Ecuador’s indigenous Waorani have undertaken a three-year mission to identify and map out the natural riches of their territory in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon
After a 20-minute canoe ride down the Curaray River, past a swamp that leaves her legs caked in mud up to her knees, Obe heads toward a waterfall set amid pristine forest. This is the territory of the Waorani indigenous people, in Pastaza province in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Obe, dressed in a traditional skirt made of bark, is out looking for the medicinal plants that her people have used for generations, but a thunderstorm brewing overhead threatens her mission. With each step, she recognizes the diversity of leaves of all shapes, colors and sizes, and the different benefits that each offer. Some can be used as medicine, others as powerful stimulants; some can be eaten, others can be used as diapers.
The latter is known in the Wao language as nemponka, Obe says: the “diaper of the jungle.” It’s a large, round leaf, smooth on the underside, in which babies are swaddled at night. Memo, a Wao man on the expedition with Obe, extracts an elongated leaf traditionally used during hunting. Placed under the tongue, the leaf helps hunters make a high-pitched whistle that attracts birds like the toucan. A step away, Obe identifies a plant to cure fever; a little later, another to relieve the liver; immediately after, leaves that, when rubbed on the legs of young children, are said to give them agility; and not far from there, roots that are crushed to extract a concentrate used as an antidote to snake venom. “But only for small snake bites,” Memo adds; for big ones, there is a different plant a couple of steps further ahead.
Memo ties a vine around his ankles, and in the blink of an eye, he is at the top of a 25-meter-tall (82-foot) tree. He shakes the branches, raining down yellow globes the shape of tiny passion fruit that fit inside a closed fist. On the ground, the Wao women tear up leaves to make baskets to collect the fruits. “The forest gives us everything,” someone says.
The excursion to identify the forest’s riches is just a small example of the territorial mapping that the Waorani people of Pastaza have been carrying out for about three years, and that they’ve now decided to share with the world. “All we want is for them to see how we are and let us live as we are,” Awane Ahua, a pikenani, or “wise grandmother,” of the community, says a little later in another part in the forest.
The mapping project is the initiative of the Ceibo Alliance, an organization made up of representatives from the Siekopai, Siona, A’i Kofan and Waorani indigenous groups. For the Waorani, the mapping takes place across 12 of their communities located in a swath of forest that the government of Ecuador has zoned as Block 22, an oil exploration and exploitation area.
“We have enough wealth, we have enough with everything you see around you,” Awane, who only speaks her native language, tells Mongabay through a translator. “We are not poor, we are rich in resources and it is unnecessary for anyone to come here to build because it is already built and that is enough for us.”
For the Waorani, the forest is its own self-sustaining infrastructure. Their mapping work has so far covered 1,800 square kilometers (695 square miles) of forest and identified 1,832 routes consisting of rivers, streams, hunting trails and paths that live in the collective memory and serve to connect their communities. They have also recorded 235 specific areas, including sensitive ecosystems and areas for medicinal plants, timber, fruit, fishing and hunting. These include saladeras, places where animals big and small gather to drink saline water that springs from the ground, as well as sites for the conservation of fauna, such as flood areas where a particular species of palm thrives. This palm produces a fruit much desired by collared and white-lipped peccaries, types of wild pig that come seasonally to feed and reproduce.
The Waorani have mapped 9,300 georeferenced points under the guidance of the pikenanis of both genders, whose respective skills are clearly defined. “Men know about trees, vines and poisons; women about medicines and fruit collection,” says Camilo Guamone, one of the coordinators of the Ceibo Alliance project and a member of the Waorani. “The wise guides always accompany the local technicians. They say, ‘This is important,’ and we take note.” He says he has witnessed an extraordinary connection between the pikenanis and the forest: “It’s as if they talk to the trees.”
Each team on a mapping expedition is composed of five people from different communities who have been trained in the use of GPS, various software, and camera traps and video cameras to record their findings. “When the mapping process begins, the grandmothers and grandparents take a blank page and draw a map from memory,” says Mitchell Anderson, director of Amazon Frontlines, an organization that provides technical support to the Ceibo Alliance to carry out the mapping process. The software they use is available in the Wao language, English and Spanish, and was developed by the California-based organization Digital Democracy to support the Amazonian communities of the north and center of Ecuador who are under pressure from the oil industry.
A historic assembly
Awane recalls a time when her ancestors lived immersed in the forest. They planted yucca, the main ingredient of their favorite drink, chicha. They would wait six to seven months for the harvest — the same span of time that it would take for the palm-thatched roofs of their communal homes to deteriorate in the tropical climate. Once the harvest was over, they would leave their homes and begin a new journey of several hours through the forest, until they found a new place to settle. Awane remains committed to this way of life. “I follow the example of my parents, my ancestors; from [the community of] Damentaro where I am, I leave in the morning and arrive at another community around four in the afternoon,” she says.
