Life, death, God and oil in the rainforest

Dominique Cleary

Dominique Cleary




Growing up in Quito in the 1970s, my first school was the Academia Cotopaxi, which had been founded by four American mothers whose husbands had jobs in multinational corporations. The school did not conform to the national curriculum. We took field trips to the foothills of the Pichincha and the Cotopaxi, had spelling bees, and played math games involving dried maize kernels and bingo cards. We built popsicle-stick log cabins in model American colonial settlements. We sang ‘This Land is Your Land’, a widely misunderstood song by Woody Guthrie, and ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, a song originally composed for a Coca-Cola advertisement. We celebrated Thanksgiving and sat cross-legged, or ‘Indian style’ as our teachers called it, for story time.

Most of my classmates came from the States, and they generally stayed in Ecuador for just a few years while their fathers worked on the oil rigs. Some of them came to school wearing baseball caps with the Texaco logo. I was a bit different. My father was American too, but he wasn’t one of the temporary oil expats, and my mother was Ecuadorian. They’d met in Pittsburgh, where he was in law school and her father, an academic, was on sabbactical. They got married within months of meeting each other, and quickly conceived me and moved to Quito. The Vietnam War had something to do with this whirlwind: my father had no intention of being drafted, especially once my mother became pregnant. I was born in Quito and considered myself Ecuadorian, but if an American classmate asked me what I was, I usually answered ‘half and half’.

Like any Ecuadorian child with access to a TV, I was accustomed to government broadcasts showing images of gushing oil rigs and hailing Ecuador as an oil nation. If anyone asked me what my country produced, I knew what to say. I knew too that we were second to Venezuela in oil wealth in South America. Grown-up conversations in middle-class homes in the cities were about progress and money. My father, who had started a textile factory, talked about expanding his business.

I knew vaguely that the oil came from El Oriente, a mysterious and impenetrable region to the east of the Andes. It was also called Madre Selva – Mother Jungle – and the Amazonía, because rivers that begin high in the Andes flow through the region and join the Amazon just over the border in Peru. I knew it to be alive with creatures. In my imaginings, its rivers ran full of carnivorous piranha, its trees shook with noisy monkeys and parrots, its undergrowth trembled with large snakes and other reptiles, and the jaguar was king. I had heard of tribes that lived there but were unreachable, and had never been counted in the national census. They occasionally made their way into my nightmares. I had seen replica spears and blow guns in gift shops meant for tourists, and in museums I had looked in horrified fascination at shrunken decapitated heads on sticks, with long stringy beards and black hair, encased in glass vitrines. It worried and excited me that there were still parts of my country that remained unknowable and that there were people untouched by what I thought of as civilization.

When I started at Academia Cotopaxi, we lived in a small apartment in Quito. Our landlord was an alcoholic. One evening, we heard him shouting anti-American abuse and banging on our front door. I was in the hallway, behind my father, when he opened it. Our landlord was unsteady on his feet and he had a gun in his hand. Soon after that, one of my teachers, a retired American missionary, told my father about some land for sale in a eucalyptus forest along the Pan-American Highway twenty minutes outside the city. The area was called Bellavista de Carretas but it was better known as Evangelist Hill. The first families to build their houses there had come to Ecuador in the 1950s as missionaries, and the six or seven houses on the hill belonged to Americans. The land was inexpensive, relatively close to the city and commanded beautiful views.

We weren’t evangelists, but my father liked the idea of having neighbours with whom he could speak English. He bought the land and, over the course of a year, terraced a steep slope that had been covered in impassable vegetation, carved out a driveway, planted sunflowers and banana trees and built a brick house with big windows to take in the view of Cayambe’s snow-covered peak. He also built a larger factory on the same land, at the bottom of the driveway, and moved his machinery out there.

Some of the evangelists on the hill had founded the bilingual radio station HCJB – ‘Hoy Cristo Jesus Bendice’. There was religious content on the station in the form of a daily teaching, but what I remember most vividly is the music: HCJB had the best programming of classical music in Ecuador. My father’s car radio was always tuned to it.

The evangelists also ran a hospital and a school, the Alliance Academy. I was sent there for third grade, but I didn’t last long. I had trouble memorizing the order of the books of the Old and New Testaments. Once, at Brownies, I remember standing with my hands hanging down at my sides as a girl who didn’t think I qualified as a Christian hit me on the head with her bible. The other girls stood by and watched it happen.

