The Amazon’s solar-powered river bus

Children on the solar canoe on their way to school
Image captionA school commute with a difference

How can you create public transport in the jungle without polluting it? The isolated Achuar peoples of Ecuador have created an ingenious solution.

A couple of hours before dawn in Kapawi, a village in a remote corner of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a group of men gather to drink litres of tea made from the guayusa plant. One by one they then disappear into the dark to vomit.

This ritual, known as guayusada, is designed to purge and energise and culminates in a sharing of dreams from the night.

It was during one of these ceremonies more than half a century ago that a dream was shared of a “canoe of fire”.

And this dream has recently been realised for the Achuar.

Ecuador's solar canoe in the Amazon

Since April 2017, a canoe powered solely by solar energy travels back and forth along the 67-km (42-mile) stretch of the Capahuari and Pastaza rivers that connect the nine isolated settlements that live along their banks.

The boat Tapiatpia – named after a mythical electric eel in the area – gives the Amazon its first solar powered public transport system.

A map of Achuar territory, South East EcuadorImage copyrightALDEA
Image captionAchuar territory, Ecuador

“The solar canoe is an ideal solution for this place because there is a network of interconnected navigable rivers and a great need for alternative transport,” says Oliver Utne, a US environmentalist who has been working with the community since 2011.

The community previously relied entirely on gasoline canoes, known as peque peques, but they are expensive to run and only owned by a few families per village.

The canoe costs passengers just $1 (71p) each per stop, whereas peque peques cost $5-10 in gasoline for the same journey. Gasoline costs five times more here than in the capital Quito because there are no roads and it needs to be flown in.

Solar technician, Oliver Utne
Image captionSolar technician, Oliver Utne

Of course there is an environmental impact too – the canoe means no pollution in one of the world’s richest areas of biodiversity.

With a roof of 32 solar panels mounted on a traditional canoe design of 16 x 2-metre (52 x 7-feet) fibreglass, Tapiaptia carries 18 passengers.

Its navigator, Hilario Saant, tells me how the canoe is changing lives.

Navigator and community elder, Hilario Saant stands on the solar canoe
Image captionNavigator and community elder, Hilario Saant

“We are helping the community when there are sick children. They call me on the radio and we take the children to the health centre,” he says.

Similarly, more children are now at school because it is more affordable, and there are more inter-community sports events too.

Suddenly, our conversation is interrupted by the excited scream of one of our fellow passengers as they spot a school of pink dolphins. Another advantage of the boat is that its relative quiet doesn’t scare the animals.

The solar canoe tied up at a village port
Image captionThe solar canoe tied up at a village port

Back on dry land Julián Ilanes, a leader of the Territory of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador (NAE), tells me about the wider opportunities provided by the canoe.

Numerous territorial wars have severed the connection between the Achuar in Ecuador and their cousins over the border in Peru. Mr Ilanes hopes to re-establish trade between the two, something that has thus far been economically impossible due to the distance and the cost of gasoline.

“We can bring clothes and rubber from Peru, and they need green bananas, chicken, and peanuts from us,” he explains.

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The Achuar

An Amazonian community who span the Ecuador-Peru border, numbering around 19,000 people in total

Their culture centres on the importance of dreams and visions and they believe in Arutam – the spirit of the rainforest

Semi-nomadic until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1940s, they now live in small villages, sustaining themselves through hunting, fishing, and arable farming

Their remote location has allowed them to preserve their lifestyle

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And the canoe helps strengthen the community’s resilience against the construction of roads.

“Having no roads helps us to maintain our culture, to have the wisdom not to forget what the Achuar culture really is,” says René Canelos, a 27-year-old from Sharamentsa, one of the villages served by the canoe.

René Canelos, resident of Sharamentsa village
Image captionRené Canelos, resident of Sharamentsa village

The arrival of roads in indigenous communities in the north of Ecuador and in Peru has led to development and oil exploration, and with it, deforestation.

Ecuador’s government has argued that roads will improve the Achuar’s access to health care and education, so the canoe helps the community prove they can manage without them.