But things have changed since the Waorani were consigned by the government to a territory of about 7,000 square kilometers (2,700 square miles) in the early 1990s. At the time, they received collective property titles, and the majority of the community settled down.
The Waorani live in communities spread across the Amazonian provinces of Napo, Orellana and Pastaza. Despite the changes to their way of life ushered in by contact with U.S. missionaries more than 60 years ago, they remain strongly bound to their traditions. This was evident in a recent assembly in the community of Nemompare, organized by the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador-Pastaza,also known by its Spanish acronym, CONCONAWEP.
Six families, separated by a considerable distance, live in Nemompare today. They have systems to collect and purify rainwater, and in some areas they use solar panels to generate light. The houses are rustic and open, and the families have few material possessions: wooden benches, mattresses with awnings, some clothes, a few old pots, plates and glasses, and a communal coal-fired stove with a metal grill. They do not need more, they say, because the forest gives them everything.
Waorani from 10 of the 12 communities in Block 22 gathered for the assembly, and their discussions revolved around how to reject a possible oil intervention by the government. One group, which recently toured indigenous communities ravaged by the oil industry in Sucumbíos province, recounted their impressions of the pollution there, and shared the stories of settlers and members of the Siekopai, Siona and A’i Kofan groups who accompanied them on the “Toxic Tour.” Other Waorani, who had visited family members in active oil blocks in the province of Orellana, spoke about the poor living conditions there.
“I feel sorry for theleader who comes to an agreement with the oil company and comes back to the community,” said Peke, one of the pikenanis from the community of Damompare. “I will meet them with a spear in hand because other Waorani who live in the oil zone are dying of diseases. The water they drink is dirty.” Peke said he appreciates that his community still has big trees, crystalline rivers, waterfalls and animals, all healthy and free of contamination.
“Here the territory is not abandoned, it has an owner. Those owners are the Wao,” Tomas Niwa, a member of the Kiwaro community and leader of CONCONAWEP, told Mongabay. He added that the elders had branded this assembly as historic; they couldn’t remember another instance in which the different indigenous groups had united for the defense of the forest.
María Espinosa, a lawyer and human rights defender with Amazon Frontlines, said indigenous groups had the same rights as the government to a fully informed discussion and guidance on oil projects in their territory. “The initial discourse [by oil companies and the government] is: we are going to enter either by hook or by crook, but the project is going to move forward. And when a consultation process starts off on the wrong foot, the consultation does not become a right but rather a tool for threats and coercion,” Espinosa said while breastfeeding her 2-month-old baby, whom she brought with her to the forest to participate in the Wao assembly.
Among other things, she said, the communities must understand the lexicon of the oil industry. “[I]t is important to give them information about what is a round, a bid, a block, and what are the phases of the extractive activity, because such basic things as these have not been properly explained to the communities,” Espinosa said.
The dilemma of prior consultation
Ecuador’s constitution requires the government to consult with indigenous communities prior to the concession of their territory for oil exploration and exploitation, although the way to do so has been debated. A milestone in this matter was the 2012 judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in favor of the Kichwa people of Sarayacu, who condemned the government for having violated their right to consultation in advance of oil exploration in their territory and asked for the elaboration of a participatory law that guarantees that right.
But contrary to expectations, the response of then-President Rafael Correa was to issue Executive Decree 1247, which left it up to the Ministry of Hydrocarbons — the same institution that promotes the bidding of the oil blocks — to carry out this process. And with the decree, the government validated a series of meetings that took place between some of the communities located in the blocks of the Southeast Round, including Block 22, as a consultation. In this regard, experts interviewed by Mongabay say the decree is an “infringement of the communities’ rights” because it converts the consultation process into a simple assimilation of benefits. They also note that the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has called on the government of Ecuador to suspend the decree.
“Ecuador has very important tools in its constitution on the subject of prevention in relation to extractive industries in fragile environments such as the Amazon,” Carlos Mazabanda, from the environmental and indigenous rights NGO Amazon Watch, told Mongabay. “It has collective rights, has the right to prior consultation and has the judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. But the government of Rafael Correa at that time did not comply and continued to promote this process.”
“The most serious thing that happened is that Regulation 1247 states that agreements and consensus must be reached to prove they consulted [the indigenous communities],” said Alexandra Almeida of the NGO Acción Ecológica. “But how do they do that? You had to make them sign a paper that said, ‘If this block is tendered, the community will receive $5 million in exchange.’ That sparked conflicts between the communities.”
