Joe Kane's Eco-Savages

Savages; Joe Kane; Alfred A. KnopfIt all began with a letter that appeared at the offices of the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco: an enigmatic cry for help from the Huaorani, a nation of 1300 nomadic Indians in the Ecuadorian jungle. Oil companies (mostly American) have devastated vast areas of the rain forest --dumping millions of gallons of toxic pollutants, deforesting at break-neck speed, and spilling oil in unparalleled amounts (Texaco's pipeline alone spilled one and a half times as much as did the Exxon Valdez). And now the oil companies were on their way to the Huaorani's land, the last and most isolated part of the jungle yet to have its reserves of oil extracted from beneath the richest biotic zone on the planet. The mysterious letter leads Joe Kane (author of the bestseller Running The Amazon) to visit the Huaorani, "the bravest people in the Amazon," as they proudly proclaim -- and to write a first-hand account of their lives and the fight for their lives in a captivating story that's as old as original sin: the devastation of a people -- their land, culture and way of life -- by outsiders on an insatiable quest for wealth and resources. Kane's philosophy is simple: environmental activists could not put forth proposals on their behalf without experiencing their plight and their fight first-hand. A depressing eco-journey? A sentimental diatribe against American business? Hardly. The story that emerges from Joe Kane's travels and travails is rich and complex -- with as many layers as the rain forest itself -- as well as entertaining. He writes of a brutal trip through the rain forest on their way to an even more remote Huaorani village: "Wet, hungry, exhausted, and unable to see the sky, I did not bother to remove my clothes, which in any case were not going to dry out anytime soon, if ever. Enqueri, for his part, would not admit that we were lost. ('Where are we?' I asked, to which he replied, with an absolutely straight face, 'We are in the jungle.')" On the very same trip, Kane nearly starves to death. "If nothing else, I was coming to understand that for the Huaorani, hunger defines life.... From this point of view, I could see why the Huaorani so value self-reliance, and why their culture revolves around food, ritual sharing, feast and famine ... the notion of the forest as ever fruitful and providing is absolutely critical to their ability to survive. It was easy to see, too, why all the money in the world could never compensate them for the destruction of their land." The simplistic, yet wise sensibility of the Huaorani is the same spirit in which Kane tells this tale of a people who seem to be fighting a losing battle (one that has not been resolved), yet maintain their fierce independence as well as their sense of hope. If there is any criticism of this book, it is that the reader gets so lost in his travels from jungle to civilization and back, you occasionally forget why you're taking the trip.

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