The journey down from Quito at 2800 metres to Coca City (Puerto Francisco de Orellana) in Oriente Province, at sea level is far more interesting than the plane. The trip is through light rainforest that has been cleared where possible for farming and cattle, but the landscape where deforestation is difficult, with rivers in deep gorges and waterfalls is stunning. The Ecuadorian version of a motorway services is a thatched restaurant with free help yourself huge bunches of bananas.
The outskirts of Coca City is not so attractive, with the compounds for all the drilling companies and all the ancillary services like Schlumberger where there has been no attempt to make anything less ugly than corrugated iron fencing around. The road is littered with defunct and cannibalized heavy machinery. No attempt has been made to clean up .
I knew that Coca City was an oil town on the edge of a national park but I wasn’t really prepared for the edge of a rubbish tip look around some of the world’s richest oil companies.
Now I understood the Oil Companies ethos, of getting the oil out as cheaply as possible and then getting out of the country Quick!
From the bus station we took a taxi into Coca city, a town of around 50,000 people, the driver turned round to me and said ‘Coca very beautiful city’.
Well at least there is one person who thinks so. It is a frontier town that couldn’t possibly be described as beautiful but it does grow on you and Coca city does however a waterfront promenade that has a covered restaurant run by mainly local Kichwa people, and an excellent museum to a lost Amazon people and civilization, the Omagua, who lived along the banks of the River Napo near Coca. The Omagua, a pre Columbian civilistaion produced incredible decorated pottery a thousand years ago and appeared to have died out about 500 years ago.
There should be more of the history and culture of the current forest people, the Kichua, the Schuar and the Waorani, but the relationship between government and these peoples has been fractious and both the Ecuadorian Government with the oil companies probably wish there was no-one there. They have even used the legal artifice of ‘Terra Nullius’ to pretend the Woarani land was uninhabited, when fighting off land rights cases.
Oil is the reason for Coca City, and the few tourists who come through usually fly in and are taken to the lodges, a couple of hours boat trip down the Napo river. These lodges are expensive, owned by businessmen in Quito and have little to do with the indigenous people, but you do see wildlife.
We met up with Henry and his partner Beatriz who were taking us into the rainforest to discuss what we needed to take and what gifts would be useful to the Waorani.
Shopping for fish hooks, windup torches and good knives was an ordeal even at 4 in the afternoon as the temperature in a tarmacked city on the equator was still around 40c.
We had found Henry by chance. I had sent emails and left messages to all the tour companies in Coca asking for a guide and trip into the rainforest that wasn’t a luxury lodge where one saw nothing of the local communities. Henry was the only person who replied and through a whatsapp chat he offered to take us for a 7 day stay with the Huaorani or Waorani, a 2 day boat trip into the rainforest.
The Waorani consist of around 4,000 inhabitants and speak Waorani , a language related to no other. They have lived in a part of the rainforest, an enormous area south of the Napo River and really down to the Peru border. They have lived until very recently, about 50- 60 years ago as nomadic forest dwellers and have looked after one of the most bio diverse areas of the planet. Evangelists and oil companies from the USA have since then changed this way of life forever and for the most part the Waorani now live in settled communities, except for perhaps 3 or 4 groups who on experiencing the disease and death brought about from the arrival of big oil and evangelical groups moved further into isolated areas of the forest and are now designated as ‘Uncontacted Tribes’. These are the Tagaeri and two groups of the Taromenane. (There are possibly two other family groups, the Huinatare, and the Onamenane).
Henry and Beatriz arrived early at the hotel in a fully loaded pickup. We were taking everything needed for our stay with the Waorani, from food, water, gasoline and the essential Gum Boots. Looking at the loaded pickup it dawned on me that this was an expedition rather than a tour. We would have to cross part of the forest that was deemed territory protected for the Uncontacted. This was potentially dangerous as there was now and then skirmishes between the settled and uncontacted groups that often led to deaths.
We crossed the bridge over the Napo River at Coca and headed down the Auca Road built by the oil company in the 1980’s dividing the Waorani territory in 2. The 2 hour drive to the Bridge at the Schiripuno River was a like a ride on the horror train at the environmental fun fair, with the rainforest destroyed and oil company depots with oil storage and oil flaring, a multitude of rusty oil pipelines along the side of the road and non indigenous settlers who had moved in with slash and burn farming, cattle raising and illegal logging.
We stopped at Dayuma town to buy bread. The Waorani love bread but as they don’t grow wheat, they don’t bake bread. So a luxury, especially for the kids is a bread roll.
Dayuma town, a town named after Dayuma the first Waorani woman to learn English and convert to evangelical Christianity.
The indigenous people love to tell you all about everything that has happened since the Oil Companies and the Evangelicals moved in to their territory, and so here we hear our first story of the relationship between the Oil company Texaco, the Missionaries and the weak Ecuador Government.
