Women entering the Waorani longhouse.
Photo courtesy of the author.

‘The Free Men of the Forest’ is the second in a two-part series. Click here to read Part I, Ordinary Justice

Jorge Yeti wore pressed slacks, a collared shirt, and a crown with one feather that stuck straight up in back. As the spokesperson for the defense of the Waorani of Dicaro, he had planned a ceremony to celebrate peace with the Ecuadorian government. But even his own speech suggested that peace among Waorani themselves could be a long way off. “I invite every one of the Waorani communities to make the decision to move forward—not to divide, not to lie, and not to deceive. Because they deceived our Waorani compañeros to put them in jail, my friends, and that is something I will never allow.” The audience broke out in applause.

Oil operations are inching ever closer to The Intangible Zone, an area of the rainforest that is supposed to be protected from oil development.

Fausto Corral then told the crowd, “You are the free men of the forest…the defenders of the forest.” But his words seemed more like wishful thinking. The Waorani of Dicaro and Yarentaro live on an oil road, and many work for the oil company. They are suffering the effects of this new way of living in the forms of alcoholism, suicide, and domestic violence—phenomena that are, according to a recent article by anthropologist Laura Rival, “entirely new and frightening.” According to a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in 2014 Repsol extended their oil road and began building a new rig after gaining the agreement of Waorani from Dicaro (Repsol has since signed a new agreement with NAWE (Waorani Nationality of Ecuador), the Waorani ethnic organization).

The new rig is in the same area where Ompure and Buganey were killed. Oil operations are inching ever closer to The Intangible Zone, an area of the rainforest that is supposed to be protected from oil development. The Waorani of Bameno, which is in the Intangible Zone, have filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, saying that the uncontacted Waorani still walk in that area, as do Bameno community members, and the spirits of deceased Waorani, some of whose bones are buried there. The petition further explains that the new well is likely to spark violence: the uncontacted Waorani want non-Waorani out of the rainforest, and could kill oil workers (Waorani from Dicaro and Yarentaro included) as a response, sparking another round of retaliatory killings.

Laura Rival, an anthropologist who did her fieldwork with the Waorani and has continued to work with them since the late 1980s, said that the recent spate of violence is “about political disagreements about what the forest is.” The jailing of the Dicaro and Yarentaro Waorani who participated in the attack on the uncontacted Waorani have only worsened this tension.

After his speech, Yeti invited the press outside to interview two of the former prisoners. Tague Caiga, the oldest of the prisoners, said, “Day by day, we should live in peace, not like the Occidental world that put us in prison… [being in prison] was a terrible experience, worse than you can imagine.” A reporter asked Orengo Tocari, shirtless but wearing traditional ongime, thin cords crisscrossed over his chest, how he felt to be out of jail. Tocari said he was doing the interview so that “people can see well why they sent us to prison.” He went on, “When there’s a problem, it must be fixed internally in the communities as Waorani,” but certain people, he said, had deceived him in order to get money from the Ministry of Justice. One of the Waorani he named is Luis Ahua, who works for the Attorney General of Orellana. According to Jorge Yeti, it was Ahua who came to Dicaro and invited the participants to the city the day they were arrested. Ahua could not be reached for comment, and it is unclear whether he did in fact go to Dicaro to invite the participants to Coca and, if so, whether he knew that the Waorani would be arrested that day.

Orengo also named Penti Baihua, who lives in Bameno and with whose family Conta, the eldest of the two kidnapped girls, now resides. Baihua is the leader of Bameno and coordinator of Ome Gompote Kiwigimoni Huaorani (We Defend Our Huaorani Territory or Ome Yasuní for short), an organization of Waorani communities in the Intangible Zone who want to live free of oil companies. Since the state took Conta from Yarentaro and arrested the Waorani, there have been a series of rumors about Penti and others in Bameno: that Bameno collaborated in the relocation of Conta, that Bameno is receiving money from the state to care for Conta, and that Penti and his brother Martin filed a document to try to keep the accused Waorani in prison. The origin of the rumors is unclear, but they seem to be feeding, and feeding off of, the political disagreement among the Waorani. In his interview with the press, Orengo revealed a new one: that Judith Kimerling, the lawyer who works with Ome Yasuní and the community of Bameno, had told the Ministry of Justice to put the men in jail because they were harming Conta.

Even as Tocari stated it, the rumor seemed implausible. There is no evidence that any of these rumors are true, and Judith and Penti rejected them by email. Kimerling wrote, in Spanish, “We don’t understand to what deception (supposedly by Penti) or to what comments (supposedly by me) Orengo is talking about. However, we can affirm that it is not true that Penti deceived Orengo and it is not true that they were in jail due to any action or comment on our part, but that they were in jail due to the action—and decision—of the State.” In fact, Ome Yasuní wrote to President Correa in January 2014 to ask him to release the prisoners, saying they needed a dialogue, rather than jail, to end the conflict and make peace.

