If a Tribe Fell in the Forest:

An Ecuadorian Massacre

Miguel Angel Cabodevilla

Translated by Nathan Horowitz

I. Commentaries on a Waorani Attack

II. Wartime

III. The Group That Came out of Nowhere

IV. Hidden Tribes in Ecuador

V. The Reinvention of the Waorani World

Miguel Angel Cabodevilla, born in Spain in 1949, is a Capuchin priest and the author of ten books. From 1984 to 1999, he lived in the Ecuadorian Amazon, working with the Siona, Secoya, Naporuna (Kichwa, also spelled Quichua), and Waorani (also spelled Huaorani) tribes, on cultural preservation through bilingual education and the documentation of traditions. From 1988 to 1999, he directed the Center for Cultural Investigations of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CICAME). In 1999, he returned to Spain.

Cabodevilla was visiting Ecuador in 2003 when the news broke that a massacre had taken place in a rainforest area he had worked in. Waoranis, members of the tribe that has most recently become integrated into Ecuadorian society, had attacked a group of unknown Indians in the deep forest.

The Waorani are an indigenous group based in the rainforest of eastern Ecuador. They currently number about 2000. They have traditionally maintained control over an area the size of Rhode Island by killing anyone who entered it without their permission.

Besides warring with others, the Waorani were famous for fighting among themselves. The group has since time immemorial been split into various clans maintaining alliances and enmities with each other.

In the last decades of the 20th century, most of the Waorani were united; there was only one group, known as the Tagaeri, which refused contact with other Waorani and with outsiders. In 1987 there came a push to search for oil on Tagaeri lands. The bishop of the jungle town of Coca, Alejandro Labaka, a Basque from Spain, had been working with Waoranis for several years. He knew their language and decided to attempt peaceful contact with the Tagaeris. He left behind a message asking that if he were killed, that the territorial integrity of the Tagaeris be respected. Labaka and a Colombian nun, Inés Arango, were dropped off by helicopter in a clearing outside a Tagaeri hut. When the helicopter returned five days later, the missionaries' corpses were lying in the clearing, pierced with dozens of spears.

Labaka and Arango's sacrifice paid off, and the oil companies stayed away.

In 1993, members of a Waorani clan known as the Babeiri, after their leader, Babe, kidnapped a Tagaeri woman, Omatuki. From her, they learned about the killings of the missionaries. She said Labaka and Arango stayed comfortably with the Tagaeris for several days until a party of men returned home from a hunting trip. One of the hunters had been killed when a tree fell on him; using traditional logic, his companions deduced that the accident had been caused by the presence of the outsiders in the community. They killed Labaka and Arango.

After several days, a group of Babeiri brought back Omatuki to the Tagaeris. The Tagaeris attacked this group, fatally wounding one man, Carlos Omene.

Miguel Angel Cabodevilla was a friend and co-worker of Alejandro Labaka at the Capuchin mission in Coca.

Nathan Horowitz

I. Commentaries on a Waorani Attack

Toward the end of May, 2003, a deadly blow was aimed at an ancient human clan. Ecuador assisted in what could be the prelude to the immediate extermination of a group that lives free in the rainforest. By chance I happened to be present, in some way, in that unhappy moment and, because it's a serious matter, which has me especially concerned, I would like to offer my views on the circumstances and the events, insofar as it's been permitted me to learn them. I'm confident that, together with the views of others who were affected, whether indigenous people or not, they can help to find a solution that is more appropriate than apathy, unpreparedness in the face of future attacks, or the final sacrifice of an ancient human group.

To my understanding, what we're talking about here is a collective failure. The quality of a society is judged by its ability to protect its weakest members. Obviously in this case we haven't been effective in doing that.

The initial rumor

The first rumor I heard, which should not be confused with a piece of news, was communicated to me by Milagros Aguirre, journalist for El Comercio, as soon as I arrived in Quito after two years of absence from Ecuador. Briefly, it went like this: the Organization of the Huaorani Nation of the Ecuadorian Amazon reports that some Waoranis have attacked Tagaeris; it's believed that they have killed up to 30 people near the Curaray River; the warriors brought back with them the head of one of their victims; ONHAE claims that the attack was inspired and even organized by the woodcutters who operate in the sector of the Tigüino River.

"Does that sound like it could be true?" Milagros asked me.

"We should find out right away," I said. "There's probably a big difference between that report and whatever might have happened."

I phoned the Capuchin mission in Coca and learned that we had a preliminary answer. This, now, was news. Two of the Waorani aggressors had slept at the mission, recently arrived from their raid. They had brought with them weapons robbed in the attack and, obviously, a lot of information. They were eager to talk. Father Juan Carlos Andueza, whom they had gone to see, was recording their stories in Coca. Later he did the same in their own community of Tigüino, while they still had the tension of warriors who had arrived from an extermination crusade.

He photographed the looted objects (a blowgun, spears, hammocks, etc.) and sent them to Quito where we were trying to coordinate the flow of information.

At that point we had sufficient indices to establish hypotheses about what had happened, and advance certain certainties.

Actively collecting information, the mission had more credible data than anyone else in the country. Nevertheless it did not feel it appropriate to make an official pronouncement at that early stage. And at that point, events swept by it.

Between morbid fascination, disinterest, and news

In the press, from the very beginning, business won out over information. The Guayaquil tabloid El Extra sent its peculiar reporter to Coca, who quickly joined up with a local one sharing his temperament. The result (after some payments to Waorani from the Babeiri group) was a human head on page one, giant headlines, little proven data, and no comprehension whatsoever of the scope of the underlying problem. The press coverage, from the beginning, oscillated between a sensationalist, blood-and-guts tabloid approach and an ineffable complacency toward the alleged attackers, who were publicly and victoriously paraded through the city of Guayaquil only days later. Were these supposed to be heroes? Or perhaps ignorant, picturesque savages, fully ready, after the alleged massacre, to walk naked on the beaches and in the festivals of the great port city? Now that they got famous killing ten or twenty people, why don't we take them on a little tour? What better image, national and international, could we possibly project of the recently-formed jungle province of Orellana?

But no one seemed surprised by this operation. The indigenous organizations reacted lightly and late; and as for the government, no official authority, beginning with those from Orellana, spoke out against the grotesque farce.

The so-called serious press, the radio and TV stations, barely reacted at all. Belatedly and briefly, two newspapers each sent someone to the vicinity of the event. It cannot be said that that event, a massacre in the true sense of the word, was investigated with even a minimum of rigor. El Universo, a Guayaquil newspaper, made a somewhat more detailed followup. In the next few days I had occasion to reject several interviews. The supposed professionals wanted to take the information we had gathered--information supported by verification and reflection--and set it up against all kinds of lies and fabrications that lacked any basis in proof, saying that they wanted to present the public with "different opinions," or with the absurd pretension that "everyone has the right to express their opinion."

In those days I spoke with journalists from various branches of the media; they were generally friendly, but they had so little previous knowledge of the subject that I felt like I was talking science fiction to them, telling them about a place so strange and remote that it might have been in outer space.

The discourses of the directors of the indigenous organizations

People who read the Ecuadorian newspapers, watched Ecuadorian TV, or listened to Ecuadorian radio in the days after the massacre should judge for themselves if the various large indigenous organizations (such as CONAIE, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, and CONFENIAE, The Confederation of the Nationalities Indigenous to the Amazon of Ecuador) really knew what had happened.