Mazabanda said the divisions within the communities had led to violence, including death threats against community leaders such as Alicia Cahuiya of the Waorani, Patricia Gualinga of the Kichwa of Sarayacu, and Salomé Aranda of the Sápara.
A five-member delegation of the Waorani communities of Pastaza, including two pikenanis, traveled to the capital, Quito, two weeks ago for meetings with officials at the Ombudsman’s Office and the ministries of environment and hydrocarbons. They presented the results of their territorial mapping to determine the size of the area that would be at stake if Block 22 were granted.
“The Waorani made it very clear that they are not going to allow any company or government entity to carry out extractive activities in their territory,” Brian Parker, a lawyer with Amazon Frontlines who accompanied the delegation, told Mongabay. He added that the group also delivered to the president’s office their resolution, made at the Waorani assembly, to protect their forest.
Mongabay contacted the Ministry of Hydrocarbons for details about the mechanisms of participation and prior consultation carried out among the indigenous communities in Block 22, and whether it had conducted environmental impact assessments in anticipation of granting extractive concessions for theterritory. Ministry officials did not respond to the questions as of the time this article was originally published.
‘We must unite’
Tiri is 70 years old, but says he clearly remembers his childhood before contact with the outside world. He was part of a group of 50 people who lived in a large communal house, one of four in the vicinity, built of wood and leaves. The residents slept in hammocks woven from fibers from the chambira palm that they strung up next to a smoky chimney to keep away mosquitos. They didn’t have metal knives to cut the meat from their hunts, but they had sharpened canes that cut with scalpel-like precision and that were also used to sever the umbilical cords of babies at birth. They cooked in large earthen pots that could fit up to two white-lipped peccaries, over fires made by rubbing two sticks together.
“There was no need for sugar, rice, salt, anything,” says Tiri, a grandfather to 14. He recalls the war songs his father sang before going on a hunt: “My dad was a good hunter, he hunted guan [birds], spider monkeys. He hunted with an arrow.”
But for the Waorani hunting was always selective and for their own consumption. There’s no wasteful slaughter of the animals in the forest. It’s the same with timber, at least in the communities of Block 22. Each community has an area of extraction, where trees may only be felled to build homes for those who live there, says Nemonte Nequimo, Tiri’s daughter and a participant in the territorial mapping. “We do not want to live in a small, narrow, deforested, destroyed, contaminated land. That’s important for me as a Waorani woman and as a mother. I’m worried about that,” she says.
Nemonte, which means star in the Wao language, says the mapping was driven by the pikenanis’ desire to find a way to share all of their ancestral knowledge of the forest that they had accumulated over the years. “We asked for help from the Ceibo Alliance team because the Wao don’t have technology,” Nemonte says. “We can walk, we have a lot of knowledge, but outsiders will not understand with words” the richness of the group’s territory.
In Nemompare, where the mapping initiative began, the Waorani gathered after several months of collecting information to figure out how to classify the diversity of their territory. It was Nemonte’s mother who came up with the idea to map out the land using drawings of animals and plants, to identify the specific importance of each area: patches of medicinal plants, hunting paths, animal routes. In all, they came up with 150 symbols. Some of these points, established at a minimum distance of 200 meters (660 feet) from each other, were then fitted with camera traps to document why they were so important.
“I think it is an important tool for us because we can explain what we have within the community, within the territory … so that the world can see how we live, what we have, and it is also important for Waorani children,” says Nemonte, who adds that she dreams of seeing the result of the mapping process hanging in schools in each community. “Because every time I go to a school, I only see empty maps of Ecuador, with no animals, birds or plants.”
In addition to the biodiversity, the forest is also home to sites that are sacred to the Waorani. This includes the waterfall — 20 minutes by canoe and a two-hour trek from Nemompare — visited by Obe, Memo, Nemonte and others. It’s a site their ancestors visited before them, and they want to show it.
The cascade ends on a broad sheet of rock so flat that it looks like it’s been steamrolled. In the rock are four rows of holes, about 50 centimeters (20 inches) deep, running in straight lines. No one knows how the holes were drilled into the rock, but they all agree it was the work of their ancestors; old axes had been found at the site. Nemonte’s theory, based on stories she heard from her grandparents, is that the holes are all that’s left of a platform here at the base of the waterfall that the ancestors used to get closer to God. It’s a theory that squares with the Waorani belief that the most imposing trees and waterfalls are the places of the greatest connection.
“Thanks to our grandparents, we have an inheritance, we have a big, immense forest,” she says. “We have to fight, we must unite, the communities, and have one purpose … that in the future our children will live healthy and happy,” she adds before plunging along with her little daughter into the crystal-clear water of the waterfall.
Resource: Mongabay EN