One evening our neighbours invited us over to watch a film. Their living room was full of people I didn’t know. I found a quiet spot under the piano from where I had a perfect view of the sheet that served as a screen. The projector whirred like a fan. The film was in black and white. I don’t remember the title but it was based on the Book of Revelation and was set in the wake of Judgement Day. It was pure horror. People were lifted from this world while going about their daily business. A lawnmower was left to idle and a queue backed up in a supermarket when the cashier vanished. People in the aisles called out for their children in desperation. Cars without drivers veered off roads.

The people who disappeared, according to the movie, were those who had been judged worthy of salvation. The movie called it ‘rapture’. I thought of the Spanish verb ‘raptar’, which means to abduct. I hadn’t thought of God as a kidnapper before. This idea played on one of my biggest fears. I had heard the tales of children like me being snatched and held for ransom, or, worse still, being killed for our organs and our blue or green eyes, which were sure to fetch a good price.

The movie pointed out that our fate was a matter of personal choice. We could choose to open our hearts to God and be saved. Or we could remain in the world to suffer, gnash our teeth and search in vain for those who were gone. Heaven was promised as the better alternative, but the movie didn’t show any images of it. I couldn’t judge whether it was somewhere I wanted to go. I decided then that I preferred to be left alone in the world I knew best. I also discovered for the first time that there was a part of me that didn’t want to be reached, changed or saved.





During the summer after third grade, our neighbour Marj – whose husband, Abe Van Der Puy, ran HCJB – hosted a Brownies summer picnic in her house. Given my previous experience, I hesitated. But she told me that all the girls would be designated an adult ‘buddy’ and that she would be mine for the day. She offered to bake me cookies. In fact, on the day she made me a special lunch box and placed a comic book in it. We sat on her garden steps and looked at the book together. It was called Through Gates of Splendor.

The cover of the comic book showed five men on the shore of a river in the jungle, unloading supplies from a small yellow aircraft. One of them was crouched beside a radio trying to get a signal. Another clutched a bible to his chest; he looked afraid and seemed to be calling out a warning to the others. There was a spear in mid-air that had been thrown from across the river. The attackers were emerging from the dark vegetation on the opposite bank. Marj told me the pilot on the cover was her husband, Nate Saint. She told me that he had died at the end of one of those spears.

About two years ago, I received an email from a friend in the United States. My friend told me that he was sitting at a desk beside a live Amazonian parrot. I had a sudden memory of an image from Through Gates of Splendor: a confused-looking parrot being airlifted in a bucket. The bucket dangled from a rope. Outside the frame, the rope was attached to a yellow plane flown by Nate Saint. The parrot had been placed in the bucket by a member of an Amazonian tribe as a gift to the Americans. I thought about the rest of the comic book and realized some of the frames had remained absolutely clear in my mind, but others had faded.

I remembered that the comic told the story of five American men, and their wives, as they came to their decision to enter the jungle of Ecuador to evangelize a fearsome native tribe. It showed how they located them by flying low over the jungle in a yellow plane, and how they attempted to befriend them. It showed their first face-to-face meeting on the banks of a river, and the massacre that claimed the lives of the five American men. Despite that horror, I remembered it as a story of forgiveness and redemption, which ended with the missionary women returning to the jungle to continue the work that their husbands had begun.

My family left Ecuador for Ireland rather abruptly when I was a teenager.* We didn’t bring many possessions with us. I don’t have the comfort of an attic filled with the objects of my childhood. I don’t have moments of rediscovery on finding an old book or a toy. So when something jogs a significant memory from my childhood, I have a tendency to excavate it by whatever means may be available.

I found a copy of the comic book for sale online and bought it. I discovered that it was a 1974 adaptation of a book by Elisabeth Elliot, one of the evangelists, first published in 1956 and also called Through Gates of Splendor. I ordered a copy of this as well.

The comic arrived first, on a rainy morning. The postman left it halfway under my doormat. When I saw the soaked envelope I worried that the comic would be damaged. But it had been sealed in plastic, padded with bubble wrap and sandwiched in hard cardboard to keep it flat. I waited until I had the house to myself to open it and relive the story. I wanted no interruption.