Around 1970, after huge oil finds, the Ecuadorian Government and Texaco collaborated with missionaries from the USA, the evangelical Summer Institute of Linguistics ( SIL) and the Wycliffe Bible Translators ( WBT), to pacify the Waorani and try to move them from their lands. Texaco supplied helicopters and finance, first dropping gifts and later dynamite.
Rachel Saint, an evangelical missionary, arrived in the Oriente, with the help of the SIL.
She apparently rescued Dayuma, a young Woarani woman living as a slave on a plantation where she had fled, after her family had been killed by other Waorani. Dayuma helped teach Saint the Waorani language ‘Wao Terero’, a language with links to no other ethnic group, for Saint’s plan to translate the bible into Waorani with the aim of converting them to evangelicalism. Rachel took Dayuma to the US where she appeared on stage with Billy Graham and became the most famous Waorani on the planet. Money raised, Rachel took Dayuma back to Ecuador to commence converting the Woarani. Saint, in 1968, created village at Tewaeno and a small protectorate, supported and financed by big Oil and the Government, and with other missionaries persuaded the Waorani to move from their settlements there so the oil companies could carry on extracting and polluting without fear of attacks by the Waorani. Knowing that disease was probable the Evangelicals continued to move Waorani there even after many died from polio epidemics. Rumour has it that Dayuma left, disillusioned with Rachel Saint, and returned to her village.
We bought our 60 odd bread rolls for the Waorani and very cold drinks for us,
at the only bakery in town.
A few miles down the road we noticed cars and trucks flashing us and gesticulating to turn round. We arrived at a traffic jam half a mile long of pickups and trucks, mostly from the oil industry.
We drove to the front of the queue and Henry and the driver Luis, walked up to the road block of burning tyres. Henry came back saying it was a protest by the Shuar people wanting solar energy.
The government and oil companies had ruined their tribal lands and now wanted to supply them with electricity from a private company which they would have to pay for, whereas some indigenous groups had been given solar panels and free electricity. So they were blocking the road to all traffic wanting the same deal and really they have no money to pay for electricity. Henry negotiated with them and they would let us through as we were tourists bringing income to another fellow indigenous people if we gave 50$ for food and drink. But when we then tried to drive around the block, a woman tried to stop us saying no-one should pass. More discussions with a few more Shuar on her side. Finally grudgingly we were let through.
The Government maintain an entry post into the southern area of Yasuni National Park and the eastern part of Waorani territory at the Shiripuno Bridge. Two boats were waiting with Penti, the Bameno chief and Tempene his son to take us down river. Here we met up with Gordon and Douglas, who were also going to Bameno. Gordon was the cameraman on Trinkets & Beads, a film about the Waorani and the Oil Companies in 1995. They were working on a follow up film to cover the developing situation in Waorani territory and the probable granting of more drilling permits and the resulting shrinking of viable the Waorani land. The film Trinkets and Beads is the story of the Waorani from the evangelization by Rachel Saint, to the pollution of Huaorani lands by Texaco and Shell, and then the manipulation of Huaorani leaders by Maxus to drill on their land. The title is from a line in the film. After signing a contract the Waorani probably don’t understand, the daughter of the Ecuador president takes off her earrings and puts them on a Waorani woman then turns to the Maxus executive and says ‘Is that a fair trade’ and he says ‘ Trinkets and Beads That is how we got Manhattan’.
Here everyone has to register with passport or ID and a yellow fever passport .
Although the Waorani or recently contacted have been inoculated the uncontacted tribes , the Tagaeri and the Taromenane, have not. Yellow fever would wipe out the uncontacted.
We registered and were given a short talk by a government environment employee on the Waorani, the forest but above all the uncontacted and the potential danger.
The Government post had a shortwave radio link to Bameno and from here on there was no mobile phone coverage. We were off into the forest.
Henry went to Bameno 2 or 3 times a year with usually a couple of people so not that many people visited the Waorani. There was a small camp a few hours boat trip from the bridge where more people stayed.
With our metal canoe fully loaded, the barrel of gasoline linked to the outboard motor, we set off into our unknown. Tempene, long hair flowing in the breeze, was the capable driver of our boat. It is very hot at 11 in the morning on the equator but the trees and the river soon cooled the air and the magic began.
On the upper reaches of the Shiripuno the river is quite narrow and there are many visible and to me invisible trees, logs and branches that have to be navigated around. The water is a light brown heavily laden with silt and rich in nutrients.
There is something indescribably magic about gliding down a river in the planets greatest forest. The Amazon is more than a rainforest, an immense area of trees and rivers and still undiscovered people, flora and fauna. There is every possible shade of green even occasionally a bright acidic green grass like an English lawn growing in the mud of the riverbank. It occupies the recesses of one’s mind as something impenetrable, dark, and unknown and also as something essential to the well being of the planet. There is something about it imprinted in our consciousness from an early age. I remember spending hours in the school library looking through copies National Geographic and wondering at the people, animals, trees and rivers, something as alien then as Venus is now.
There is always action so many birds from Toucans, Parrots, Macaws, Herons, Swallows, yellow headed vultures and always swallows, against a backdrop of the dense forest of tall Palms and Kapok trees, and on the river, groups of turtles, caiman and a huge rodent the capybara. It is certainly one of the most bio diverse places on the planet.
We stopped to camp on a sandy beach left on bend in the river although we hadn’t quite left the territory of the uncontacted but it was getting too dark to continue. Travel through the Uncontacted groups the Tagairi ( waorani linguistic links ) and Taromenane can be dangerous but Tempene said that they were always asleep by 6 when the sun went down. I thought that’s ok now but what about early next Morning.Beatriz and Tempene collected wood and started a fire while Henry and I set up our tents. Eating Beatriz’s wonderful food sitting on a beach in the Amazon in the deafening silence of the rainforest.
The first day had been sunshine and blue skies but the second day on the river brought cloud and torrential bursts of rain, it is not called the rainforest for nothing after all. Even with the torrential rain, covered with a good rainproof poncho, I still kept a lookout for any interesting wildlife and bingo we were rewarded with a couple of rare pink dolphins playing in the river. Tempene said it was rare to see them this far upstream.
By the time we got to Bameno the Shiripuno had, after joined by other smaller rivers become the Cononaco river, and from their own folklore the Waorani settled in this area after migrating from “down river” a long time ago, “fleeing the cannibals”.
We arrived at Bameno community late in the afternoon and many children and a few adults were on the river bank smiling and laughing at the arrival of a couple of ‘cowode’ tourists. Waorani in the their language means “human beings” or “the people” and everyone else is cowode or “non-humans”.
Everyone was there to help and in minutes all our gear was unloaded and taken to the nearby visitors thatched hut. Open plan incding the walls, more like a thatch covered platform, except for one small space half cordoned off with 2 beds and mosquito nets. There didn’t seem to be that many mosquitos but one night Laurence calmly told me there was a tarantula on my bed and she was off to find Henry to remove it. Henry said it it had probably come in to get out of the rain but it was harmless. One changes ones perceptions of what is acceptable in the forest quickly.
Over breakfast the next day Gordon and Penti, who had pinned maps of the Waorani Territory and the Oil blocks up on the wall of the community hut and Penti, with a twig pointed out to us the nearest blocks to Bameno, 16 and 31, and beyond to areas that had not yet been designated Oil Blocks up for bidding.
Previously Penti had said that from a line drawn from Block 16 eastwards the northern section of the park had really already been lost to Oil and was no longer suitable for traditional tribes. But if everything south of this line—about 3,000 square miles—is allowed to remain untouched, there will be enough rainforest for his people and the uncontacted tribes to live in peace.
But overcoming the greed of big Oil and the need of the government to repay debts both to China and the World Bank (*1) this oil rich area was always going to be a tough ask to defend. The Waorani here needed some income to keep fighting, in first instance Oil.
There were always a few Waorani hanging out at the community hut, and as it had a kitchen there was always tea. This morning Quemperi and his wife joined us at breakfast. At breakfast we learnt one of the most essential words in the Waorani language, Waponi. It is the all purpose word that means good, OK and for us even as a greeting.
Quemperi is a well known Waorani warrior, who when younger had fought the oil companies, missionaries and loggers and was when younger the chief.
The Waorani are very egalitarian and do not have chiefs for life, it is more of if someone is tackling the present problem facing the group well, then he in charge. Even today the Bameno group in both wikipedia and other journals is known as the Quemperi (rio Cononaco) sub group. With the new challenges where the law has become the major weapon in the fight, it is Penti, who speaks Spanish, is articulate and has a mission to save his people, who is chief.
“My father was Awa. He was a great warrior, he defended our Waorani territory with spears. Now I must defend our territory and the forest with documents and law, speaking Spanish, and traveling far away like the harpy eagle.”
Penti said about his life in the forest a few years ago.
He recognizes that Western civilization is closing in on his people.
There are a growing number of young people in the community all the way up to their 20’s and they must be torn between their traditional life, the pull of the forest and the outside world.
It is a balance that Penti tries to maintain and does well. During his time as leader of Bameno community he has secured a good school, solar power, a pukka covered seven a side football pitch, a satellite dish for internet and currently a clean drinking water project. The satellite dish has hardly been in action. It was installed with a benefactor putting up a couple of thousand dollars in internet time. Unfortunately , as the most Waorani have smart phones for music and camera, (there is no mobile connection) they spent their evenings next to the dish connected by their phones to the outside world of TV, films etc and the internet time ran out quickly. There is hopefully an organistaion that is going to set up anotherinternet plan for the community.
