Ecuador's Last Uncontacted Tribes Face the Familiar Promise of Jungle Oil


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Ecuador's Last Uncontacted Tribes Face the Familiar Promise of Jungle Oil

For 20 years, Ecuador's Amazonian tribes have been taken advantage of by big oil—and it's about to happen again.
All photos by author

I've been floating on a canoe for an hour when Luis Ahua taps my shoulder and points to the bank of the Tiputini River, deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

"Footprints," he says, pointing to a small break in the treeline. Days earlier, a guide in a scientific refuge in the same forest had shown me jaguar tracks. But these were human footprints.

"Are you scared of them?" I asked him.

"No," he told me. "Our tribe knows about violence. I can tell you about violence."

The Tiputini River runs right next to Guiyero.

What happened to the Huaorani people living in Guiyero, the village I'm visiting, was so textbook-predictable that researchers have been able to write and publish papers on how similar it was to what happened to dozens of communities of indigenous people in dozens of countries.

"Despite their geographic separation, in Central Africa and western Amazonia, the acculturation process and its outcomes have been quite similar for the Bagyeli and the Waorani," Kelly Swing, a Louisiana State University professor who has spent the last several decades operating a biodiversity research center in Ecuador's Yasuni National Park, wrote in a paper published in the Journal of Developing Societies. "In both cases, expectations for improvements in quality of life were high as the oil industry arrived but tremendous disappointments soon followed."

Here's how it happens: An oil company from a developed nation approaches, sometimes over the course of years, trying to gain the trust of some of the more important indigenous leaders. In the early years, there may be violence. Many a Westerner has gone down at the hand of a Huaorani warrior's spear. But eventually, the allure of outside goods—of money, of gasoline, of trucks, of canoe motors, of alcohol, of junk food—becomes too much.

Land is bought or borrowed or traded. Pipes are laid, drilling starts, peace is tenuous. The sounds scare off the animals. Pollution poisons the rivers. Young people start getting sick long before their time. Babies and children die unexpectedly and of mysterious illnesses. But it's too late. The people become dependent. A tribe that was nomadic for hundreds of years becomes pinned to one spot.


"It's one of those things where, early on, you can say 'it's different here,' but it's absolutely the same thing," Swing said. "If you're on the receiving end of an arriving oil company, you really are at some level an innocent, naïve person who is interacting with a very sophisticated machine that's there to make money and elbow you out of the way."

The oil companies came to Guiyero 20 years ago. Today, the community is having a party to celebrate the occasion.

The author and Cogui

Three hours after Ahua points out the footprints, I step off the canoe, scramble through the muddy riverbank, past women washing clothes and naked men taking baths. I stumble up a steep embankment and enter Guiyero. And right now, the gas generator that provides power to the entire village has just stopped working, and night is fast approaching.

That wouldn't normally be a problem, but the party can't happen without power. Relatives have spent three days walking through the jungle to get here.

As Ahua is off messing with the gas generator, I am introduced to Cogui, a 90-year-old who remembers a time before outsiders were welcome. His ears have been stretched and he's wearing a palm-leaf headband in traditional Huaorani fashion, but besides that, he wears Western clothes, sporting a white t-shirt, short blue athletic shorts, and a generic silver watch.

Cogui doesn't speak a word of Spanish. He greets me with a handshake and immediately begins belting out a droning, repetitive, monotone song. Several other Huaorani join in. I ask one of the younger people what the song means. Loosely translated, he said: "It's a song of welcoming. It says, 'at first, as is custom, I wanted to kill you. But then, I saw you were OK and now we can be friends.'"

Guiyero's main plaza.

"Waponi," I say, spouting off the only Huaorani word I've been taught. It's a catch-all good vibes sort of word, kind of like "aloha." It means hello, and goodbye, and thank you, and "that's pretty," and lots of other important things. It seems like a safe thing to say, and I'm right.