Days later, I received the book. More than half of it was devoted to things the comic dealt with briefly: the missionaries’ arrival to Ecuador, the work the individual men and their wives and girlfriends did in their different outposts and the events leading up to their decision to work together to make contact with the tribe. Nate Saint, who had received flight training as a member of the Army Air Corps during the Second World War, later joined the Mission Aviation Fellowship, and he and Marj moved to Ecuador, where he transported supplies and equipment to missionaries working in El Oriente. Nate Saint’s arrival with his yellow Piper marked the beginning of a new way of life for the isolated mission stations. Before this, missionary families were completely cut off for months at a time; if any of them needed medical attention, it was necessary to make a week’s trek on a dangerous forest trail. The evangelists started to hack airstrips out of the jungle. Marj was responsible for the maintenance at all times of short-wave contact with Nate’s plane. She stood by for regular checks of location, altitude and fuel load. She checked on weather conditions and kept in touch with the missionary to whose station Nate was flying. She sat hours upon hours by the radio.

On his trips Nate met the other four men depicted on the cover of the comic book – Ed McCully, Jim Elliot (Elisabeth’s husband), Peter Fleming and Roger Youderian. The various achievements of the five men are outlined in some detail in Elisabeth Elliot’s book. They had been champions in wrestling, football, basketball and golf. They were youth leaders, orators, soldiers and stunt pilots. Their families had not in every case supported their decision to become evangelists. Some thought it a senseless waste to devote their lives to saving the souls of savages in a remote rainforest. But the men were convinced that they had a calling from God.

The book explains that there were missionaries already working among the head-shrinking Jivaros, the Quechuas of the high Andes, the red-painted Colorados of the western forest and the Cayapas of the north-western river region. But no one had yet succeeded in evangelizing the Waorani, an isolated, unconquered, semi-nomadic group of tribes who had repelled every advance made by the white man, or cowodi. Nate Saint noted in his diary that the Waorani ‘have constituted a hazard to explorers, an embarrassment to the Republic of Ecuador, and a challenge to missionaries of the Gospel’. The missionaries referred to the Waorani as the Aucas. Auca is a Quechua word meaning savage. Ecuadorians today often use the term pejoratively, whether or not referring to a Waorani person. I have often heard it used in the heat of road rage, accompanied by a raised fist. But the missionaries used the term in a neutral way. Elisabeth Elliot wrote that ‘the very name thrilled [the missionaries’] young blood. Would they someday be permitted to have a part in winning the Aucas for Christ?’


In 1541, Spanish explorers had looted, raped and enslaved the Waorani. In 1667, the first missionary who entered Waorani territory, a Jesuit priest named Pedro Suarez, was killed by spears near the confluence of the Napo and Curaray rivers. The Waorani were then left in peace until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the rubber hunters arrived. They roamed the jungle, plundering and burning indigenous homes, and raping, torturing and enslaving the people. Elisabeth Elliot described this as a period when the concept of ‘lesser breeds without the law’ was almost universally accepted. She wondered whether Christian love could wipe out the memories of past treachery and brutality.

In 1937, about a quarter-century after the end of the rubber boom, Shell Oil established bases on the western edge of El Oriente, in Waorani territory, and commenced prospecting efforts. In January 1942, a group of Waorani attacked Shell workers, killing a foreman and two labourers with spears. The attack caused panic, and it became difficult to get workers to return. Shell’s efforts to make friendly overtures to the Waorani, by dropping gifts from an airplane, were unsuccessful. In 1949, having extracted no oil from the region and considering that prospecting was too dangerous to maintain, Shell withdrew from El Oriente, leaving airstrips, roads and buildings to rot.

In 1955, the missionaries visited the former Shell base at Aranjuno, on the very edge of the Waorani territory. They found a small and welcoming population of Quechua living there. A simple house was rebuilt and Ed McCully moved in with his family. The Arajuno River forms the western boundary of the Waorani territory and the new mission station was on the Waorani side of the river; the Quechuas refused to remain on that side after four in the afternoon. Nate Saint rigged up an electric fence some thirty yards from the station, beyond accurate spear-throwing range. Occasional rumours were spread that Waorani footprints had been found near the house, or that the grass had been pressed down, indicating that they had been spying on the foreigners. Ed McCully and his wife Marilou kept a gun handy.

The rest of the missionaries and their families were scattered in various other stations. Nate with his yellow plane, and Marj on the radio, were at another old Shell base, at Mera, on the road to Quito; this was the hub of the missionary stations. The Elliots were in Shandia, near the Napo River, twenty minutes north-east by air from Mera. The Flemings worked from Puyupungo; Nate could get to them within seven minutes by plane. The Youderians moved to Wambimi, the most remote post, forty-five minutes away by air.

