Brasilia, Thursday, 25 August 2022
It has been an intense week during which I participated in the hearing regarding rights violations by the Ecuadorian government against the Tagaeri-Taromenane Indigenous Peoples living within the Yasuní National Park.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights initiated its 150th Regular Session on Monday, and a public hearing on case No. 12.979: Tagaeri-Taromenane Indigenous Peoples vs. Ecuador was held on Tuesday. Here’s a summary of the arguments I presented to the court:
Science has shown that the Amazon basin has been peopled for at least 12000 years by, at times and in certain areas, very large populations. Whereas the archaeologists I studied when a student argued that the Amazon’s inhospitable wilderness had a decivilizing impact on pre-Columbian societies, my students today learn that this forest was a hotspot of plant domestication and tropical urbanization. Whereas I was taught that the tropical rainforest, given its environmental limitations, could not have been occupied by hunters-and-gatherers before the advent of agriculture, I can today share with my students that sixteen sites from the Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene have been excavated, most of them in Colombia and Brazil. We thus have archaeological evidence that small groups of hunters-and-gatherers settled in Amazonian rock shelters between 15,000- and 8,200-years BP. Inter-disciplinary research teams using the tools of Historical Ecology have further shown that human inhabitation has left an indelible signature on the ecological make-up of the Amazon tropical rainforest. New historical and anthropological research has also shed light on population declines caused by epidemics after contact with Europeans, while evidencing increases in wars and conflicts caused by colonization and enslavement. Meanwhile, historical ecologists have shown that some contemporary foraging and trekking groups could well be remnants of more advanced farming societies disseminated by colonial wars. The extent to which predatory worldviews and hierarchical aspirations motivated pre-Columbian and post-colonial warfare is still a matter of debate. In any case, we now know that the Amazon Forest is not the last frontier of wilderness, but a vast cultivated landscape, whose extraordinary biological diversity human cultural influences has contributed to enrich in the course of history. Therefore, no one disputes today the fact that human activity has contributed to enrich the forest’s endemic biological diversity, or that it constitutes a precious biophysical and cultural heritage for Humanity.
My own research has centred on the Waorani’s participation in this mutual shaping of humans and forest over time. Waorani interactions with their forested homeland have much to tell us about the nature and the extent of human Amazonian occupation over the last 12,000 years. It has led me to argue, for instance, that the peach palm (chonta, Bactris gasipaes), the world’s premier neotropical palm domesticate, was almost certainly first domesticated for its wood, and not its fruit. We combined ethnographic research on Waorani management of peach palm groves with evolutionary biology and biogeographic research to refine hypotheses regarding the peach palm’s origin and history. Having mapped the distribution of peach palm landraces in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, we modelled the evolution of human-mediated gene flows at various spatial scales over the last 5,000 years. We evidenced the complementary influence of intensive domestication by sedentary horticulturists (who created the landraces with the largest fruit, richest in starch) and wide regional diffusion facilitated by trekkers with unique and diverse management practices such as the Waorani. In other words, we demonstrated the significance of dynamic interactions between (i) in-situ
domestication; (ii) agro-forestry management; and (iii) residential mobility in shaping patterns of species distribution leading to the formation of lasting resource patches. Whereas human mobility plays a role at a local level in the domestication of plants, human migrations enable the diffusion and expansion of domesticates on a large regional scale. The interaction between emplacement (with its concomitant effect of selection for certain traits) and mobility and diffusion (with their concomitant effects of increasing genetic diversity) ultimately creates a complex distribution of landraces, each landrace originating in a geographically defined area but eventually diffusing more widely. Domestication is thus best envisaged as a non-linear continuum comprising many different types of direct and indirect human activities. Moreover, the co-existence of foragers and cultivators in the Amazon Forest must be apprehended not only as a deep historical fact, but also as on-going. In the Yasuní too, contrastive modes of forest living have contributed equally to shaping contemporary forest landscapes. The Waorani’s intimate relationship with the forest results in a form of territoriality that is characteristic of Amazonian forest peoples (or bosquesinos). The right to live in an ecologically functioning forest is an essential right for bosquesinos if they are to enjoy an autonomous way of life and secure a future for their children. Bosquesinos defend a human/ forest relationship which enriches and ultimately protects the national societies sharing the Amazon basin.