“The neighbours who let the oil companies in not only saw how this destroyed their forests, but also how it created a lot of internal conflicts because not everyone knew how to take advantage of the money that came in,” says Felipe Borman, a traditional canoe manufacturer.

Mr Borman has come to work with the Achuar on a new prototype of the boat because its current engine, originally designed in Germany, is struggling with the Amazon’s hot sandy stick-strewn waters.

The solar canoe cruising the wide rivers in Achuar territory

The ultimate dream for Mr Utne and Mr Saant is a whole network of sustainable solar canoes navigating these ancient Amazonian highways.

“We really think this can be a model for the rest of the Amazon, and also other places around the world where there is difficulty in accessing gasoline, where there is no road network, and there’s ecosystems that the local people are working to preserve,” says Mr Utne.

But he says the key element is that it was designed first and foremost to work locally.

“Personally, I think that large-scale solutions disconnect us, and I think we get to where we are precisely because we are disconnected.”

“What we need is to create local solutions, and if they work, replicate them in other places,” he says.

Members of the Achuar in Sharamentsa village

At the local level, at least, the difference is palpable.

“I love my boat… it’s a dream come true for the Achuar,” says Mr Saant proudly.

“I’m never going to abandon it, I’m going to continue working for the canoe until I die.”

This BBC series was produced with funding from the Skoll Foundation

Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes

(Funai) (Credit: Funai)

On July 1,, the Brazilian governmental agency in charge of indigenous Indian affairs, quietly posted a short press release on its website: two days earlier, they said, seven members of an isolated Indian tribe emerged from the Amazon and made peaceful contact with people in a village near the Peruvian border.

As the first official contact with such a tribe since 1996, the event was out of the ordinary. But the event itself could have been anticipated. For weeks, local villagers in Brazil’s Acre state had reported sightings of the tribesman, who supposedly came to steal crops, axes and machetes, and who “mimicked monkey cries” that frightened women and children.

Two members of an isolated indigenous tribe from the Amazon (Funai) (Credit: Funai)

Two members of an isolated indigenous tribe from the Amazon investigate a settled community of villagers in Acre, Brazil (Funai)

The Indians’ decision to make contact was not driven by a desire for material goods, however, but by fear. With the help of translators who spoke a closely related indigenous Panoan language, the Acre Indians explained that “violent attacks” by outsiders had driven them from the forest. Later, details emerged that their elder relatives were massacred, and their houses set on fire. Illegal loggers and cocaine traffickers in Peru, where the Indians are thought to come from, are likely to blame, according to the Brazilian government. Indeed, Funai’s own nearby monitoring post was shut down in 2011 due to increasing escalations with drug traffickers.


After they decided the situation called for drastic measures, the Indians did not just stumble upon the Brazilian village by chance – they probably knew exactly where to go. “They know far more about the outside world than most people think,” says Fiona Watson, research director for the non-profit organisation Survival International. “They are experts at living in the forest and are well aware of the presence of outsiders.”

This gets to the heart of a common misconception surrounding isolated tribes such as the one in Acre: that they live in a bubble of wilderness, somehow missing the fact that their small corner of the world is in fact part of a much greater whole – and one that is dominated by other humans. “Almost all human communities have been in some contact with one another for as long as we have historical or archaeological records,” says Alex Golub, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Human prehistory is not like that game Civilizationwhere you start with a little hut and the whole map is black.”

Fear factor

Today’s so-called uncontacted people all have a history of contact, whether from past exploitation or simply seeing a plane flying overhead. The vast majority of an estimated 100 or more isolated tribes live in Brazil, but others can be found in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and northern Paraguay. Outside of the Americas, isolated groups live in Papua New Guinea and on North Sentinel Island of India’s Andaman Islands, the latter of which is home to what experts think is the most isolated tribe in the world, the Sentinelese. Nothing is known about their language, and Indian authorities have only rough estimates of how many of them exist today. But even the Sentinelese have had occasional brushes with other societies; members of their tribe have been kidnapped, helicopters sometimes fly over their island and they have killed fishermen who have ventured too close.