An invaluable source of information was Carlos Sevilla, who owned a hacienda near the Elliots’ station in Shandia. Don Carlos had lived in Waorani territory for twenty-six years before he was driven out by repeated attacks. Even more useful to the missionaries was a woman working at Don Carlos’s hacienda. Her name was Dayuma. She had escaped some years earlier from a Waorani tribal killing. There had been a family feud, and her parents and siblings had been killed by a neighbouring group. Dayuma managed to make her way to the nearest settlement of Quechuas, who took her to Don Carlos.

Rachel Saint, Nate Saint’s sister, befriended Dayuma. She learned Waorani stories and legends and many facts of ethnological interest from her. Dayuma taught the missionaries a few phrases in Waorani. They especially wanted to know those announcing friendly intentions. But when asked why they kill, she would only answer, ‘Never, never trust them. They may appear friendly but then they will turn around and kill.’

Nate made frequent reconnaissance flights over Waorani territory in search of houses or villages. He was careful to keep his efforts a secret. Nate wrote in his diary that he wanted to ‘avoid arousing non-missionary groups to competitive efforts. Their efforts would undoubtedly employ a heavily armed invasion party going overland. This we fear might set back for decades the missionary effort among these stone-age people.’

It was no easy matter to find people numbering perhaps a thousand and spread out in small groupings in the dense forest between the Napo and Curaray rivers. Only a trained and patient eye would be able to spot their makeshift settlements through the wilderness of dark green treetops. Once Nate Saint located some signs of Waorani habitation, he organized the team of five men for a mission they called Operation Auca.

He had developed a method of lowering a canvas bucket from an airplane in full flight, so that it could be grabbed by a person on the ground. The bucket was let down on a line about 1,500 feet long. The plane would fly in a tight circle; centripetal force would cause the hanging bucket to move towards the centre of the circle and eventually become motionless. He used this method to deliver mail, medicine and small parcels and to receive messages and objects from the ground without the need to land. Some of the most memorable frames of the comic book show the five men dropping aluminium kettles, coloured buttons, rock salt, machetes, mirrors and toy planes near the huts. The Waorani appear mesmerized by the gifts. They wave excitedly when the plane approaches, sometimes wearing the clothing they had received. The comic book depicts the men, armed with a few Waorani phrases and a loudspeaker, flying low over Waorani huts and calling out Biti miti punimupa. I like you. I want to be your friend.

According to Through Gates of Splendor, the crucial moment came when the Waorani placed a parrot in Nate’s bucket as a gift in return: the missionaries took this as a sign that it was time to get nearer. The five men found a riverside sandbar where they could land and take off safely again. They called it Palm Beach. They agreed to carry arms: if a situation appeared to be getting delicate, they would produce their guns to let it be known that they held the upper hand. Warning shots would be fired if necessary.

Once they landed and set up camp, they shouted more Waorani phrases into the jungle. Biti winki pungi amupa. Let’s get together. Puinani. Welcome. On the third day, two women and a young man appeared. They were naked except for strings tied around their waists, wrists and thighs. They had large wooden plugs in their distended earlobes. The man seemed to indicate that the younger woman, who looked about sixteen, had been brought as an offering to the missionaries. She approached the plane and rubbed her body against the fabric. She imitated the plane’s movements with her hands.

The Waorani man, Nankiwi, began to show interest in the plane too. Peter Flemin wrote in his diary about what happened next: ‘Soon the fellow began to show interest in the plane and we guessed from his talk that he was willing to fly over the village to call his comrades. We put a shirt on him (it’s cold up high), and he climbed into the plane with no sign of any emotion except eagerness to do his part. He acted out how he was going to call and repeat the words. Nate taxied down the strip and took off while [Nankiwi] shouted all the way. After circling and shouting briefly, Nate landed again, thinking to give the fellow a rest before making the flight to his village. Nothing doing! He was ready to go right then.’

So they went up again. According to the missionaries’ account, Nankiwi chortled with delight and leaned out to wave at his fellow villagers. Back on the sand strip, he leaped out, clapping his hands. Elizabeth Elliot describes the following scene thus:


The five men immediately gave thanks to God, with heads up to try to show their visitors that they were addressing their Heavenly Father. As Ezequiel said, ‘The Word was in my bones as a living fire,’ and for these men the drive to deliver to the Aucas the message of redemption through the blood of Jesus was blocked only by the language barrier. If only they might suddenly leap over the barrier and convey to the Indians one hint of the love of God!

