Treasures in the Forest

by Amelia Earnest:

In 1940, the shaman of the Huaorani tribe had a strange vision. It told him of a foreign people that would soon come to his village. A few months later, the oil workers arrived.

The oil workers came to the tribe’s isolated home in eastern Ecuador with intentions of exploiting the land. They had no way of knowing that the forest would fight back. The Huaorani speared the foreigners to death as a sign to the outside world: stay away. The call of oil, however, drowned out the message. The oil workers returned shortly after— but this time, they brought guns. And so began the 70-year battle for the territory known as Yasuní.

At the convergence of the Amazon basin, the equator, and the Andes Mountains rests one of the most biodiverse—and contested—places on Earth: Yasuní National Park. The 2.5 million protected acres of wetlands and rainforests are home to one-third of all types of Amazonian birds, hundreds of rare species of mammals, reptiles, and fish, and more tree species in 2.5 acres than exist in Canada and the United States combined.

Pipes running along the Cananaco River transport oil through Ecuador’s Yasuní territory. (Earnest/TYG)

Yet some argue that the real treasure of Yasuní lies beneath its fecund soil. Almost 900 million barrels of crude oil lurk below the forest floor, threatening the future of the flora and fauna of Yasuní. A tug of war between conservationists, colonists, oil companies, and illegal loggers is raging in this ecological hotspot, an interplay whose collateral damage may just be the indigenous peoples who call Yasuní their home.

Three tribes live in the Yasuní. The Huaorani, a hunter-gatherer tribe that has lived in the region for thousands of years, is the only one of the three to have made contact with the outside world. The other two tribes, the Taromenane and Tagaeri, remain in complete isolation deep within the heart of the forest. Surviving off of what they catch with blow darts, scavenge from trees, or have flown in by the government sporadically for them, the Huaorani are torn between embracing and rejecting the outside world that they are only now coming to understand.

After the Huaorani tribe’s initial and violent rejection of the oil industry’s presence, petroleum companies began to employ a more suble tactic: religion. After being permitted by the Huaorani warriors to live alongside the tribe, the Christian missionaries, sent by companies like Texaco, used the naïveté and newfound trust of the Huaorani to convince the part of the tribe living in Bameno, a small Huaorani settlement in block 16 of Yasuní, to relocate.

“Many died in this time,” said Penti as he flicked a bead of sweat from his brow with his three-fingered hand, a product of a hunting accident. As the present-day chief of the Huaorani in Bameno, Penti is collecting the history of the Huaroni and writing a book about their struggle to exist in a changing world.

According to Penti, there were only two types of health problems before the outsiders came—wounds and pain. Along with their drills and Bibles, the outsiders brought pox, diarrhea, fevers, and diseases that caused blood to fill the lungs. The Huaorani died not only from these diseases, but also as a product of their new land limitations. The oil company’s use of the Huaorani’s territory had caused relative “crowding” with the other two tribes, increasing the number of inter-tribe skirmishes. Meanwhile, additional tribesmen were lost to Christianity. Those who the missionaries converted moved away from the forest and into civilization.

Eventually, some of the Huaorani moved back to Bameno and restarted a traditional settlement that today consists of 92 people. On paper, Bameno is protected from illegal logging, encroaching oil exploitation, and other infringements by the 1979 establishment of Yasuní National Park, and by the government’s declaration of the park as a Biosphere Reserve and an “Intangible Zone.” The actual pragmatism of these bureaucratic measures, however, is dubious.

“They made this line to separate the Intangible Zone, but in reality, to us, this does not exist,” said Penti. Penti is attempting to encourage self-representation of the tribe by teaching the younger Huaorani Spanish (no documents are translated by the government into native Huaorani language) and purchasing a laptop computer, which he uses to advocate for his tribe.

