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The Payamino region belongs to the Kichwa community San José de Payamino, which currently numbers around 300 inhabitants.

Fincas are distributed throughout the 17000 ha, with fallow farmland and jungle in between. Additionally there is a community centre, where many families have a second house. Different families reside more or less time in the centre, often depending on the distance to their farmland or the regularity of work or education in Loreto, a bumpy 30 km from the village.



Most houses are traditionally build wooden huts on stilts with thatched palm roofs, with the addition of a few communal concrete buildings, such as a classroom and a couple of small meeting halls.

The community is governed by a directive which is elected at the beginning of every year. However, to discuss any community affairs or decisions, general meetings are called, to which the entire population is invited.

Local lady thatching a roof.

Most families have a house and farm near water.

Naranjilla (Solanum sessiliflorum)


All residents of San José de Payamino are native speakers of Kichwa, the most widely spoken indigenous language of Ecuador. It is part of the Quechuan language group that, apart from being the most spoken indigenous language group in South America, is known for being the group the Inca language belonged to.

Most are also fluent in Ecuadorian Spanish, although some women and small children do not speak it.


San José de Payamino people still employ a mainly traditional system of land use; it is a kind of slash-and-burn agriculture. In slash-and-burn farming, a section of forest is cut down, and then set fire in order to return the nutrients to the soil. The now-fertile soil is used for a few years to cultivate crops such as yuca (Manihot esculenta) and corn (Zea mays). Then plant species which are beneficial to the farmers are allowed to grow back, and over time the fallow field matures into secondary forest. Despite the devastating consequences of slash-and-burn agriculture elsewhere, the particular variation used in Payamino appears to be environmentally sustainable, in contrast with many land use systems employed in the Amazon. There are various studies being conducted by the station in order to determine the environmental effect and potential sustainability of the land use of Payamino.


Apart from the sale of cash crops such as cacao (Theobroma cacao), coffee (Coffea arabica), and naranjilla (Solanum sessiliflorum), a limited number of San José de Payamino residents also pan for gold (using machinery to sift through the sediment in the river) or sell handicrafts.

In addition, salary work has been provided to residents by the oil company PetroAmazonas, which has been exploring an area upstream of the Payamino centre. Construction work has been offered by the Ecuadorian government, and wilderness guide and station maintenance work offered by the Payamino Project and the Timburi Cocha Research Station.


Two main sources of employment for Payamino people in recent years were the oil company PetroAmazonas and the Payamino Project. These will not, however, continue to benefit the local economy.

PetroAmazonas was unable to find enough oil to make extraction in the area economically viable. While the company was undergoing exploration of the region it provided many benefits to the community (such as the elementary school), but these are scheduled to end at the end of 2013, and at the moment only temporary employment is offered to help move their equipment back out of the jungle.

The Payamino Project was terminated in 2012 when its ten-year contract expired. At Timburi Cocha we are continuing where the project left off with conservation and community development initiatives, with particular emphasis on biological research and cultural preservation.

Several governmental and nongovernmental organisations offer an economic incentive to communities that preserve primary forest. So far San José de Payamino has chosen not to take advantage of these opportunities, although the community is already preserving much primary forest in a manner fulfilling the requirements of these grants. However, it is likely that the community will accept such funding in the near future, and does already receive an incentive from Timburi Cocha Research Station to respect the rainforest.

Payamino people are self-sufficient farmers and thus do not require any money to survive, but many seek to earn enough to pay for better education for their children and simply to enjoy some Western comforts. For this reason, if sustainable economic activities fail to take root in San José de Payamino, it is possible that the community may turn to practices which have degraded the culture and natural environment throughout much of the Amazon, such as African oil palm plantations, sale of hunted game, cattle grazing, or other environmentally destructive activities.

The Kichwa people of San José de Payamino live mostly off subsistence agriculture (more below) and fishing, earning some cash from selling cash crops outside the community and working for the research station or the oil company (more below).


When the first Spanish settlers arrived in Ecuador, the Napo valley was inhabited by various native ethnic groups, each with a unique culture and language. The settlers exerted power over the natives through both secular and religious means. At times, the land was divided amongst various feudal lords who demanded heavy tribute from the indigenous population, and generally would cruelly punish those who did not comply. At other times, when Jesuit influence was strong, missions instead dotted the rainforest. Because both the local people and the Jesuits had some knowledge of Kichwa language, they used it as a lingua franca for centuries. Over time, Kichwa replaced many of the native languages, creating the modern Lowland Kichwa people. A few groups who were outside the influence of missionaries retain their language to this day: these include the Waorani and Shuar.

San José de Payamino was probably originally made up of people from the Quijos ethnicity. Its inhabitants were semi-nomadic, and the exact site of the village moved over time. In the 1960s the people settled in the current location in order to obtain land title from the Ecuadorian government. At that time, a small village center was built with government help, and included an elementary school and clinic.

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