The missionaries entertained their guests with rubber bands, yo-yos, balloons. They served them lemonade and hamburgers with mustard. They were hoping to be invited back to the Waorani settlement, but that never happened. When the younger woman became restless and left, Nankiwi followed her into the jungle. The older woman seemed happy to be entertained and remained at the camp for most of the night, but by daybreak she had also left.

The following day, Nate flew over the Woarani village and was disheartened to see all the women and children running to hide. He threw down a gift. On his third flight that day he saw Nankiwi and another man looking up at him without the excitement he had observed in the days before their meeting. The following day, Nate flew over again and saw only women and children – but as he circled back to base he spotted the men heading towards Palm Beach. He contacted Marj to let her know and agreed to radio again at 4.30.

The comic book shows Marj switching on the radio at the appointed time. There is silence, not even a crackle. Hours pass. Marj comforts herself with the possibility that the men’s radio might not be working – it had happened before. Or perhaps the men were preoccupied entertaining their visitors.

The night passed with no word from Palm Beach. The next morning another missionary pilot radioed a report: Nate’s plane had been spotted. The fabric had been stripped off and there was no sign of the men. HCJB released a news bulletin and the United States Air Rescue Service in Panama sent a plane. A ground search party consisting of missionaries and military personnel hunted for several days before finding the five bodies. They all had nine-foot hardwood spears in their backs.

The searchers buried the missionaries in a common grave during a tropical storm. The atmosphere was tense, as another attack was feared; the searchers had their fingers on triggers. They lingered just long enough to say a few words of prayer and left in a hurry.

Not long after the burial, missionaries flew over the Waorani village. It had been burned down, as was a common Waorani practice after a killing, and new houses had been built nearby. Patches of yellow fabric from the plane adorned the roofs of the new houses. Nankiwi came out to wave the small model plane Nate had given him.





Following the death of Nate Saint and his fellow missionaries, Elisabeth Elliot went back to work in Shandia. Nate’s sister Rachel continued to study the Waorani language, and taught Dayuma the Bible. In 1958, three years after the killings at Palm Beach, the older Waorani woman who had visited the missionaries emerged from the forest with another woman. They invited Rachel, Dayuma, Elisabeth and her three-year-old daughter Valerie to come to live with them.

Elisabeth and Rachel were employed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a US Christian organization whose purpose was to study, develop and document little-known languages in order to promote literacy and translate the Bible. They succeeded, quite spectacularly, where the male missionaries had failed. The first Waorani to settle with them were primarily women and children from a group called the Guiquetairi. In 1968, an enemy band, the Baihuari, joined them. Rachel and Dayuma worked to secure their cohabitation by overseeing cross-band weddings. Polygamy, chanting and dancing were prohibited at the camp.

In 1969 the women, with financial support from the SIL, secured the creation of a state-recognized reservation called Tihueno near a former Waorani settlement. By 1973, as many as five hundred people lived in Tihueno – a sizeable proportion of the Waorani.

The missionaries had achieved what was, by their lights, a remarkable success. Meanwhile, another influential group of outsiders – the oil companies – had made a breakthrough of their own. In 1964 Texaco began exploring for oil. A year later, a consortium between Texaco and Gulf was granted a licence to explore half a million hectares in Lago Agrio situated near the Colombian border. Full-scale production started in 1972; in the same year, a military junta took power in Ecuador. Oil production was the regime’s most forceful expression of nationalism. In 1973 Ecuador became a member of OPEC. And in 1976, Gulf sold out to the Ecuadorian government, making the state a majority owner of the consortium.

Roads into the rainforest were built to facilitate the oil trucks and large tracts of the jungle were cleared. Migrant workers began to arrive, and military surveillance was established in the vicinity of the oil production sites.





Despite the encroachments of missionaries and oil companies, many Waorani continued to live in the traditional way, and two other related tribes in El Oriente – the Taromenane and the Tagaeri – remained essentially uncontacted. Today those tribes have been pushed into a corner of their former territory at the eastern extremity of the Ecuadorian rainforest, where it is believed that they continue to live semi-nomadically, in small groups, hunting and foraging. They number fewer than two hundred.

