An oil pipeline runs through this village to a Chinese rig at the end of the road. At night, when the rig is pumping, the pipeline is too hot to touch, but villagers say that in the morning it’s a good place to dry laundry. That is its only apparent benefit to the families here, members of the Waorani tribe, lured out of the jungle by missionaries more than a generation ago. Its members live in plank-board shacks with no running water, amid the noise and dust of the fuel trucks, road crews and oil workers.
“All of this used to be our territory,” said Venancio Nihua, the son of a Waorani hunter, trying to support his seven children by raising chickens. “We don’t want the oil companies to come any farther.”
An unprecedented drilling push has brought new tensions to Yawepare and the country’s Amazon lowlands. As the chain saws and bulldozers cut deeper into the forest, critics say the government is triggering brutal warfare between the Waorani and a smaller, breakaway tribe living beyond the oil frontier.
Ecuador, an OPEC member, pumps more than 500,000 barrels of crude a day, but with production falling, the country is moving to drill inside one of the world’s most ecologically complex and fragile places, Yasuni National Park, an area that is also home to the tribes. The government says it needs the money to pull the country out of poverty and provide education, housing and electricity to the Waorani and other forest inhabitants who have been living on the sidelines of the oil rush for too long.
The families of Yawepare say they would like those things. If the Taromenane don’t come to attack them first. “They are watching us right now,” said Nihua, who, like others here, views the reclusive Taromenane with a mix of reverence and fear. “They drink ayahuasca and can see everything,” he said, referring to a hallucinogenic brew.
Last year, after a Waorani elder, Ompore Omeway, and one of his wives were slain, allegedly by the Taromenane, a Waorani war party plunged into the forest to retaliate. They hunted the Taromenane for a week, found a communal lodge and massacred about 20 people, mostly women and children. It was a devastating toll on a tribe thought to have only 150 to 300 members, ostensibly under the protection of the government.
Seven Waorani were arrested. Yet the origins of the violence are disputed. Villagers say the Waorani don’t belong in jail, arguing that they can’t comprehend Ecuadoran law and that their actions were a traditional form of justice.
Deadly raids on rival clans, and on oil workers, loggers and other cowori (outsiders), have a long history here. But the scale of the massacre, and its timing, are inflaming the fight over the government’s oil push. Environmentalists and indigenous advocates say the Taromenane attacked Omeway because he failed to satisfy an impossible demand: that the oil workers stop encroaching into the nomadic tribe’s territory.
The pipeline running through Yawepare feeds a vast suction system that spider-webs through Ecuador’s Amazon region, linking wellheads to pumping stations to storage tanks as tall as the tree canopy. The country has South America’s third-largest reserves, after Venezuela and Brazil, and the United States has long been Ecuador’s biggest buyer. But nearly all of its future exports will go to China to service a growing debt to Beijing.
The U.S. oil company Texaco arrived there in the 1970s, after the Ecuadoran government encouraged American missionaries to help pacify the Waorani. Other Wao-speaking clans such as the Taromenane remained in the forest, violently resisting outside attempts to “civilize” them.
The oil and chemical spills of the Texaco era — and claims of exorbitant cancer rates as a result — led to a massive lawsuit by tribes against Chevron, which acquired Texaco long after the company left Ecuador. Ecuadoran courts rendered an $18 billion judgment against Chevron in 2011, but President Rafael Correa has had little success pressuring Chevron to pay.
A ransom on the rain forest
The damage to the Amazon and its tribal communities became a driving force behind the Yasuni ITT Initiative, a proposal floated by Correa at the U.N. General Assembly in 2007.
If international donors would give Ecuador $3.6 billion, equivalent to half the estimated worth of the oil beneath an especially pristine section of Yasuni National Park known as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini block, the government would leave the crude in the ground.
Otherwise Ecuador would drill. Critics likened it to a ransom on the rain forest.
The gambit failed, badly. After six years, having raised barely $100 million in pledges and donations, Correa declared that it was time for “Plan B.” In March 2013, the National Assembly voted to drill. The government redrew its maps of tribal territory, claiming that the Taromenane and smaller Tagaeri clans didn’t live in the oil-rich areas after all.
‘They need our help’
Augusto Tandazo, an energy consultant in Quito, the capital, laid out the case for drilling in rapid-fire fashion: Ecuador’s energy consumption has nearly doubled in the past decade. The country needs to invest in infrastructure, education and job creation to benefit its 14 million people. Ecuador’s economy is heavily oil-dependent, and without the ITT, production falls and takes Ecuador down with it. No government would be foolish enough to allow such a thing, Tandazo said.
“These environmentalists and anthropologists want to keep the tribes living in the Neolithic age, naked in the forest, like some sort of tourist postcard,” he said. “It’s clear that they need our help.”
The Waorani know the government doesn’t want any more protests blocking oil workers from access to the wells. But they sense the government is easy prey now, and if anything, they have learned to apply the hunter-gatherer mind-set to modern oil politics, and get as much as they can.
Asked if he regretted giving up a life in the forest, Okata said he did not. The animals he hunts have retreated deeper into the jungle, fleeing the noise. But he now takes a rifle and a dog along with his blow gun and poison darts, returning with deer meat and birds. He said, “I remember all the trails.”
But even after walking for a day into the forest, he said, he could still hear the generators from the oil rigs.