The barefoot diplomat meets a jungle princess

Doug and Martha Ferguson with their four children Johnny, 16, Lisan, 13, Sara, 10 and Chantelle, 7, outside their North Lismore home.

Their homelands were on opposite sides of the world, but in 1989 when Lismores Doug Ferguson met Martha Mamallacta, a Quechuan Indian from Ecuador, they had much in common.

Both were passionate about saving the Ecuadorian rainforests; Doug, because hed been saving forests for years, Martha, because the rainforest had been her familys home for centuries.

Fast forward 18 years and Martha Mamallacta is now Martha Ferguson, wife of Doug, mother of his four children, living in a rambling old North Lismore house and about to become an Australian citizen this Australia Day.

The rainforest they were both so passionate about has been saved, and is now the 15,000 hectare Napo Galeras National Park.

Marthas origins are a story in itself. The name Mamallacta means mother earth and identifies someone as a chief. Marthas father, Casimiro Mamallacta Mamallacta is the chief shaman of the Galeras mountain.

Marthas father is the last living representative of that mountain, said Doug. He knows every plant in the jungle and every spirit associated with that plant. He is a man of incredible knowledge and power, and all the other Indians are scared of him.

Not your average father-in-law, so when love blossomed between the rainforest warrior and the Ecuadorian princess, Doug did the right thing and went through Marthas father.

You could say it was love at first sight, said Doug. I did years of labour in terms of putting the project together and preserving the familys land, plus I built a house. I basically earned my son-in-law stripes.

Doug is no stranger to saving rainforests having been involved in rainforest campaigns in NSW, Tasmania and Queensland. He was involved in the Rainforest Information Centre, founded by John Seed in 1979, which was invited to Ecuador in 1986 to work with indigenous communities.

Over a 15 year period Doug helped three tribes (the Awa, the Huaorani and the Quechua people) secure and demark their ancestoral land; effectively locking up more than a million hectares of pristine rainforest in reserves and National Parks.

A documentary The Invisible People was made in 1997 about Dougs work, featuring Martha and her family. In the film Doug is described as a barefoot diplomat working between governments, oil companies, the military and the people of the Amazon.

He was imprisoned and received death threats as he battled to preserve this most bio-diverse part of the planet.

However he said it was actually Martha who was very skilled at communicating with the government people and who won their hearts and got them involved.

Despite Dougs heroic past you get the sense his proudest achievements are right here in Lismore his Ecuadorian wife and four beautiful children.

Ive come back home with an Ecuadorian family. And all of my Australian family will be there on Australia Day to watch Martha officially become an Australian citizen, he said.

Martha too, is very proud to call herself an Australian. Coming from a family of people who date back to the Incas, a sense of belonging is important to her.

I sometimes miss my family, said Martha, who has nine siblings back in Ecuador. But I am happy here, and at least the Northern Rivers is quite green and a bit tropical.

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