Ecuador recently made history when it became the first sovereign state to air a commercial during the Super Bowl. The government hopes
the ad, costing a reported $3.8 million, will generate a hefty return in the form of 13,000 additional American tourists and $60 million in
tourism revenue.

The ad showcases Ecuador’s extraordinary natural landscapes: aerial shots over a lush jungle canopy, orchids blossoming, flocks of
dazzling birds perched in the treetops. Backed by a cover of The Beatles’ tune All You Need Is Love, the narrator’s leathery-smooth voice intones, “All you need…is Ecuador.”

Over the last five years I have been filming and living with members of the Waorani—a hunter-gatherer tribe found deep within the Amazonian rainforest of western Ecuador, in a wilderness area known as Yasuni Man and the Biosphere Reserve.

Seeing the ad, I was suddenly back in the rainforest with Kemperi, the Jaguar Shaman. Wrinkled and naked, I could see him sling a freshly speared boar over his shoulder—meat to feed his entire family. I saw him call to his wife, Minyemo, over 70 years old, as she picked fruit from the top of a palm and then scampered down its trunk, like a fireman down a pole.

All you need is Ecuador.

For indigenous people living deep in the rainforest, the ad’s slogan is literally true. And they’re in an escalating, violent struggle to keep it that way. 

While the land they live on is ostensibly protected—Yasuni is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—its underground is awash in oil and gas and minerals, which provide valuable revenue for Ecuador’s economy.

Published last month, the most comprehensive study of its kind to date shows that the western Amazon, which encompasses the Yasuni reserve, is seeing unprecedented encroachment from the oil and gas industries. Oil and gas blocks now cover nearly a half million square miles—an area larger than Texas—and are rapidly expanding, including into territories where the Waorani and other indigenous communities have lived for millennia in voluntary isolation from the modern world.

For the Waorani and other tribes, this encroachment is a deliberate and hostile invasion, bringing with it armed conflict that threatens them as well as their advocates throughout the region. According to the anti-corruption organization Global Witness, between 2002 and 2013, more than 500 people have been killed defending land in the western Amazon—with killings far more common today than a decade ago.

Most recently, last December the body of José Tendetza, a leader of Ecuador’s Shuar community and a vociferous land-rights defender, was
found bound up with blue rope, his body displaying signs of torture. Tendetza was scheduled to arrive that day at a United Nations summit
in Peru, where he was set to protest plans to open land within his community to Chinese mining interests.

Under pressure from civil society, the Ecuadorian government has begun to explore other revenue sources, including a massive but ultimately
bungled carbon offset trading scheme. The Super Bowl ad is its latest attempt to find alternatives.

The irony is that left intact, the rainforest provides numerous valuable goods, such as compounds used to create medicines, natural water filtration, and tourism opportunities.

As possibly the most bio-diverse place on Earth, Yasuni is essentially priceless. It holds more plant species in a single hectare than exist across all of North America, and its varieties of mammals, birds and amphibians are among the highest recorded anywhere on the planet.

To help illuminate the forest’s value, last year I led a team of wildlife biologists from three continents into Yasuni in order to catalogue, for the first time, the array of species that exist within its deepest reaches. The effort is part of a new and growing movement to document and value “natural capital.” By valuing natural capital, Ecuador and other forest-rich countries can find an economic counterweight to the use-and-discard approach employed by the oil and mining industries, and reduce tensions that have led to conflict with indigenous people.

All you need is Ecuador. But to keep it, we must learn to value the natural wonders above ground as much as we do those below it.

Ryan Killackey is a field biologist and documentary filmmaker. He and the Waorani are featured in the National Geographic documentary "Earth: A New Wild."