The territory of the Taromenane and the Tagaeri is within Yasuní National Park, a claw-shaped area that is larger than the island of Cyprus. Yasuní is also home to the jaguar and the harpy eagle (the most powerful bird of prey in the world), the tapir, the spectacled caiman, the green anaconda, pink river dolphins, the giant river otter, the Amazonian manatee, the white-lipped peccary, the giant anteater and a prehistoric-looking bird with claws that has been nicknamed ‘the stinky turkey’. With Waorani assistance, ecologists and environmentalists have been able to explore the area and return with photographs, videos, samples and statistics. Their inventories show that one hectare of Yasuní forest possesses more species of flora and fauna than the entire landmass of the United States and Canada. There are 4,000 plant species, about 200 detected species of mammals, over 340 detected species of birds, more documented insect species than in any other forest in the world, 40 detected species of reptile, 65 detected species of amphibians, 60 detected species of fish and 300 detected species of fungi. About a fifth of Ecuador’s oil reserves lie under Yasuní, and the main road into the park is named after an oil company: Via Maxus.

In 1999, the Tagaeri Taromenane Intangible Zone, an area between the Yasuní and Curaray rivers, was created by presidential decree. It became off-limits for oil drilling or other extractive operations. Article 57 of the new national constitution brought in by President Rafael Correa in 2008 declared that the lands of the indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation were an ‘irreducible and intangible’ ancestral possession and that all forms of extractive activities on them were forbidden. The Constitution required the state to adopt measures to protect the lives of the indigenes, enforce respect for their self-determination and their desire to remain in isolation, and to ensure observance of their rights. The violation of these rights is described as tantamount to ethnocide.

Correa also, shortly after his election in 2007, set up the Yasuní-ITT Initiative and launched it at the UN General Assembly. ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) is an oilfield in the north-east of Yasuní National Park. The initiative aimed to protect the Taromenane and Tagaeri, to preserve the biodiversity of the area and avoid the release of CO2 emissions by refraining from the exploitation of oil. When we talk of conservation, we are usually talking about animals and ecosystems. In Yasuní, the concept of conservation was extended to human beings. The initiative hinged on a novel quid pro quo: President Correa sought 50 per cent of the value of the oil reserves, or $3.6 billion, from the international community. He tried to set a precedent in the fight against global warming by getting rich countries to help poor countries cope with the economic costs of environmentalism.

Environmentalists around the world hailed the initiative, but the countries of the rich world were less impressed, and contributions fell well short of the target. In August 2013, flanked by government ministers and members of congress, Correa announced the scrapping of the Initiative. He blamed the move on the hypocrisy of wealthy nations who emit most of the world’s greenhouse gasses and expect poor countries like Ecuador to sacrifice economic progress in the fight against climate change. ‘The world has failed us,’ he said.

In his speech, Correa, presented Ecuadorians with a rhetorical choice. We could keep Yasuní 100 per cent intact and have no resources available to eradicate poverty, he said, or we could have 99 per cent of Yasuní and $18 billion available to fight poverty and to provide the population with the services it deserves. He said he had no choice but to allow a total of one thousand hectares of the ITT field to be exploited. He undertook to use the latest industrial technology to ensure that damage to the environment was minimized. He promised new schools, hospitals and roads. He said nothing about the hidden tribes.

Environmentalist and indigenous activists called for a referendum and scheduled a large demonstration against Correa’s move. The government blocked access to the centre of Quito and deployed a large number of police to deal with the protesters. On the 12th of October, the anniversary of the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores in the South American continent, the women of El Oriente made a powerful protest against oil exploitation and mining. Mothers, daughters and grandmothers from tribes such as the Zapara, Waorani, Shuar, Achuar and Quechua left their homes in El Oriente on foot, crossed the Andes and walked up to the doors of the National Assembly in Quito. They danced, chanted, and gathered support and media attention along the way. It took them six days. They demanded to meet with President Correa. They were welcomed into the National Assembly, but they didn’t get to meet the President.

They claimed as women to be disproportionately affected by oil exploration and mining. Men who previously hunted and gathered had taken jobs at the industrial sites. Money led to an increase in alcohol abuse and violence, including sexual violence against women of all ages. And in the downward spiral, women moved to the oil and mining towns to survive, and many resorted to prostitution. The protesters called for the preservation of their living forest, the source of life.