I show him my camera and let him take a photo. He jumps when the flash goes off, then laughs. Cogui grabs my arm and begins stroking it. We communicate in facial expressions and shrugs. Finally, Ahua returns and begins to translate for me.

"Your skin," he says. "He's never seen anything like it."

At the party, which is supposed to start any time now, Ahua and his fellow tribesmen will drink chicha, a fermented corn drink made by the women that tastes like paint. They will get trashed. A boy will take my smartphone and take video with it until the battery is dead and the storage is full. He'll ask me if I'll let him listen to rap songs while his sister is busy trying to be named the new Miss Guiyero. Teenage boys dressed in soccer jerseys with fresh haircuts and blue jeans and unfortunate fedoras will flirt with teenage girls wearing high heels and makeup. They'll stumble around trying to recreate dance steps they've only seen on YouTube.

But none of this can happen unless the gas generator starts working. We've already eaten a wild peccary-and-yucca soup waiting for the thing to start back up. A group of boys playing soccer on a basketball court have had to stop because it's gotten too dark to see.

Despite the village's remoteness, Guiyero teens have learned about American culture through YouTube and television.

Not all of the Huaorani people are in Guiyero for the party; some are still deep in the forest. In the 1950s, when American missionaries contacted the Huaorani, a small group of 200 people called the Taromenane retreated further into the Amazon, preserved their traditional ways, and have remained there.

Their footsteps are the ones that Ahua showed me in the canoe. They are still uncontacted, indigenas aislados. And they are the ones who, most likely, are about to get completely hosed by Ecuador's plan to vastly expand its oil drilling campaign deeper into the most pristine part of the Amazon.

That's because, somewhere beneath all the vegetation and the monkeys and the trees and the Guiyero people and the Taromenane is one fifth of Ecuador's vast reserves of oil.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa recently announced that it's time to start drilling in a section of Yasuni known as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) block, close to where the Taromenane are believed to live, their lives be damned.

It's a nightmare scenario for Eduardo Pichilingue, the director of Ecuador's Center of Economic and Social Rights. When I meet him at his office in Quito, his long, wavy black hair is pulled back in a pony tail. The walls of his office are plastered with maps of Yasuni. The maps are labeled with spots of known sightings of Taromenane tribesmen—many in the ITT—and prominent oil drilling sites.


Pichilingue has helped organized protests all over the country and has been tangentially involved in a petition trying to organize a public referendum on whether to start drilling in the ITT, a petition that the Ecuadorian government rejected last month.

Soon after Correa announced that drilling would start in the ITT, thousands of protesters hit the streets of Quito. Police shot paintballs at them as they marched.

The people have reason to be angry. In 2008, Correa helped rewrite Ecuador's constitution, its 20th. It became the first constitution to note "the right of the population to live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment" and noted that "environmental conservation, the protection of ecosystems, biodiversity … [and] the prevention of environmental damage are declared matters of public interest."

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it recognized that "the territories of the people living in voluntary isolation are an irreducible and intangible ancestral possession and all forms of extractive activities shall be forbidden there … the violation of these rights shall constitute a crime of ethnocide."

Correa has said the oil buried underneath the ITT is worth $15 billion in today's economy, and he needs it to help the poor. The Ecuadorian constitution also states that all of the country's buried natural resources belong to the state.

In recent interviews, Correa has said there are no uncontacted tribes living in the ITT. Pichilingue can produce government documentation proving that the government itself believes otherwise.


"This is the same president who once said we have to take care of the uncontacted indigenous people," Pichilingue said. "When he wanted to get money from other countries, the story was, 'we have to protect this place because it's the land of the indigenous people.' Now, when the priority is extracting oil, all of a sudden they don't exist."

Pichilingue, Swing, the people in Guiyero, and thousands of Ecuadorian activists believe that if Ecuador starts drilling in the ITT, the Taromenane will be forced into closer contact with modernized Huaorani, like the Guiyero. And the Taromenane and the Huaorani have already shown a propensity for violence when they meet.