Amazonianists have known for a long time that indigenous societies should not be essentialized or treated as self-contained sociological entities. The importance of cultural pluralism and inter-communal exchanges linked to mobility, displacement, and migration have been just as overlooked in understanding native American sociology as it has been in modelling domestication. Social scientists have found it very difficult to describe native Amazonian social forms. Our typologies and morphological analyses are too tainted by western social ontologies. ‘Tagaeri,’ Taromenani,’ ‘Dugokairi,’ and other similar names are used by some Waorani speakers to refer to family groupings that seem to correspond to what anthropologists used to call ‘clans,’ that is, kin groups whose members share a common identity as well as rights based upon common ancestry. I use the term ‘cultural bloc’ to refer to family groups that cluster together in a fluid manner, according to structural properties shaping and shaped by dynamic alliances and evolving territorial agreements. The term ‘Waorani’ means something like ‘us, the true human beings.’ They have been known in Ecuador under the lowland Kichwa term ‘auca,’ which means something like ‘wild beings from the forest, not truly civilized or human.’ Their language wao terero, ‘the speech of the true human beings,’ is an isolate, unrelated to any known phylum. The Waorani have also been described as ‘ridge people,’ that is, people who live on hills and avoid river banks and floodplains. Classifications simplify; none of these terms does justice to the mosaic-like diversity of forest ecosystems, or to the kaleidoscope-like variety of co-habiting communities. The Waorani belong neither to one of the large linguistic families that are dispersed over extensive parts of the Amazon basin (Tupi, Arawak, Carib, Gê), nor to homogeneous blocs such as the Jivaros, Tukanos, Yanomami, Panoa, or Nahua. Both Waorani self-identity and attributed identity are highly relational. The groups called ‘Tagaeiri’ and ‘Taromenani’ belong, in this sense, to the Waorani cultural bloc. More named family groupings with similar characteristics appear to belong to this bloc as well. All share much in common, not least a cultural preference for forest life and the desire to keep a safe distance between their families and expansionary predators. There have been occasional bouts of invasion or displacement, but, on the whole, the Waorani have been able to control their population, resources, land, labour, and socio-economic ties, and to keep them all in a balance. The territories of Waorani family groups (and this of course includes the Tagaeri, Taromenani, and Dugokairi ‘clans’) are best understood as loose,
unbounded, fluid social spaces; not as fixed, clearly demarcated, or bounded entities. Physical distance translates into social distance, and vice-versa. In the Waorani cultural bloc, the historical experience of freedom of movement has shaped personhood, place-making, and territoriality. Autonomy of each and self-determination of all depend on careful tuning with the life of the forest in an overall open-ended and flexible ‘country,’ monito omë (our forest world).
We are just beginning to understand the philosophy and the science that underpin this mode of forest habitation. If we look at monito omë from the perspective of geographical maps, the Waorani regional space is shared with more sedentary, riverine groups. The ‘ridge people’ are dedicated to hunting and gathering, the ‘river people’ to relatively more elaborate fishing and intensive horticulture. This is how forests as inhabited ecosystems become shaped by cultural differences. Forests are not diverse simply because of purely biological, ecological, or climatic properties; they differ because communities choose to live in them differently. Distinct cultures may thus physically share the same forested habitat yet live in different worlds. Such differences are not amenable to archaeological or ecological analysis searching for data aimed at settling the question as to whether tropical rainforests are anthropogenic or pristine biomes; they are, however, clearly visible to ethnographers. The problem is that modern ethnographers tend to be anthropocentric (this includes me!). Because we take for granted that only humans know how to improve the forest and that they do this largely for the benefits of their own families, we have focused our attention on the norms and rules that human communities agree in sharing the forest peacefully with each other. We therefore understand fairly well the ways in which families in the Waorani cultural bloc have negotiated and mutually agreed their respective rights over hunting trails, crops, trees, fields, or fallows. We also know that no go areas, which work as animal refuges (they include mineral licks), play a crucial role in the overall tacit accord. What we have not sufficiently studied is the way in which ömere quëqui (‘do in the forest’) is something that all animals and plants do, not just humans. All species in other words ‘procure’ what they need and what makes life more favourable for their kind. This is why, for instance, the Waorani never harvest exhaustively the fruit of a tree; it is obvious to them that there are birds, monkeys, and ground animals who also feed on the same fruits. Because plants and animals have their own needs and their own volition, living in the forest requires constant negotiation and careful diplomacy. There are rules to restrain individuals or groups that show a tendency to dominate or to take over. No one’s volition is ever allowed to impose exclusion or extermination. All have an equal right to live and ‘do.’ To live well is to let others live well as well. The forest can thus only be conserved by and with forest people living in it.