Meanwhile, in March 2013, there had been another massacre in the rainforest. The few media reports in Ecuador were contradictory, and some questioned whether the killings had happened at all. It took the government eight months to acknowledge the incident. The story that did eventually reach the news was met with general apathy – perhaps because the dead were indigenous people, members of the Waorani and the Taromenane tribes.

The most reliable source of information on the massacre is Miguel Angel Cabodevilla, a Spanish Capuchin priest and author who has worked among the Waorani for many years and written extensively about them. His book about the massacre and the government’s handling of it, Una tragedia ocultada (A hidden tragedy), is based on primary sources including recordings of the events made on cell phones used by the Waorani, witness accounts, photographs, and correspondence. The book was banned fifteen minutes before it was due to be released, ostensibly for containing uncensored photographs of two young girls. Digital versions of the book became available online and I was able access it in PDF format. Correa’s top ministers took to Twitter to say they opposed the ban and by the following day the banning order was rescinded.

The incident began when two Waorani elders, a husband and wife called Ompure and Buganey, were found on a path with spears in their backs. The weapons were identified as Taromenane long spears. They were near the village of Yarentaro in Yasuní, within Oil Block 16, currently exploited by the Spanish oil company Repsol.

Ompure was a man of about seventy, born before the incursions of the missionaries and oil companies, and he and his family had never been converted to Christianity or modern ways. He was a hunter. On the day he was killed, he was carrying meat back to his kin. He had his wife Buganey with him, and a third woman to help him carry the load. The third woman was lagging behind the others when the attack happened. Ompure died immediately, but Buganey didn’t, and her loud cries alerted the third woman, who ran for help. According to Cabodevilla, no one in the nearby village had heard anything, such was the noise of the transistor radios coming from their huts. This was one of the reasons Ompure lived outside the village: he had always preferred quiet seclusion.

Buganey’s dying agony was captured on video via a cell phone owned by one of the villagers. So was her son’s call for revenge: ‘I’m going to kill all the Taromenane!’ Many others joined him in his sentiments. Buganey pleaded for water and for someone to hold the spear in place or cut it in half to ease the pain caused by its weight. She was placed on a hammock and carried into the back of a pickup truck that served as an ambulance. She died on her way to the dispensary. Photos of the funeral show the spears laid across the coffins.

Motives for the killing of the two elderly people were debated. Ompure’s family knew that he sometimes received visits in his faraway huts from Taromenane. They had sought axes, machetes, pots and pans, which he had obtained for them from a Repsol employee. They looked for more, and threatened him. He sought help from the oil company, but got none. His hut was raided, and the raiders left broken spears and folded banana leaves behind: warning signs that they intended to kill him.

It is believed that the Taromenane viewed Ompure as a kind of mediator between them and Repsol. They complained to him about the noise from the oil plants, the planes and helicopters flying overhead. They said it frightened the animals and made hunting more difficult. The Taromenane told Ompure that they would no longer differentiate between the Waorani and the cowodi if they continued to encroach upon their territory. But Ompure could not do the things they wanted him to do. He was out of his depth.


The deaths of Ompure and Buganey were immediately communicated to the local and central offices of Repsol. Work was suspended and personnel retreated to their camps behind electric fences. The news was sent to the Minister of Justice and other relevant authorities. Various functionaries arrived a day later by helicopter and were met by grief and hostility.

Waorani family members in Yarentaro said that Ompure had requested protection from Repsol but had not received it. At this point they were ready to take matters into their own hands. Ompure was one of the most respected elder members of the tribe. The Taromenane had made a show of their strength by coming close to his home to attack and kill him.

According to the witness statements and photographs gathered by Cabodevilla, Waorani men set out to obtain guns and ammunition. They left their villages and entered the forest three weeks later. It took seven days of tracking before the seventeen Waorani men from Yarentaro and neighbouring Dicaro came across a large Taromenane hut built with thin tree trunks and layers of leaves as a roof. They surrounded the hut. Chanting could be heard from within. They opened fire. The Taromenane spilled out. Their spears were no match for guns, and about twenty of them – mostly women and children – were killed without any struggle; there might have been more who managed to escape, only to die later of their injuries.

A Taromenane woman who had witnessed the massacre timidly approached one of the Waorani, holding the hands of her two daughters, and begged for their lives. She offered herself as a wife. The men debated whether to keep her. In the end they killed her and took the girls, Conta and Daboka.