To prove it, Pichilingue pulls up a YouTube video of an elderly Huaorani man named Ompore Omeway talking about his encounter with the Taromenane and shows it to me.

In the video, Ompore, nearly 70, recounts coming across a group of young Taromenane not far from Guiyero. The men were tall and strong, and hadn't shaved. They told him that they were scared to cross the road near Guiyero, that they were afraid of cars. Rather than cross the 20-foot-wide gravel expanse, they told him that they walked five days around the edge of the road instead of crossing it.

The men were friendly, Ompore said, but they told him that they wanted the Huaorani's help in expelling the oil crews that operate close to Guiyero.

"We're brave, we aren't scared of outsiders. We'll come back to visit you," they said. "If you have problems with outsiders, tell us and we'll help you kill them. We're very fast. We attack and then we disappear."


Ompore told them he would. He told them he hoped they'd come back.

Less than a year later, on March 5, they did, but the oil companies, obviously, hadn't left. On their second run-in, the Taromenane killed him, with 12 spears. They put five more through his wife, Bogueney.

A statement released by the Huaorani Nationality Organization of Orellana after their deaths said the Taromenane "expressed their anger to Ompore and Bogueney about the noise, unknown crop planting, too many non Huaorani, trees being cut down, and the oil platform. They wanted Ompore and Bogueney to stop all of this. Evidently, Ompore and Bogueney could not help."

President Correa has called the murder, and any violence between the two groups, a "complicated issue."

Rare animals are commonplace throughout Yasuni, except where drilling has taken hold.

A week before I met Ahua, I took a trip out to Swing's Tiputini Biodiversity Station, which is seven hours from the nearest town. The station is well known for being one of the most important in the Amazon, in part because, despite its remoteness, its facilities are world-class.

They include a two-story science center with a library (featuring volumes on insects, insects that mimic those insects to fool predators, trees, spiders, monkeys, jaguars, and nearly every scientific journal article that has ever been researched at the station), a cafeteria with three daily meals, cabins with potable tap water, miles and miles of trails, and Internet access via a satellite.


At any given time, a couple dozen researchers from around the world might be studying. While I was there, there was a University of Maryland botanist and his doctoral student looking for a suitable spot to study plant diversity; one of the world's foremost botanists studying insect predation on Inga, a genus of shrubs and trees; a Spaniard studying monkey behavior (10 different species live in Yasuni); and Diego Mosquera, the station's current manager, an expert on jaguars.

Yasuni has a third of the planet's bird and reptile species. One hectare of the park has more insect species than Canada and the United States combined. It has a higher density of jaguars than anywhere else on Earth. More than 200 plant species are endemic to the park. Untold numbers of undiscovered species of animals and plants and fungi and insects live there.

Ann Curry once went for a walk with Swing in Tiputini, and they discovered a new species of tarantula, just walking along a trail. When people talk about "pristine" stretches of the Amazon, they're talking about Tiputini, and they're talking about the ITT, where, thus far, there hasn't been any significant human development.

If you walk around Tiputini for any length of time, you will see monkeys, and you will see parrots, and you will see frogs and you will see toucans and kingfishers and macaws. You will see insects you never knew existed and you will see spiders larger than any you've ever seen in your life.


If you're quiet and have a good eye for the sort of thing, you'll see a peccary or a capybara. If you're lucky, you'll see a jaguar or an anaconda or a wild cat. If you listen, you will hear frogs' mating calls and crickets chirping and you won't be able to sleep at night until the sounds of the jungle cease to amaze or freak you out. And if you listen really closely, you'll hear the oil rigs.

The idea of drilling for oil in the Amazon is not new. Shell first tried to drill in Ecuador in 1937, and various companies have been doing it ever since. The Ecuadorian government has created and owned several oil companies itself, and now operates PetroAmazonas in the region.

