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ECUADOR: Hidden Indigenous Communities Fight Extinction with Spears

Milagros Aguirre

QUITO, Jul 17 2006 (IPS) - Under persistent harassment by oil, logging and tourist operations, Ecuador’s indigenous Tagaeri and Taromenani peoples, who shun all outside contact, have been launched into the public eye following several deaths in their territory deep in Yasuní National Park.

The 982,000-hectare park covers vast swaths of tropical rainforest in Ecuador’s Amazon basin, in the central-eastern provinces of Napo and Pastaza. In 1989, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) declared Yasuní a Biosphere Reserve.

In this protected area live scattered groups of indigenous people who have chosen to live in isolation from all other cultures; the handful that remain are defending their territory and staving off extinction with spears.

Andrés Moreira almost lost his life to those spears on April 12 – a day he would prefer to wipe from his memory. He had been cutting down a thick ceibo (cockspur coral) tree deep in the jungle when he heard his colleague William Angulo scream and saw him collapse, a spear driven into his chest.

Moreira tried to flee, but tripped, and the point of a spear pierced his back.

The assailants were tall, white, unclothed men, according to the wounded logger, who was later rescued.

The attackers belonged to a Tagaeri-Taromenani community. Moreira recalled that after they wounded him, the men vanished quickly into the jungle.

Angulo is not the first person slain in the supposedly protected park. In August 2005, a logger was brutally killed, found with 33 spears lodged in his body.

Both attacks took place in the same area: on the Cononaco Chico River, part of the area the government declared off-limits in 1999 to protect such hidden or voluntarily isolated indigenous communities. However, seven years after the declaration, the boundaries of the area have not been demarcated.

In 2003, a group of Waorani warriors (neighbours of the Tagaeri-Taromenani) who work in the logging industry attacked a dwelling and murdered 26 Tagaeri women and children – the massacre was condemned internationally.

In late April 2006, rumours – to date unsubstantiated – attributed another massacre to Waorani loggers.

What is certain is the harassment suffered by Tagaeri-Taromenani people at the hands of loggers, oil workers, tourists and some neighbours, such as the Waorani (also spelled Huaorani) of the Ñoneno, Tigüino and Sandoval communities.

The latter sell lumber from their territory at one dollar per board. They let loggers into off-limits areas and have even organised expeditions to hunt down the fast Taromenani jungle wanderers – to “bring back a woman” or to “civilise them.”

The Waorani have turned to lumber sales because since they abandoned their traditional lifestyle (only 50 years ago, under pressure from evangelical missionaries) they have continuously had to search for sources of income to survive.

Exacerbating the situation, oil exploration and extraction have made them even more dependent on the currency-based economy, as pollution has decimated fish stocks in rivers, and animals they traditionally hunt have fled as roads push through the jungle. The companies have also created a situation in which the Waorani must scrounge to find ways of obtaining motors, zinc roofs, medicine and other basic supplies.

The Tagaeri and Taromenani are the two known groups in Ecuador who maintain a strict distance from outsiders, although other groups of wanderers and nomads are presumed to exist in the country’s Amazon region.

The Tagaeri-Taromenani have made it clear on several occasions that “enough is enough.” Yet foreign oil companies – Andes Petroleum, Petrobras, Petrobel – and state-owned Petroecuador, which operate in the main ITT (Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambacocha) oil fields, as well as illegal logging and some tourist complexes continue to be mainstays in Yasuní National Park.

Only a few days after the April 12 incident, Manuel Kawilla, a Waorani logger from Ñoneno, organised an expedition to search for the Taromenani. All he found was an abandoned dwelling containing a pot, a blanket and several spears made from chonta (a kind of thorny palm), which he is now selling for 100 dollars each.

In response to rumours of more slayings, Ecuador’s ministers of Environment and Defence met May 2 in Coca, the province of Orellana, with provincial officials and Waorani leaders, and committed to implementing basic forestry control measures.

On May 10, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Commission (IACHR) ordered the implementation of protective measures, “to safeguard the life and personal well-being of the Tagaeri and Taromenani people who live in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle.”

The IACHR proclamation specifically urged Ecuador’s government to “adopt the measures necessary to protect the territory in which these people live, including initiatives to prevent outsider intrusions.”

But a number of reports indicate that full-scale logging activity is still going on near the Shiripuno, Cononaco, Tiguino and Tiputini rivers.

Giant canoes, loaded with cedar logs, cut heavily through the rivers. The timber is unloaded at the Shiripuno bridge, then brought by truck to Colombia, say loggers themselves, tourists who have visited the area and anti-logging Waorani who work in the tourism industry.

Environment Minister Ana Albán got a first-hand view of the problem when she flew over the zone on Jun. 28.

David Gilbert, a Fulbright scholar who visited the Waorani community in Bameno, told IPS that on his river journey he spotted at least 10 logging camps, canoes full of wood and logs pulled by mules and horses in the heart of the park.

Leaders of the Organisation of the Waorani Nationality (ONHAE) have focused their actions on oil issues.

Vicente Enomenga, president of the organisation, speaking before the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues May 18, said the operations of Brazil’s Petrobras company in the Block 31 oil field is threatening the life of isolated communities, but did not mention the logging issue.

“Petrobras has breached international regulations by conducting operations in an off-limits region, and has violated indigenous rights, as the Waorani people were not consulted about the project, nor have they given their free, prior and informed consent,” said Enomenga.

“Even though the project has been temporarily suspended, Petrobras could resume operations at any time, putting the isolated Taromenani and Tagaeri people at risk,” he added.

Armando Boya, who was president of ONHAE for eight years, embarked on a trip to the Boameno community to learn more about the Taromenani, “because they are our brothers – we want to protect them, gather them in one place and help them,” he said, noting that his interest in the issue was sparked when he went to recover the bodies of the 2003 massacre.

Boya told IPS he went to “explain to Manuel Kawilla, Babe Ima and others that they should not be harvesting wood,” and vowed he would find logistical support to continue visiting the communities.

ONHAE is dealing with internal divisions and external pressures on three fronts: illegal logging; contracts handing out the rights to exploit its territorial resources; and oil operations, according to the Yasuní Rainforest Campaign, of the U.S.-based Save America’s Forests organisation.

Some ONHAE members have accused Boya of handing over the rights to exploit part of the Waorani territory to EcoGenesis, owned by U.S. citizen Daniel Roscom.

The Environment Ministry has already drafted a proposal for a decree to mark the boundaries of the off-limits zone, in which any extractive operations would be banned.

In a workshop to convince several sectors to get on board with the proposal, Minister Albán noted that some details still needed fine-tuning, but that she expected President Alfredo Palacio to sign the decree into law soon.

However, given the complexity of the problem, hammering out definitive boundaries of the “Untouchable Zone” is only the first step towards protecting the hidden peoples who are fighting to keep themselves from disappearing.

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