oil spill in decades and the spread of the coronavirus have made the reserve's fate all the more urgent.
The oil spill occurred April 7, when a landslide ruptured three pipelines along the Coca River, dumping 15,800 barrels of crude oil into the water. The spill eventually reached the Napo River that borders Yasuni. The contamination of water and wildlife made it harder for Indigenous communities throughout Ecuador to protect themselves from the coronavirus as it interfered with their ability to sustain themselves in isolation.
"What should you do in case of a fire during a tornado?" scholars Manuela Picq and Eduardo Kohn wrote of the dilemma faced by Ecuador's Indingeous communities in the wake of the spill. "Leave the building or stay inside?"
In addition to threatening Indigenous health and compounding the impact of the oil spill, Killackey explained that the coronavirus has had two other negative effects on Yasuni. First, the pandemic has ended ecotourism across Ecuador, but fossil fuel extraction continues. The former removes a major source of employment for Yasuni's Indigenous people and gives them little choice but to seek work with the oil companies or participate in bushmeat hunting or logging.
Second, the pandemic has made it more difficult for larger nonprofits and smaller grassroots organizations to monitor the oil companies on the ground. Satellite images published by Amazon Conservation revealed that construction began on a new oil road in Yasuni in March. This was especially concerning because the road moved closer to the "Intangible Zone," a part of the reserve set aside for the Tagaeri and Taromenane, two Waorani clans living in voluntary isolation.
"Yasuni is like this microcosm," Killackey told EcoWatch. "You can just look at this little beautiful gem of a forest and see all of these crises happening very clearly."
Since the images were published, construction on the road has ceased. But the incident reveals the ways in which companies across the Amazon are taking advantage of the pandemic.
"Development is not stopping," Killackey said. "And this whole crisis with coronavirus is actually probably helping many of these major corporations and these banks to be able to go in there and exploit the natural resources and exploit the people."
Killackey hopes the film will raise awareness of the pressures on Yasuni and provide advocates with the tools to help preserve it.
"Really I think the most important thing you can do is educate an audience and try to make them feel a bond and a connection with a place and a people," Killackey said.
As part of that educational project, Killackey, a wildlife biologist by training, brought a team of scientists to Boanamo to survey the biodiversity in Otobo Baihua's community and filmed their research as part of the documentary. The survey resulted in eight scientific studies, two of which, on birds and mammals, have already been published in peer-reviewed journals.
Among other finds, the team discovered a previously undescribed species of fish and two seemingly identical frogs in the genus Pristimantis that were actually distinct species.
Killackey and his team said it was important to document and showcase the biological richness of Yasuni so that people would know what was there and be motivated to protect it.
"Very few Ecuadorians are truly aware of the biodiversity we have, specially about fishes, and its importance," Cecilia Puertas-Donoso, an ichthyologist featured in the film, said in an email. "That is something we should be proud of, and eager to preserve. I would like to tell them this phrase I read somewhere, that 'Destroying the Amazon to extract oil is like making a hole in the Sistine Chapel to remove stones.'"
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