A Massacre of Convenience: Democracy, progress, and the disappearance of a People in the Ecuadorian Amazon
The families sang in their shelter in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, unaware of their attackers closing in around them.
Those who would kill them would later say their naked victims had “sung like the monkeys sing… The song seems like it’s calling the jungle... It was like the voices of the animals; they sung strong, strong…”
The singers were from the Taromenane tribe, an indigenous group who avoid contact with the outside world. As an “uncontacted people” they were protected by the Constitution, their weak immune systems and decades of attacks against them had reduced their numbers to between less than 150 up to 300 people, living in groups above the few untapped oil reserves left in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Ecuadorian state was now the guarantor of their lives and territories.
Their attackers were from the Waorani tribe, another indigenous people who often live in roadside communities integrated into the cash economy of the Amazonian frontier. These 15 men possessed smartphones which would photograph the aftermath of the massacre, and they carried the pistols, bullets and shotguns newly purchased from burgeoning frontier towns such as Coca and Lago Agrio.
The Waorani had set out to find the Taromenane on the 24th March 2013, and the next day searched without success through the rainforest. They sought to avenge the murders of Waorani elder Ompure and his wife Buganey, killed on 5 March by Taromenane spears as they approached the outskirts of the Waorani settlement of Yarentaro inside Repsol’s Block 16.
The attackers had not kept their intentions secret during the 19 days in which they had bought ammunition to kill the Taromenane, and throughout this time the world’s leading authority on Ecuador’s uncontacted peoples, Spanish Capuchin priest Miguel Cabodevilla, repeatedly petitioned the Ministry of the Interior to intervene in the impending massacre. The government-owned newspaper El Telegrafo condemned such requests as blackmail.
The murdered Ompure had previously been the only person to survive a peaceful interaction with the Taromenane. A Waorani who chose to live in the jungle away from the blare of radios in Yarentaro, he was filmed a year before his death describing how the Taromenane had asked him to keep the encroaching outsiders away from their lands. The Taromenane also said they were too terrified to leave their cover to cross the Via Maxus cut through the jungle by the Maxus Oil Company, who along with Texaco and state-run PetroEcuador have led the opening of the frontier.
On the morning of the 30th the Waorani found a deserted Taromenane house, and the multitude of photographs taken testifies to their mounting excitement after days searching in the jungle. Later that day they found the skulls of wild pigs eaten by the uncontacted peoples, and by mid-afternoon they heard the Taromenane’s songs. Stealthily they approached, anxious not to alert the two guards stationed at the doorway.
As the Waorani hunted for the Taromenane leading Ecuadorian officials were in Beijing soliciting bids for new Amazonian petrol concessions. The government’s boosting of public spending to unprecedented levels is largely financed by Chinese loans exchanged for oil concessions - Quito now exports around 90% of its petrol to China and owes the Asian superpower US$4.71 billion (as of April 2014).
Much of the territory of the Taromenane was declared an ‘intangible zone’ in 1999, an area into which access was prohibited due to the Taromenane’s weak immune systems and the history of raids against them by loggers and Waorani who used the new oil roads into their territory. According to the country’s 2008 Constitution, “The territories of the peoples living in voluntary isolation are an irreducible and intangible ancestral possession and all forms of extractive activities shall be forbidden there. The State shall adopt measures to guarantee their lives, enforce respect for self-determination and the will to remain in isolation and to ensure observance of their rights. The violation of these rights shall constitute a crime of ethnocide, which shall be classified as such by law.”
Ecuador’s greatest oil reserve is the Yasuní-ITT field, overlapping the intangible zone, and Rafael Correa’s government initially pledged to seek international donations to leave the oil underground. The ‘Yasuní Initiative’ was first promoted at the governmental level by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, but opposed by the chief executive of Petroecuador, who was determined to extract the reserve’s estimated 900 million barrels of heavy crude. President Correa told the board of Petroecuador on 31 March 2007 that the government would consider extracting Yasuni’s oil as “Option B” if international funds were not forthcoming to keep the oil underground. According to former Minister of Energy and Mines Alberto Acosta, while “those mandated with the project did not tire of threatening the imminent exploitation of the ITT field in Yasuni, in fact [it was] more than a threat, it was a demonstrated certainty with the advancement of extractive activities in Block 31, adjacent to ITT”.