Who among them went to the site of the massacre? Which of them interviewed the warriors, and when? It must be a closely-guarded secret, because it never came out. Among the leaders of the indigenous organizations there seems to have been a script which all stuck to without major deviations, responding to concrete questions with declarations of principles and diverting the discourse away from any detail of what happened.

They said it was an action organized, financed and directed by woodcutters, despite the fact that its executors made proclamations time and time again to the contrary. The leaders never confronted this obvious contradiction. Some repeated their eternal charge that the oil companies were responsible. No proof of this was provided, nor of the illogical declarations that pistols were found at the site of the massacre. Rarely has the distance between the directorship and its bases been so obvious. Likewise the irreconcilable differences between the leaders' politically-motivated utterances and the crude realism of the actions of their people.

Perhaps the peak of this misguided argumentation was the pretension that no one else should get involved in the affairs of Indians. As if in a parody of an absolutist regime, some of them defined what should and shouldn't be thought, what is allowed to be asked, what opinions one is allowed to have. An unsustainable pretension from any point of view.

My impression was that the national leaders were not only uninformed, they were also uninterested. Days after the event, at a press conference, they still didn't have a single concrete piece of information. Instead, they tiresomely repeated the political discourse that seemed appropriate to them. Listening to them, it was obvious that they were much more interested in the downfall of the current Minister of Energy than in the survival of the remaining uncontacted Indians. They didn't even once refer to the fate of the uncontacted Indians. Did they propose any concrete method of control for the territory, of action among the surrounding groups, of coordination in a search for explanations and knowledge?

If they want to be treated as political and social adults, they should support their arguments better. They should update their analyses as the cultural, social and economic conditions change for people living in the rainforest, and get a better idea of what's happening in their own back yard. In this case they revealed an astonishing lack of information. The entry of Waorani political leaders, in the company of soldiers, police officers and public prosecutors, for the purpose of summarily burying some of the speared corpses, probably did not represent the most lucid moment of their leadership.

Opinions and silences

It's common in Ecuador to give opinions about something that happens in the jungle without having clear information about it; rumors, stories, and bald-faced lies are enough. That happened again in this case.

Among the newspaper articles from those days, a wide assortment of more or less florid discourses can be gleaned, regarding a theme that was unclear to everyone: who had killed whom, how, why, what about the survivors, what could happen next in the same area. Once more, in the absence of a strict investigatory spirit, the demon of rhetoric won out.

In general, the commentators brought the water to the mill that's in fashion: Should ordinary justice intervene in the case, as the public prosecutor of the province of Pastaza tried to do? Is there such thing as indigenous justice? Should it be recognized, and regulations be established for it? The story was always referred back to the point of view of the majority, without even a modicum of effort to see it from the point of view of "the other." Once more, the sense rose up in me that we were tiptoeing past the massacre of 15-20 people. The causes were not sufficiently analyzed, nor was it recognized that there was an urgent need to protect the survivors and take action to prevent further violence.

But perhaps that which had the most perceptible echo in those days was the sonorous, sublime silence of the experts. Silence of the celestial spheres; no one said anything, aside from a few irrelevant comments. Nevertheless, this mutedness was an act of wisdom. Since the deaths of Alejandro and Inés, what has been done from an academic point of view to learn about a human group that should be protected like a cultural and anthropological talisman? The correct response was given in those days: Nothing. Silence.

The case of the sudden silence of the oil companies is different. Because some of them know, but don't say. A satellite photo of the deep jungle shows not only an isolated house, but also the people who occupy the clearing around it. Where is all that information stored and processed? What about the information from their numerous fly-overs by plane and helicopter? Is anyone keeping track of that data, applying it to the physical salvation of the isolated groups that populate and are owners of the deep forest?

We're dealing here with the issue of control of territory--with the million-dollar question: Is there any real authority in eastern Ecuador? Who exercises it? What responsibilities has it exercised to prevent a future massacre? Remember, this was an act carried out by people, not some natural disaster like a mudslide or an earthquake.

But no one has found it important enough to take an interest in, including the indigenous authorities who don't want outsiders poking around in their business. It's as if the victims weren't humans, weren't citizens. Just another bunch of wandering phantoms vanishing into the air.

Absent authority

We know that there were governmental authorities who flew to the place of the massacre, when it was still a field of corpses. There were others who declared they would prosecute the killers. Is that all? It seems that there was a minister who promised to bring plumbing and electricity to the isolated indigenous groups, but that must be taken as a stupid joke.

Have you had the sense that there are experts, knowledgeable about the case, who have been able to offer an adequate response to the problem? Or does it look more like they want sluggishly to close the case with completely irrelevant public shows of control? The case has put on public view the flagrant absence of direction and coordinated action around the Waorani, their territory and their needs.

It was the second time in a year that this particular, well-known group of Waorani caused violent deaths; in the last dozen years, they've amassed a considerable number of victims. So this most recent event is no surprise for anyone who knows the area. The Tigüino community has been since its inception a focus of conflicts, unpaid debts and tensions that have produced too many victims. Why is it the place where most violence has arisen in recent years among the Waorani?

After the attack

Although there are dark zones in the narration of the deeds that we clarify here, an initial synopsis of those deeds can be made with some guarantee of certainty.

The attack--an act of defense and reprisal at the same time--had, as is traditional among Waoranis, long and tangled antecedents and a summary execution. There were nine executors, almost all of them veterans, some of them barely able to make the long journey due to their age, from several communities allied by family and common interests. The immediate occasion for the coalition was a fiesta.

We underline the fact that these are Waorani who live on a frontier beset by violence on both sides. They're pressured by uncontrollable colonization, the all-powerful oil companies, the tempting business of tourism, the intrigues and traps of the timber companies. All that forms a world around them that they cannot control, and which overpowers and overwhelms them. If they often appear exasperated, irritable or violent, it shouldn't surprise anyone, submitted as they are to constant tensions.

On the other side of the frontier they have their Waorani past as an isolated group with a past full of unpaid debts and latent menaces. Among the attackers were sons of those who killed the father of the Tagaeri clan years ago; brothers of Carlos Omene, killed by them in 1993; relatives of Omene's widow; others simply neighbors of an unknown group that was growing in their vicinity and was seen as a growing threat. Life in the deep jungle is full of mysteries and of hidden and revealed dangers. Waorani hunters had had recent and dangerous encounters in the forest, and not very clear information about the nature and composition of those not very friendly neighbors. Several explosive elements were combined: blood debts to collect, plus the fear of dangerous neighbors on Waorani land, soil where the bones of Waorani ancestors rest, where the chonta palms the ancestors planted still grow. There were, too, other motives: the anxiety of the old warriors; the sensation of superiority and impunity that being "civilized" gives them; firearms, et cetera. There also could have been, as we are trying to find out, other motives driven by outside interests.

We repeat that insofar as the preparation of the attack is concerned, there are aspects that remain to be clarified. There could still be surprises. Nevertheless, we are inclined to describe the attack as an action typical of certain well-known Waorani comportment: in the given circumstances, the best defense is a good attack. Which they did with resolution and without doubting its legitimacy. That's why they didn't hide the attack, the severing of the head, the theft of possessions. That's the reason for their exhibiting their trophies and their own preparations for future attacks. In the minds of the Waorani least affected by the values of the whites, this attack will become a part of the oral tradition, and the attackers will join the pantheon of Waorani heroes.