Penti keeps in contact, by internet and phone when he is in Coca city with the outside world and Judith Kimberley the Waorani human & land rights lawyer in New York.
Adaptability is part of their culture. Once, they were jungle dwellers who avoided the river and its bounty, as the Uncontacted groups still do today. Now, the Bameno community people travel by boat and, when boars are scarce, take catfish and piranha from the river. They have learned to grow manioc and plantains on the outskirts of their village and when needed and possible buy staples in Coca.
The Waorani are happy to see visitors, and are very sociable and like showing off their life. We crossed the old grass runway that Shell had cleared in around 1950 and abandoned due to Waorani attacks, to visit Mini Wa in his house. The Waorani were semi nomadic and roamed a territory from the Conanoco river north to the Yasuni River. But around 1991 they settled around the abandoned runway and the Bameno Waorani have maintained it ever since. As there is shortwave radio contact with the Shiripuno Bridge office of the Environment department, if there is a serious accident medical help can be flown in.
They were now settled right in the middle of their groups territory and also in the middle of the 2 uncontacted groups who continued their historic nomadic way of life.
We found Mini Wa outside chopping wood in his normal at home outfit, which was a only waist cord, the Comi, to which his foreskin was attached .
We entered a slightly smokey but well lit house. Most of the traditional houses were known as A frame houses, with the large palm leaf woven thatch, mostly open at each end, with mud compacted floor and hammocks strung across beams for sleeping and daytime sofas.
Mini Wa’s wife was very ill and lying in a hammock next to a small fire, probably for the smoke to keep any insects away, and Min Wa with a serious face next to her.
Someone had given him a strip of paracetamol tablets but his wife preferred a natural remedy of an infusion of forest leaves.
Mini Wa was happy to show us his house and the essential tools of a Waorani. The peach palm hardwood spear , called metal wood and his long blowpipe with the curare tipped darts.
Apart from hunting trips for wild pig and monkey, one of the activities the Waorani like to take visitors on is ‘Hunt the Anaconda’. We set off downstream and we were
told that a few months before a woman in her small wooden canoe had been attacked and killed by an anaconda.
Always adds a bit of frisson to a trip into the forest to look for anacondas. Our party consisted of Pempene, Apica, Mini Wa Laurence and I , and Henry. I felt reassured as Apica and Tempene both had big machetes.
Anacondas generally live in the lagoons or ox bow lakes where the water is still and like all reptiles the best time to see one is around midday when they lie in the sun.
We trekked through the forest for about a mile until we reached the lagoon
There was a old wooden tree trunk dugout canoe full of water. A bail out and the application of mud to the few holes seemed to be enough for Tempene. So off we slowly paddled in silence looking for the anaconda. We had to continue to bail out as the mud didn’t stop the leaks but luckily not serious enough to stop, just.
We had to be very quiet not only not to alert the anaconda but also to see the other wildlife. The most amazing birds lived by the lagoon notably the rare Hoatzin bird. The hoatzin is the last surviving member of a bird line that branched off in its own direction 64 million years ago, shortly after the extinction event that killed the non-avian dinosaurs.
We didn’t find any anacondas but it was an almost unbelievably quiet time on a leaky canoe in a lagoon in the middle of the Amazon. The walk through the forest with the odd monkey high above in the canopy, the colourful birds flying from tree to tree made up for the lack of giant serpents. The Waorani once believed that the entire world was a forest and used the same word, ‘ome’ for both the world, and the Waorani and their the forest.
The next day we popped into Almara’s house for a chat and a laugh with her and Apica’s sister.
They were sitting making raffia string bags and a raffia fishing net, one to sell and one to use. When there is no game, fish is an important protein and all the Waorani fish, men and women. With Henry we had bought 100 fish hooks and plenty of nylon fishing line. And it was good to go and visit the family houses and give out fishing tackle.
The two women thought it was fun to have a Cowode ( a white man or outsider), to visit and we spent time laughing and singing.
While we were there a boy came in with a fresh water stingray’s sting. The two women quickly collected leaves from the forest and started a fire. They held the boys foot over the smoke or steam from the plant and the pain eased after twenty minutes.
We had bought a number of drawing books and pencils and crayons and Laurence had a good crowd from neighbouring houses to draw pictures and write a few english words. Everyone said they would love to have an English teacher to stay in the community.
Every forest plant has a defense mechanism and Laurence after kneeling on the grass came out in a rash that lasted for a few weeks. Tempene later showed me another grass whose edge was so sharp he could cut his hair.
We all moved outside to collect rainforest figs so Milton climbed the tree with an agility and technique that is second nature to all the Waorani and forest peoples in general. And with a long stick dislodged bunches of figs which were then caught by Almara in the woven fishing net.
