In May 2017, a group of journalism students from MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alta., spent a week in Ecuador – four days in the Amazon rainforest – taking pictures, shooting video and talking to scientists, political observers, and indigenous people. The aim was to tell the story of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station of Universidad San Francisco de Quito, near Yasuni National Park. This is an area of extreme biological diversity and great beauty – which, unfortunately, is sitting on a sea of oil.

Before oil, there were people

It's not just plant and animal species that are endangered
by oil exploration. The local cultures are also under stress

By Jake Pesaruk

A village on the banks of the Napo River. Oil exploration has brought economic opportunity, and cultural peril, to the people of the region.  (Hamdi Issawi)

When you shuck away the endangered animals and vegetation of the Ecuadorean Amazon, you’re left with one more species at risk, the indigenous people who call this green expanse home.

Communities that were in the rainforest long before the Spanish conquest are facing a new invading force – the oil industry. Some of the indigenous people in these communities have lived in a state of voluntary isolation; others have had dealings with missionaries who appeared in the 1950s, and exploring oil companies after that. Many of the communities in and around oil operations have undergone rapid development by learning to co-exist with their corporate neighbours.

With adaptation comes risk.

The Quichua and the Huaorani are the two most prominent peoples in the area around Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, which lies in the country’s Amazonia Oriente region, near the Peruvian border. Each group has its own cultural dynamic and way of dealing with encroaching oil companies.  

But it’s the Huaorani who have undergone the most dramatic change.

The oil problem

Flora Lu, of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Gabriela Valdivia, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have been studying big oil’s effects on the indigenous people in and around Yasuni, particularly the Huaorani. Their book, Oil, Revolution, and Indigenous Citizens in Ecuadorian Amazonia, explores the interplay of politics, aboriginal cultures and the oil industry in the 21st century.

With the involvement of oil companies, they say, they have seen a generation gap emerge in the behaviour of the local people, and their attitude towards tradition.


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“I remember when I first came down here decades ago – the nights get pitch black and you can only see the stars – the people would chant during the night,” says Lu, who has spent enough time in the community that she has a Huaorani godchild.

“They don’t chant as much anymore.”

Modern fashion, technology and popular culture are luring tribespeople – particularly the young – away from traditional values, the researchers say. And there is a risk of entire cultures being lost.

“There are very few left who remember a time before oil,” Lu says.

However, the Huaorani people have demonstrated a determination to retain their identity, she adds, even as they modernize. And their culture is a source of strength to them when they deal with oil companies and government.

“They attend meetings with representatives of these companies dressed in tribal garb, holding spears.”

This dedication to tribal roots has had repercussions in the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. The government has taken to referring to the Huaorani as impoverished, and to presenting their quality of life as less than it should be compared to the rest of the country.

“The Huaorani are deemed in poverty because of their annual income,” Lu says. “But they’re not impoverished in the way you’d think. They’re portrayed as victims in need of some kind of remedy.” 

There are very few left who remember a life before oil.

The conflicting aspects of their partial modernity and dedication to their heritage creates the image of the Huaorani as a poor society. Their traditional lifestyle is conveyed to the public as a state of disarray, and that creates the perception of a sub-standard way of life. This, in turn, creates the attitude that the Huaorani could, or should, be “helped” to be better off.  

The tug of war between modern influence and cultural identity is clearly visible in the Yasuni region, where many Huaorani outposts dot the map.

There are satellite dishes on some huts, and children run around with toy guns, playing war. Necklaces and bracelets, and replica blowguns and spears are on sale at roadside stands. For a few U.S. dollars, a visitor can take home a piece of Huaorani culture to hang on the wall or display on social media.

“Things weren’t always like this,” Valdivia says. The concept of commerce has only recently leaked into the well of Huaorani identity.

“These forms of power are forming a new consciousness for the Huaorani people. So, many things they need now require money – and that can’t be gathered or hunted from the forest.”

The push-back

Most of the Huaorani’s experience with commerce comes from bargaining with oil companies. Their culture is strong and they don’t take territorial invasion lightly. Confronted with the expansion of industry into their homeland, they naturally push back – and demand to know what’s in it for them. When they feel taken advantage of, members of the community can set up roadblocks on transport routes and demand tribute from oil workers passing through.

