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ECUADOR: Logging Activity Forms Backdrop to Conflict between Indians

Kintto Lucas

PUYO, Ecuador, Jun 3 2003 (IPS) - Illegal logging activity in Ecuador’s Amazon region appears to form the backdrop to conflict between indigenous groups that recently claimed the lives of around 30 Tagaeri Indians at the hands of the Huaorani in the remote eastern jungle province of Pastaza.

Local police and the Organisation of the Huaorani Nation in the Ecuadorian Amazon (ONHAE) say loggers operating in the region instigated the conflict and provided the two sides with weapons.

”The loggers complain that the Tagaeri” – an indigenous group that refuses contact with the outside world – ”keep them from felling trees by attacking them. In March last year, the Tagaeri used spears to kill three loggers who were cutting down the forest,” said ONHAE leader Manuela Omari.

The loggers are ”directly responsible,” she maintained. ”They paid a group of 12 Huaorani Indians from Tiguino to kill the Tagaeri, so the loggers could work in that area.”

However, Ecuador’s police chief, Edgar Vaca, clarified that until police investigators make it into Tiguino, the isolated area where the indigenous men, women and children were slain on May 27, to ”investigate the facts,” no one will know what the motive was, or who was involved.

Footage shot from an army helicopter that overflew the area on Sunday but was unable to land due to foul weather shows the bodies of a number of adults and children alongside burnt huts.

It was also reported that members of the Tagaeri ethnic group set fire to a tourist complex located near the town of Tiguino last Friday, presumably in revenge for the deaths, although it appeared to be only a warning, as no one was killed.

The Tagaeri were described as a ”fearsome warrior people” by anthropologist Miguel Angel Cabodevilla. The group, a branch of the Huaorani people, shuns contact with the Western world and other indigenous communities, and fiercely defends its territory with spears.

Estimated to number less than 150, the Tagaeri – also known as ”Aucas” – live a nomadic lifestyle in the jungle, hunting and fishing, and are in a state of permanent war to keep others out of their territory.

The ONHAE has repeatedly complained that logging and oil companies are exploiting natural resources with no regard for the environment in territory that the government declared off-limits two years ago, where the nomadic Tagaeri live.

The Tagaeri have thus been pushed towards areas in closer contact with the Huaorani and Kichwa (Quechua) Indians.

The representatives of oil companies claim their activity is legal and meets all environmental requisites, as required by the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

But logging operations are carried out illegally by people who claim to be acting independently.

The debate on the consequences of logging and oil-drilling activity in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle region began to heat up again on May 29, when reports of the killing of the Tagaeri reached Puyo, the capital of the province of Pastaza.

A group of Huaorani from Tiguino reportedly used shotguns to kill around 30 Tagaeri people, including women, children and elderly persons. They were said to have exhibited the head of a veteran Tagaeri warrior as evidence of their triumph.

Despite the violent incidents between the Tagaeri and Huaorani, an army officer said before heading off to the remote area, which can only be reached by air or by river, that ”our patrol will not interfere with the ancestral customs or punishment procedures of the Huaorani.

”The military are very respectful in that sense, and we will only carry out an inspection,” he said before boarding the helicopter last week that was not able to land.

One of the local police officers who reported the killing late last week said that ”Only the loggers in the area could have given firearms to the community in Tiguino, because the site of the massacre is practically inaccessible.”

In March 2002, the correspondent for the Quito newspaper El Comercio in Puyo reported that 16 groups of loggers had been found ”indiscriminately cutting down the primary forest” with chainsaws. The timber was floated down the Tiguino river to the nearest road.

”Up to 400 logs at a time are floated out and taken away by highway. On some days, between four and six vehicles loaded with wood drive out of the area,” the newspaper reported last year.

Around that time, the Tagaeri killed three members of a group of people felling trees in the area of Tiguino.

The ONHAE’s Omari said the Huaorani people were in mourning over last week’s killings, because ”the Tagaeri, the people of Tiguino, and all Huaorani communities are one family, and we are saddened by what happened..”

A commission of ONHAE leaders that flew into the area in a military helicopter last Friday to attempt to mediate was forced to turn back by bad weather.

Shuar indigenous leader Marcelino Chumpi, the president of the Council of Indigenous Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador, which has the rank of a ministry but is autonomous, explained that mediation in such cases is very difficult.

”The Tagaeri do not accept contact with the Western world, which means mediation must be between leaders of the ethnic groups involved in the confrontation, with the participation of some other community that is not involved in the conflict,” he said.

Chumpi added that a tradition that is sometimes followed in order to bring about peace is for ”the aggressor community to send the sons or daughters of their warriors to live with and become part of the community that was attacked.”

In November 2001, members of the Tagaeri community killed two elderly Kichwa Indians who lived in a community that grew crops and collected turtle eggs along the Curaray river, also in the province of Pastaza.

The elderly Kichwa were staked to the earth with 14 spears, in a death ritual that is followed by the Tagaeri when they kill an enemy.

The attack occurred after the Tagaeri were pushed out of their territory by oil company activity and began to fish and hunt in the area inhabited by the Kichwa.

On that occasion, Armando Vargas, one of the local Kichwa inhabitants, said the Tagaeri had not attacked them in 35 years, despite the fact that the Kichwa were living near Tagaeri territory.

”This would seem to indicate that they are desperate at the unstoppable penetration of their territory by the oil and logging operations,” said Vargas.

After the attack, many of the local Kichwa abandoned the area, for fear of new violence by the Tagaeri.

Giovanna Tassi, director of the environmental press agency Tierra, in Puyo, said last week’s attack on the Tagaeri should be seen as a wake-up call over the oil company and logging activity in lands inhabited by indigenous people in the Amazon, which could cause severe environmental damages.

An oil pipeline is now being laid along the Auca road that divides the ancestral territory of the Tagaeri in half, while farther north, loggers are cutting down the jungle along the Tiguino river.

”The Tagaeri flee the noise, the harassment, and now are living along the Curaray river. It is turtle egg season, and the monkeys are fat and ready to be hunted, which is why they are staying there,” said Tassi.

The world’s first encounter with the Tagaeri was in 1956, when five U.S. citizens were killed along the Curaray river. There have been isolated attacks since then, of oil company workers and Huaorani Indians.

But the group made headlines around the world in 1987, when over 100 spears were used to kill Bishop Alejandro Labaka and a nun, Inés Arango, who had flown into Tagaeri territory by helicopter in an attempt to make contact and inform the group of the advance by the oil companies into their territory, and discuss ways to help them.

Around 30 percent of Ecuador’s 12.5 million people are indigenous people belonging to 12 ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Kichwa, who live in the highlands as well as the Amazon jungle.

The Amazon jungle is also home to the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Huaorani, Achuar, Shuar and Zápara, while the Awa, Chachi, Epera and Tsáchila live in the area along the country’s Pacific coast.

Ecuador’s indigenous people are perhaps the best organised in Latin America. They have fielded candidates in elections since 1996 through the Pachakutik Movement, and are now allied with the government of President Lucio Gutiérrez, in office since Jan. 15.

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