Stuck between oil and state neglect

  • Following the dissolution of Ecuador’s Ministry of Justice, responsibility for the country’s isolated indigenous peoples changed hands.
  • It’s the latest in a series of shake-ups, yet several experts said the government has not been able to adequately protect vulnerable isolated tribes.
  • They said the oil industry’s advance into the rainforest remains the greatest threat to these tribes.

This story originally appeared on Mongabay Latam as part of a special series on threats facing isolated indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. Other stories in the series available in English:
Mercury poisoning chief among health problems facing Peru’s uncontacted tribes

Early this year, jurisdiction over the affairs of isolated indigenous peoples shifted within the Ecuadoran government. It now rests within the newly formed Secretariat of Human Rights, in a unit dedicated to “plurinationality and interculturality.” The branch of government responsible for protecting these vulnerable tribes has changed a number of times in recent years, and the latest move followed a period of uncertainty after a governmental reorganization in August. Yet the latest change brings little clarity or transparency about how the government will manage the indigenous groups’ affairs.

The Tagaeri and Taromenane tribes, both of Waorani heritage, are the two isolated indigenous communities that live in the northern part of the Ecuadoran Amazon, including inside Yasuni National Park and the surrounding area. Both tribes are exposed to the dangers of the expanding oil industry and other threats. The government’s shuffling of responsibility for the tribes’ affairs has left the response to the threats unclear.

The latest organizational shake-up began on Aug. 21, 2018, when Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, announced the dissolution of the Ministry for Justice, Human Rights and Religious Affairs. The ministry had covered disparate areas, including helping female victims of violence, managing the country’s prisons, and protecting isolated indigenous peoples. Organizations and activists promoting women’s and children’s rights came together to protest the ministry’s dissolution; however, those involved with the isolated indigenous tribes did not.

At the time, the isolated tribes’ affairs were housed with the ministry’s Office for the Advancement of Indigenous Tribes in Voluntary Isolation. But the office did not have a clear public policy. Former civil servants told Mongabay that in the last few years, the office created documents that never saw the light of day because a more important issue kept coming up against them: oil.

There is hardly any photographic evidence of Ecuador’s isolated tribes, which belong to the Waorani indigenous group. Image by Valeria Sorgato.

Nearly three months later, on Nov. 14, President Moreno decreed that the justice ministry would be given the rank of a secretariat, outside any ministry. In the same decree, he ordered that this secretariat, to be called the Secretariat of Human Rights, would be responsible for “the protection of indigenous tribes in voluntary isolation.” The new secretariat began working on Jan. 14 this year.

The delay in receiving clear answers about how the government would handle their affairs seems to be the norm for the Tagaeri and Taromenane. The groups made their first contact more than 60 years ago, but have only been protected by the government for the last 20 years.

In 1999, for the first time, a reserve was created by presidential decree for the two groups. According to the decree, the reserve, called the Tagaeri-Taromenane Intangible Zone, should have been implemented within 120 days of the signing; however, it took eight years for the boundaries to be defined.

When the government of Rafael Correa took power in 2007, the new president responded to calls by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) for measures to protect these groups. A civil-society group had requested protective measures, given the defenselessness of the isolated indigenous tribes and in response to a 2006 massacre in which around 30 members of these tribes were killed. The previous government had ignored the request for almost 12 months, and Correa’s response appeared to be a good omen.

“But it didn’t last long,” said Eduardo Pichilingue. At the time, Pichilingue was the coordinator of the Plan for Protective Measures for the Protection of Isolated Indigenous People, which functioned as an office under the Ministry of the Environment.

Waorani women walk the streets of Puyo for International Women’s Day. Image by Kimberley Brown.

In 2008, the plan’s first year, Pichilingue remembered there was a lot of work and it was a positive time. “We managed to generate an energy that meant we could fight the seemingly uncontrollable illegal logging activities that directly affected these tribes,” he said.

But as soon as this threat was removed, the next one came along: the expanding oil industry. According to Pichilingue, at the beginning of 2010 he was asked to change a report that confirmed the presence of isolated indigenous people near Campo Armadillo in the province of Orellana, an area that was to be conceded to the government-run Petroecuador for exploitation. “They expressly asked me to state that there were no isolated indigenous people. Then they said: ‘OK, don’t say there aren’t any, but just don’t mention it’s dangerous to exploit and that it should be prohibited. Write another report that doesn’t say anything.’” The former civil servant didn’t do it and he broke ties with the environment ministry.

Up until 2015, the environment ministry was responsible for affairs relating to the isolated indigenous tribes. That year, the responsibility was handed over to the justice ministry. Milagros Aguirre, who began working in the Waorani area in 1997 and has written several books about isolated indigenous peoples, told Mongabay that it seemed like a positive move. “The Ministry of the Environment was judge and jury because they granted exploitation licences for oil but they were also in charge of protecting the tribes,” she said. “That automatically caused problems.”

For Aguirre, that the environment ministry ever had this responsibility was a conceptual error. “It should always have been thought of as a human rights issue,” she said, “but as soon as they made this change, the budget was then cut.”

