Piercing the Jungle’s Heart

Oil company seeks to exploit reserves under Waorani Indian homeland.

Yasuni Waorani1Northeastern Ecuador’s Napo River region has for centuries been home to the Waorani (Huaorani) Indians, a fiercely independent people who live in cane dwellings and wear only waist cords and a few ear, hair and neck ornaments.

But more and more, this land lush with tree ferns and orchids, sloths and anteaters, parrots, manatees, and Amazon dolphins has become a drilling field where multinational oil companies sink their bits and pump their fortunes. Since 1967, oil workers and contractors have swarmed to the area, bringing bulldozers, toxic chemicals, viruses, guns and alcohol.  They frequently secure the sexual services of Waorani women by bribing their brothers with sugar, boots, axes, and chainsaws—good and equipment often pirated from company supplies. Sometimes the pilfering workers even contrive to blame the thefts on the Waorani.

One group of about 125 Waorani living in and around Yasuní National Park—one of the Amazon Basin’s largest rainforest preserves—has mostly avoided contat with oil workers. But its isolation from Western culture may soon be shattered. As early as March or April, Conoco Ecuador Limited, an affiliate of the Texas-based oil giant, expects to begin carving a road for pipeline construction more than 100 miles into the park, penetrating to the heart of the Waorani nation.

Not only will Conoco’s road carry oil crews and equipment into Yasuní Waorani territory, says the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, but it will draw colonists to the forest from all across Ecuador—speculators seeking to clearcut land for farms and cattle ranches. And that, the Defense Fund’s lawyers say, will prove so disastrous to the Waorani way of life that Conoco and the Ecuadoran government, which approved the project, could be held liable for ethnocide, a criminal offense under international law.

“The Waorani Indians face cultural annihilation if there are any major incursions into their territory,” says Karen Parker, a human-rights attorney retained by the Defense Fund. “They aren’t very adaptable to new influences. The Waorani are migrant people, hunters. Their territory has already been reduced to an area too small for their traditional lifestyle.”

Conoco officials strongly object to the allegation of ethnocide. “In fact,” says Conoco attorney H.J. van Wageningen, “we’re trying to avoid any harm coming to the Waorani.”

As evidence of their concern, Conoco officials point to an environmental assessment they commissioned from anthropologist James A. Yost, who lived among the Indians from 1973 to 1982. The company says it has developed policies based on Yost’s observations that will prevent disruption of the Waorani culture.

Among Conoco’s plans is a medical clinic for oil-company employees that would also be available to the Waorani. Whether that measure would suffice to guard against the spread of such diseases as influenza, which is alien to the Waorani people, is an open question. In areas of the Ecuadoran rainforest where flue viruses have been carried in by oil-company workers or tourists, may Waorani have died of secondary pneumonia.

Conoco Ecuador recognizes that the most severe threat to Waorani society would come from colonization along the new pipeline road. The company points out, however, that such settlements in Yasuni National Park is forbidden by Ecuadoran law. Colonists can be turned back, the company maintains, by means of around-the-clock police surveillance at key checkpoints along the road; those who ship through can be detected by satellite monitoring of the entire park.

Anthropologist Yost isn’t reassured. “Colonists in all parts of the developing world have proved time and again to be tenacious and relentless,” he says.

Yost believes the potential for disaster in Conoco’s roadbuilding scheme is enormous.  “Imagine the world of the Wao,” he wrote in his environmental assessment, “a person born tinto a culture that has a technology limited to stone, wood and fiber; a person who has never seen a horse, much less imagined an automobile. . . . Imagine how easily this erson’s sense of well-being is going to be challenged when the age-old sollutinso fo survival o longer work and he or she has no sense of control over the future.”

Acknowledging that oil development seems inevitable in the face of world demand for energy resources, Yost nonetheless advised Conoco Ecuador that his personal preference would be that no road be built into Yasuni National Park. “No matter how sensitive Conoco or any others going into the area might be,” he observed, “the Waorani will undergo some wrenching changes.”

This article appeared in Sierra, “Hot Spots,” March/April 1990.