A member of the Yora tribe from the border between Bolivia and Peru - 1986 (Kim Hill) (Credit: Kim Hill)

A member of the Yora tribe from the border between Bolivia and Peru – 1986 (Kim Hill)

It is almost always fear that motivates such hostilities and keeps isolated groups from making contact. In past centuries and even decades, isolated tribes were often murdered and enslaved by outsiders. From the time white Europeans first arrived in the Americas, indigenous peoples learned to fear them, and passed that message down generations through oral histories. “People have this romanticised view that isolated tribes have chosen to keep away from the modern, evil world,” says Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University. But when Hill and others interview people who recently came out of isolation, the same story emerges time and time again: they were interested in making contact with the outside world, but they were too afraid to do so. As Hill puts it: “There is no such thing as a group that remains in isolation because they think it’s cool to not have contact with anyone else on the planet.”

Some have personal memories of traumatic encounters with outsiders. In the 1960s and 70s, Brazil largely viewed the Amazon as an empty place in need of development. Indigenous people who stood in the way of that progress were given little or no warning before their homes were bulldozed over – or they were simply killed. In one case in Brazil’s Rondônia state, a single man, often referred to as “the Last of His Tribe,” remains in a patch of forest surrounded by cattle ranches. His people were likely killed by ranchers years ago. When he was discovered in 1996, he shot arrows at anyone who dared to approach his home. Funai officials sometimes check up on his house and garden, and, as far as anyone knows, he’s still living there today. “It’s a really sad story of this one little pocket of forest left where this one lone guy lives,” says Robert Walker, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri. “He’s probably completely terrified of the outside world.”

People from Brazil's Guaja tribe (Rob Walker) (Credit: Rob Walker)

People from Brazil’s Guaja tribe (Rob Walker)

In some cases in the 70s and 80s, the Brazilian government did try to establish peaceful contact with indigenous people, often with the aim of forced assimilation or relocation. They set up “attraction posts” – offerings of metal tools and other things indigenous Indians might find to be valuable – to try and lure them out of hiding. This sometimes led to violent altercations, or, more often than not, disease outbreaks. Isolated people have no immunity to some bugs, which have been known to wipe out up to half of a village’s population in a matter of weeks or months. During those years, missionaries traipsing into the jungle also delivered viruses and bacteria along with Bibles, killing the people they meant to save.

In 1987, Sydney Possuelo – then head of Funai’s Department of Unknown Tribes – decided that the current way of doing things was unacceptable. After seeing tribe after tribe demolished by disease, he concluded that isolated people should not be contacted at all. Instead, natural reserves should be placed aside for them to live on, and any contact attempts should be left up to them to initiate. “Isolated people do not manifest among us – they don’t ask anything of us – they live and die mostly without our knowledge,” he says. When we do contact them, he says, they too often share a common fate: “desecration, disease and death.”

Viral event

Unfortunately, history seems to be repeating itself. Three weeks after the Indians in Acre made contact, Funai announced that several of them had contracted the flu. All of them subsequently received treatment and vaccinations, but they soon returned to the forest. The fear, now, is that they will carry the foreign virus back with them to their home, spreading it to others who have no natural immunity.

“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, other than to make doomsday predictions,” Hill says. “So far, things are looking just like they looked in the past.”

Possuelo – who was fired from Funai in 2006 after a disagreement with his boss over some of these concerns – issues a more direct warning: “What they do in Acre is very worrying: they are going to kill the isolated people,” he says. “The president of Funai and the Head of the Isolated Indians Department should be held accountable for not meeting established standards.” (Funai did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

Surprisingly, no international protocol exists that outlines how to avoid this predicament. “Every government and group involved in making contact just wings it according to their own resources and experiences,” Hill says.

