Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Huaorani people have lived as forest hunters and gatherers in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon for hundreds of years. Numbering approximately 1,300, the Huaorani are a relatively isolated indigenous group inhabiting the eastern Amazonian region of Ecuador. From their tragic encounter with North American missionaries in 1956 to the present day, they have been problematically represented in journalistic and popular imagination as ‘Ecuador’s last savages’. Despite the efforts of missionaries to proselytize and culturally assimilate the Huaorani, the latter have largely retained their distinctive way of apprehending the world and continue to be known as skilled warriors.
The successful claim made in 1990 by the lowland Huaorani to 600,000 hectares of territory was subject to the condition that they would not interfere with oil companies drilling there. As part of the government’s strategy for developing resources even in restricted areas, the Maxus Energy Oil Company, whose claim lies within a national park of great biological diversity, was given permission to construct a pipeline and a narrow access road. Oil exploration paired with increases in lumbering activities and tourism has caused some Huaorani to retreat further into the jungle.
In 1991, in the wake of receiving territorial rights from the government after a protracted international campaign, young schooled men formed the Organization of the Huaorani Nation of Amazonian Ecuador. This organization has operated as a liaison with the oil industry, including Maxus, the company which has exploited petroleum in the Huaorani territory and the Yasuní National Park. In 2005, despite protests by Huaorani people, the Brazilian oil company, Petrobrás, continued to drill for oil in the Yasuní forest of Ecuador. Although the media reported that the Huaorani broke their agreement with Petrobrás, Huaorani leaders argued that the president of the Organization of the Huaorani Nationality signed the contract without consulting the Huaorani community.
Caught between the conflicting objectives of petroleum development and forest conservation, Huaorani are confronted with pernicious and contradictory economic and political interests. They continue to be threatened by oil extraction and illegal lumbering. Yet, while encouraged by missionaries, some Huaorani have given up their traditional economic activities and turned to the lumber industry for their livelihood. Also, while eco-tourism is on the rise in the region, tourism operators rarely consult the Huaorani before bringing outsiders into their communities.
Despite plans to protect the Yasuní National Park, the home of many Huaorani, from drilling through a United Nations-managed fund, in August 2013 the government announced that due to insufficient international financial support the restrictions would be lifted. President Rafael Correa decreed the cancellation of the Yasuní initiative in August 2016, and the National Assembly authorised drilling after a lengthy debate. There were a number of protests against the decision; nevertheless, the government confirmed that drilling was underway by October 2016.
In recent years, there has been an increased focus on Huaorani forms of justice. Various reports assert that over 60 people have died due to reprisals in the past two decades. This was brought to the forefront of national attention in March 2013, when Huaorani raided a Taromenane village after the murder of a Huaorani couple, allegedly by Taromenane. The raid was prolonged and brutal, resulting in numerous deaths. Eight months after these events took place, the government arrested and charged six Huaorani of genocide. The authorities were heavily criticised for not conducting a thorough investigation and being culturally insensitive. The case also gave rise to accusations that Ecuador’s media and government have been responsible for promoting negative stereotypes and reactions to indigenous peoples. Many commentators and indigenous activists pointed out that the risk of violence between communities has increased as pressure from oil workers and loggers has brought them into closer proximity and greater competition over resources with each other.