A clean river is so important for fishing. These days they had learnt to collect rain water for drinking and there is a drinking water project under way, but a clean river is essential for washing and most important for the children swimming and having fun.
Since the 1980’s and the spread of the oil companies further into the Waorani territory there had been oil spills that polluted the river and poisoned all the indigenous people. Less so the Waorani here in Bameno as they were still south of most of oil wells. Texaco Chevron and PetroEcuador had left an appalling legacy of pollution in the Oriente. Many people had died from cancers linked to both oil spills and leakages from the oil waste pools left after a well was finished and the company moved on. There is hearsay that Maxus Oil company back in 1990’s, keen on getting written permission from the Bameno Waorani for the road through Waorani territory and on that being refused by Quemperi and Penti, they had deliberately poured oil in the Conanoco River above Bameno. Whatever the truth is, the community suffered terrible health problems with skin diseases and hair falling out at the time.
Maxus Oil from Texas moved into the Yasuni National Park after Conoco bowed to environment activist pressure to save the forest and the Waorani, and had pulled out of the important block 16.
Maxus had a tricky past and under a previous name, Diamond Alkali, had manufactured Agent Orange in New Jersey, and had apart from leaks, dumped bad batches in the Passaic River, creating an environmental time bomb. A name change and a move into oil and gas with a new a new CEO William Hutton, and being nearly a billion dollars in debt, after a huge loss on purchase of another oil company. They needed the oil from the Yasuni and Waorani territory. William Hutton another evangelist belonged bizzarely to ther same church as Rachel Saint. Rachel Saint at the time had a reasonably good relationship with the government having created the protectorate at Tonampare to move the Waorani from potential drilling areas. Rachel Saint also, according to Joe Kane in ‘Savages’ was intent on envangelising the Waorani in the east of the Yasuni before the the Catholic order, the Capuchins.
Maxus had to build a road into the Yasuni and Waorani territory to get to the oil. This road is a environmental catastrophe. Even Conoco’s study stated that the road’s most devastating impact would be on the colonization along the Maxus road. Logging, bushmeat, pollution and farming were the inevitable results of rainforest roads. More important though would be the loss of land for the nomadic Waorani. As nomadic hunter gatherer groups the Waorani need a large territory to support them in food and game and the Maxus road would cut through the northern part of their ancestral homeland. The Conoca report stated anymore loss of territory, because of the Maxus road, would lead to deculturation and ethnocide for the Waorani. The Waorani had begged Maxus not to build the road but with the wife of an Ecuador General on the payroll the government went ahead with permit to build. Film shows the company bulldozing the forest and then pouring waste crude on top of the earth.
The next day we went downstream and then cut into the forest on foot for another explorers trip to another lagoon in search of anaconda.
This time with a bigger team. Tempene, Henry, Apica, Milton and the 2 girls Kante and little barefoot Nayeli. Kante in 2016, along with her sister were spared when the Bameno Waorani killed an uncontacted extended family after they had attacked a Waorani canoe killing the father of sixfinger Happy and leaving spears in his mother. Happy’s mother made a complete recovery and is the goalie for the Bameno women’s football team.
Kante by court order lived with the Bameno, her sister elsewhere with another Waorani group.
It is always difficult climbing up a steep wet muddy bank to get from the river to Amazon terra firma. Our walk to the lagoon in hot and humid conditions.
We saw the walking palm tree , where the main trunk doesn’t touch the ground but the roots act as legs. The tree can move up to 45 centimetres a year.
Barefooted Nayeli treated the forest as a food shop. She knows all the fruit that is safe to eat and roots one was a called a coconut root and when peeled did actually taste of coconut. It is amazing from such a young age how the kids can live from the forest.
The Waorani know their territory and all the plants and animals, river systems and how they flood, the medicinal properties of everything in the forest and how to control hunting as not to deplete food sources. They grow manioc and sometimes corn and peanuts to supplement living off the forest.
For years International conservationists paid little attention to the area, most Waorani didn’t even know that a park and a reserve had been imposed on their land. From the 1980’s there has been a growing interest in this newly discovered rich bio sphere. The Yasuni Waorani were content to see interest from others wanting to protect their ancestral lands, but little by little outside organizations, NGO’s Government and even Unesco are directing projects, and programmes that make decisions about the Waorani and their land without even consulting them or taking their human rights into account. On top of the threat from oil companies there is another threat from conservation and human rights NGOs and bureaucracies.
These new mainly foreign funded groups practice a system that gives power to outside specialists ( dangerous idiots mostly) and excludes local communities from decision making. These people ignore the rights and knowledge of the Waorani and don’t understand the links between the existence of the Waorani, their culture, their rainforest environment in attempting to set up a sustainable conservation of the Yasuni. A recent example of this ‘colonialist conservation’ was the violence against the Baka pygmies in their territory in a Congo reserve by WWF funded armed rangers.