The action was carried out with special cruelty. They didn't just want to eliminate undesirable neighbors, they also wanted to find out information about the fate of the Tagaeri and the other uncontacted groups in the area. In this sense, and although their methods seem wrong to us, the Babeiri did what Ecuadorian society had not been capable of doing in the last fifteen years: react to great changes in the area and try to instill order.

The events have underscored the vacuity of a certain anthropological and pseudo-conservationist practice that encourages the idyllic and unreal defense of untouchable, intangible jungles populated by ancestral beings in an impossible state of human purity that it has always been impossible for me even to imagine. Human beings commonly cannot and do not want to remain isolated. They need to meet each other, interact, mix with one another. When we look at isolated groups, the fragility and danger of that contact springs to mind, so much so that without adequate preparation and maximum care, the probability of a tragedy multiplies.

As Alejandro Labaka used to say, for those groups, contact is very delicate, dangerous, and frequently painful; lack of contact, however, is fatal.

It's certain that after the last attack there are too many victims. But there will be more soon if we do not act quickly and wisely.

It's not too late to protect many of the survivors and, at the same time, bring some order and common sense to an area that is too much affected by disorder and lawlessness. For our part, we are disposed to contribute, in the proper context, concrete proposals for redirecting a situation that continues to be enormously dangerous.

II. Wartime

Wao voices

It will be hard for outsiders to understand what's written here about the most recent large-scale Waorani attack. But perhaps if we accompany it with some of their own words, recorded by Lino Tagliani in his years on the Aguarico (1988-92) from various Waorani, most of them still living, the reader might be able to draw nearer, intellectually and emotionally, to this group which has been hunters, gatherers, and warriors.

How could we live without launching attacks?

Why should we let our spears get blunt without sticking them in someone?

Nemunga (died in 1991, Cacataro)

Grabbing our spears

We walk out and go to war.

Let's go kill!

Our spears are long, sharp and precise.

They always hit their mark!

War song

You can't always be at peace, you can't always be at war. War and peace are like sun and rain, or like the seasons. We get some of everything. War and peace are part of our life and of the nature that surrounds us. Likewise, the river rises and falls; and sometimes the forest is full of food, sometimes we go hungry.

Babe (Tigüino)

My spears open wounds,

My spears drench the earth with blood!

During the attack, the sky was dark,

Covered with low, black clouds.

In that moment many enemies despaired,

But I, Waorani warrior,

I was happy!

Huepe (Cononaco)

When the Waorani stop making spears, and put up our hands, and walk around unarmed; when our war songs fall silent, and we make no more raids, then we Waorani will be condemned to disappear.


Code of honor with variations

Those who promoted or participated directly in the attack are adults, very close to the traditional mentality expressed in the quotations above, which, of course, should be taken apart and studied in great detail, though this isn't the place to study them. People like Dabo, Babe and Yeti know the cowode (non-Waorani) and their complex social regulations only in a very superficial and inappropriate manner. They are, and they feel, Waorani; they barely know anything about the ways of outsiders. They are especially uninterested in how the outsiders feel about Waorani internal affairs, such as the management of their territory, the order within their house.

Above all, the attack had to do with a piece of territory they considered theirs, and of their ability to pass freely and peacefully through it. A dangerous and uneasy proximity had been developing. While their Tagaeri relatives had been up until recently problematic tenants, now successive reports seemed to confirm the presence of others who were much less trustworthy, because they were more foreign and fearsome. "They are eating the fruits of the chonta palms our ancestors planted, and walking over their bones," one of the attackers said angrily. Because of this, the first commandment of a Wao group came into play: No one enters our land uninvited. Breaking this commandment is punished by death. Even if, as some has suggested, the attackers were motivated by outside interests such as woodcutters, the primary reason still stands: It's our land and we do what we please within it.

Add to that the sacred law of vengeance. When the Tagaeri killed Carlos Omene in 1993, they killed him while he and the other Babeiri were on what they considered a "civilizing mission." There were several things wrong with the Tagaeris' attack. According to their understanding, the Babeiri were on a peaceful mission. They were returning Omatuki to her home; men, women and children were all walking together. It wasn't a party made up for war, nor even for hunting or vigilance. That's why the attack was treacherous. And thence came the fury after the spearing and, shortly thereafter, the death of Carlos. "My spears have got to have a Tagaeri! And if I die, I die!" Babe used to scream in those days, despite the fact that he hadn't participated in the previous mission, and despite the fact that he was too old to take part in epic raids against enemies considered much stronger, faster, and tougher.

It's appropriate to ask, why was there this educative zeal in a person like Babe? Was it spontaneous or induced? "If we get Babe and his people in 'Nueva Golondrina' [Tigüino] to make new contact with the Tagaeri before we begin work on the lines that you have indicated on the map, the general security of our workers and technicians will be guaranteed..." wrote the Ecuadorian foreman Jorge Viteri to Dominique Robert, the director of the CGG (Compagne Generale de Geophysique, a French petroleum company), on 11/9/89.

Who was in control then, or who is in control now, in case anyone is making this kind of attempt? No one. The deep jungle is the place of no law, of impunity; much is lacking to instill democratic control there. The civil authorities, police, military, and even indigenous people, are notable for their absence in that region. An oil company foreman can make an attempt, as can be seen in this case (of which we have written documents), with the compliance of his bosses and on the basis of a few gifts, to change the tenor of indigenous relations in a particular area. No one and nothing seems to impede it. Could someone do it now, in the same way--a timber company, or a tour operator, or anyone else who happened to be so inclined, even a simple adventurer? It seems evident that the answer is yes. For this reason, the possibility that there was some outside influence in the May '03 attack should not be discarded. Those are only some of the dangerous variables that could be putting pressure on, or using to their own advantage, the old Wao code of honor.

Nevertheless, I insist that with the data obtained up to this point, and while proof is still lacking, this assault seems to have been driven principally by feelings arising from their own values (or lack of values, depending on how outsiders see it).

"Carlos's widow spends all night crying for her speared husband. Nobody has avenged his killing. And she hasn't got a man by her side!" That's what they said in Tigüino. Complaints like that are like salt rubbed in a wound. The spilled blood demands revenge, and joins together with others of the clan's injuries that have not healed. The war party was not made up of random people. Among the raiders were brothers or brothers-in-law of Carlos Omene, who was speared to death in '93; relatives of the woman killed in the incident with woodcutters in November 2002; descendents of those who killed Kimontare, the father-chief of the Tagaeri.... Almost all of the attackers were veterans; this was not the work of young men.

(It's public, because he has confessed it openly to the press, that one of them was a schoolteacher, a brother of the president of ONHAE. What responsibility could be asked of a democratic organization in such a case? Another datum indicative of the limits of a community organization that's just beginning to establish itself among autonomous clans and irreducible warriors.)

Bonds of spilled blood that's fresh or stale but never forgotten, and recalled now--why?

That question would raise many others, like a dust storm that will have to settle with time and information, before being finally, mostly, answered. It shouldn't be forgotten where and among whom this happened: in a place especially stirred up by various problems and within a clan which has been the protagonist of almost all the recent acts of violence among the more contacted Waorani groups.

