The Huaorani People of the Ecuadorian Amazon Look to Tourism to Spread Message of Hope and Counter the Forces of Black Gold
By Kristin Hettermann, who traveled to the Community of Bameno on recon for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic
Taking off from the capital of Ecuador, Quito, we transition from the foothills of the Andes to a bird’s eye view of the massive snowcapped volcano, Chimborazo. Soon mountains give way to palms and low-lying forests stretching as far as the eye can see. We are heading to the Amazon, via the capital of Ecuador’s oil exporting business, Francisco de Orellana (also known as Coca). Once landed, one more transit from plane to helicopter and we are on our way to one of the most remote civilizations in the world. Not so hard to get to, after all.
“And what are your interests here?” The Ecuadorian official stares into my eyes intently and speaks in broken English, then quickly looks away as he shuffles papers and handles my passport. The question is a formality with perhaps an undertone of suspicion, and I stutter in my response. “Tourism,” I answer. I wasn’t so sure. And with a bit of an odd look, as I likely have the keen visage of an environmental activist, he signs a document and ushers us to the waiting helicopter. The whir of the rotors lifts us up and away, and the sprawling city fades into a dense green canopy of jungle–the Ecuadorian Amazon. We are on a mission to observe one of the most untouched cultures left on the earth.
Layers of green canopy hide a rich, natural system rarely paralleled on the planet. My eyes focus, but my mind is having a hard time comprehending the magnitude of what I am seeing. Mile upon mile of untouched rainforest. I know that the photos I’m taking will never do it justice. I’m experiencing the beating of the big green heart of the planet. Catch your breath, focus. Be present, feel. I know that very few people in the world have an opportunity to see this treasure. What it was like, before. Before the cutting, the clearing, the building, the populating. I brush away a tear and we fly toward a rainbow in the distance. At the end of that rainbow, there’s a pot of black gold. Every once in a while, we pass a road, a clear-cut path that the pilot explains is for oil transport. “The roads are the gateway of devastation for this area,” our guide says softly. “Deforestation begins quickly with just one road.” Just one road.
Our quest is to meet and learn about one of the touted emerging gems of the Ecuadorian tourist experience, The Huaorani of Bameno. The Huaorani are hunters and gatherers who have lived in the Amazon rainforest since before written history; proud warriors and guardians. A living cultural artifact. We head across Yasuni National Park, a 9,820-square kilometer area of rainforest jungle home to the Bameno Huaorani and their neighbors, which include the Tagaeri and Taromenani, Huaorani clans who are some of the last indigenous groups in the world living in voluntary isolation. Located on the equator at the intersection of forest and mountains, the Yasuni is known to be one of the most biodiverse places on earth–thought to have more species of plants, animals and insects per hectare than any other location–and was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989.
After about an hour of flying (which would have equaled fourteen hours by canoe from the nearest road), I see a spattering of simple thatched roofs along a riverside, and a small airstrip comes into view. As we circle and approach, curious people emerge from the vicinity, playfully running toward the helicopter’s winds as we land. They are mostly naked, with adornments from the natural world draping their bodies, and markings in red and black painted across their faces. It is sweltering hot, who needs clothes anyway? I wish I could join them in their naked freedom. As we debark, they surround us with smiles, feeling as intent a curiosity about us as we have about them.
A young girl holds a monkey like a baby. She leads the way, and we assemble as a tribe and move slowly into what appears to be the village center. Other villagers, some dressed in clothes, surround us with shy smiles. Sets of dark eyes peer over the palm frond walls of what appears to be the community center. Soon a door opens and people slowly start walking out of the structure, babies attached to hanging nipples, bare bums aged with wrinkles, and male genitalia tucked up into leaf belts. Everywhere I turn I see a moment to capture. They usher us inside the structure.
It is dark, and as my eyes adjust, I see about 20 community members assembled together. They were waiting for us, after hearing we were on our way. “They would like to welcome you with a traditional dance,” our guide says. A slow, melodic, rhythmic tone fills the room, and their feet shuffle in a simple movement making tracks in the dirt floor. First the women, then the men. They sing traditional chants as old as the forest itself, in a language that developed before the first Spaniards stepped foot on the continent.