Watching Kante and Nayeli harvest the forest and Wangui and Weika who stayed in the boat to fish, I thought who knows more about the rainforest and Waorani needs , the Waorani or some post grad student working for an NGO.
We arrived thankfully to the cool air of the lagoon as it was a hot and humid time of day. Apica and Tempene fished the wood canoe out of the lake and tried to empty out the water. A few futile attempts to fill holes with clay didn’t work and unlike our previous anaconda hunt no amount of bailing would keep this canoe afloat. A walk in the rainforest with an expert 10 year old girl to point out and taste its fruits was satisfying enough. The rainforest is always magic.
We spent an hour fishing in total silence broken by the squawks of macaws and parrots.
We crossed the old grass landing strip to Mini Wa’s house for Blowpipe practice and spear throwing.
Mini Wa’s wife had recovered considerably but still looked rough and she sat outside her house as we were shown the Waoranis main weapons and how to use them.
Mini Wa has been an notable Waorani warrior all his life and with Penti and Quemperi can be found mentioned in articles with the Waoranis struggle with the Oil Companies. He led us on our Anaconda hunting trips and was now going to show us how to use the Waorani blowpipe.
Mini wa although not tall he had strength in shoulders and arms
The blowpipe is around 3 metres long and heavy to hold but mini Wa could hold and aim effortlessly. The dart tipped with curare, with a sort of cotton wad from the Kapok tree can be sent high into the trees with a strong puff but not not by me. Accuracy though was better with such a long pipe.
The Waorani spear is made out of wood from the centre of the peach palm and the wood is incredibly strong and known as metal wood. The Waorani believe the peach palm was planted for them by their ancestors. The Waorani and the Uncontacted have used spears to kill oil workers in the 1940’s, 5 evangelical missionaries in 1956, Oil workers, loggers and each other ever since.
It was easier to throw spears than hold up the blow pipe but I failed miserably when it came to accuracy.
We had met Quemperi and his wife a few times in the community area, always drinking a herb tea. And now we were paying him a visit in his home.
Both Quemperi and his wife were lounging in their hammocks.
In articles on the Waorani of Bameno community Quemperi’s name has been used for the Bameno Waorani, just as the Tagaeri and Taromenane groups of uncontacted are named after the tribal chief or elder.
Quemperi remembers the times when the Oil men flew helicopters and dropped dynamite to chase away to chase Waorani hunters away from areas the oil companies wanted to explore. He and other Waorani took up spears and reckons they killed at least 20 oilmen though losing some of their own. But according to folklore the fighting worked and they were left alone for a decade.
Quemperi is the shaman of the community and described to us (translated by Henry) that he was a jaguar shaman, he had a “jaguar spirit” and he could change into a jaguar to roam the forest inheriting the jaguars cunning and strength.
Quemperi knew about having his photograph taken and was aware of how he was going to look , he took out his false teeth , readjusted them and put them back in and gave a big smile. I had been wondering about his teeth since we first met him, I couldn’t believe he had such good teeth and put it down to no sugar diet.
Quemperi must have been nearly 80 years but others said he was 95. Whatever he was still very physically fit and still had a twinkle in his eye.
Quemperi’s wife was interested in mine and Laurence’s breasts. She kept on feeling them and burst into laughter.
Always lots of laughter with the Waorani.
Quemperi in a previous interview
”My message is that we are living here. We are living in a good way. No more oil companies should come because already there are enough. They [the people who live where the oil companies come from] need to know that we have problems. I want them to understand what we are living. Many companies want to enter, everywhere. But they do not help; they have come to damage the forest. Instead of going hunting, they cut down trees to make paths. Instead of caring for [the forest], they destroy. Where the company lives, it smells nasty, the animals hide, and when the river rises the manioc and plantain have problems. We respect the environment where we live. We like the tourists because they come, and go away. When the company comes, it does not want to leave. Now the company is in the habit of offering many things, it says that it comes to do business, but then it makes itself the owner. Where the company has left its environment, we cannot return. It stays bad. Something must remain for us. Without territory, we cannot live. If the oil companies destroy everything, where will we live? We do not want more companies to enter, or more roads. We want to live as Huaorani, we want others to respect our culture”.
Sunday is football day for the Waorani. Penti had secured a superb covered 7 a side football pitch, something one sees in many developing countries in Asia and South America.
The main match is women against men and probably more like 9 on each side. Bameno community is spaced out with houses on the other side of the river and another group a little way downstream and the turnout of teenagers for the game showed what a thriving community Bameno is. Some turned out in good trainers and football gear and others shared a pair shoes. The women were as ferocious as the men and it was eventually a close run victory for the men.