The common problem is a lack of institutional memory. Even in places like Brazil with decades of experience, Hill says, “each new government official takes on the task without knowing much about what happened in the past.” Some officials, he adds, have minimal expertise. “Quasi-amateur is what I’d call them: government officials who come in with no medical, anthropological or epidemiological training.”

Total denial

The situation in Peru, Watson points out, is even worse. “At one stage, the Peruvian government denied that uncontacted people even exist,” she says. And now major oil and gas operations are allowed to operate on reserves containing their villages. Added to that is the presence of illegal loggers and drug traffickers – making for a very crowded forest.

A satellite image of a remote village (Google/Rob Walker) (Credit: Google/Rob Walker)

A satellite image of a remote village (Google/Rob Walker)

Native people living there seem to be well aware of these encroachments. Google Earth satellite images that Walker recently analysed reveal that one large isolated village in Peru seems to be migrating, year by year, further afield from outside encroachment on their land, including a planned road project. “Most people argue that what’s going on here is that they’re potentially being forced out of Peru,” he says. “It seems like they are running away.”

When accidental harm from the outside world seems inevitable, Hill argues it would be better if we initiated contact. Slowly building up a long-distance friendship, he explains, and then carrying out a controlled contact meeting with medical personnel on site would be preferable. After that initial contact is made, anthropologists should be prepared to go back into the forest with the group and stay on site to monitor the situation for several months, as well as build up trust and communication. That way, if an epidemic should break out, help can be called for. “You can’t just tell them after 15 minutes, ‘Oh, by the way, if your whole village gets sick, send everyone out to this spot to get medical treatment,’” Hill says. “They won’t comply with that.”

It’s unclear whether or not such a plan is being carried out in Acre, however. “Funai is not the most transparent organisation, and they have complete monopoly on what happens to remote people in Brazil,” Hill says. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in the best interest of native peoples.”

Several members of an isolated indigenous tribe from the Amazon (Funai) (Credit: Funai)

Several members of an isolated indigenous tribe from the Amazon (Funai)

To ensure isolated groups have a future, both Brazil and Peru might need to become more transparent as well as more proactive about protecting them. No matter how remote the Amazon might seem, unlike the Sentinelese, South America’s isolated groups do not live on an island cut off from the forces of mainstream society. “Everywhere you look, there are these pressures from mining, logging, narcotrafficking and other external threats,” Walker says. “My worry is that if we have this ‘leave-them-alone’ strategy, at the end of the day the external threats will win. People will just go extinct.”

Thanks to João Victor Geronasso for translation help for this story. 

First published 2014  By Rachel Nuwer


Аircraft inventor Santos-Dumont believed air travel would bring world peace so he offered his designs free of charge


“Oh, yes. Then men would be truly free. From the air, there are no boundaries. There could be no more war because the sky is endless. How happy we would be, if we could but fly.” -Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

On October 19, 1901, Alberto Santos-Dumont, the 28-year-old heir to a wealthy family of coffee producers in Brazil and a recent graduate of aeronautical studies in Paris, made the first successful flight from Parc St. Cloud to the Eiffel Tower in his “Santos-Dumont No.6” dirigible balloon to win the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize. The prize consisted of 100,000 French francs, which he used for further research and development in the field of aviation and aircraft construction. He was absolutely sure that air travel would bring long-lasting peace to the world.

Everything he ever did, all his invention and designs, were patent free and freely published for everyone to examine and use to contribute to a greater humanity.

Smithsonian Annual Report – The Air Ship “Santos-Dumont 5” circling the Eiffel Tower. It’s the predecessor to the airship that won the prize later that year.

In 1932, after having witnessed some of his designs used in warfare during São Paulo’s Constitutionalist Revolution, he hanged himself.

Planes of the 135th Aero Squadron line up on Aug. 7, 1918, for the first mission flown over the Front by U.S. built DH-4s. U.S. Air Force public photo

Born on July 20, 1873, in the village of Cabangu in Palmira, Brazil, Alberto Santos-Dumont was raised in a wealthy environment by a highly inventive father. Due to his labor-saving inventions, his father, Henrique Dumont, earned a lot of money for the family and with time came to be known as the”Coffee King of Brazil.”

