“AMAZONICA is committed to preserving tropical rainforests for humanity.” In pursuit of this goal, we’ve worked with the indigenous peoples of Ecuador to develop innovative solutions.
There are three nonprofit organizations under the AMAZONICA umbrella: the NGO INDIO-HILFE e.V. (founded in 1982), the AMAZONICA foundation (established in 2007), and AMAZONICA Akademie gGmbH (launched in 2015).
This year we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of our founding.
“We” refers to the founding members in 1982: Mascha Kauka (editor and publicist), her husband Uli Pohl (marketing manager), plus friends and family, all from Munich, Germany.
And that’s how it all began.
“Have you ever been to an area that’s whited out on the map?” asks Mascha and proceeds to tell her story: “While vacationing in Ecuador, one day my husband and I traveled by canoe into one such white patch near the country’s northern border. It’s covered with uncharted virgin rainforest that extends high up into the Andes above the Pacific Ocean. There we had a life-changing encounter with members of the indigenous Chachi people, river nomads that no tourists had ever glimpsed before.
“Because the chief’s family trusted us, we quickly learned that the Chachi and their rainforest were severely threatened: the Ecuadorian government had leased the entire region to timber companies that were demanding the removal of the indigenous population so they could carry out their logging activities without interference.
“There was only one solution, which the chief’s son explained to us: the government needed to survey the ‘white patch’ where they had lived for centuries and grant them legal title to the land. ‘You are the first white people that we can trust, so you have to help us. Please get our land surveyed,’ said Chief Tapuyo.
“As you’ve probably already guessed, we plunged wholeheartedly into the adventure of organizing (and paying for) everything so the Chachi wouldn’t be driven off their land and the rainforest would remain intact.
“For this purpose, we joined with friends to establish the nonprofit association INDIO-HILFE e.V., collected donations, and spent seven years urging the Ecuadorian authorities to map that rugged terrain covered with virgin forest – not an easy task in those days before GPS!
“And we succeeded! The 14,000 Chachi now own their land, which comprises 1,050 km².
“This surveying project was only the start of a long process of “learning by doing” and an endless series of startups (although that word hadn’t been coined yet).
“The government had imposed a condition, namely that the nomadic Chachi had to settle in villages and divide their land into districts or else they would lose ownership of it.
“It was therefore up to us and our friends from Munich to support the Chachi in transforming themselves from river nomads who hunted and fished into sedentary farmers and manual tradespeople. This process took 20 years and was an intense learning experience for both them and us.
“Then we amicably parted by mutual agreement. INDIO-HILFE left behind a network of medical facilities that is still operating today, comprising a hospital with salaried positions for physicians, lab personnel, and nursing staff recruited from the local population plus nine first aid stations along various rivers. There are also schools with trained Chachi teachers and several agricultural cooperatives, including the first rice farming cooperative consisting exclusively of women.
“The association had learned, step by step, to work across all areas of life that are important to its indigenous partners. And the expertise and experience gained in this way has paved the way for the success of all subsequent projects.
“The number of petitions received grew steadily. They arrived from other indigenous peoples and also from the Ecuadorian ministry of health, which has repeatedly asked us to mediate when it has had problems with groups.”
In 1992, for example, Mascha was asked to investigate the situation in the poorest slum district of the country’s capital, Quito. Thousands of indigenous Kichwa farmers, who had had to abandon their severely eroded fields at an elevation of 3,400 meters on the slopes of Chimborazo (an inactive volcano in the Andes), were vegetating there in squalid conditions. But there was no point in trying to improve their situation in the slum. Instead, the farmers invited Mascha to visit their mountain lands, and they agreed to attempt a land reform that would give the slum dwellers a new future in agriculture.
The eroded slopes were reshaped into terraces, like those created by the Incas half a millennium ago, to obtain fields that could be plowed and irrigated. Water was captured from two springs at an elevation of 4,000 m and channeled 10 km downhill to the villages. This turned into another mammoth project for INDIO-HILFE, with the approval of the Ecuadorian water authority.