Following the dissolution of the justice ministry, Mongabay Latam reached out to the ministry’s Office for the Advancement of Indigenous Tribes in Voluntary Isolation, before its fate had been settled. The government would not grant an interview, but on Sept. 14 sent some answers by email that were signed by the office’s “Expert Team.” According to the emailed replies, “there is a lack of resources — human, financial, technological and logistical — that makes monitoring and management difficult, increasing the risks for the team’s activities on the ground. To protect these people, a minimum number of experts with experience is required to carry out the decreed measures, as well as to coordinate the State ministries involved, within their area of responsibility.”

State indifference


According to the website of the now-dissolved justice ministry (which is still live), the ministry employed 3,267 people. According to those emails, only 35 of these employees worked in the field of isolated indigenous affairs — just 1 percent of the former ministry’s workforce.

Nemonte muestra el pañal de la selva, una hoja tersa y absorbente con la que envuelven a los bebés por las noches. Foto: Daniela Aguilar.
Nemonte Nequimo, a Waorani, shows “the diaper of the jungle,” a thick, absorbent leaf that babies are wrapped in at night. Image by Daniela Aguilar.

According to information sent by the Office for the Advancement of Indigenous Tribes in Voluntary Isolation, their concrete actions comprised “an intervention strategy on the ground, implemented from the Monitoring Station in the Tagaeri-Taromenane Intangible Zone, which involves, among other things, carrying out monitoring patrols to control illicit or unilateral activities that may put pressure on the isolated indigenous tribes and consequently provoke violent reprisals on their part. They also work continually with communities located near the isolated indigenous tribes to promote a culture of peace.” The response states that they also used remote technology including flyovers, satellite image analysis and mapping, all of which involved a qualified team of experts.

The only project documentation from the Office for the Advancement of Indigenous Tribes in Voluntary Isolation that could be accessed via their website was one titled “Implementation of the Shiripuno Monitoring Station.” The ministry itself gave this project a priority rating of zero, an indication that the government had many other priorities ahead of protecting the country’s isolated indigenous peoples.

El único documento de proyecto de la Dirección de Protección de Pueblos Indígenas en Aislamiento Voluntario al que se puede acceder en el sitio web es “Implementación de la Estación de Monitoreo de Shiripuno”. En la primera página, además de las características básicas del proyecto, el mismo Ministerio le da una prioridad de 0 a este proyecto. Esto indicaría que el gobierno tienen muchas otras prioridades antes que los indígenas en aislamiento.

José Proaño is an anthropologist who served on a presidential commission created in 2013 following another massacre of around 30 isolated indigenous people. The commission was formed by civil servants from the ministries of justice and health, as well as the recently eliminated Secretariat of Policy. One of its functions was to create a public policy for isolated indigenous affairs. “Correa signed it but up to now, it hasn’t been valid,” said Proaño.

Uno de los hombres Waorani usa una hoja larga que tomó de la selva para producir un sonido agudo con el que llaman a los tucanes en jornadas de cacería. Foto: Daniela Aguilar.
A Waorani man makes a high-pitched sound with a long leaf to attract toucans during a hunting trip. Image by Daniela Aguilar.

Conversations in the city, contact in the jungle


While in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, the future of the responsibility for isolated indigenous people was being decided behind closed doors, in the Amazon, Waorani groups that maintain contact with the outside world had noticed the presence of some these isolated people. Alicia Cawiya, a Waorani leader, told Mongabay that she and other members of her community would approach an area where they had noticed isolated indigenous people to leave them pots and other tools. This kind of contact led to the murder of two Waorani elders by isolated indigenous people in 2013, according to some specialists consulted for this report.

The book A Hidden Tragedy (Una Tragedia Ocultada [pdf]) by Aguirre, Massimo de Marchi and Miguel Ángel Cabodevilla, tells how one of the elders, named Ompure, told an assembly of Waorani about visits to his house by members of the isolated groups. “Two Taromenane elders had approached several times, quite confidently, asking for axes, machetes and pots. He [Ompure] had only been able to gather a few objects … It appears this meager handout, which had only reached a few people, had provoked the anger of others, some of whom approached Ompure at his house in a threatening manner, demanding goods for everyone. Ompure, in turn, requested goods, somewhat nervously, from the assembly and the oil company, reportedly saying ‘I’m not going to comply with what they are asking for and they are going to kill me.’”

A year later, they killed him.

Peke, uno de los pikenanis de la comunidad Waorani de Damonpare. asegura que no permitirá la entrada de petroleras a su territorio. Foto: Daniela Aguilar.
Peke, a Waorani elder, says he will not allow the oil companies to enter his territory. Image by Daniela Aguilar.

The reason for his murder and that of another Waorani elder remains unclear, but 20 days later, the Waorani massacred around 30 isolated indigenous people in an act of vengeance.

Aguirre said that in this case, the government made two mistakes: one when the isolated people killed the two elders and again afterward, when the Waorani retaliated. “There was nobody from the state to act,” said Aguirre. “We told them: ‘Do something, give them compensation of some sort, because the [Waorani] will seek vengeance.’ But nobody did anything. They didn’t give any compensation. They didn’t send condolences. And then the isolated people were killed and they still did nothing. At the beginning, they didn’t even see the bodies.”