The Tigüino fiesta

The attack was not improvised. It seems to have been organized in a fiesta in the village of Tigüino, something very much in the tradition of warlike skirmishes. Fiestas are the place to reaffirm basic values and take decisions of importance to clans with internal family connections but whose members live in distant houses. In this case, certainly as a culmination of reasons already mentioned and because of others that remain to be discovered, someone brought up the necessity of an action in the old style: to collect a blood debt, to prevent the danger of a growing group about which little was known as far as its constitution (Tagaeri-Taromenane?), to cleanse a territory they considered theirs.

Certainly they performed almost all the customary rituals in this case. While the educated youths vanished from the scene, the veterans prepared the way for the necessary climax. They recalled various previous grievances, and evoked their condition as warriors, free and proud people whose life is worthless if they surrender without wielding the palm-wood spears that were given to them by a god.... The ritual songs and the homemade yuca beer lasted all night, the energy rose, the feet pounded the dirt floor in a menacing dance. Thus they reached the effervescent moment of rage (piini), from which only one step leads to action.

Did they have their arsenal of spears already prepared? Did they build it up feverishly starting at that moment? How did they decide on the number and identity of the aggressors?

I repeat, this is an initiative still wrapped in questions, but there are evident consistencies. Why didn't they use their actual armament resources? The Waorani today possess repeating rifles, shotguns and in at least in one case pistols; they're not unaware of their power, or their advantages over spears. They are consummate and extremely efficient hunters and have plenty of ammunition. An attack of nine expert marksmen on a palm-thatched multifamily hut packed with people would have left many more dead. Nevertheless, although they sometimes use guns in preference to spears, they don't kill humans with them. "We kill with the spear; the shotgun is no good. Only to scare, or to hunt animals," said the one who acted as chief of the war party, with evident pride. We could say that for them it was, approximately, a crusade, within their belief system, rather than a massacre.

So at the fiesta it was decided to take an action of vengeance, reprisal or self-defense, bearing the unmistakable stamp of their history of internal killings. Although ordinarily they are far from the habits and customs of the old days, they revived again the self-discipline of the past, when combat was above all a demonstration of physical and mental control, a demonstration as much of suffering as of courage, and the desired culmination was not so much victory itself as the act of trying for it. It was equally meritorious to win or to die in the attempt. Warriors often die young, but they live their lives with unparalleled intensity.

So the nine took up their spears (four or five per warrior), grabbed their shotguns and a bundle of yuca flour paste, got in a canoe and headed downstream.

The attack

Waging war is a difficult task, appropriate only for the most strong, obstinate and impassible. In the social recognition of this fact resides part of its prestige. The law of the spear obtains recognized rights among the Waorani.

The patrol rides down the Tigüino River and navigates a short way up the Cachiyacu or Mencaro. On the bank they find a trail belonging to the enemies. They hide the canoe and walk into the forest until nightfall. They walk the whole next day in the direction of the Curaray River, following footprints which get progressively more visible and abundant. The march is demanding, the food scanty, and any defensive precautions they might take would do them little good, deep in enemy territory.

At the end of that second day, exhausted, they come across an old abandoned hut. When they wake up the next morning they are shocked by how careless they've been: they've slept almost on top of a broad path that leads to a very large multifamily hut, very close by. That could have been their final night on earth. In any case, they don't attack the big hut, perhaps because too many people live inside, or because too large a patch of forest has been cleared around it for them to take its inhabitants by surprise. They continue their forced march, following a narrower path to the south. The difficulties mount up on this third day. Persistent rain has accompanied them since the beginning of their adventure, and now they have to cross swamps in chest-high water, weakened by the journey and the lack of food, and holding the shotguns and the heavy spears up out of the water. The path goes through five abandoned gardens, each with a hut ruined by time. These people have been living here for a long time, or else there are a lot of them! The strength of the walkers decreases; two of the most experienced warriors are forced to stay behind in that last part of the journey.

The way they describe the attack, it would seem to have been prepared by the greatest Waorani cinematographer. The large, multifamily palm-thatched house underneath a dark and thundering jungle storm. The air so full of rain, cold and noise that it keeps their enemies inside the hut, tending the fires, unhearing, unprepared. Even so, those people have the vitality of the cleverest animals, and before the seven are able to circle the house and cut off the two doorways, someone in the house raises the alarm.

To describe this crucial moment, the three tape recorded accounts utilize as many mythic elements as realistic ones.

The leader of the aggressor group seems to have the most level-headed vision of the moment. According to his declaration, the adult males immediately stampede out the door, "like wild boars," says the attacker, admiring their strength, speed and fearlessness. They're armed with spears, which, together with their burst of speed, makes the art of spearing them difficult. Without absolute certainty, it may be calculated that the aggressors are able to hit three or four of them, who manage to get away from the house and are finished off at the edge of the clearing next to the forest. Because of his formidable size, the attackers will cut the head off of one of them later. Perhaps others flee, wounded, and bleed to death later in the forest. All this happens amid the crash of the thunder, the howls of the attackers and the anguished screams of the women. In the terrible chaos, some young females and males flee, while, paralyzed with terror, some older women and nursing mothers stay in the house.

Another of the veterans recounts the scene with fantastic elements, very much in the proverbial fashion of talking about "the Other." I translate the approximate sense of his exalted odyssey. It was a large house, so full of people that when they took notice of us, the house was shaken by the movement of the people inside. It lifted off the ground and shook! Some of them ran outside, as fast as deer, but others took refuge in the house, up on the transverse logs of the roof like monkeys, armed with spears. We couldn't go inside. They shouted furiously. It was dark inside and they could have speared us. But despite the storm, we managed to push the fires inside so that they set the thatch on fire. Because of the smoke and fire, they had to get out, and we killed a lot of them. Afterwards each of us grabbed as much as he could carry--spears, blowguns, hammocks, parrots--and we took it all away.

Several convincing pieces of information

What is certain, and how much invented, in these confessions? Making use of their own narratives and, at the same time, the answers obtained afterwards through video and photos, let us summarize, as if this were an essay:

The house was large. Five long vertical posts of pambil palm wood, specified one of the attackers, there were a lot of people. How many--thirty? forty? Not even the number of dead is known for certain; the expedition that went and buried the corpses was unable to find out, as they didn't enter the surrounding forest. For our part we believe that three or four adult men died, about five children, and perhaps six women. Perhaps more.

We believe that the aggressors fired guns, at least at first. Only to scare them, the leader said. Did they shoot through the palm-thatch walls? Did one of the younger combatants shoot the women who screamed and pled for mercy? In any case, the bodies that were found had a strikingly high number of spears stuck in them. They speared even the corpses that had been burned inside the hut, to render useless the frightening number of enemy spears they found in the home--a spear that has been stuck in a corpse is not used again. Many of the corpses, too, seemed to have been cut with machetes.

To the best of their ability, the attackers left no one alive, not even women and children. A level of unnecessary violence was revealed in the speared bodies. It seemed that one of the prisoners was tortured to get information before she was killed.

The attackers describe the abundance of new axes--at least six--and other metallic objects like machetes, pots and pans, etc. Where did they come from? Oil workers? Perhaps from the consensual thefts arranged by Vicente Sevilla and his Kempery Tours company? Were they dropped by other tourists in planes that flew low to attract the natives out of their houses into their clearings? Any answer could fit, in a region so lacking in order.