Being raised by such a dedicated and successful engineer was clearly advantageous for Alberto, for he needed only a couple of years to get from his first flight balloon to the first flight in his very own fixed-wing airplane.

French postal card showing Santos-Dumont flying the “No. 14 bis” in 1905.,

In his early career, he designed, developed, and flew hot-air balloons and early versions of lighter-than-air dirigible aircraft, or what we now refer to as Zeppelins. Inspired by his first successful balloon flights, Dumont believed he could do more and designed a steerable balloon, what later became identified as a non-rigid airship, which would allow people to fly through the air rather than just float along the wind.

The Air Ship “Santos-Dumont No.6” taking off in Paris, France in 1901 so it can make the prize-winning circle around the Eiffel Tower

On August 8, 1901, he made his first attempt to take the trip from the Aéro-Club de France at Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower, though it was unsuccessful. The trip, taken in one of his first sound airships, Santos-Dumont No.5, ended when it failed to fly over the roof of the Trocadero Hotel and crashed, leaving him stuck in the basket hanging from the side of the hotel.

Santos-Dumont pictured inside the basket used in No. 1, 2 and 3.

After making some changes to his design, he managed to complete the round trip just 10 weeks later on October 19. He decided to donate the 100,000 francs in prize money to the poor people of France, and used a further 125,000 francs, awarded to him along with a gold medal from the government of his native Brazil, to develop his research.


Alberto Santos-Dumont testing his model No.14  in the field of Bagatelle (Paris, France) in July 1906

And so he did, for only four years later in 1905 he finished his first fixed-wing aircraft design, as well as a model of a helicopter. A year later, on October 23, 1906, Dumont piloted his newest “baby,” the 14-bis, over a large crowd of witnesses at the fields of Paris’ Château de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. He flew 60 meters, averaging about five meters of altitude. Only a month after that, he managed to travel 220 meters in 21.5 seconds, setting the first world record acknowledged by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.

He resumed investing his time in research and development of heavier-than-air aircraft, although he never ceased to work on non-rigid airships as well. His last design is known to be the Demoiselle monoplane. Used at first by Santos-Dumont for personal transport, it started to be massively produced by the Clement-Bayard company after he started working with Adolphe Clément in 1908 and came to be the world’s first recorded series production aircraft.

The Demoiselle could achieve a speed of 120 km/h and could be built in only 15 days and still give a good performance. Author Tekniska museet – CC BY 2.0

It was in this plane Dumont made his final flight on January 4, 1910. He was forced to crash-land when a bracing wire snapped, then in March 1910 he announced his retirement from aviation. He secluded himself in his house, leading many to speculate he had suffered a nervous breakdown from overwork. Later it was confirmed he was suffering from multiple sclerosis, which drove him towards a serious long-lasting depression.

Close up view of Alberto Santos-Dumont seated at the controls of his Santos-Dumont No. 20 Demoiselle. Author Public.Resource.Org – CC-BY 2.0

After WW I started in 1914, his German-made telescope and his unusual accent prompted serious accusations, including that he was a German spy tracking French naval activity. Upset by the allegation and feeling betrayed by the state he had invested so much in, Santos-Dumont burned all his papers and design plans. He spent much of his subsequent years in Swiss and French sanatoriums and health institutions, feeling beaten down both by his illness and the betrayal.

In 1931, Santos-Dumont’s nephew traveled to Switzerland and brought him back to Brazil. Seriously ill and not able to cope with the fact that what he had envisioned and designed was used in the bombing of São Paulo during the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932 in his home country, he hanged himself on July 23, 1932 in the city of Guarujá.s

Today he is a national hero in Brazil, where he is recognized as one who preceded the Wright brothers in envisioning a practical airplane. In fact, the United States at one time recognized Dumont as the father of aviation. After his death, his heart was placed in a golden globe and now lies preserved at Brazil’s National Air and Space Museum.

By Martin Chalakoski