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This article examines a new set of policies embraced by indigenous leaders in the Upper Napo region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, driven, in part, by a growing appreciation for “wilderness” —large areas where humans exercise a very light touch. In the past few years, leaders have pursued wilderness conservation initiatives while simultaneously promoting petroleum extraction in their own backyards. Both political positions run counter to those pursued in previous decades, when opposition to both oil development and strict forms of conservation within their territory was strong. To address this reversal, I trace some of the development interventions and North-South collaborations that have contributed to the emergence of “nature” as a meaningful imaginary for Amazonian indigenous leaders and for a new generation of young people, drawing connections to William Cronon’s critical analysis of how wilderness conservation became a priority in the United States. I conclude that more than two decades of conservationist interventions in the Upper Napo region have led to some largely unintended consequences, as Amazonian leaders increasingly subscribe to Northern environmentalists’ romanticization of “the Amazon” as a wild place, one that therefore must be distant from the places where they work and live.


Originally published in Humanities.

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