How to the attackers describe their victims? With tones simultaneously objective and mythic, so we have to be careful. They are people with short, strong legs, large bodies, enormous vitality and quickness, a bit stocky, light skin, short hair (like Brazilians, one of the attackers specified curiously), ears with small holes, narrow eyes.

Details that remain to be evaluated

It seems that there is much that remains to be learned. Not only the open questions that we have raised up to now, but also details like this: why attack a distant house, leaving behind, so dangerously for their retreat, an area occupied by enemies?

In the retreat, according to what they tell us, the attackers were attacked on three or four occasions; one of them was nearly hit by a spear. But they are certain that it was only one or two men who followed them. Is that consistent with the previous story in which some of the men managed to escape? "They got scared, they're afraid of us," said the chief of the Babeiri party as he prepared spears for the next attack. "They'll fear us now." In any case, the desperate counterattacks dispersed the raiders, who, afterwards, had to fire their guns to find each other in the forest. At the same time, the raiders were forced to leave behind a substantial part of the abundant, heavy booty they were carrying--spears, blowguns, et cetera.

Another notable fact was the loquacity of the protagonists and their friends after the event. One of the protagonists went immediately to the Capuchin Mission in Coca, carrying stolen spears and blowguns, and asking for "Alejandro's brothers." Later, very resolved, he confirmed that he had avenged Carlos and Alejandro. At the same time, as is well-known in Ecuador, members of the Babeiri clan, not strictly the attackers, yielded to the offers of a personage of the Prefecture of Orellana and the gifts of a certain journalist to show off the severed head, exhibit themselves naked before the camera, and, afterwards, take a well-remunerated tour of Guayaquil.

But leaving aside questions of journalistic ethics, why did the Waorani proclaim their action so publicly? And what did it have to do with Alejandro?

Although it's said that the best-kept secrets among the Waorani never last more than six months, it's certain that they keep quiet when they do something considered in their norms as incorrect, or at least unclear. Thus it was hard for them recently to admit the execution in the forest of three Colombians; they attributed it to others, or confused the case to the point of delirium. In contrast, in the present case they directly admitted their involvement from the beginning, perhaps because they believed that they had carried out an action not only in accordance with their own claims, but also deserving of public esteem. At last they had terminated part of the danger of the "savages." This phenomenon--that the people most recently assimilated into society try to earn points in the face of its rampant racism by annihilating others who have remained in a state of "savagery"--has been frequently repeated throughout history. Too late, they are comprehending the traps of our society in the slippery terrain of the law.

As regards their evocation of Alejandro Labaka for this action, which some periodicals have exploited in their titles, we have to take the antecedents into account. In 1993, when I was attending the speared and dying Carlos Omene in the hospital, he surprised me with his words: "They speared me like they speared Baka!" (He didn't pronounce the name well.) He repeated this on several occasions. The fact that he would identify his fate so closely with an outsider indicates something that we had not realized so forcefully up to that point. They have identified Alejandro, in a way, as a member of a Waorani clan (the one from Yasuni), and interpret his identity according to their own understanding: the bishop had family not only among the Waorani, but also among the missionaries.

The wasp nest

The image of the wasp nest is not perfect; understand it as a symbol of a human group that has been brought to a paroxysm of terror and violence. And whose reaction is unforeseeable, but will probably be dangerous.

Could any hypothesis be made about what has happened inside the attacked group, about their reactions to the massacre? Can we deduce any consequence for the inhabitants or activities nearest the place of the tragedy?

Information is lacking to make firm deductions. There are too many variations that have not been resolved. Do the four inhabited houses form a single group? If so, the size of the clan would be enough to imagine they might be planning reprisals without fleeing the area.

But let's not make suppositions without sufficient bases. Because one thing is sure: someone has caused a dangerous disturbance to that human wasp nest. We're talking about people with an incredible capacity for movement though the jungle, astonishingly resistant; it's natural in these times to think of the fury they must feel in these moments. Now, keeping that in mind, when we look at a map of the place, we see that there are enclaves of Waoranis around, and Kichwas from the River Curaray who hunt and fish in the forests nearby; in the same area are blocks of land granted to the oil companies for development; not to mention other intruders. The tension has grown considerably, along with the probability of violent encounters far away from the place of the houses. All those people are armed when they move through the forest, each with his own type of weapon. Who will be the next victim of the violence? How can adequate control of the area be established? And then, what kind of plan can be drawn up that will, first, try to get to know, and second, to preserve the life of the known and little-known groups, avoiding events like the one we describe here?

In sum, how can we emerge from the cycle of violence into a different space in which the groups can live together?


While we interviewed one of the warriors, who was pacing around his house like a tiger in a cage as he relived the excitement of the attack, and while his wife moaned, lying prostate on the floor with what might have been an inflammation of the kidneys, without wanting to go see a doctor, the couple's son, an educated young man, a director of ONHAE, was complaining about the unfortunate timing of the events, exclaiming repeatedly, "I was supposed to be in Denmark now! I had a plane ticket for a meeting there!" It seemed that the massacre itself was much less important for him than not being able to go to Europe.

That's certainly another risk factor, the generational gap that has alienated these people with languages and concepts so different that they can barely understand each other.

III. The Group that Came out of Nowhere

Around the massacre has arisen a storm of confusion. If anyone had the patience to systematize all the information (to use the term loosely) offered by the Ecuadorian media, they would see what a mess has been made of it. But at this point what interests me most is at once the most crucial and least discussed part of the issue: Who were the victims? And, of course, who are the survivors of the attack, how many might there be, where do they come from and how did they appear in that area? This, to me, is the crucial point, the riddle to be solved, after which new and effective policies can be developed in the area.

Away from that babble of senseless voices, where, as usual, the people who have the least to say talk the most, it's necessary to devote ourselves to the path of supportable knowledge. I have to confess, at the outset, that the data we're working with at the Vicariate of Aguarico are still insufficiently verified; a careful and patient investigation among Waoranis in the region is lacking. Nevertheless, the most recent events advance the hypothesis we proposed ten years ago. And that permits us to continue exploring it and the new questions which have arisen.

When our history is only the unknown

In the first lines of Los huaorani en la historia de los pueblos del Oriente, published in 1994, it's put on record that "There are at least two or three family groups without contact with the others….[A]lmost all within the Ecuadorian Amazon." Thus we indicated that the noncontacted ones were not only the Tagaeri, but others too. Although it might seem strange to some, the jungle still has many secrets, including in the form of unseen people. And not all of those mobile clans resided permanently within the borders of Ecuador. There wasn't much more information about them in that book; the text was already too large for us to go deeply into other hypotheses, but nevertheless there were indications.

In October 1993, shortly after the double incursion of Babe's people to a Tagaeri house, with the capture and return of Omatuki and the spearing of Carlos Omene, I wrote a long article entitled "Forget about the Tagaeri" (later collected in the book En la region de olvido, Quito, 1998). In those days we had suspicions about the ethnic composition of the clan called Tagaeri. Were they still Tagaeri? Had they mixed with others? What relationships were there between those isolated groups and other, better-known Waoranis, like Kemperi's group on the River Cononaco? Even years earlier, in 1987, there were indications of the existence of unidentified inhabitants in the area.