One man told me he wanted to have a high fence built around the school to protect the children.

According to Bameno’s petition to IACHR, the rumors about Penti and others in Bameno have resulted in death threats from some Dicaro Waorani against Waorani from Bameno. Kimerling and Baihua explained that the comments were “worrying” because they were “part of a pattern of threats and falsities against Bameno that put the security of Penti and other members of Bameno at risk.” In their petition, the people of Bameno point out that the dependence of some Waorani on the oil companies has led to pressure for new agreements and to give up more land. For these Waorani, the petition says, those who live in the forest “are an obstacle that needs to be eliminated.”

Standing outside the longhouse, a reporter asked Orengo if he wanted to make peace with the Taromenani, as Fausto Corral had urged in his speech. “Yes,” said Orengo, “we are free, in peace, because they are not going to come to do harm; none of us are going to do harm.” Yet, in private, a few Waorani expressed some nervousness about a future attack. One man told me he wanted to have a high fence built around the school to protect the children.

Laura Rival says that these types of tensions are nothing new. “It’s these zones of intense interactions with foreigners that create more tension and more conflicts between indigenous people…but the irony is that the Waorani today are taking the place of the people who were their enemies fifty years ago.” She explained, however, that this is only true for a few Waorani villages at the bottom of major oil roads, such as Dicaro and Yarentaro. This doesn’t necessarily mean that each individual in a community is pro-oil, she added. Individuals “can continue to secure their own personal engagement with the beings of the forest,” but “as a collective project of being a community,” there are clear differences.

At the end of the ceremony, the warriors broke bowls of chicha, splattering yucca everywhere and sending the reporters running to protect their cameras. A Waorani woman told me that breaking the bowls grants “liberty” from the events that had happened. The warriors’ spears were bundled together and hung from a center beam in the long house.

Penti Baihua says that, to make peace, oil expansion must be halted until the conflict is resolved. The people of Bameno want to have dialogue and come to a solution, both with the government and with the people of Dicaro and Yarentaro. Part of that solution, they say, must be an area that is permanently protected from oil development. In their petition to IAHCR, they express fear that further government action—for example, taking Conta’s younger sister away from the family she lives with in Dicaro in the same unilateral way that they did with Conta—would increase tensions and the possibility of violence.

Two days after the ceremony, the teachers from the Repsol-funded school put on a Christmas program in Dicaro. The high-schoolers performed a nativity play, wearing bedsheets and styrofoam wings. The night before, the student who played Gabriel sat in a hammock in the new longhouse studying his lines. A representative from Repsol brought a box marked “Community Relations” full of bags of candy. In her speech, she informed the Waorani that Jesus is love. “God bless the Waorani of Block 16,” she concluded, and then warned the children not to throw the candy wrappers on the floor. If they did, she warned, “Next year there will be no candy.” What the Waorani have gotten from Repsol’s presence is a slippery new way of being, a foot in two worlds. As the abundance of the forest has shrunken, something called “civilization” has arrived, bringing smart phones, schooling, Christmas, and beer. That night the teachers threw a party. Music blasted into the forest at incredible volume until four in the morning, audible, perhaps, all the way in Bameno.

Even the Waorani who don’t make deals with oil companies cannot live as they once did.

Most of the oil extracted from the new wells dug by Repsol, like the other new operations across the Ecuadorian Amazon, will wind up powering American cars and heating American homes. The US is the number one consumer of Ecuadorian oil, and Ecuador is the third largest supplier of foreign oil to the American West Coast. As Americans, says Kimerling, “we need to recognize that we share responsibility for the situation because this all started with Texaco, a US company, and our oil consumption helped make it profitable. Our legal system failed to respect the rights of the Waorani or protect the environment, and it has also failed to hold our oil companies accountable.”

Even the Waorani who don’t make deals with oil companies cannot live as they once did. Their new reality demands that they engage with oil companies and the government in order to defend what they have left. They, too, have a foot in two worlds. But they don’t receive compensation for living this way. Despite their talk of God and candy, what Repsol really wants from the Waorani is simple: the oil under their land. What the Waorani from Bameno want is simple, too: “We want the government to let us live,” they say in their petition, speaking not just of themselves, but their uncontacted Waorani neighbors. “We don’t want to disappear.”

Megan Alpert

Megan Alpert's journalism has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, Vice Munchies, and Earth Island Journal. She is also a prize-winning poet whose poetry has been published in Harvard Review, The Denver Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, The Moth and many others.

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