The farming methods practiced were and still are strictly ecological approaches, and within just a few years 40 different crops were being grown. To help the farmers sell what they produced, the association built a large marketplace and slaughterhouse on the highway below the villages, which quickly evolved into a weekly market serving the entire region.
And the slum in Quito? It no longer exists!
After the farmers went back to farming their land, the city demolished it.
Total duration of this project: 12 years
In 1997, after the end of the Cenepa War with Peru, the ministry of health contacted us again to ask for help with the indigenous communities living in the rainforests of the Amazon basin. The area completely lacked roads and there were only a few landing strips used by the military. But representatives of seven indigenous peoples were urgently requesting medical services.
Despite the fact that the association was already working with the mountain farmers and with the Chachi on the coast, Mascha decided to pay a visit to the restricted military zone near the Peruvian border.
“… and we’re still there today!” concludes Mascha with satisfaction. “We began with a health project along the rivers of the zone occupied by the Sapara people. Because we were the first aid organization to get involved there, the news spread like wildfire. In 1999 the neighboring Achuar and Shuar peoples also invited us, followed two years later by lowland Kichwa communities. If you can help, you shouldn’t ever say no!”
The association faced a challenging test in the years 2004 to 2007, when a malaria epidemic was creeping up along the rivers. As the only aid organization active in the forestlands, it was naturally asked to help. And when people are dying in every village, it goes without saying that you have to drop whatever else you’re doing. The helpers from Munich spent three years fighting the disease simultaneously in 112 remote villages and were successful – it still hasn’t returned to this day!
In 2007, members of the association INDIO-HILFE established the AMAZONICA Foundation with the credo and strategy “to protect the tropical rainforests by supporting its indigenous inhabitants.” The focuses are on education and training (schools, vocational training, scholarships), community development (supply of drinking water and solar energy, waste disposal, composting toilets, construction of public facilities), resolution of conflicts (young vs. old, suppression of women), medical care, first aid stations, vegetable farming and small animal husbandry for self-sufficiency, preservation of indigenous cultures, nature conservation, and development of community-based tourism.
In 2008, the AMAZONICA Academy – which had begun as a project of the foundation – became the first rainforest academy for indigenous students and international universities.
It gives young people from around the world the chance to spend time in the rainforest and learn to understand and protect it.
The Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences in Germany led the way, followed by Munich University and further Bavarian educational institutions. Today, teachers are also arriving with final-semester students from other European cities.
The encounters that take place in the rainforest are between equals. Academics from Ecuador and Colombia are also frequent visitors. The academy has a cooperation agreement with the University of Cuenca, which also holds seminars in forest communities.
Appropriate tourist infrastructure was needed for these visitors, so it made sense to spin off the academy. Since 2015 it has been a nonprofit joint-stock company offering highly sustainable, soft tourism to everyone who is interested. AMAZONICA has thus created a very sensible source of income for rainforest residents. Tourism generates many jobs and supports the conservation of nature and culture heritages while giving the indigenous population a viable future on their own land.
AMAZONICA has even succeeded in convincing two neighboring peoples (the Achuar and Shuar) that have traditionally been bitter rivals to overcome their differences and conclude a contract with the academy. They now want to create and manage the first indigenous tourism network on their own territories. AMAZONICA is providing advice and training and supporting the required construction work.
What our 40th anniversary means
We have devoted 40 years of work to around 200 large and small projects with seven indigenous peoples comprising many thousands of individuals. They invited us and asked for support, and today are heading in a very positive direction.
The highlights have been the achievement of legally protected indigenous settlement areas; the only successful anti-malaria campaign to date, conducted concurrently in 112 villages; the creation of two large-scale medical care systems; the return of thousands of highland farmers to their fields from a slum in the capital; the resuscitation of indigenous cultures; the first university degrees for women; the first exclusively indigenous companies; the first rainforest academy; and the first community-based tourism network.
And where all of this has been achieved, the rainforest remains intact and isn’t burning either!