We called them Taromenani or Taromenairi, that is to say, the people of Taromen(g)a; or sometimes Huiñatare, Huiñairi, after a group that lived in the region in the past. Proper names, or approximations? Did they have anything to do with the Tagaeri? Who are those clans, where do they come from, how and where have they remained hidden, are they Waorani or not, why are they emerging at those times and places?

Taromenga Onguipo (Hell, or the Land of the Taramongui)

Many Waorani will tell you about them. Naturally not all know much. If you're talking with an uninformed informant, you can take home a lot of confusion. That's what happens to journalists and investigators who are in a hurry. Sometimes they hear great revelations from the mouths of fools. (Why shouldn't there be fools among the Waorani? They have as much right to them as the rest of us!)

Imagine the variations that exist within an oral culture where each narrator, even if he knows what he's talking about, adorns his tales with his own impressions. You have to listen to many people, then sift through the information with great care, systematize it, return to the wisest informants, insist again and again. Only then can you hope to draw near to the truth.

The people from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (a Protestant missionary group based in the USA), whom I consulted years ago, and investigators like Laura Rival (author of Hijos del Sol, padres del jaguar, Abya Yala) agreed that those characters from Waorani tales were imaginary, although they might have existed in the past. It's no wonder; even today's narratives have the feel of legends. Some of the current Waorani storytellers attribute to the Taromenane mythic properties: they are monstrous people who live in holes in the earth, they don't have mouths, they can survive in the midst of fire, et cetera. That must be why the missionaries of the SIL translated Hell with the _expression Taromenga Onguipo, the Land of the Taromenga. Certainly nothing but nonexistent creatures of fantasy. But, wait a minute. Is that really correct?

One more datum. The German explorer Günter Tessman, at the end of the 1920s, collected, in the haciendas near the mouth of the Curaray, the tradition of a group called Tarominca, some of whom were losing their language, adopting Kichwa, and passing for Kichwas among the laborers of the area. Meanwhile their relatives still roamed free between the rivers near the Tivacuno.

That's enough erudition for now, but let's not forget it. It's evident that we have to separate the historical names, things and precedence from the current question of the whether there are still unknown and mobile clans in the deep forest. It's always been beyond question to me that there are. Information gathered over many years with very diverse groups of Waorani who live and hunt around the basins of the rivers Yasuní, Nashiño, Cononaco, Shiripuno, among others, spoke to us of characteristic footprints, monkeys killed by unfamiliar blowgun darts, and other signs that indicated uncontacted clans. The recent events confirm this information.

In sum, should they be called Taromenane (the hunters who walk through the forest without trails; the tireless ones)? Are they, or are they not, descendents of the Huiñatari, fast runners who would flee great distances after an attack, and who adorned themselves with the blue feathers of the huiña bird? These remain to be seen. Perhaps we will need to change the names radically. What is certain is that the human head exhibited as a macabre trophy was not that of a Tagaeri. We are in the presence of unknown clans.

The signs of the identity of the "others"

I've repeated on various occasions that we've lost, at least up to now, a great chance to have made of the sad event a step toward new and urgent knowledge. Those who made the helicopter trip to the place of the attack treated it as a criminal investigation rather than a cultural investigation of the house and the area around it.

Despite that lost opportunity, there is palpable and sufficient proof to assure the novelty of the attacked group. Probably one of the reasons why the attackers took the head was precisely that: to show that they were others, foreign people, who invaded the territory of their ancestors.

The first surprising thing about the head (of a man about 30) was the hair. It was cut short at the nape of the neck! I've never heard in any traditional tale of any Wao, male or female, whose hair was cut that way. In contrast, the fact that his ears weren't pierced doesn't prove anything.

When Juan Carlos Andueza sent me the photos of tools and handicrafts, there remained no doubt in my mind. The hammock was of different workmanship; the spears were different too, thicker and with a different layout of the barbs or serrations at the end. But the most convincing differences could be seen in the blowgun. Its curious mouthpiece could not have been an accident. At the other end, where the dart emerges, it looked more like a Waorani blowgun, an omena, unlike any other in the entire Amazon. The similarities and differences probably indicate a group that is related but has been separated for a long time, producing and maintaining variations in isolation.

The words of the tribe

The question of dialectical differences should be taken up with care, even if they seem to be clearly demonstrated. In 1993, when they captured Omatuki and held her for several days, the Babeiri were fascinated by certain differences in pronunciation and meaning in the young woman's speech. When they went to give her back, before the attack suffered by Carlos, they had the opportunity to hear her talking with other women who they saw surrounding the Tagaeri house where they stayed for several hours. The visitors said they sometimes understood what Omatuki was saying and sometimes did not, and likewise with the women who answered her.

This time, during the cruel attack, the Waorani gave a twist to the screw of their investigation. After the first convulsive, bloody scenes of the attack, when there were only women, children and old people in the house, the attackers, according to what we believe, interrogated one of the captured women in the most severe way. It seemed that she resisted, and they tortured information out of her before finishing her off with their spears.

We have to look carefully at this first version. But it coincides with what we knew. The woman uses a language that is sometimes strange, so that it's sometimes hard to follow what she's saying. From a linguistic point of view, it would seem that this group is one step beyond the Tagaeri with respect to the language in common use among contacted Waoranis today.

Does this indicate anything new? Let's look at it finally from another point of view and perhaps the discovery will gradually be concretized, or at least show other revelatory aspects.

The bleeding clan

When we investigated the deaths of Alejandro and Inés in 1987, a question arose that to some seemed strange: Who killed them, the Tagaeri or the Taromenane? I took up the question again in my article "Could it be?" There I insisted on our lack of knowledge of the theme and on the fact that there were a lot of loose ends to tie up, many of which were in the hands of Kemperi, the leader of a Waorani community on the Cononaco River. For instance, a long time ago, old Kemperi's father captured and lived with a girl whom he called Taromenani. Kemperi himself knows things that he couldn't know if he didn't have access to some member of that group. The oil companies, too, have information they've never shared.

In 1993, Omatuki confirmed our suspicions and inspired new ones. What did the differences in languages between her and other members of her community mean? Had the Tagaeri merged with another group? Lacking a better name, we hypothesized that the Tagaeri had joined with the Taromenane (if it was them), and the latter group was dominant.

Given that, in 1987, according to a report by the French oil company CGG, there were three houses inhabited at the same time, there could have been clans in them from both groups, friendly or unfriendly. In any case, the idea that the Tagaeri were in a process of assimilation or extermination was introduced, though it could not be proven. Omatuki detailed a long list of deaths in the Tagaeri community, from their leader Taga, in December 1984, to many others killed in accidents in the forest, shot by oil workers on the ground, or machine-gunned from helicopters. Very few adult men were left, and their morale was very low. They had a big discussion in 1987 before killing the missionaries. The women wanted to protect them. The men began to argue. "If we kill them, the outsiders will kill all of us," said some; others recalled the law that shed blood must be avenged. Although it didn't appear clearly in the young woman's story, a shadow had emerged and was growing: the danger didn't only come from outsiders, but also from other groups that were lying in wait in the forest.

Much later, in 2000, in the forest a Wao suddenly encountered a Tagaeri hunter named Waiwa. Although at the beginning the encounter was tense and dangerous, with Waiwa demanding the other man's machete and threatening to kill him if he didn't comply, they later put their familial mechanisms into play, figuring out how they were related, and the tension dropped so that they were able to talk for a long time. The Tagaeri hunter enumerated a series of deaths within his clan that coincided with those from Omatuki's list. At that time there were few of them. They suffered from a scarcity of metal implements, and spoke of the Taromenane as a great and immanent danger.

Now that circle seems closed. A woman speared intentionally in the arm to extract information said to the Babeiri attackers, among many words that they did not understand, that three months earlier, the Taromenane (that is, her own group) had dealt a deathblow to the last of the Tagaeri. If we were to take that information at face value, keeping in mind that it has not been confirmed, we could deduce the deaths of, among others, Omatuki and Waiwa. Are the Tagaeri really extinct? There's no way to be certain; the jungle is a box of surprises.

Data and questions

Despite the fact that in general the oil companies release one piece of information and hide ten, we know from a reliable source that at the time of the May '03 attack there were at least four houses inhabited at the same time. They haven't wanted to tell us the exact location of the houses or how far they are from each other, which could indicate if the inhabitants were friends or enemies. If the other houses are the same size as the one that was destroyed, we are speaking of 100-150 people.

Are there women and/or children among them who were Tagaeri? In the old narratives, it was frequently said that the Taromenane didn't kill women, but stole them. Are the present groups of one sole ethnicity, whether Taromenane or other? Are they rooted in that area, or do some of the groups make migrations to the low river basins of the Nashiño and Yasuní, or even further to the Peruvian border? If we go back to the old stories, the Huiñatari were said to be capable of long and rapid journeys, as well as fierce attacks. Are all the groups in the region aggressive? In any case, what does that aggression mean, and how would it be demonstrated? It's best not to come up with a hasty answer.

According to the attackers, there were a tremendous number of spears in the house that was destroyed. That's exactly one reason why there were so many in the women's bodies found in the house later. The attackers sought to destroy the arsenal, because a spear stuck in a corpse is not used again. The other methods the attackers employed to destroy the arsenal was to cut the spears with machetes and to steal them. The stolen spears were weapons of war. Are the other currently inhabited houses also full of spears?

Vicente Sevilla, of Kempery Tours, is a tour guide with long experience in that conflictive region. Observing the route on which he has brought tourists for many years, one might say that he has been playing with fire; he has brought them along the edge of a knife. He relates numerous episodes in which he could see, hear and sense those phantom neighbors who watched his voyages, walked through his campsites and made themselves felt in various ways. Nevertheless, although he was robbed on many occasions, he was never attacked. Only because he frequently left gifts on the riverbanks--pots, candy, tools--like those left in other lands as gifts to the minotaur?

Hypothesis to continue investigating

It's not possible to doubt the existence in Ecuador, and if I'm correct also in the Peruvian part of the lower Curaray, of isolated groups still unlocalized or unknown. As far as indigenous people related to the Waoranis are concerned, this could be a provisional map, based on the latest information, though still imprecise:

The majority of those we call Waorani live in various communities in Ecuador. Some 100 or 150 people reside now on what was formerly Tagaeri land. Lacking a more precise name, we'll call them Taromenane. They're probably related to the Wao, but with very little contact with them, at least in the last century. It's not known for certain why those groups from the lower Nashiño and the lower Curaray have moved up to their present position. Under pressure from other small groups (call them Huiñatari as an approximation) from the same ethnicity, but different? Lacking women? Inspired by the ease of a free corridor and the isolation of the untouchable zone?

There are some people who are ethnically Waorani but are assimilated as Kichwas or undifferentiated indigenous people on the upper Peruvian Napo and on the banks of the Curaray. It would be of great interest to gather their testimony. We cannot discard the possibility that there even are isolated clans belonging to other indigenous ethnicities, in an area that since old times has been known as "the refuge of walking relics," the land around rivers that flow into the lower Curaray, such as the Arabela, and the area around Vacacocha, et cetera. From there, through the isolated corridors between the rivers, they could have access, as they are certain to have had in the past, to an Ecuadorian area still isolated and remote enough.

It's an extraordinary moment for Amazonian knowledge and for the adequate protection of priceless human groups. From the Amazonian chaos, from an area much more unknown than untouchable, a human group has emerged, still full of mystery; it's possible that, out of the violence and confusion which have ruled there up to now, recovery and renewal can take place, if we attend to the task seriously.

IV. Hidden Tribes in Ecuador: Where are they and who represents them?

With the 21st century already well underway, Ecuador has still not finished organizing its territory and the rights of its people. It's still a young country, but it will soon celebrate 200 years of independence (or, as others understand it, of internal conquest) and it has not yet put its house in order.

These chores that remain undone are principally in the forested east of the country. Ecuador is an Amazonian country more on paper than on the ground. It hasn't fully taken possession of that great piece of territory.

Country under construction

At the beginning of the 20th century a large map was still being published in Guayaquil where almost the whole Amazonian region of the country was shaded with black lines and described with large superimposed letters as unknown regions inhabited by savages. That indicated how much remained to be done, as much in the minds of Ecuadorians as in the policies of their government. Now a century has passed and some ignorance has eroded, but there are still unexplored regions and there are still "savages." And it's no exaggeration to say their continue to be devalued and killed as much as during the time of the rubber boom.

In this writing I'm going to refer only to the territory of Orellana and part of Pastaza provinces, the territory I know something about.

It's very difficult for Ecuador to find the adequate formula for just treatment of indigenous Amazonian peoples. Today there are a multitude of difficulties faced not only by groups with a long history of living side by side with the whites, like the Kichwas of Sarayacu, but also by groups which still remain isolated. The people whom I call "hidden," and to whom I will refer here.

The Waorani, the most recently integrated

There's nothing worse than half truths and twisted solutions. When the government of Hurtado conceded the so-called "Protectorate" to the majority of the Waoranis gathered in the headwaters of the Curaray by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Alejandro Labaka made it clear that there were groups belonging to the same ethnicity outside that territory, and also that the extent of their ancestral territory was not being taken into account. Labaka had to die so that attention would be paid to what he was saying. It wasn't "an illusion," nor "an attack on the unity of the nation," nor did it "impede the economic development of the region," but during his life he frequently heard accusations as obtuse as those from civil and military authorities, when he was simply seeking to promote justice, order and peace.

Labaka was the tireless paladin who fought for that cause during the years in which it seemed lost. At the last moment, CONFENIAE was formed, and played an important role in the demarcation of territory, and then CONAIE; but in those days, and even now, those organizations are more interested in the affairs of their own majority populations than in those of the small Amazonian groups.

Finally, the Waorani initiated their regional and national integration, founded their own organization, ONHAE, and joined the ranks of the Indians that existed.

The Tagaeri

But before his death, Alejandro learned of a small Wao group that maintained a voluntary and tenacious isolation: the Tagaeri. They were, at least at the beginning, fully Waorani, but they wanted no treaties with the other Waoranis.

What happened? What has become of them? My impression is that we have abandoned them to their fate, like a ship that has broken up at sea. And they have gone down. I will explain this briefly.

