The Story of the Waorani
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The end of the first period in France is a one month field trip to Ecuador during which we visited several places. In the second half of our stay we went to a research station called Tiputini right in the middle of the tropical rain forest in the Yasuni National Park. It was quite a long and adventurous journey: first, we took the plane from Quito to Coca (a small and not very attractive city), then we continued on a boat on the River Napo until we reached the beginning of the Via Maxus, named after the American oil company that built this road right through the rainforest. Today, another oil company, Spanish Repsol is controlling the entrance of the road and must give permission to all people who want to enter. Sitting on the back of a “chiva” (a typical converted truck) we continued our journey on aforesaid road where we passed some small villages of the indigenous people called Waorani. The final stage of the journey was another boat ride, this time on the Tiputini River.
During our time in the research station we spent time discovering the rainforest but also discussing the problems of that biome. One of those topics is the sad story of the Waorani. Until 1956, this indigenous group had been living in small nomadic clans in complete isolation from western civilization. The first contact with the outside world was with the Summer Linguistics Institute, protestant missionaries from the U.S. who gather 80 % of the clans in camps, in an attempt to civilize them and convert them to their religion. The Waorani have traditionally been warriors who lived in confrontations with other neighboring clans; thus, this system eventually collapsed and the people went back to their homes in the rainforest. Unfortunately, by then the jungle was already under exploitation by the oil companies, which brought more conflicts to the area.
For the Waorani this was a new war, and as in any war lives had to be sacrificed. In several occasions the indigenous have seen the need to kill outsiders including oil workers in what they believe is an invasion of their territory. This, of course has provoked the reaction of the Ecuadorian Government through military action to protect the outsiders. In order to improve their image towards to Waorani, the oil companies adopted a strategy of giving them presents. Soon, the people understood that whatever they desired would be given to them, as long as they accepted the extractive activities. Sadly, this process has gradually resulted in some Waorani tribes giving up their nomadic lives, and settling instead along the roads constructed by the oil companies – like the Via Maxus mentioned before. Very fast these people lost many of their traditional habits and are now living a life between cultures. They live in brick houses and dress in western clothes; when before, they were living in houses made of palm leaves and naked in the forest. They have all sorts of electrical devices like cellphones, TVs or cars which many times they cannot even drive or use. Schools were built in each community but mostly the education is really poor.
Originally, the Waorani were people of feared warriors who only hunted wild animals for their survival. Nowadays, they are hunting wild meat to sell it for little money on the black market. As they do not really need the money because they get everything for free from the oil companies, a lot of the money is invested in alcohol. Only 58 years have passed, since the first contact of the Waorani with western civilization; and nowadays, this is the shocking reality of a good number of these communities. However, not everything is lost, a few others have opted to still deny access to the oil companies inside their territory and work in Ecotourism supported by NGOs. Even though it is not easy to resist the pressure of both government and oil companies, they are demonstrating their brothers that there is a way to maintain their traditional lifestyle and generate the income required in the new civilized rainforest.
Milton Avalos & Janina Kypke