Yasuni, Ecuador. The Huaorani are an indigenous people to the Ecuadorian Amazon. They inhabit one of the most biodiverse places on the planet – Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park and the adjacent Huaorani Indigenous Territory. Referring to themselves as “the people”, they are both keepers of the forest and agents of its demise. They avoided contact with the modern world until the mid-20th Century and were once known as “savages” by neighboring people groups. Several sub-groups of the Huaorani remain uncontacted to this day, including the Taegeri and the Taromenane. The post-contact history of the Huao is a tumultuous one, marked by violence, intra-tribal war, and conflict with missionaries, big oil and the modern world as a whole. To this day, they have not reached an equilibrium with the global culture, and in my mind they never will. One world view thrives on money and the other on a living forest – and these are and will be forever at odds.
My life first came in contact with the Huaorani in 1996, during which time I worked as forest mapper for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Center for Tropical Forest Science. I was stationed in Yasuni National Park for six months and would frequently encounter Huaorani hunting parties alongside oil roads, and on occasion had the opportunity to visit their settlements. However, my real bond with people was built in 1999, during which time I was living in Quito with documentary filmmaker Scott Braman. Scott was working on eco-tourism prospects with the Huaorani as part of a Fulbright Fellowship and began to bring tribal leaders back to Quito to stay with us. Prominent amongst these was Moi Enomenga, the Huaorani ambassador who is the subject of the book Savages by Joe Kane. Over a span of years, Moi became a fixture of my Quito household and I grew to consider him as family.
My own work in Ecuador – at that time with the Jatun Sacha Foundation – became increasingly influenced by the plight of the Huaorani. And when I returned to live in the U.S., the Huao became my strongest link back to Ecuador and my greatest interest in returning. Since leaving residence in Ecuador, I have led graduate students to Bameno, one of the most remote and traditional of the contacted Huaorani settlements. I have also frequently hosted Huao leaders in the Washington, D.C. area, facilitating introductions to international organizations and scoping out blowgun-appropriate locations for diversions on the side.
The home of the Huaorani is continuously under threat and is ever on my mind. In 2013, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa agreed to continue to open Yasuni to oil exploitation, putting both the Huaorani and a spectacular diversity of life at serious risk. This is an issue I believe should be on the forefront of global attention, and is certainly worthy of yours. Any friend of the Huaorani is a friend of mine.