While the Government referred to the plight of the uncontacted peoples in seeking international donations, the full extent of the Taromenane’s land was, at the time, still not immune from exploration. Both Block 31 and the oil concession of the Yasuní-ITT oil reserve (‘Block 43’) overlap the intangible zone, while Oil Block 16 that borders Block 31 overlaps a 10 km deep buffer zone surrounding the land of the uncontacted peoples, in which forestry and mining is legally prohibited.
Repsol operates Block 16, and the murdered Ompure had reportedly passed on a request to the company to supply the Taromenane, via himself, with cooking pots and machetes. Repsol refused to confirm this citing on-going court processes, but following Ompure’s murder they evacuated their staff from the area.
While they were taking such precautions and government officials responsible for the precautionary measures were in Quito taking workshops with consultants on the issue of the sale of weapons and ammunition in the Amazon, the Waorani observed the women inside the house of the uncontacted people preparing chicha, the indigenous drink of Latin America associated with feasts and special occasions.
After the Taromenane had been wiped out the attackers would enter the house and drink the chicha, but in the seconds prior to the onslaught they watched without speaking as a young couple emerged from the house and looked at them. “They had been singing because they would die”, one of the attackers would remember.
Weeks afterwards, when the attackers had returned home and the flush of victory had receded, and the surprise of government officials and an initial flurry of news articles had been replaced by silence, Cabodevilla would hear one Waorani say “only the truth will set us free”. With Ecuadorian journalist Milagros Aguirre he methodically interviewed those involved in the raid. The interviews and smartphone photographs presented a first person account through which Cabodevilla and Aguirre learned how the youthful Taromenane couple had emerged from the house “to have a relationship” before they looked up and saw the Waorani, armed and waiting.
The Taromenane boy fled indoors, the song abruptly stopped and spears rattled from within. The uncontacted people burst out in a rush to flee or to confront the guns of their attackers. “But bullets are faster than spears” recalled an attacker.
“The rifles didn’t sound loud” one said, remembering how the Taromenane yelled “Run! Run! Run!” from the volleys of gunfire - “lots of blood came out, lots of blood, blood dripping like water… We killed each one with a gunshot, we shot them without stopping”.
The deaths are similar to other episodes throughout the development of the Ecuadorian Amazon. A 2007 documentary, Taromenani, the Exterminaton of the Uncontacted Peoples, had brought the history of massacres against the uncontacted people into the public consciousness, and made explicit the links between oil exploration and the plight of the Taromenane.
Widespread concern with the impacts of oil exploration were behind many of the pledges of Rafael Correa’s new government to seek to move away from oil-fueled development, and to safeguard biodiversity and the rights of indigenous peoples, but faced with social inequality and poverty, profound contradictions existed in the new government which were evident in the drafting of the new constitution itself.
The 2007 ‘Constitutional Assembly of Montecristi’ convened to write a new Constitution suspended the sitting Congress for representing the corrupt, elitist old order, and in drafting the Constitution they were anxious to ensure that the new Ecuador would be governed by the citizens themselves, ensuring that citizens would have tools of direct democracy to hold future governments to account. Correa was also anxious to neutralize the social and indigenous alliances which toppled his predecessors, and emphasised that his was a ‘Citizen’s Revolution’ in which representative and direct democracy needed to replace demonstrations and strikes as the legitimate vehicle of the country’s politics.
The Constitution declared a plurinational state and banned extraction in the land of the uncontacted peoples, yet President Correa has emphasized the need to reinterpret the document ‘in good faith’ and stressed the importance of securing mineral and petrol wealth to advance social welfare and modernize the economy. Correa’s supporters claim that using Chinese loans to boost spending in return for oil is a revolutionary form of ‘south-south’ cooperation that will wean Ecuador from colonial patterns of trade.
In the jungle, the Waorani impaled the heads of two men onto stakes and then, when they “had finished with killing”, they entered the house and ate the food that the Taromenane had been preparing and drank the chicha. A bewildered Taromenane mother came to the house from out of the forest with two children. The raiders killed her, and debated whether to kill her 6 and 4-year old daughters. They decided not to, and then photographed the bodies of young women shot and speared in the back, the speared babies, and the inside of the palm thatched building in which they found some of Ompure’s possessions. When one of the bodies began to move they fled in fright, taking the Taromenane girls with them.