Regardless of whose fault it is, the country has not had a whole lot of environmental success when it comes to the endeavor. In 2011, Chevron lost the biggest lawsuit in world history, with Ecuador asking it to pay $8 billion in reparations for subsidiary Texaco's role in spilling as much as 16 million gallons of crude oil in the Amazon in the Lago Agrio oil field, 100 miles northwest of Yasuni. The area remains a toxic wasteland.

Drilling in Yasuni itself (but not in the ITT) has been going on for at least 20 years, starting first with the Texas-based Maxus company, which built the so-called Maxus road that runs next to Guiyero. Today, much of the drilling in Yasuni is dominated by PetroAmazonas, the Spanish-owned Repsol, and several Chinese companies. But there is plenty more oil left to be exploited.


While a plan to drill for oil in the Amazon is far from novel, the idea floated by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa in 2007 was. He called it the ITT Initiative, and asked the world for $3.6 billion dollars in donations in return for not extracting oil from the ITT, which is believed to hold roughly 846 million barrels of oil. Analysts suggested that by not drilling for oil in the area, more than 410 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions would be prevented.

The plan was initially hailed by people such as the United Nations' Ban Ki-moon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Edward Norton. But when Correa took office in 2006, he announced that Ecuador would default on much of its debt, undermining the country's credibility. The donations didn't come in as quickly as Correa would have hoped—most countries, including the United States, declined to contribute. After six years, just $116 million had been pledged. Correa announced that the initiative would be abandoned and that oil drilling, the so-called "Plan B," would be instituted.

"The world has failed us," Correa said at the time.

The "agricultural area" of Guiyero includes four man-made fishing holes, because the nearby Tiputini River is too polluted to fish in.

Before the sun goes down, a very drunk man grabs me and tells me he wants to talk about the Taromenane. He tells me he is not scared of them. He tells me they killed his family member. He tells me he wants to kill every last one of them. Drunk people will say lots of things—but, it turns out, a group of Huaorani men have already made a large dent in the Taromenane population.

In the month following Ompore's death, a group of the strongest Huaorani men—they are not at the party, Luis Ahua tells me, because they like to keep to themselves—went deep into the jungle to find those responsible. They took spears and guns. On their first two trips, they turned up nothing.


On their third, they found who they were looking for. They slaughtered as few as 10 or as many as 40 Taromenane men, women, and children. Most reports put the number at around 30 dead. Two Taromenane girls, aged two and five, were kidnapped or spared, however you want to look at it. It's unknown whether anyone escaped. The girls were brought back to Huaorani villages to prove that the warriors had in fact avenged Ompore.

Ecuador launched an "official investigation," but has not charged any Huaorani people. A Newsweek article detailing the events published earlier this year sparked a response from Nathalie Cely, Ecuador's ambassador to the United States, who wrote that "while the President too was frustrated at the pace of the investigation, given the remote location of the incident, no tangible evidence has been found aside from the two girls and an unattributed photograph, which has slowed the process."

In the months that followed, the United Nations demanded that Ecuador "adopt measures necessary to prevent further violence between the indigenous Taromenane and Huaorani peoples."

"If [oil drilling in the Amazon] did not exist," an official group of Huaorani said in a statement following the incident, "Isolated families would remain free and those violent encounters would be reduced."

The Huaorani I spoke to said that the environmental impacts of oil drilling have forced them to venture further into the jungle to hunt, leading to increased encounters with the Taromenane.

Luis Ahua (right) and his uncle.

Kelly Swing has harsher words.

"It's genocide by negligence," he said. "We tend to think it's not proper to send your military out to mow down people so you can have your land. But is it OK to stand by and let that happen among themselves until they decimate themselves? You don't get taken to trial in an international court for violation of human rights because you didn't do something."

Correa has said that oil exploitation in the area "had nothing to do with" what happened. Violence between the two groups "is normal," he said.

