At the age of 21, Sarah Begum realized a childhood dream by leaving the UK to live with the Huaorani tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Sarah immersed herself completely in the Huaorani way of life—hunting, gathering and even marrying a local warrior.
The Huaorani’s ancestral home, Yasuni National Park, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and one of the most seriously threatened. The Ecuadorian government recently abandoned a conservation plan that would have remunerated the country for protecting still-intact parts of the park from oil drilling.
In an effort to raise awareness around the importance of rainforests, Sarah spoke with us about her life-changing experience with the Huaorani.
What inspired your journey to the Amazon rainforest?
When I was 9 years old, I learned about deforestation at school and immediately wanted to know more. My curiosity gave birth to a dream and a passion to save the Amazon rainforest.
Then at the age of 21, I was studying filmmaking at Kingston University and I didn’t feel like I was getting enough from the course. I was appointed president of the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) and asked to come up with ideas for a project. I instantly thought of the Amazon rainforest and my classmates encouraged me to develop the idea.
I gave up my role at SIFE to focus on making my very first film in the rainforest. I poured my savings into the project, got some funding from a couple of private investors and was awarded the Enterprising Student Award for my idea.
Why did you choose to live with the Huaorani tribe?
I did a lot of research on tribes and I felt the greatest connection with the Huaorani. Their relationship to jaguars fascinated me as well as their pristine way of life and their status as the fiercest warriors of the Ecuadorian Amazon. I was compelled to find out more about them in person.
What surprised you the most about their way of life?
I thought it would be how they hunt for food and gather resources–but the thing that surprised me the most is how westernization is affecting their culture.
What are the big issues facing the Huaorani?
The biggest issue is losing their home and way of life to deforestation and oil exploitation. Recently, President Rafael Correa and the Ecuadorian government abandoned the initiative to keep oil in the ground. Ecuador needed to raise $3.6 billion to prevent drilling for oil in the park. When Correa closed the project he had only raised $13 million. If this [drilling and deforestation] goes ahead, the Huaorani’s way of life will be severely threatened.
Westernization is also a problem. While some young members choose to coexist in the western world in order to spread their message about protecting their lands and making people aware of their culture through eco-tourism, others have chosen to abandon their culture completely.
Farming and agricultural expansion is one of the biggest causes of deforestation worldwide. Did you see much of this during your travels?
As I traveled to this remote, pristine part of the Amazon rainforest I did notice the effects of deforestation. Not only is farming and agricultural expansion the cause of much deforestation, tourism can have negative as well as positive effects. However, the Huaorani tribe does rely on eco-tourism to sustain the jungle and their existence.
You made a film, Amazon Souls, about your journey and the Huaorani way of life. When can the public expect to see the film?
I am hoping to release the film worldwide once a broadcaster decides to take it on. After broadcast, I would like to make it available in many other forms for the public to be able to view and share. Fingers crossed! I also intend to go back to make a sequel, so hopefully with lots of support and backing I can make this happen. It would be great to show the Huaorani “Amazon Souls” in person.
What’s the one message you hope to spread?
We all need to unite as one in order to raise awareness of what is happening in the Amazon rainforest and rainforests all over the world. Oil exploitation and deforestation need to end. The rainforest shelters such beauty. The Huaorani are under serious threat—not only of losing their home but of losing their way of life.
What can people do to help protect the rainforests and the Huaorani way of life?
People are actually not very far away from the rainforest–-many things we use and eat are from the Amazon. We should be grateful to the Amazon for providing such treats and we can show our appreciation by supporting campaigns that aim to save the Amazon rainforest. We need to come together to raise awareness by spreading the message of its existence, its suffering, encourage support from others and share stories and videos such as “Amazon Souls.” People can also help by supporting the Rainforest Alliance and others who aim to protect the Amazon on a daily basis.