On their return the government was informed of events by Cabodevilla and Aguirre, and initiated an investigation on 3 April. Investigators would not visit the site of the massacre for 9 months, and officials cast doubt on the ‘alleged’ massacre because of a lack of ‘tangible evidence’ and the ‘unattributed’ nature of the photographs.
Two parliamentarians wrote to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights informing them of the attack and reminding them of Ecuador’s obligations under the precautionary measures imposed by the Commission to protect the Taromenane-Tagaeri against attacks by Waorani and loggers. The parliamentarians said that by allowing oil extraction, the government was creating the conditions for the physical and cultural extinction of the un-contacted indigenous.
Quito filed a report on the state’s compliance with the Inter-American Commission’s precautionary measures in April 2013. It depicted the uncontacted peoples via circles on a map, the four groups inhabiting areas in or bordering the ‘intangible area’ and extending into the adjoining oil blocks 16, 31, and ITT. One of the circles represented the ‘Grupo Via Maxus’, centred around the Waorani community of Yarentaro, spreading into Blocks 14 and 16 and the area of the Via Maxus. Another group inhabited the circle encompassing the southern parts of Block 31 and the ITT oil field. Quito also cited the difficulties in protecting a people who chose to remain uncontacted, and described how the terrain made research on the Taromenane difficult; logs and branches underwater would foul the engines of boats sent upriver to look for signs of habitation for example.
While an investigation into the massacre by the Ecuadorian public prosecutor’s office appeared dormant, Cabodevilla and Milagros Aguirre wrote their findings into a book named ‘Una Tragedia Ocultada’ (A Hidden Tragedy). Buganey’s death had been videoed by smartphone, her agonizing last moments accompanied by villagers swearing revenge against the Taromenane. The inaction of the government in the weeks between Ompure’s death was described, together with the launch of the revenge mission and the entreaties for government action sent by the authors. The Waorani expedition into the jungle was related through first person testimonies and photos taken on the raid. A judge banned the book 17 minutes prior to its publication.
That move has transformed the public profile of the massacre, ensuring a widespread public distrust of the government’s stewardship of oil exploration that continues to develop new forms of political expression. ‘Una Tragedia Ocultada’ was circulated over the internet and its success caused the ban to be rapidly abandoned. Facing growing pressure, a state psychologist visited one of the two Taromenane girls taken from the massacre. She exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder including “emotional blunting, absence of responsiveness to her carers, empty facial expression, lack of responsiveness to her environment, anhedonia (absence of pleasure to positive stimuli), mutism, repetitive hand movements, hypervigilance…” etc. The girl had a respiratory rate of 28 per minute, cold skin, and muscle contraction.
Of those that escaped the raid, and the other groups of Taromenane, little is known. There are rumours that Taromenane spears have been thrown at oil company cars using a secret 26 metre-wide new highway cut by PetroAmazonas into Block 31, but they have evaded confirmed contact. Nevertheless, the state’s representation of their location has since changed dramatically since they submitted their circled maps to the Inter-American Commission.
In August 2013 another map was sent by President Correa to the National Assembly as he sought their approval to open the Yasuní-ITT field to exploration. Now it was declared that there were only three un-contacted groups: the Via Maxus group had disappeared entirely, while the three others were now located outside of the Blocks Yasuní-ITT and 31.
The government was faced with the constitutional injunction on exploration in areas inhabited by uncontacted peoples, and selectively quoted elements of the UN’s Draft Guidelines on the Protection of Indigenous People Living in Voluntary Isolation and in Danger of Extinction to argue that oil exploration would not equate to ethnocide.
Basque lawyer Mikel Berraondo drafted the very UN guidelines which the Ecuadorian executive had selectively quoted, and he says everything in his work that opposed the exploitation of Yasuní-ITT was ignored by a government he described as ‘Machiavellian’: “It is an insult to the intelligence of the people that someone can place a report before a congress of such importance as a national parliamentary assembly, and believe that no one in this country will realize the deceit in this report.”
