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- Sunday, 3 May 2015

Spirits of the Amazon

The Huaorani are legendary, even among other Indigenous peoples in Ecuador’s Amazon region, for their extensive knowledge about the rainforest and its diverse plant and animal life. They are also famous for their hunting skills, and long spears and blowguns.

Huaorani were able to aggressively protect their culture and lands from both indigenous enemies and settlers, missionaries, etc. In the last 40 years, they have shifted from a hunting and gathering society to live mostly in permanent forest settlements. As many as five communities – the Tagaeri, the HuiƱatare, the OƱamenane, and two groups of the Taromenane – have rejected all contact with the outside world and continue to move into more isolated areas.

Before “contact” (with the outside world) and the arrival of “the civilization” and first oil company, Texaco (now part of Chevron), the Yasuni Huaorani defended their territory with hardwood spears.  Now, the “contacted” Huaorani communities in the Yasuni area [i]must find new ways to protect Ome, the forest that is their home.

The first peaceful, sustained contacts between Huaorani and outsiders were in 1958, when evangelical missionaries from the U.S.-based Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) convinced Dayuma, a Huaorani woman who was living as a slave on a hacienda near Huaorani territory, to return to the forest where she had lived as a child, and help the missionaries relocate her relatives into a permanent settlement and convert them to Christianity.

In 1967, the U.S.-based oil company Texaco (now Chevron) discovered oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon, near Huaorani territory.  As Texaco expanded its operations and advanced into Huaorani territory, Huaorani warriors tried to drive off the oil invaders.  In response, Texaco and Ecuador’s government asked the missionaries to speed up and extend their campaign to relocate and pacify the Huaorani.

Using aircraft supplied by Texaco, missionaries searched for Huaorani homes, and pressured and tricked Huaorani clans into leaving areas where the oil company wanted to work.  More than 200 Huaorani were contacted and physically removed from the path of the oil crews, and taken to live in a distant Christian settlement. Other Huaorani fled deeper into the forests of Yasuni, away from Texaco and the missionaries. It was during this period, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that most Huaorani were first contacted by outsiders.

The Huaorani who went to live with the missionaries (in the western edge of ancestral Huaorani lands) were told that Huaorani culture is sinful and savage, and were pressured to change and abandon their traditions and way of life. Among other hardships, they suffered from severe culture shock and stress, as well as epidemics of new diseases that sickened, and even killed, many family members. Important rainforest products were quickly depleted in that area, there were food shortages, and the Huaorani, whose culture places a high value on independence and sharing, had to rely on imported foods and medicines obtained by the missionaries.

Today, some “contacted” Huaorani have chosen to settle in towns such as Puyo, or near roads built by oil companies. But many Huaorani still live in the forest, in harmony with the “giving” rainforest that is their mother and source of life. At least one group, the Tagaeri-Taromenani, has continued to resist all contact with outsiders. The most traditional of the contacted Huaorani live in the remote communities of Bameno, Boanamo and Wema.  Both groups live in “The Intangible Zone,” a spectacular refuge of intact, biologically rich rainforest that spans nearly 3,000 square miles of ancestral Huaorani territory in the area now known as Yasuni. The Intangible Zone has been designated as a conservation area by the government of Ecuador, but is nonetheless threatened by encroaching oil companies, settlers and illegal loggers.[ii]

The Huaorani communities of Bameno, Boanamo and Wema have organized themselves to defend The Intangible Zone and their culture and way of life — and make real the promise of conservation and human rights for Indigenous peoples in Yasuni, including the right of their “uncontacted” neighbors to live in voluntary isolation in the forest. 

However, all this incredible reality is in danger of disappearing because of the predictable impacts of oil exploitation: contamination, deforestation, destruction of the social fabric, extinction of cultures etc.

[i] The Yasuni National park (Ecuadorian Amazon) has qualified as the sector with the highest biodiversity of the entire world. As an example, inside of just one hectare of the park has been identified 644 different species of trees. Yasuni has been declared a world biosphere reserve by Unesco. Its strategically location near to the equator and the Andes mountains gives a unique weather conditions with a temperature and humidity relatively uniform.
[ii] History recompilation byThe Huaorani Intangible Zone  & Penti Baihua, Bameno Community Leader and Coordinator, Ome Gompote Kiwigimoni Huaorani (We Defend Our Huaorani Territory), “Ome Yasuni”

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