People of the river

In Ecuador's Amazon Basin, Leigh Gower finds a jungle community learning to survive against the odds

It was not until the motorised canoe stopped that the humid air became a burden. We were travelling up the Rio Napo, through Ecuador's Amazon Basin, to visit a local couple panning for gold. The heavy rain of the previous day had brought rising water levels that whisked up tiny gold shards from the riverbed. It would take a whole day's work to find a gram, which would fetch only $12-15 for each of its collectors.

As the canoe shimmied up the murky green river, immense vegetation on either bank spilling into it, the havoc, pollution and office work I'd left behind in Quito, the capital city, seemed to belong to another, less pure life. We arrived at the small island and, as I stepped ashore, the raw scent of sodden earth sat thick in my nose against the backdrop of vegetation. The boy and girl, only 16 and already married, were hard at work, gathering mounds of sand in wooden bowls and taking them down to the river to sieve through. This gruelling work is a necessary means of survival.

The trip upstream was part of a weekend away at the eco-lodge Yachana - "a place of learning", in the native Quichua language. The tiny community in Mondaña of which the lodge is a part sits in the immense Gran Sumaco Biosphere Reserve. The half-hour flight over the Andes the previous day had brought us to the grubby oil town of Coca in the country's Oriente region. There we were met by a ramshackle collection of decrepit buildings and black-stained walls.

The deforestation beneath us was surprisingly pronounced as the plane flew in to land, with large squares of rainforest cut away to create cultivated plots. In the course of the weekend, we would learn that Ecuador's deforestation rate, at 1.2 per cent, is three times higher than the rate for the rest of South America and six times higher than the global average. The three-hour canoe trip to the lodge with our guides, Hector and Juan, of the Quichua and Shiwiar tribes, brought pro mise that, despite the jungle's increasing accessibility, we could still hope to encounter territories steeped in indigenous mystery.

Yachana is no patchwork of plush jungle accommodation, as so many of the holiday lodges now appear to be. It forms an integral part of the sustainable development eco-project that Douglas McMeekin, executive director of the lodge, has been working on for well over a decade.

After suffering bankruptcy in the US during the 1982 recession, McMeekin came to visit a friend in Ecuador and realised that he wanted something more out of life. He worked as an environmental consultant to oil companies keen to make a quick buck out of the rainforest's natural reserves, before he began to understand that the country's Amazonian communities were vital to the protection of its rainforest. He established the Foundation for Integrated Education and Development (Funedesin) in 1991 to find solutions to the struggle between the need for rainforest preservation and the realities of life in the Amazon which demand that people make use of it.

The Yachana Lodge, which opened in 1994, is eco-friendly wherever possible. It uses solar-powered electricity, organic composting and, to transport guests, an environment-friendly fibreglass canoe that runs on palm oil. McMeekin's other initiative, Yachana Gourmet, produces and sells a natural vegan chocolate, made from organic cocoa bought at premium prices from family farmers in the nearby communities. In 1997, profits from the lodge and the chocolate together helped build the Mondaña medical clinic, which today serves the area's population of 8,000. The work is necessary, but the funding has become harder to find.

The latest and most time-consuming of Fune desin's projects is a technical high school, which opened in October 2005 and caters for teenagers from five Ecuadorian pro vinces. At first glance, the school resembles a summer camp. A large wooden-planked building houses the students - girls on one floor, boys on another. Up at 4am, long before the sun, the pupils tend to the greenhouses, gardens and animals before working at the lodge and going to class. Studies are serious, and focus intensely on ecotourism, conservation and agricultural management - lessons that McMeekin hopes the children will be able to introduce into their families, "step by step". When class is over, late in the afternoon, they break for dinner, before returning to their studies. Bedtime is at 9pm precisely, before the day begins all over again.

Students attend the school for 28-day periods, returning home for the equivalent time; and this process continues for the duration of the school year. The main classroom is open-air and also serves as the dining area. A whiteboard, several books and outdoor plastic chairs fill it. Outside is a separate technology lab where 11 computers are available for the students to use. Solar-powered, wireless internet is accessible anywhere in the lodge and the school grounds.

As I prepared to leave the small community, the weekend played over in my mind. Was this the jungle I had expected to encounter? There had been no jaguars or caimans. The only toucan I saw was caged at a hotel entrance by the boat dock in Coca. But something had struck a much deeper chord. Swigging Pilsner at $1 a bottle at the outdoor pool table - the social centre for the village - or dodging a dirt-encrusted fútbol being furiously kicked on Mondaña's home-made village field, I found that the jungle had become so much more than the natural haven visitors expect. It was the only place most of its residents had ever known.

Back in the canoe, we could see that the high-water level of the previous night had fallen. Hector said the rampant deforestation meant there were fewer trees to absorb the rainwater. Along the way, a man at the river's edge siphoned river sand, searching for the now almost invisible gold flakes. The day's low-water level promised long hours of panning work with little hope of finding even a fleck of gold. An oil tower loomed in the distance. Conditions beneath the lush jungle greenery were teetering on the desperate. We rode back to Coca in silence.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant