Amazon solar-powered river bus

How can you create public transport in the jungle without polluting? 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 gallons of tea made with the guayusa plant. One then disappear into the dark to vomit.

This ritual, known as guayusada, is designed to clear and energize and culminates in a sharing of dreams of the night.

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

And this dream was recently realized for the Achuar.

From April 2017, a canoe is powered only by solar energy moves forward and backward along 67 km (42-mile) stretch of the Capahuari and Pastaza rivers that connect the nine isolated groups who live along their banks.

The boat Tapiatpia – from the name of the mythical electric eel in the area, gives the Amazon its first solar powered public transport system.


“The solar canoe is an ideal solution for this place because there is a network of networks, navigable rivers, and a great need of transportation alternatives,” says Oliver Utne, an environmentalist who has worked with the community since 2011.

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

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

Of course there is an environmental impact too – the canoeing does not mean pollution of the world’s richest zones of biodiversity.

With a roof of 32 solar panels mounted on a traditional canoe design 16 x 2 metres (52 x 7 metres) of glass fiber, Tapiaptia port 18 passengers.

His navigator, Hilario Saant, he tells me how the canoe is life-changing.

“We’re helping the community when there are sick children. Call me on the radio and we take the children to the health center,” she says.

In the same way, more children are now in school, because it is cheaper, and there are more among the community of sporting events.

Suddenly, our conversation is interrupted by the scream excited of one of our traveling companions, as they have a place in a school of pink dolphins. Another advantage of the boat is that the relative calm not to scare the animals.

Back on the mainland, Julián Ilanes, the leader of the Territory of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador (NAE), tells me that the wide range of opportunities offered by the canoe.

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

“We’re able to bring clothes and rubber from Peru, and are in need of green bananas, chicken and peanuts” – he explained.

The Achuar

Amazonian communities that embrace the Ecuador-Peru border, numbering around 19,000 people in total

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

The Semi-nomadic, until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1940’s, now live in small villages, supporting themselves through hunting, fishing and agriculture

Their remote location has allowed them to maintain their lifestyle

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

“Not having roads helps us to maintain our culture, to have the wisdom not to forget what the Achuar culture,” says René Canelos, a 27-year-old from Sharamentsa, one of the villages served by canoe.

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

The government of Ecuador has argued that the streets that will improve the Achuar access to health and education, so that the canoe helps the community to demonstrate to be able to manage without them.

“The neighbors that leave that oil companies not only saw how this destroyed their forests, but also how it has 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 the Achuar on a new prototype boat, because the current engine was originally designed in Germany, struggling with Amazon hot sand stick-strewn waters.

The ultimate dream of Mr Utne and Mr. Saant is a network of sustainable solar canoe navigation of these ancient Amazonian highways.

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

But he says that the key element is that it was designed in the first place to work in the local.

“Personally, I think that large-scale solutions disconnect us, and I think it gets to the point in which we are, precisely because they are disconnected.”

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

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 with pride.

“I’m never going to abandoned you, I’m going to continue to work for the canoe up to my death.”

This BBC series was made with a grant from the Skoll Foundation