Traditionally, the Huaorani are a nomadic people that move in the forest and along rivers by seasons. As tribes began to experience contact from the outside, some adopted new practices and formed rooted communities, focusing on things like more modern forms of education and healthcare. Contact started in the Huaorani territory in 1955, when five missionaries arrived to attempt to convert the “savages” to a new way of life. Within the year, all five were killed. But it didn’t take long for more to follow, and peaceful contact was made soon after. We now go to such great lengths to come to the Amazon to learn and also find medicines, seeking stories about how life was before the first contact with Western culture.
The singing stops, and the spokesperson, who speaks only Huaorani and limited Spanish, pulls out large maps and starts explaining where we are. Oil exploration and development are the main threats to the sustenance of the Ecuadorian rainforest, in addition to creating an environment that over time highly marginalizes indigenous culture. For decades, the communities of this region have been threatened by the expanding oil development in the Amazon basin, with pollution coming downstream and endangering their livelihoods and their health. As the members of the community stare at me, and I stare at the map trying to comprehend it all, I feel the joy and desperation of this community. Sweat pours down my chest and small insects swarm around my head. I remember trips to Epcot Center as a child, and as an adult, getting lost in the plot lines of exotic movies, marveling in the re-creation, cinematically, of cultures that in most cases modern development has extinguished. This is not a stage set, though, this is the real thing. Why have I been chosen to have this experience? The maps are complicated and multicolored, delineating targeted oil well prospects, various conservation zones, community boundary lines, and buffer zones meant to protect communities from the effects of the oil drilling. With our guide’s interpretation, in the next ten minutes we are succinctly and explicitly shown where and told how the story of “black gold” is directly affecting this community.
“Some of the water that reaches us in the big river is dirty. It comes from upriver, where there are roads, pipelines, wells, tanks, and waste pits in Huaorani ancestral lands. The upriver area was rainforest before the first oil company, Texaco, arrived. Texaco does not work there anymore, but it left behind a lot of contamination, including many waste pits that have not been cleaned up. Petroecuador and other companies still work upriver, and are adding to the contamination. Our children like to swim in the big river. Sometimes people get skin problems after they swim in the river, and this year our crops died after they were flooded by the big river. We also use this river for fishing, washing, bathing, and sometimes for cooking and drinking. We want the government and the companies to clean up, and stop polluting the big river.”
-Penti Baihua, Community of Bameno
Yasuni National Park harbors an estimated 800 million barrels of crude oil–reputed to be 20% of Ecuador’s reserves–in the Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (ITT) oil fields. This ITT area had been pledged for conservation, but in recent years, decisions by the Ecuadorian government have dictated otherwise. Ecuador is now selling drilling rights in this region and with the removal of protections, the lifestyle and traditions of the Huaorani are threatened.
As oil drilling and infrastructure expand around them, these endangered cultures have the most to lose. Can tourism really help this community? We are told that oil companies come to communities with buy-off strategies to engage support. The money offered in no way makes up for the long-term threats, however, it is sometimes an appealing short-term incentive. The Community of Bameno has rallied around their leadership to propose a different model–a model of tourism that could bring value and support for the community. The goal being that members would be less likely to be seduced by the incentives offered by oil companies. Care, and share. This story must be told.
“We like the tourists because they do not harm the forest. They come to observe nature, not to do damage. They like to learn about our Huaorani culture, instead of trying to tell us how we should live. With the money we earn from tourism, we can buy some things in the city, and sometimes get medical care there. We do not want more oil companies to come because already there are enough. Now the companies say they are not like Texaco, that they come to help the communities and are careful of the environment. But we do not believe them. We have seen how they operate. Where the company leaves its environment, we cannot live. We have lost a lot of territory to the companies, and to colonists who use the oil roads to enter the forest. We still have a lot of forest, in the area that the cowode (non-Huaorani) call “Yasuni.” But the oil companies keep coming closer, all around us. If the oil companies destroy everything, where will we live? Something must remain for the Huaorani. Without territory, we cannot live. That is why we are working to defend what remains of our ancestral rainforest territory. We want to live as Huaorani, in freedom, with territory and rights. Our message to the oil companies and the government is ‘Let us live.'”