For the government, they were nothing but a nuisance. The government never lived up to its sacred obligations of justice and protection toward people who possess inalienable rights. The only time the indigenous organizations spoke of them was when they wanted to criticize the government, the oil companies or the missionaries; but they never presented and energetically defended concrete proposals to help them. They were busy with other things, as usual. Nor were the Tagaeri a favorite theme of anthropologists, some of whom limited themselves to saying languidly that the best thing would be to leave them alone, free in their supposed rainforest Eden. As if by that they were saying something useful.

Until his death, Alejandro sought to defend them in various battles, with varying degrees of success: trying to get a territory set aside for them, different from that of the Waorani; trying to stop oil exploration there, et cetera. In the end, when none of that seemed to be working, he set out to contact them and protect them with his life.

I believe that the main error on the part of his missionary colleagues, since his death, has been to have too much confidence in the role of the indigenous organizations. Also, probably, not to have been obstinate enough in the face of abuses by the authorities, by the oil companies, by the woodcutters, and by others.

We assumed that the rights of a small, isolated indigenous community would need to be exclusively represented and upheld by other indigenous people. To me, it seemed obvious. But what if that representation is done badly and deficiently? What if some of those self-appointed representatives rob, attack, and even kill with impunity the same people they are supposed to be representing? Who, then, will protect the rights of the unprotected? Does the government have any role in it?

But let's move to the most recent case to look at this question more closely.

The Taromenane

It's been said many times (repeatedly from the Vicariate of Aguarico) that there is at least one other ethnic group in the area. We called them, as a hypothesis, Taromenane. They probably have a strong connection to the Waorani, but they're not exactly the same ethnic group. And it's possible that they're not the only hidden ones.

As always, the various governments heard information like that like someone hearing the sound of the rain outside--without much interest. The Ecuadorian public, too, has always had more urgent things to think about.

In the last ten years, those indigenous families have been surrounded, besieged, assaulted and robbed. Waoranis, Kichwas, woodcutters, soldiers, oilmen, and tourists have passed through their lands without the government or the indigenous organizations' taking any interest in it. Almost no one has done anything practical to defend their territorial rights or their lives. In the end of May 2003, at least fifteen woman and children were murdered by a well-known Wao group. A horrible massacre, on a scale that hasn't been seen in Ecuador for many years. But society didn't even blink.

Tell me, what's been done? Some of the aggressors were taken in triumph to Guayaquil while the authorities looked the other way. They treated the deed as a common crime and opened an exhausting investigation that has as of yet produced no results. ONHAE, some of whose members participated in the massacre and benefit from the illegal sale of wood, claimed it was the only representative of the victims, and, oblivious to the killers' confessions and their own business connections, leveled accusations against woodcutters, oil companies, and, so as not to leave anyone out of their insane discourse, missionaries. This approach of theirs is very dangerous for the people they are supposedly representing.

In out investigations after the massacre, we learned that the Tagaeri have probably disappeared, progressively weakened by attacks by people connected to oil exploration and by internal warfare. Now, as in the times of the rubber boom, fifteen or twenty people have been massacred. What will it take to get us to react?

Words into the void?

We still don't know exactly how many there are, or who they are, or where they come from or what they want, those groups hidden in the flatlands between the rivers Nashiño and Cononaco. Without much certain information, I would guess that there are at least three groups (we don't even know if they're of the same ethnicity): one in what was formerly Tagaeri territory and south of the Mencaro; another in the middle flatlands of the Nashiño, and a third near the same river but close to the border between Ecuador and Peru. On the Peruvian side, between Nashiño and Cononaco, they were incontrovertibly detected at the end of 2003, certainly the same ones that have been detected in Ecuador. But in Ecuador we don't spend a cent on protecting people. Empty words and invisible projects are enough for us.

A government worthy of the name must defend the lives of its citizens. It should be an urgent priority to extend justice to the hidden people: first trying to contact them, then providing them territorial and social protection that after an adequate investigation appears optimal. We need to modernize laws, establish institutions, allocate resources.

And we need to do this with all possible speed.

V. The Reinvention of the Waorani World

Taking into account the information provided by the newspaper El Comercio in a recent article, "A five-year agreement between the Waos and the oil companies" (April 1, 2004), we could deduce that the Waorani have raised the rent on their lands. According to a representative of ONHAE, they will receive at least 2.5 million dollars from contracts they have already signed, while others will raise that sum to 3 million. From oil alone! To this must be added the money the Waorani receive from non-governmental organizations. And, naturally, the rent received from governmental institutions and international agreements that affect their Amazonian region. In the end these are very large sums of money managed by a very new indigenous organization, which has very little experience in administration and has still not established itself strongly in the interior of its own groups.

Although it's part of CONFENIAE and CONAIE, ONHAE has opted for a very different policy from that of other indigenous people in the area such as those of Sarayacu (who are opposing oil exploration). ONHAE's directors and advisors have reserved seats for themselves on the space ship of oil money. And it seems they're flying first class. But it's a risky journey, full of turbulence, and surrounded by hidden dangers. An article published in El Comercio at the beginning of this year spoke of a census that had found 1981 Waorani; some of their groups still have very little contact with Ecuadorian society. The impact of such a large investment on their development is obvious.

At the beginning of the year, ONHAE made public a "Plan of Life to Avoid Extinction." Now they inform us of great projects, with investments in education and infrastructure, and even the creation of a small airplane company. We wish them shrewdness, success and luck in what may be a reinvention of their world. An extremely delicate and fragile business.

Naturally, following the thread of this information and taking into account the figures that are being shuffled, anyone interested in the fate of the Waorani would have some questions.

Although the largest Waorani population resides in Pastaza, especially in the old Protectorate, and although most of ONHAE's leaders are from there, most of the oil rent comes from blocks pertaining to the province of Orellana. Will that be taken into account when the time comes to divide up and invest the money? Will the Waorani of Orellana have proper representation within ONHAE? Will anything energetic and practical be done to give a social and economic alternative to the Waorani groups around the River Tigüino, which have seen the majority of the violence of recent years? Concretely, will anything be done, once and for all, to stop the illegal cutting of timber that's destroying the forest there, under the eyes of the Waorani themselves?

A year has passed since the terrible massacre of May 2003 in the forest near the Curaray. Paradoxically, this massacre brought news of the existence of hidden, uncontacted groups. Will some of the oil money go to them, given that they share the territory, although they have not been consulted? Will necessary resources be employed to contact and protect them? Because nothing like that appears in the negotiations, at least according to the press. Who will defend the rights of the unrepresented?

End note

On May 13, 2004, Cabodevilla told me via e-mail that the Babeiri had recently made another incursion to attack the Taromenane, but had not been able to reach them because the rivers were too low.

On September 19, 2004, he wrote that there had recently been some small mobilization among citizens in Ecuador to protect the Taromenane, and that the group was seeking foreign support.


Miguel Angel Cabodevilla: mac-artaiz@ctv.es

Nathan Horowitz: toanke@yahoo.com

The first three sections of this article were published as Reflexiones sobre un ataque huao in Iconos, the magazine of the Ecuadorian branch of FLACSO, the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, in September, 2003 [http://www.flacso.org.ec/html/pub1.php?p_number=LB_0000163]. The fourth was published in the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio, the fifth rejected from the same as treating a "delicate and controversial" subject. The first four appear in Tiempos de guerra, a book published in Quito in 2004 (Juan Bottasso, editor; Abya Yala).


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