The Huaorani have been around for a long time. Their exact origins are unknown, but according to their oral history they arrived some thousand years ago at their present location in the North East of what is now Ecuador. Living as nomadic hunters and gatherers in an extensive territory, the Spanish conquest passed them by and they remained isolated until the end of the 1950s when missionaries made the first contact and the Huaorani first made the headlines when they killed five American missionaries with spears.
The story of greed and money
“After them came the oil companies and the loggers and since then rich oil reserves in this area have been exploited through foreign companies and through Petroecuador. Under the protection of law and order, forces employed by the oil companies and by the “jungle tigers” (special and heavily armed Ecuadorian troops trained by the US), this exploitation takes place with the assistance of lawyers, anthropologists, sociologists and missionaries. It also happens through “gifts” of alleged development projects and promises, but also through threats.
This for instance facilitated the construction of almost 90 km of road by Texaco from Coca deep into the territory of the Huaorani together with another road leading towards the eastern part of the territory. A number of minor roads to the oilfields branch off from the main road. Through pipes running along these roads the oil is transported to the western coast of Ecuador. Sometimes these pipes are damaged and this causes serious pollution.
Pollution and diseases
Even worse is the habit to deposit polluted oil in 600 to 1,000 open basins, which are not insulated. The water pollution is disastrous. People living near the lower parts of the rivers are suffering from skin diseases, loss of hair, soar throats, diarrhea and illnesses that were unknown to them before. And all this in addition to the diseases which were brought into the area by missionaries, oil workers, colonialists and the first tourists, and against which the indigenous people are not immune and for which they have no natural remedies. They can either afford the long way to the hospital in Puyo, Coca and Quito where they have to pay for their treatment or else they suffer and die from these diseases. Therefore about half of the population of the Huaorani died in the sixties.
Encouraged by the government up to the early nineties, people have settled along these roads. The area occupied, i.e. 4 km right and left of the road, was given to them free of cost. To cultivate coffee or do cattle breeding – both of which is totally unsuitable for the thin layer of humus in the tropical rain forest – they clear the land and sell the timber. Once the soil is exhausted they move on and clear other areas. There are no government controls.
Alienated from the traditions
The indigenous people who are thus alienated from their traditional way of life are confronted with a destruction of resources, cutthroat capitalism, alcohol and prostitution. Western curricula, teaching “with a carrot and a stick”, hierarchical thinking and acting, deriding of their forest life through the state and the missionaries – all this increasingly leads to some kind of deculturisation.
The Huaorani do not get any compensation for the loss of their land, for the damage to their health and they get no share of the income from oil and timber production. A Huaorani once said: “We are confronted with problems from all sides… We have to protect ourselves until we reach the forest where we are safe.” But a majority of the Huaorani is prepared – literally and figuratively – “to attack with spears from all sides”, exactly the way they have always done when their way of life was threatened.”
If you’d like to read more on this you can find more here.
The Huaorani ventured into an innovative partnership promoting a new form of ecologically friendly development sensitive to their traditions. The venture led to the Huaorani Ecolodge, an ecotourism project that is co managed by Tropic Journeys in Nature and the Huaorani themselves, which was opened in January 2008.
The project now provides work and alternative income, and a reason to protect the environment. In 2008 and 2010 the project was awarded by LATA in the UK as the best sustainable tourism project of the year in Latin America and in 2009 it was awarded the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award with highly commendation in 2010.
The People themselves will also be winners, their disappearance only a matter of time but with the advent of sustainable community ecotourism, and the support of Tropic, they now seems to have time on its side.
A mind-blowing experience
Afterwards, I’m still trying my best to let it all sink in and the promises has indeed been fulfilled. This has been a mind-blowing experience and I’m still a bit shook up from the stories of the fight between the Huaorani and the international oil companies that keep on raping this pristine and divine natural area with the support of religion.
This hasn’t primarily been a wildlife experience, but a fascinating cultural experience that has taught me well. I’m shocked that I didn’t know more about the intense and bloody story of the oil companies’ rampage in the area and the their struggle to keep them away from their land.
It’s been a real eye-opener to meet the culture and these indigenous people with a reputation to be the fiercest warriors even known.
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I would like to recommend you to check out the short film “Crossed Spears: The Fight for Culture and the Amazon” – the story of the Huaorani People (Waorani) of Ecuador.
The producer, Maggie Padlewska present it in these words:
“We (myself and the wonderful people I met) hope that it gives you a better idea of the struggle that the Huaorani community faces as it struggles to protect and preserve their culture and land (namely, the Amazon rainforest – one of the most bio-diverse areas on the planet!).”