The Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve in Ecuador is considered one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Its Amazonian rainforest is home to amphibians, mammals, birds and plants. The frogs, tapirs, jaguars and monkeys alone would have provided ample material for a stunning wildlife documentary. But, film-maker Ryan Killackey sets out to do more with Yasuni Man by including an intimate study of a remote forest community under siege from big business.
The rainforest may have been designated an UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve but that does not protect its lucrative natural resources from exploitation. Yasuni sits above a substantial oil reserve and previous attempts to protect the habitat have been half-hearted or ineffective. Illegal logging has resulted in deforestation and wildlife is poached to be sold at bushmeat markets. For local people, the lack of options to earn an income make it a struggle to survive and maintain their traditional ways of life.
The National Park is also the ancestral land of three indigenous communities who have chosen different responses to the threats they face. The Tagaeri and Taromenane are among the few remaining uncontacted communities left in the world. Both tribes defend their isolation rigorously which involves violent conflict with the employees of oil companies, missionaries and neighbouring communities. The third indigenous community, the Waorani, initially clashed with representatives of the oil companies before peaceful contact was established in the 1950s by evangelical missionaries. This introduction carried a price as illness killed many while others were moved off their territory. Yasuni Man concentrates on the efforts of one Waorani village to survive within the forest and preserve their customs.
Killackey has obtained extraordinary access to document this Waorani community. He accompanies them on hunts and fishing trips to records their interactions and cultural practices. The opening sequence observes one hunt and its aftermath from the butchering of the tapir to the pranks played by the Waorani hunters on one another. A close-knit unit, this Waorani community depend on each other and the rainforest to survive.
This documentary is a graphic account of the external pressures facing this community and their attempts to defend their way of life. While Killackey’s passion is undeniable, the approach is rough in places. A trip along some of Ecuador’s rivers to examine the effects of oil extraction on wildlife is not fully developed. This element could have been spun off into a separate documentary. So too could have been the impact of evangelicalism and cultural imperialism on the region while sequences about a census of the rainforest’s biodiversity is also rushed.
Yasuni Man is a plea for action to protect an area of unique wildlife and its indigenous inhabitants. It offers a bleak picture of the cost of oil dependence including the destruction of the Yasuni region, and a glimpse of the multitude and beauty of wildlife that exist within a small isolated area of rainforest. Eimear Dodd