I had bought a new Adidas ball and a pump which was presented to the winning captain. Football, the global language.
Mini Wa and Apica were willing to show us how they made Curare, the poison they use to hunt monkeys when applied to blowpipe darts.
First they scrape the bark of a liana into fine thin pieces. Then tie the pieces inside a large leaf.
Hold and squeeze and let the juice drip into a pan. They then boil the resultant liquid until it is quite a thick sticky paste. Scrape some of the paste onto a flat surface. Choose the sharpest darts and roll the tips into the paste and let dry a little before putting darts back into covered quiver. This is a process that has probably been happening for a hundreds of years.
Henry and Tempene had told us that there would be a big Waorani dance for us on our last night. The dance took place in the traditional community house with palm leaf thatching and a couple of lights.
The traditional dance is of both men and women, but they dance in separate groups.
The men first, dressed only in their comi, a waist cord to which their foreskins attached.
They danced together as an attached group chanting songs about who they are and of the Ome, their relationship with the forest and that is how they, as a people, want it to remain.
Then the women dance moving forwards and backwards again chanting naked except large leaf which is attached to a waistcord, and an array of necklaces.
The final songs were inviting us to come back again and visit them.
“This is us, this is the uncontacted people, we are the land, we are the animals.” And that’s how they wish to remain.
“The oral tradition keeps the essence of their communities but they’re losing the pieces. They might know the meaning behind a ceremony but they wouldn’t be able to tell you the name of their great great grandparents.
After the dance the women of the village brought out a selection of traditional handicrafts and necklaces for us to buy. Beautiful string bags, traditional Waorani necklaces and even a shortened version of a blowpipe but with actual size darts and quiver. As we chose we were gently persuaded with laughs and smiles to buy one item from each woman.
Everyone was laughing at this piece of commerce with the Cowade.
Happy was the young boy in the canoe when his father was killed by the Uncontacted. And he lived up to is name, he was always smiling and liked to hold hands.We high-sixed with his extra finger.
The Waorani have an affinity with the animals of the rainforest which they keep pets and there are Always plenty of friendly dogs around.
Penti has a busy future ahead to save this special part of the planet. There has been vocal support from Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo di Caprio in the US, and has the experienced Judith Kimerling but over 20 years of legal disputes the threats from big oïl remain.
The Following is just a snapshot of the legal disputes since 1990 by the Waorani to be allowed to live in a safe environment.
Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, in the person of Robert Kennedy Jr, where he was staff lawyer traveled in 1990 to the Oriente with Judith Kimmerlin, Environmental and indigenous rights Lawyer, and encountered terrible pollution there. The hundreds of open-air toxic waste pits left by Chevron and other oil companies, a large river still ran black, its banks charred… Oil wastes streamed from a nearby production pit. After meeting indigenous people he saw sick and deformed children, adults and children affected with skin rashes, headaches, dysentery and respiratory ailments, dead cattle, crops destroyed, animals gone from the forest and fish from the river.
In the region Texaco had dumped some, yes some 18 billion gallons of toxic waste in the region and had created some 900 unlined toxic oil pits which were seeping into the groundwater and rivers.
He was aghast and even wrote forward to environmental lawyer Judith Kimmerling’s book ‘Amazon Crude’.
But although NRDC would never allow such drilling practices on US soil he thought he could broker a deal with Conoco to get blessing from the regional Indigenous organization CONFENIAE to drill in the Yasuni and Waorani lands.
Kennedy believed that Conoco would work under best practice. In fact CONFENIAE was controlled by 2 newly appointed inept and probably corrupt officials Valerio Grefa a Kichwa and Angel Zamarenda a Shuar. The first a Kichwa who was after the money and Zamarenda who wanted to continue stealing Waorani land. Robert Kennedy on behalf of Conoco offered them a $10 million non profit organisation for the region. Kichwa and Zamarenda asked for 210$ million. In fact no-one had consulted the Waorani.
Kennedy without contacting them and having sacked Kimerling from NRDC (the only knowledgable person) thought they were incapable of dealing with the situation and he thought the Waorani organistion the ONHAE had no mandate. In fact when asked about the Waorani he said ‘Who are the Waorani’. (Kennedy these days is a prolific peddler of dangerous anti-vaccine misinformation, promoting conspiracy theories about vaccine safety).
At this time the Sierra Club Legal Defence Fund lobbied the Organistion of American States for a moratorium on drilling, supported by a couple of dozen environmental groups from the US and Europe. The time was right for something to be done about the disgraceful moral turpitude of the worst of the US oil Companies Texaco Chevron.