For Aguirre, it’s clear where the responsibility lies: “the state has a protected group called the isolated indigenous people. If this group attacks other people, the state has to react.” In the case of the murders of the two Waorani elders, it was “their protected people” who attacked, and therefore, according to Aguirre, the government should have responded. She suggested it amounted to an attempt to hide what happened. “It’s as if the state is uncomfortable about the presence of these groups that they know so little about.”

Roberto Narváez, an anthropologist who has studied isolated indigenous people and spent 20 years working in Waorani territory, confirmed that in recent months, Waorani have reported evidence that these groups have been near the oil block 21, outside the reserve.

According to some experts Mongabay Latam consulted, the current relationship between some Waorani and the uncontacted groups could be described as fearful. The Waorani gave the uncontacted groups pots, axes and other tools because they were scared of being attacked.

Algunos Waoranis que acudieron al Toxic Tour quedaron impactos por las piscinas y mecheros que se observan en varios puntos de la parroquia Pacayacu. "Nosotros tenemos aire limpio, agua limpia", repetían. Foto: Daniela Aguilar.
A Waorani man visits an oil development site in Ecuador’s Pacayacy parish as part of the “Toxic Tour” put on by an NGO in 2018. Some Waorani attending the tour were shocked by the waste pools and flares they encountered. “We have clean air, clean water,” they repeated. Image by Daniela Aguilar.

An awkward presence


Narváez, the anthropologist, has investigated and analyzed the violent meetings involving the isolated communities. Since 2001, he has registered the murders of 80 isolated indigenous people. In contrast, the former Ministry of Justice’s information sheet relating to the project to implement a monitoring station in Shiripuno quotes a baseline of “34 victims that have been reported since 2001.” That’s less than half of the murders documented by Narváez.

For him, the government’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t have enough information, doesn’t investigate, and makes decisions without having historical and anthropological facts. “That’s why they impose the wrong boundaries and some even deny that these groups even exist,” he told Mongabay Latam.

The government, through its representatives, has denied the presence of isolated indigenous people more than once. Aguirre, the book author, remembered that after the 2013 massacre, she met with ministers and then-president Correa. “They wanted to handle everything as if it were an allegation. Nobody wanted to recognize what had happened.”

An illustrative demonstration of this attitude came from Wilson Pástor, the then-president of PetroAmazonas, another government-run oil company, who said in an interview with the national channel RTS in 2010, “… you tell me that there are uncontacted communities but we don’t know that. We’ve carried out studies in block 31 […] it’s all doubtful. They aren’t confirmed facts, it’s possible that some are even fabricated. There is one hypothesis that this isn’t really about uncontacted communities after all, but about political movements trying to prevent this area from being exploited.” Pástor went on to become the minister of energy and non-renewable natural resources.

Verónica Potes, a lawyer specializing in indigenous peoples, said she believes that any government agency controlling isolated indigenous affairs would be problematic. “In these areas, there is a well-known economic interest,” she said. “If these people didn’t exist, these territories would quickly see more activity from the oil industry, roads and highways.”

Día Internacional de la Mujer:Mencayn poda las plantas de cacao para que puedan crecer mejor. Foto de Valeria Sorgato.
Mencayn, a Waorani, prunes cacao plants so they will grow better. Image by Valeria Sorgato.

Historically, according to Narváez, the territorial borders for the isolated communities were imposed taking the interests of the oil industry into account, prioritizing these over human rights. He said that the 500-square-kilometer (190-square-mile) reserve inside Yasuni National Park is not enough. The groups, he said, also need an additional mobility area, that, according to his studies and analysis over more than a decade, would cover the entire national park, which spans more than 9,800 square kilometers (3,800 square miles).

At the moment, however, there are nine oil blocks threatening the isolated indigenous people by their proximity to the reserve: 4, 16, 17, 21, 22, 31, 43, 55 and 66.

In October 2018, the minister of energy and non-renewable natural resources, Carlos Pérez, announced that before the end of the year, he would put blocks 86 and 87 in Pastaza province out to tender. According to the former Ministry of Justice’s map, there are isolated indigenous people in block 87. In May, Pérez said those plans were on hold until the government performed a consultation with local communities — but what that means for the isolated groups remains unclear.

Narváez is not very optimistic. He emphasized that the government needs to define what it wants. “What it wants is to extract, it wants oil resources,” he said. However, this exploitation is not compatible with the isolated indigenous communities. Faced with these powerful economic interests, the isolated indigenous people in Ecuador find themselves in a difficult situation. Whether the government’s new secretariat can effectively defend their interests remains to be seen.

Banner image: Waorani indigenous people. Image by Daniela Aguilar.

This article was first published by Mongabay Latam in December 2018, prior to the handling of isolated indigenous affairs transitioning to a unit within the Secretariat of Human Rights. This story has been updated to reflect that development. Edits by Rebecca Kessler.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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