With the present economic climate and a national economy that is 60 percent dependent on oil exports, Ecuador faces considerable pressure to develop untapped fossil fuel resources beneath Yasuní. Alexandra Almeida, director of the Ecuadorian environmental NGO Acción Ecológica, spoke of many instances in which the oil companies have taken advantage of Ecuador’s economic weaknesses: Shell’s purchase and refusal to release a patent for a hydrogen car, the disappearance of the short-lived governmental ministry, the Institute for Alternative Energy Sources, and the subsidization of oil within Ecuador. Measures like these keep oil as a crutch for a flailing economy. Although Yasuní National Park now enters its gauntlet, the fight to preserve the dignity of the territory is only a small part of a larger trend, as Ecuadorians attempt to break free from the deep and slimy hold of oil that has permeated every facet of Ecuadorian economics and politics.

In 2007, Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s current president, created “Project Yasuní, an Initiative to Change History” in order to prevent the exploitation of Yasuní’s oil. This will preserve the forest and avoid the 407 million metric tons worth of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that would result from the consumption of the oil. The project is meant to provide an incentive to keep the oil underground by compensating Ecuador for its loss of profit with a sum of around $3.6 billion—roughly half the value of untapped crude oil—over a period of ten years. This fund will come from a coalition of nations concerned preserving Yasuní’s unique natural habitat. The money would be delivered either as a direct donation to the fund, or through the purchase of Yasuní Guarantee Certificates, papers that can be used in the European Union for carbon credits as a part of the cap-and-trade system. These certificates would ensure that a given amount of CO2 would remain trapped underground forever. The capital would then be placed into a trust fund to gain interest.

Despite the plan’s thoroughness and its initial warm reception in the international community, differing visions about the use of the fund debilitated initial fundraising efforts. Most foreign nations wanted assurance that the fund would be used only for environmental protection, while Correa wanted to use it as a piggy bank for domestic projects, the same way that the oil profits would have been utilized. In an effort to expedite donations, President Correa declared that if the fund did not reach $100 million by December 2011, prospection of Yasuní oil fields would begin. Cornered by his own dramatic ultimatum, Correa conceded, guaranteeing that funds would only be used to develop green technologies. As a result, the $100 million goal was reached by the deadline, though the future of the project, dependent on the remaining $3.5 billion, is still hazy.

The Ecuadorian government’s instability adds to the complexity of the initiative’s fundraising. Although Correa has been in power since 2007, there were 10 presidents in the 10 years before him, two of whom served for only three days. This constant shifting of power has made foreign entities hesitant to invest in Ecuador, as they are unsure whether the next leader will uphold Correa’s promises.

And if the initiative fails? If the developed world does not bring enough money to the table, the fate of Yasuní will fall to a referendum of the people of Ecuador. According to Paula Carreras, the head of the Programa de Reparación Ambiental y Social, a governmental ministry, if the referendum does not support the project, “Plan B” will go into effect. “Plan B” involves exploiting oil in two currently protected rainforest areas. “It’s no big deal really,” Carreras said. “There are 160 [oil waste] pits inside Yasuní and around it. ‘Plan B’ involves two additional pits.”

Since the beginning of the oil industry’s presence in Yasuní, there has been a divide within the Huaorani. Some despise the pollution and foreign influences that oil companies have had on their territory; they desire only to live life as their ancestors did. But a surprisingly large faction sees the oil presence as an opportunity to earn wages and find outside food and medical support for the tribes. “They [the oil companies and the Huaorani] have grown and developed together, hand in hand,” said Carreras. The construction of two roads in the ’80s and ’90s near Huaorani territory has exacerbated this divide in the tribe and increased their dependence on oil company handouts.

But the key to preserving Huaorani culture, according to José Valdivieso, the director of the NGO Conservación y Desarollo, lies in avoiding that oil dependency by fostering sustainable income from farming and tourism, and choosing strong, skeptical Huaorani leaders who refuse to be used as pawns by oil corporations.

The shaman of Bameno sat with three other elders of the Huaorani tribe, the last relics of an undocumented way of life. His cheeks were streaked with the vivid orange powder of the spiny achiote fruit, his papery skin crinkled into a thousand valleys as he smiled serenely. “We are very old and will not be here if you ever return,” he said. “But we want to tell you that the Huaorani will always be here.”

Amelia Earnest ’14 is a Global Affairs major in Pierson College. Contact her at