“The Huaorani are a very chill people,” Lu says. “Until they are not. Trying to impose your rule on Huaorani like that? That shit doesn’t work.

“They’ll block these roads. That’s their form of exerting power when they feel the oil companies haven’t given them enough.”

Researchers Flora Lu, left, and Gabriela Valdivia have spent years studying the effects of oil exploration on indigenous culture.  
(Jake Pesaruk) 

This is not to imply that the oil companies are well-meaning fair dealers at the mercy of the wily natives. There is an uneven balance between indigenous people and outsiders when it comes to want, need and value. Huaorani demands for large sums of money often get haggled down to much smaller payments – sometimes even to soda pop or trinkets. There are even stories of people being paid off in Monopoly money.

There also have been violent clashes and threats on outsiders’ lives. One incident that rippled through the country in recent years was the killing of several oil workers. The cause, Lu and Valdivia say, was the sexual assault of a Huaorani girl.

The girl’s mother discovered what had happened, and that her son had been unable to protect his sister from the assailants. The woman struck the boy – something unheard of in Huaorani culture.

After the shamed boy hanged himself from a tree, the woman rushed him to a clinic run by the oil company, where he died. When the father found out what had happened, he killed oil workers for the same company.  

“There is a word for a unique type of rage in Huaorani culture,” Lu says. “And that’s ‘a spear-killing rage.’ ”

The side-effects

Violence and economic treachery aren’t the only ill-effects of oil company encroachment, Lu and Valdivia say. There also has been an overall decline in the health of Indigenous people.

The Quichua, who outnumber the Huaorani 100-to-one, modernized more rapidly, because they had co-operated with the missionaries in the 1950s, and that gave them access to education. So, the Quichua tend to be more comfortable in Spanish and in the modern world, and are more likely to work for oil companies. And the modern world has brought them modern problems.

“We now have these dual problems of malnutrition and obesity,” Lu says. “More with the Quichua tribe right now, but it will eventually hit the Huaorani”

Many Quichua are victims of a social phenomenon called the Inverted U, something common to aboriginal groups around the world confronted with the challenges of adapting to a modern world that is more likely to exploit than to embrace them. And much of the following will be familiar to Canadians.

We now have these problems of malnutrition
and obesity.

People on one end of the U have access to modern technology and medicine – and alcohol, junk food and a more sedentary way of life. Those on the other end are removed from modern comforts and conveniences, but they live a more traditional lifestyle – and, thanks to healers and centuries-old indigenous medicine, they remain healthy. People on both ends are able to maintain good health, but those in the middle suffer from a lack of consistent access to goods and services from both the modern and traditional worlds.

Meanwhile, across the community, the substitution of guns for traditional weaponry makes hunting easier and more profitable, and helps to make people more sedentary. At the same time, cultural dislocation has brought a rise in domestic abuse, alcoholism and suicide.

If the Huaorani can maintain a little hostility to the modern world, it might help keep them healthy, Lu says. Their culture is turbulent, yet the soul of the community endures.

“The way I’ve worked so well with them over the years is humility and recognition of how much I need them when in their environment. There are so many ways I would have died if they were not there to look after me.”

As the oil industry expands in Yasuni, the gaze of the companies is turning south for new opportunities. And in this new territory are new peoples, some of whom have chosen to remain isolated – and out of sight.  

The elusiveness of these people has given government an argument for new oil-exploration opportunities, says Eric Samson, a journalism professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito,

“They say, ‘Look, the tribes aren’t here.’ So they drill, which is ridiculous, because many of these tribes are nomadic.”

This, Samson adds, exposes a level of disdain, on the part of the government, for indigenous people, who are seen as being in the way of economic prosperity.

For those who care about these people, there is a growing concern for the future of groups like the Huaorani, and for their ability to adapt – or their right to opt out of a future they may not want, and which may not be compatible with them.

“I am not sure about what the future holds,” Lu says. “But if you look at what’s happening with the effects of oil on other tribes, it’s only a matter of time.”

Tiputini employees man the bow of the research station's launch, watching for submerged logs that could poke a hole in the hull.  
(Jake Pesaruk)