Ecuador: Hidden communities on their way to extinction
The massacre of some 30 Taromenane in March uncovers the negligence of the Ecuadorian state in protecting the communities that still remain in the Amazon rainforest and the new reality they live in. The violence was brought on by the growing oil industry as well as illegal logging.
Despite two decrees by the government — Executive Decree 552 (Feb. 2, 1999) which declared both Taromenane and Tagaeri territories as “intangible zones” and Decree 2187 (Apr. 18, 2007) which delimited the area — these activities have not stopped.
The animals that the hidden communities hunt in order to survive are being driven away by the engine noises of oil extraction and by the indiscriminate cutting of the forest. There have been sporadic attacks on loggers as expressions of the distress this causes them (Sep. 2005, Apr. 2006 and Mar. 2008), and on settlers as in Sep. 2009 when Sandra Zabala and two of her children were killed.
In the early hours of Mar. 5 of this year, Huaorani warrior Ompore Omeway and his wife Buganei Cayga that lived near the settlement of Yarentaro were attacked.
Omeway, the father of the Yarentaro leaders, had decided to move further away from the community to live in isolation. He had occasional contact with the Taromenane and Tagaeri with whom he shared hunting grounds.
Capuchin priest Miguel Ángel Cabodevilla, one of the leading researchers on the Tagaeri and Taromenane, hypothesizes that the latter would have expressed their displeasure at the intrusions into their territory as well as the worsening of hunting conditions; in addition, they would have asked him to procure them with machetes and axes.
Cabodevilla explains that those communities cannot be considered “uncontacted” anymore, as they get in touch with certain Huaorani elders, of whom they request tools necessary to their survival in the rainforest, such as machetes, axes or cooking utensils.
Mónica Chuji, vice-president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), shares Cabodevilla’s theory. She says that Omeway would have offered machetes and axes, but couldn’t keep his promise because no one provided him with the tools, despite his request presented to the Yarentaro community and to REPSOL, the Spanish oil company.
“Ompore [Omeway] gave his word and couldn’t keep it; he didn’t obtain what he was asked for,” explains Chuji.
As soon as they heard the news of the attack on Omeway and Cayga, some 15 warriors from Yarentano — led by Omeway’s nephew Orengo Tokari — went deep into the jungle seeking revenge on the Taromenane. The first two incursions were fruitless, as they could not locate them. During the third expedition, 18 days after the attack on Omeway, the group led by Tokari found and assassinated them using firearms. Tokari stated in a TV program that he killed five Taromenane. However, Cawetipe Yeti, president of Waorani Nationality of Ecuador (NAWE), claims there are at least 30 Taromenane dead.
“Spears are the traditional weapon [for the Huaoranis],” says Chuji. “This time they used firearms and this breaks with the tradition and will generate a lot of problems between Huaorani communities,” she adds, indicating that this incident opens the possibility for future conflicts between Huaoranis to be resolved with firearms.
Government distorts the truth
For his part, Cabodevilla questions the government’s sluggishness to act against this problem, despite it being responsible for implementing the so-called “Policies for the Protection of Peoples in Isolation,” issued in Apr. 2007.
“Upon finding out about the death of Omeway, [government authorities] should immediately have gone to Yarentaro to speak with the families, offer them compensation and persuade them against taking revenge,” says Cabodevilla.
News of the attack on the Huaorani elders and of the raid to take revenge spread immediately. The government, however, did not take any actions until the news of the slaughter and of the abduction of two Taromenane girls that were taken to Yarentaro broke out. The authorities dismissed the information as a rumor.
According to Eduardo Pichilingue — coordinator of the Observatory of Collective Rights and member of the International Committee for the Protection of Peoples in Voluntary Isolation — the abduction of the girls is proof that a massacre took place. It is traditional for these peoples to murder all male members of a clan, including young boys, while abducting the women, as a way to avoid future retaliation. The abduction of women is a very common practice during conflicts between these communities; some of the current wives of the Huaorani are Tagaeri or Taromenane women kidnapped in the past.
Governmental authorities stated that until the bodies are found, the report is merely a rumor; for that reason a few unsuccessful helicopter flybys were conducted to search for the missing bodies. Later on, Galo Chiriboga, the Attorney General, claimed that the cause of possible death of Taromenane would be the consumption of spoilt food thrown from a plane.
Chiriboga twisted the abducted girls’ words after they refused eating rice that they were offered in Yarentaro, explaining that their grandparents had fallen ill in the past after eating rice sent from ”a flying object,” just like the one mentioned in Chiriboga’s earlier statement.
“If it is true that they are sending food from planes, it is a genocide,” stated Capuchin José Miguel Goldaraz, Cabodevilla`s colleague, indicating that food coming from the Western world contains different germs, to which people living in isolation are not immune, apart from the fact that the provisions may already be spoilt when they reach their destination.
Goldaraz participated in the “Encounter of the Ecclesial Amazon Network” that took place in Puyo, in the Amazonian province of Pastaza, in April and gathered representatives of 26 countries during three days. In their final manifesto, presented on Apr. 24, they asked that “the bloodshed in the rainforest — caused by all kinds of pressures and powerful interests, for which the unprotected peoples are simply an obstacle to the so-called development — be stopped.”
This is not a “clan war”
To confuse the public opinion even further, state media are spreading the idea that these attacks are part of a clan war and depict the Huaoranis as communities that blackmail the oil companies, demanding perks in exchange for not blocking the access roads to the wells.
“It is not just a simple clan war, even though the Taromenane and Tagaeri do consider the Huaoranis their enemies, because they see them as the invaders’ allies. Nonetheless, the Huaoranis cannot be labeled as blackmailers or accomplices of the oil companies,” explains Chuji.
Twenty-three Taromenane women and children were murdered on May 26, 2003. Huaorani warriors were held responsible for the massacre, brought on by the timber industry. The incursion, ordered by the chief, Babe, as revenge for the attack on one of his children, was led by Davo. The two are considered the most respected warriors of this nationality. Babe died in Aug. 2009, while Davo lives near a roadside, where he holds control over traffic, demanding soft drinks for passage.
Three years later, taking into account constant conflicts between the Huaorani and the Taromenane and Tagaeri, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures for the protection of the latter.
The government at that time took a proactive stance, ordering the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to take charge of the implementation of these measures. However, it did not go ahead with the process and Pichilingue, who led it, was fired.
“Precautionary measures [to protect peoples in isolation] must be implemented in the area of interest for the oil industry, and there this interest won and the beneficiaries of precautionary measures lost. If it continues, these people are headed towards extermination,” claims Pichilingue.
- Article originally published at Latinamerican Press