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This project was initiated by the villagers of Arutam to serve as a platform for addressing the social, cultural and economical difficulties faced by its members and neighboring communities. The purpose of the volunteer program is to strengthen the projects with personnel, ideas and new ways to create community development in the indigenous communities of Pastaza based on sustainable use of the biological resources and cultural norms.
Arutam is a small traditional Shuar community, based on kinship and extended families. The community owns approximately 2500 acres of tropical rainforest, of which 95 percent are still kept in a primary state and 2100 acres are set aside for the Arutam Rainforest Reserve. The remaining part of the forest is used for subsistence farming, pastures and housing for the community members. Arutam have been engaged in conservation and tourism activities for almost a decade, resulting in the establishment of Arutam Rainforest Reserve in 2000. The community began working with volunteers at the end of 2003, and since then, volunteers from all over the world have visited Arutam and helped maintain, share and develop the natural assets, visions and culture of the community members.
Beside the continued struggle for lands and indigenous rights, the Shuar’s biggest task is to find a way of living off the land that provides the cultural and modern necessities, and at the same time doesn’t take away the same possibilities for the future generations. Although the majority of the Shuar people today are self-sufficient in terms of food production, there still exists a need to earn money for their children’s education, health services, transportation, clothes and other consumption goods. Until now the only possibility for the Shuar to obtain the money they need has been through selling their timber, raising cattle or growing non-native export crops.
This has had some negative consequences for the forest, since clearing the rainforest is a prerequisite for these activities. Even those who sell their timber know that it is wrong and are worried about what they will leave behind for their children, but many feel they have little choice. Often they don’t have the knowledge and the resources to start up sustainable alternatives, and if nothing else happens they have to choose cattle ranching.
Based on the visions and experiences from the villagers in Arutam, FUNDECOIPA was founded in 2005 as a platform to address the problems facing the villagers and surrounding communities. With support from the volunteers, the activities and projects of FUNDECOIPA are launched as initiatives to stop the negative development and deforestation in the area and create a development path that can serve as a model for other communities.
The income from the tourism activities and support from volunteers have made Arutam into a small success story, where it has been possible to save 2100 acres of rainforest, preserving everything from parrots to pumas and orchids to mahogany. Furthermore, the cattle are long gone and instead villagers are reforesting with endangered and valuable timber and fruit trees. The project has also strengthened the culture and traditional knowledge of the Shuar by revitalizing skills and knowledge.
Although the forest has status as a reserve it still takes a big effort from the community and the network of volunteers to secure the project, develop new ideas and expand the activities into the neighboring communities. The long term goal of this project is to take care of Arutam and the surrounding communities’ interests and hopefully lay the foundation for the Shuar to continuously manage the forest where they have lived for many centuries.
“It is so much fun learning about the Shuar Culture. The locals are very friendly and love to talk to you about their culture. Even though there are volunteers coming and going all the time, the locals are still interested in you and really want to get to know you”. (Elina Hiltunen, Volunteer)
The role of volunteers in community development
(by Soren Brondum, Volunteer Program Coordinator)
In general volunteering in a developing country means to offers service, time and skills to benefit others or a specific purpose, providing voluntary personal aid while living in local communities, gaining mutual learning, friendships as well as adventurousness.
Volunteering can be considered a form of serious leisure that offers an experience and allows for the opportunity to live and work with people of other cultures.
After volunteering, volunteers are likely to use the knowledge gained from their volunteer experiences to influence other areas of their lives, such as personal development and the choice and career paths, particularly if the volunteer experience involves issues and impacts that relate to natural environments and local communities.
To the communities involved in the activities of FUNDECOIPA, the volunteers have an important role as being agents of development, helping to shape the future of the natural environment and the indigenous cultures. Very few volunteer projects in the Ecuadorian Amazon have such strong community involvement and ownership as FUNDECOIPA. Often projects are owned or managed by Western people or highly educated people from Quito, and will only hire indigenous peoples as exotic guides, cooks or maintenance personnel, resulting in little benefits for the communities and low level of sustainability of the project.
FUNDECOIPA is, with exception of me, an entirely indigenous organization, which is owned and managed by the Shuar communities both in terms of the daily and the financial management. This means that all capacity and financial benefits stay in the community and that the project will enjoy a higher degree of sustainability due to stronger project ownership by the Shuar people.
It also means that in the process of building up sufficient managerial skills you will risk committing mistakes. This is why the volunteers is so important. The cultural and knowledge exchange between villagers and volunteers, combined with the physical assistance is the key to development and success for FUNDECOIPA and the Shuar communities. FUNDECOIPA is true grass-root conservation “without filter”, with and for the people where it actually matters.
This also means that many projects and activities in the communities aren’t just finished ‘activity packages’ for volunteers, but are under constant change and development, where you as a volunteer can help take an active role in shaping activities as well as conservation awareness among the indigenous people.
In times where helping others and ways of doing are becoming increasingly expensive and professionalized by large organizations, the volunteer program constitutes a new democratic and direct way of getting involved in community development. Here everybody with the intentions to help or learn gets an opportunity to get hands on experience with helping local indigenous peoples and protecting the Amazon.
FUNDECOIPA and our projects are a way of achieving the development objectives of the Shuar people through the help of international volunteers. This means that we welcome your effort and suggestions and guarantee that when working with us you will be in the frontline of development and conservation where your effort and time matters.
See you out there!
Soren Hoff Brondum