The Rubber Boom did not affect family groups in the Waorani cultural bloc nearly as much as the Oil Boom has. The overall strategy and tactics of rubber boom predators did not differ drastically from those of previous colonizers. Moreover, the heart of Waorani homeland (the hinterlands between the Curaray and Napo Rivers) are relatively poor in good rubber, Hevea brasiliensis. Territorial defence and self-isolation tactics worked well, even if violent conflicts occurred at sensitive points of intrusion and colonial penetration. The Oil Boom, by contrast, has triggered a series of gradual and cumulative impacts which Waorani people have not been able to master, and which they are still trying to fully comprehend. For the modern ethnographer, this is familiar terrain though. The Ecuadorian Oil Boom might have had its own idiosyncratic peculiarities, but it belongs to a familiar class of extractivist curse and expansionist statecraft. It has resulted in massive spatial reorganization and population movements. The Waorani’s regional space, which once contained multiple, overlapping, and often
fluid boundaries, has been restructured into new forms of associative life now embedded within new administrative divisions. Life in more sedentary, riverine settlements has had to rely on intensified systems of procurement. If some have chosen to increase their participation in broader systems of economic exchange, others have chosen instead to move away from the oil economy. Decisions by Waorani groupings to move away from, remain in place, or move closer towards oil and centres of extractivist activities have been made with a view to maintaining an overall balance between adentro (monito omë, our forest world) and afuera (the world of the non-Waorani, the cowode). In other words, people have fought to retain control over their homeland in order to prevent the overwhelming encompassment of the forest world by the oil frontier.
The consolidation of the Oil Boom on the south side of the Napo River has negatively affected the Waorani cultural bloc in at least three diverse ways: environmental contamination; inequalities created by the unregulated development of market forces; and serious inconsistencies in government policy. The insidious environmental degradation caused by the commercial exploitation of oil in the Yasuní is affecting human health in multiple ways. The pollution of waterways and air causes illnesses and contamination of the food chain, both particularly damaging to forest and subsistence-oriented livelihoods. Ill-conceived and poorly implemented agrarian policies, as well as the opportunistic use of the expanding road infrastructure by illegal loggers, have also contributed to worsen environmental degradation. The pro-risk, do-fast-and-cheap mentality of the oil frontier has had particularly adverse effects on women, children, and youth. The machismo of the oil frontier trivializes prostitution, alcoholism, and other forms of dependency, undermining the freedom of those who do not earn a living wage. Waorani families are particularly affected by new gender inequalities that relieve men from their parental responsibilities, putting fatherless children in a vulnerable position. Whereas Waorani leaders must spend increasing amounts of time in towns to negotiate economic opportunities for their communities, Tagaeri and Taromenani hunters have to spend increasing amounts of time away from their families to patrol their hunting grounds and ward off invasions. The disruptions caused by the industrial exploitation of oil and by extractivist activities render the lives of those in voluntary isolation more precarious. They must hide from intruders, building their houses under forest cover and only cooking at night not to be spotted by helicopters or drones. Moreover, they must increase their mobility patterns in search of peace and tranquillity, often following game animals that are also fleeing away from the tumult of the oil frontier. The noise and light pollution caused by oil operations has had a particularly harmful impact on those who hunt and live a full forest life. Such pollution is experienced as an utterly insufferable imposition, a form of genocidal aggression. Rage is often the only response to such a violation of the right to live free from tyranny. Forcing people to become refugees in their homeland is one of the main avenues through which oil development generates conflict. The Waorani who defend their territory by living on the borders of the oil frontier assert their sovereignty in a myriad of ways. Their efforts to control outside influences and to secure village autonomy have been deeply shaped by the twenty-year agreement (1993-2013) Maxus initially signed with ONHAE (the organization that preceded NAWE). This ambitious social corporate responsibility programme offered a framework for the oil companies to liaise more systematically and more coherently with the national government in funding and delivering the provision of education, health, and community development assistance to all the communities in the Waorani Ethnic Reserve. The Maxus-ONHAE agreement, which has been revised when Maxus merged with Repsol in 1995, and modified again through subsequent alterations in the structure of block operators, has been criticised for its paternalism. From the Waorani perspective,
though, this agreement represented a landmark in their experience of the oil industry’s organizational structure, policies, regulations, activities, and impact management. More importantly, the agreement comforted them in the feeling that living with oil was under their control, and that conflict could lead to negotiation and dispute settlement. However, after a governance crisis in 2005, NAWE found itself in a vicious circle of chronic debts that forced several NAWE elected directorates to compromise their principles and to accept (under government pressure) to sign contracts with oil prospection companies. In the last 15 years, a similar constrained logic (health and education services provided in exchange for the right to extract from the Waorani territory) has been used to blackmail communities in accepting oil development, as I show in greater detail in the next paragraph.