In 1993 A legal case was launched against Texaco, brought by 30,000 indigenous and small-scale farmer Amazon inhabitants affected by the oil firm’s irresponsibility. In 2001, Chevron purchased Texaco, thereby taking on responsibility for the disaster. An Ecuadorian court subsequently found Chevron guilty of “extensively polluting” the Lago Agrio region in 2011, following an 18-year legal battle. Chevron was ordered to pay $18.2bn in compensation. The decision was upheld by the Ecuadorian High Court in 2012 but the sum was reduced to $9 billion.
And, to this day, no compensation has been paid
Contaminated oil pits throughout the region continue to seep toxic chemicals, even though Texaco agreed to clean up their sites but it has been discovered that they just covered these toxic pits with earth leaving them to seep into rivers.
Chevron used in the USA courts the legal artifice Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) to overturn the Ecuador legal judgement, saying the original lawyers used bribery to obtain the original verdict. This sets an extremely dangerous precedent in favour of corporations over nation states. Judge Lewis A Kaplan ruled in Chevons favour without even a jury
and in turn fined the plaintiff’s lawyer Steven Donziger $3.4 million for contempt and Chevron’s legal fees, the largest contempt sanction in US History. Kaplan appointed a private firm to prosecute Donziger and has written favorably about Chevron. Obviously nothing biased here your honour!
But now it has come out that Chevron’s star witness Judge Guerra admitted that he had received over a million dollars from Chevron and that he was paid $48,000 and he and his sons family were relocated to the USA where they were paid $12,000 a month.
Chevron’s statement regarding the lawsuit was “We will fight until hell freezes over and then fight it out on the ice” and true to their word they have spent an eye watering $2 billion fighting to avoid clearing up their pollution, on bribes, lawyers fees, private detectives and PR companies.
And not a penny to the peoples whose lives they ruined.
Judge Kaplan, who has close links to Chevron, has environment lawyer Steven Donziger still under house arrest with an electronic bracelet for not handing over his electronic devices containing his source material and sources.
The US based Evangelical Churches had not been successful this far into the eastern part of the Waorani and Yasuni reserve. I saw one cross on a grave in a small encampment close to the Shiripuno bridge and when I asked the family if they were Christians they said no , but they implied they were just covering their bases. The conversion, almost forced, in the western part had led to disease and death, the destruction of the rainforest near Tewaeno and now apparently a slum of shacks with the Waorani dependent on bought in food. And the inevitable alcoholism. An award winning Waorani built and run eco lodge was forced to close when a previous charismatic Waorani leader, turned alcoholic, sold the ancestral land it was built on to a Chinese oil company. It has since closed because of dynamite based seismic activity meant it was unsafe for tourists.
Having seen first hand in a few parts of the world, that where the Evangelicals manage to convert ethnic groups they lose their traditional beliefs and culture without it being replaced by anything meaningful to them, and they seem an unusually unhappy people. That cannot be said of the Waorani of Bameno, who have kept strong ties so far with their history and the forest and never stop smiling and laughing.
It is important to save Woarani territory and the Yasuni and the best people to save this rich bio-diverse rainforest are the Waorani themselves who not only know how to save the forest but they know the plants that have medicinal properties yet to be used in new drugs.
Quality eco-tourism that brings money to the community is probably the best way of raising money for essentials. There is a need for money to help protect the community, medicines, legal advice, gasoline and gas for cooking, and even the internet; all things that can keep the community together and fight the Oil Companies.
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Habitat as Human Rights; Indigenous Huaorani in the Amazon rainforest Oil and Ome Yasuni. Judith Kimerling
Ecuador’s Yasuni Biosphere Reserve A brief modern history and conservation challenges. Matt Finer et al
Savages. Joe Kane
Video The complete version of Abby Martin’s three-part series covering Chevron’s disaster in Ecuador..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MssnB31PmZI
Various Guardian articles
Penti Tempene Find a huge anaconda
*1 World Bank & Ecuador The usual blight of the discovery of oil on a country and is it’s effect on the poor and indigenous. In 1980 Ecuadors debt was no more than $500 million but by 2015 this had ballooned to $15+ billion despite oil having been found and extracted
This is the usual story of oil not actually helping a country but hindering development
The World Bank despite so much evidence of fraud and corruption in WB projects continued to lend money to Ecuador in the Debt, Austerity cycle that the World Bank favours. It was common fact that as soon as a World Bank loan was granted to Ecuador most of that money went straight out of the country. The Elite white Spanish who have owned Ecuador since the conquest moved their share straight out to Banks in Miami, next the US officials involved in Oil and Banking moved their share out to Swiss and offshore banks; even small players who owned oil service companies appeared to have got kickbacks from the World Bank loans.
Yes there was some infrastructure projects , but these were not necessarily what Ecuador needed. But now Ecuador is locked into a cycle of austerity and oil extraction at any cost leaving oil companies and debt providers total say over which community gets destroyed in the rapacious quest for that poisoned chalice Crude.