"How are we supposed to protect those who are uncontacted without contacting them?" he said. "The United Nations just declared that the Ecuadorian government has to protect the lives of those who are living uncontacted. Marvelous. If they tell us how … we'll do it right now."

In the nine months since I visited Guiyero, there haven't been any more reports of violence in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The plan to drill in the ITT is moving full steam ahead. There have been reports that Correa has cut a clandestine road deeper in the Amazon that will serve to cart in drilling infrastructure, and late last month, Correa's government issued its first permits—to PetroAmazonas—to begin oil extraction activities in the ITT.

Heavy machinery brought in by oil companies has become commonplace in Guiyero.

It's pitch black when, off in the distance, I hear the generator start up. The only electric lights in Guiyero, hung high above the slab of concrete, begin to glow. Beetles nearly the size of the palm of my hand immediately gravitate toward them.

Thank Repsol that the gas generator has started. Repsol gave it to the locals, just like Repsol gave them their single-room concrete houses, their concrete bilingual school where children learn to read Spanish, the soccer field, the other soccer field, the makeshift shop that sells sodas and sweets and beer and crackers. Thank Repsol for the sodas and sweets and beer and crackers in that shop. Thank Repsol for the engines on their canoes and the engines in their trucks and thank Repsol for the one satellite dish that brings signal to the one TV in the village. Thank Repsol for that TV, too. Thank Repsol for the Repsol t-shirts that they wear.


But also, thank Repsol for the four pools that are stocked with fish because the Tiputini River is so polluted that the piranhas caught in it aren't safe to eat. Thank Repsol that Huaorani teenagers listen to Psy and J. Cole. Thank Repsol for the tractors that maintain the road that stretches through the most important part of the most important rainforest on Earth, thank them for the pipelines that run next to it. But don't thank Repsol for the giant billboard that says "oil improves your community," that was put up by the Ecuadorian government.

Sometime after the first round of dancing but before the Miss Guiyero pageant, Armando Boya, a representative from Repsol, grabs a microphone on the stage and tells 200 Huaorani people that they "feel like family."

Later on, I ask Boya about how the relationship between Repsol and the Huaorani works.

"The business helps them. We have programs. We give them education, we give them a lot of things. We teach them how to speak Spanish," he said. "We respect the jungle and we respect the environment and we respect the Huaorani people."

The feeling isn't mutual. The next morning, an hour before I am set to leave Guiyero, Luis Ahua, and a group of older Huaorani pull me aside.

"You wanted to know about the violence?" he asks. "I'm ready to talk about the violence. I'm ready to talk about war."

For months, he tells me, he and others in his tribe have been stockpiling spears and ammunition. They have been stockpiling oil. They've worked on a new formula for their blow darts that can kill a person in a matter of minutes. They are, he says, waiting for a time to use it.

"An attack," he says. "On an oil rig."

Earlier in the day, a Huoarani woman named Weya Cahuiya, who is a representative with one of the tribe's few organized groups, the Nacionalidad Waorani de Ecuador, leaned against a concrete house and, with reggaeton blasting in the background, told me they're fed up.

"We live in the jungle. We don't need concrete houses, we need typical Huaorani houses. The government tells us we need education, but we need Huaorani education," she said. "Before, we lived with clean trees, with clean air to breathe, with clean water. This is not our music, this is not our dance, this is not our language, this is not our food."

"Every time the oil companies expand, they divide us," she added. "There are fights between families because some people get things and others don't. We're meeting and the government needs to pay us. All of us. They need to respect us and ask us what they want and if they want to come in they have to pay us or we'll kill them."

Ahua asks me how many people I think they can kill if they douse an oil site with gasoline and light it on fire. He asks me how many people I think they can kill if, when the workers run out, they shoot them with guns and with blowdarts and throw spears at them.

Ahua asks me if I think it's a good plan. He knows I'm a reporter and says he wants the oil companies to be scared

"Aren't you worried the government will come in with helicopters and kill you?" I ask.

"What else do we have to live for?" he says.