The changes brought in by the administration that governed Ecuador between 2007 and 2017 have been received as a sign that the negotiation space the Waorani had fought so hard to maintain open was closing, if not being lost for good. New confrontations ensued, as the tragic events of 4 April 2014 at the end of Vía Auca illustrate. On that morning, a family had travelled in a haste from Bataboro to Tiwino (also spelt Tiweno, Tiguino, and variations of) to have their son, who was suffocating, checked by a medical doctor at the health sub-centre. Some versions of the events stress that the doctor was absent, and that the little boy died. Others say that the boy was already dead when the doctor in attendance examined him, a heartbreaking news that the parents did not take well. Versions of ensuing events also vary, but what is certain is that male relatives retaliated by spearing to death two workers contracted by Ecuador Estratégico, seriously injuring a third one. Some versions of the events also mention that in addition to the boy’s death, the workers were killed in retaliation for their sexual abuse of young Waorani women. Tiwino and Bataboro, two communities with the longest living experience of oil, are well-known sites of resistance and continuous negotiation with oil companies and the state. Their residents live cash dependent lives; they have no choice but to ceaselessly renew their claims on the companies for goods and services. This is why protestors from Bataboro blocked the access road to Petrobell’s wells in December 2011, angry at the company’s decision to lower the number of its Waorani employees. Their protest was violently repressed by the police and the military. Calm only resumed when the governor of Pastaza intervened personally and proposed a mesa de dialogo (a dialogue commission), at which the grievances of local residents were listened to, and steps to address their demands taken. By contrast, the 2014 tragedy seems to have been handled with much less attention and respect. In fact, the government decided to retaliate by cancelling a water project and threatening to shut down both the health centre and the school. This lack of dialogue created serious divisions and conflicts between Bataboro and Tiwino, worsening the overall situation. New violent conflicts took place on 6 January 2015. The government’s repressive intervention and criminalization of the protests left no doubt in Waorani minds that their territorial and social rights were violated with unprecedented force. What the state understood as the law of equal citizenship and sacrifice for the nation was interpreted by the Waorani as the loss of all avenues to negotiate directly with the oil companies on their homeland, an intolerable injustice born out of what they saw as a lack of respect for their rights. Some of their leaders spoke of racial prejudice and discrimination. On 5 June 2015, family groups in voluntary isolation communicated with residents in Bataboro, approaching their houses very close. For the next few weeks, the former remained on the outskirts of Tiwino and Bataboro and exchanged peacefully and silently with a number of residents before moving back into the deep forest. To an anthropologist, all these facts point to, on the one hand, the Waorani’s bellicose nature (which the violation of their fundamental rights triggers), and,
on the other hand, to indigenous mechanisms that enable peace negotiations and territorial sharing. During all that time, whereas the state deployed stringent measures to subsume the rights of indigenous citizens to the expansion of the country’s oil industry, the Waorani showed their determination to abide by their fundamental law: the right to live and to let others live. It is because such rights are non-negotiable that they are non-exclusive.
To ward off external pressures and to defend the right to life, Waorani people continuously make and remake alliances with supportive others, who help them foment peaceful, organised resistance. Alianza Ceibo in Nemonpare and Ome Yasuni in Bameno are two well-known examples of such successful alliances. Both have enabled the Waorani to counter the predatory expansion of oil, slow the violence of industrial pollution, and restrain the destructive practices of extractivism. In both cases, highly localized regenerative practices have been combined with the activation of international solidarity networks in collaboration with Ecuadorian civil society organisations and social movements. In both cases forest conditions known to have brought peace and tranquillity to those who choose to remain in voluntary isolation are being created and recreated in the course of everyday Waorani community life. These community-based biocultural conservation projects do not require large, expensive management bureaucracies, but, rather, a commitment to and love for forest life combined with a demonstrated ability for flexible alliance-making and continuous negotiation of peace between all living beings. Other examples of the prolific creativity of Waorani responses to Ecuador’s fraught conservation-with-oil-development policies include the ecological enrichment of family domains. These more modest (almost invisible) on-going family experiments have been studied in Toñampari, Tepapare, Dayuno, Damointaro, and Bameno. Similar domains exist almost certainly elsewhere as well. Monito omë, the Waorani homeland, is a territorial fabric woven out of a multitude of fractal, nested, and intersecting paths. These domains carve out negotiated, overlapping forest areas in which the evolving maintenance of interlocked ecological and social processes is protected as the source of natural abundance. Preliminary research indicates that each domain is designed according to the preferences of their managers in response to varying pressures, constraints, and circumstances. The specificities of these domains and their overall significance in heritage conservation and ecological restoration remain to be systematically explored. What we can be sure of at this stage is that together these domains promise to tame the oil frontier while securing local autonomy.
My testimony has shown how external pressures, especially those caused by oil development, trigger conflict and worsen violence; this is the case for all Waorani family groupings. Peaceful relations necessitate the legal and effective protection of human/ forest relationships. Compensation measures will need to consider mechanisms by which human development can be secured through forest-centred projects. Forest-centred projects by and for bosquesinos will require strict decoupling from the advance of the oil frontier; and the latter will need to be firmly kept at bay.
A Spanish version has been uploaded to academia.edu. To know more, you may wish to read Rival (2015) and Rival (2016). You will find the full references on my bibliography page. You may also wish to consult the court’s information or listen to the hearing at: https://www.corteidh.or.cr/tablas/150POSBrasil-port/index.html