-Penti Baihua, Community of Bameno
The leader of the group grabs his spear and marches out of the community center and toward the river, and a line of warriors follow him. The Huaorani are legendary for their strength, ferocity, hunting skills, and extensive knowledge about the rainforest and its diverse plant and animal life. We head to a long canoe and join women and children in a short journey up the river. They calmly sit and chant, almost like a prayer in church. They hold no shame over their nakedness in front of our cameras. The brown water rolls under us. Along the river, a thriving rainforest ecosystem is home to macaws, tapirs, howler monkeys, harpy eagles, jaguars, black caimans and even the magical pink dolphin. Even though I gave up on organized religion a while ago, I feel spirit. To that which guides my highest self, may I be a medium, a voice, for these peaceful warriors protecting their home. In speaking of mediums, plants, especially trees, hold a powerful place in the spiritual and earthly lives of the Huaorani. The Huaorani do not observe separations between spiritual and physical states of being. Their botanical knowledge is extensive, ranging from food to poisons, hallucinogens, and medicines.
We land the canoe on a steep muddy river bank and follow the community’s shaman Kemperi, their highly-regarded spiritual leader, down a path that leads into the jungle. Every once in a while, he stops, holds up his hand, and looks to the treetops, listening and looking for howler monkeys. The shaman connects nature to creation, and is regarded as having access to and influence in the world of good and evil spirits. He stops at a tree and scratches off some red tree bark, and handing it to me, points at my belly. “That is for your upset stomach,” the guide says. How did he know about my propensity to get traveler’s stomach every time I venture into foreign lands? The last time I was really sick from a parasite that I received while traveling, after months of being ill, western medicine had no answers. It was Sangre de Drago from a tree in the Amazon that I researched, finally finding my cure. We stop at a Ceiba tree, so big it could engulf me, and he grabs a leaf, rolls it, and blows through it like a trumpet. Loud screeches echo through the forest. He’s calling on the toucans, a common method of hunting.
Our time in the forest ends too soon, and with a few smiles and laughs, we return to the canoe. Incandescent blue butterflies follow us back to the landing, where children play, jumping from a rope swing into the river. The same river that sometimes carries oil downstream, along with all of its threats. It was time to go. Our visit feels too brief. But for the Huaorani, every minute with an empathetic outsider is an essential part of the battle. They have defended their ancestral lands for centuries, but the stakes of the game are changing fast. New ways to protect the Ome, their forest home, must be found before continued exploitation of the Amazon rainforest completely steals this living, breathing museum away from the world.
Why is it that we constantly force change, and then hunger, nostalgically, for a world “how it used to be”? In the face of rapid development, what is the future of the Huaorani? For sure, protection and preservation apply as strongly to communities as they do to natural environments. This living time capsule of indigenous ways can teach modern-day civilization much. Once known as the most fearsome tribe in the Amazon, the battle now looks a little different but is still about protecting land. The community of Bameno hopes that by sharing their story, the people of the world will understand how the preservation of their culture is so important to the conservation of one of the world’s most important remaining rainforest environmental treasures.
“Our grandparents loved this land. They taught us to take care of the forest. They taught us to protect the forest. So that we could have a future. They used to tell us: if you take care of the forest you will live. If you protect the forest you will live. Just like our grandparents protected this land, we will protect it. This way we will keep our culture and language. This forest is our life.”
-Ahua, The Community of Bameno, (Message from Huaorani of Yasuni Part I: Ahua, YouTube)
Getting there: The Bameno experience offers tourists an opportunity to travel to one of the most remote regions of the Amazon and immersion into one of the most authentic villages of the Huaorani people, Bameno. You will learn about survival in the Amazon jungle; how to plant, harvest, make handicrafts, prepare meals, hunt, use traditional weapons, and scavenge the forest for medicinal plants. Your visit to the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve will support an extraordinary community-based initiative to defend the Huaorani culture, protect Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, and provide public health and educational opportunities to members of the community.