The government also submitted maps to Congress created by the Ministry of Justice which sought to argue that uncontacted peoples were neither living in, nor passing through Blocks 31 and 43. They argued that altitude and geography made the area an unlikely home for the Taromenane, and cited the lack of sightings of uncontacted peoples by camera traps.
Geographer Massimo Marchi is an expert on the Ecuadorian Amazon. “The Ministry can say what they want; I say what I think as a scientist” he says. “I’m a university professor; if the Ministry’s briefing was submitted there it would not have passed the exam, because there was no scientific consistency.” The altitudes cited in the document were one of many errors, he said; such altitudes would have resulted in the blocks being underneath a lagoon stretching to Peru.
On 3 October 2013 the National Assembly voted to allow oil exploration in Blocks 31 and the Yasuní-ITT field (Block 43). Eight weeks later, the government adjusted the laws on genocide and ethnocide, changing the definition of the crimes. The crimes now needed to involve the intention to destroy a people or a way of life. These changes were presented to the National Assembly by the ruling party’s Mauro Andino, saying their authorship ‘corresponded to a great visionary, revolutionary and patriot’ (Rafael Correa). Seven of the Waorani were then arrested under the new legislation for acts of genocide and their cases passed to the Constitutional Court.
To Milagros Aguirre, co-author of Una Tragedia Ocultada, the prosecutions of the Waoranis promise only “justice with a greater injustice; the Waorani are prisoners, their families suffer without their suppliers and hunters, hungry and suffering.” The attackers acted according to the traditions of the Amazon, she says, as soldiers in a war, and yet they are being treated as assassins. Meanwhile the state “has no protocols in case of sighting human groups in the jungle, it has no mechanism to actually implement the precautionary measures, it has not provided education to the Waorani groups and it continues operating on their territory.”
To Carlos Andres Vera, who directed the 2007 documentary Taromenani, the Exterminaton of the Uncontacted Peoples, the culpability for the destruction of the Taromenane is clear: “According to the Constitution, Article 57 says any activity regarding exploitation of natural resources is considered genocide. I agree with that definition. So, according to the Constitution, the government is committing genocide. That´s why the second fact is important: they changed the definition of genocide in the new law, breaking the meaning and spirit of the Constitution.”
The abandonment of the Yasuni initiative was resisted by an alliance of youth volunteers, who came together as Yasunidos to raise 583,000 signatures to force a referendum on oil extraction in Block 43. On 12 April Waorani leader Alicia Cahuilla presented the first box of 757,623 signatures against oil drilling to the National Electoral College, to force a referendum on whether to leave Yasuní’s oil below ground.
The president of the National Electoral College had previously spoken out in favour of oil exploration in Yasuní, and there was alarm when it was discovered that the boxes of signatures were being tampered with. The College subsequently invalidated 66% of the signatures, halting a referendum. A subsequent investigation by Quito’s Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar studied 20,064 of the signatures, estimating that 673,863 of the total collected by Yasunidos were valid, in a verification study that estimated the margin for error at 0.76%.
To political scientist Julio Echeverria, the annulment of the Yasunidos signatures by the electoral council “not only highlights the vacuity of the discourse of citizen participation that this government sells, but it also delegitimizes the institutionality on which it should build its model of direct democracy”. Far from being the ‘independent, transparent, and fair’ repost to the out-dated representative democracy ousted by the Assembly of Montecristi, the Yasunidos controversy has “thwarted this central axis of the Citizen’s Revolution”. To Alberto Acosta, who served as President of the Constitutional Assembly, it is further evidence that the core aim of Correa’s presidency is “the modernization of Ecuadorian capitalism”.
The Inter-American Court for Human Rights meanwhile ordered the reuniting of the two Taromenane girls, who remain separated, one in Orellana, the other in Pestaza. Three of the Waorani arrested for the massacre escaped from their prison in Orellana on 14 June, where they had been taken that day from Sucumbíos. One was later recaptured.
While the Constitutional Court prepares to try the remaining detainees on charges of genocide, Ecuador is pressing ahead with its plans to exploit the Yasuní-ITT field. On 22 May Ecuador approved a license for oil drilling in Block 43 to Petroamazonas, with extraction expected to commence as soon as 2016.