Waorani men bragged on national television about the massacre and sold the photographs of their victims to the highest bidder. Cabodevilla quotes one of them:


We killed them on their way out. We killed them like fat animals….blood, lots of blood, blood flowing like water. I shot one in the stomach. I don’t know whether they lived or died. I ran out of bullets. One Taromenane came at K with two spears but couldn’t get him. You know the bullet is much faster…. After all the people we killed, we felt dizzy.


They must have felt outside the law to boast in this way – but they were not. The hidden tribes are specially protected under the Constitution. The Waorani who live near the oil rigs, on the other hand, are in a cultural limbo, caught between the traditional ways of the rainforest and the new world of the oil workers.

The naivety of the accused men soon gave way to caution. They stopped talking about the guns. They spoke instead of using spears. They revised the number of casualties downward, mindful that custom dictates proportionality in revenge killings. Still, the Waroani killers had reason to think they might get away with it. A blind eye had previously been turned to other revenge killings in El Oriente.

For the killers, the young girls, Conta and Daboka, were trophies of the massacre. For many others in Ecuador, they were living proof of something that was occasionally called into question: the continuing existence of the Taromenane.

Conta, the older girl, probably about eight years old, turned out to be rather outspoken. She repeatedly threatened her kidnappers. She said that those of her tribe who had survived the massacre would return for vengeance, and would rescue her and her sister. She attributed the killing of Ompure to food dropped from a plane that had killed some members of her tribe. There might have been some truth to this: after the massacre, the Waorani raiders had explored the Taromenane hut and found many unopened cans of tuna and pots of liniment. But it is unclear who had dropped the food, or why Conta believed Ompure – in his own right or as an ostensible representative of the Waorani – would have been held responsible by her tribe.

In November 2013, the men who were believed to have been involved in the massacre were invited by Ecuador’s Attorney General, a former oil executive called Galo Chiriboga, to give statements. Six of them went. After giving their statements, they were arrested and charged with ethnocide.

On the same day, two military-style helicopters were sent for Conta. Masked armed men lifted her from her seat in a primary school in the village and carried her onto one of the helicopters. President Correa defended this action as a protective one: Conta could not remain with the people who had murdered her tribe. She was taken to Bameno, further into the jungle, to live with another Waorani family. The government asked Penti Baihua, the leader of Bameno and coordinator of Ome Yasuní, an organization of Waorani communities in the Intangible Zone who want to live free from the oil companies, to care for her. It is not clear why only one of the girls was airlifted. Perhaps it is because a Waorani family had already been permitted to legally adopt Daboka, the younger of the two girls, as a daughter. Taking both girls might have increased tension between the villages.

The charge of ethnocide against the six Waorani men was reduced to homicide. The men were held in preventive detention until the trial ten months later. At trial, the court quickly dismissed the charges. It noted that the prosecutors had failed to produce the bodies of the dead, and it considered the photographs showing the dead to be untrustworthy. The recordings and confessions of the Waorani were self-incriminating, therefore inadmissible.

Apart from raising questions about evidence, the court noted that although the participants had testified to having carried firearms, they claimed that they had only killed with spears; this, in the eyes of the court, rendered their actions an inter-tribal vengeance killing in accordance with custom. Article 171 of the Constitution guarantees indigenous tribes the right to practise their own system of justice for inter-tribal conflicts.

After the case was dismissed, a peace ceremony organized by Jorge Yeti, a spokesperson for the Waorani legal defence team, was held within Oil Block 16. A long hut was built especially for the ceremony. The Ecuadorian national anthem was sung. There was indigenous chanting. Women in feather crowns painted the faces of the defence attorneys and members of the press with achiote. Long spears were tied in a bundle and hung from the centre of the hut. There was no representative of the national government at the ceremony.


The rainforest is shrinking. Oil operations are moving ever closer to areas that are supposed to be protected, putting increased pressure on the uncontacted tribes. Not all the Waorani live near oil roads and work for oil companies, but those who do, live with a foot in both worlds. The Taromenane, whose way of life is precarious at best, are meanwhile withdrawing ever deeper into their lands, and they now consider some of the Waorani as unwelcome as the cowodi.

The first barrels of crude oil from El Oriente were paraded down the streets of Quito and placed on altars in the 1970s. By then, most of Ecuador’s indigenous tribes, though disproportionately poor and disadvantaged, were living in a world created by successive waves of outsiders: the Spanish, the rubber hunters, the missionaries. Now, as the forces unleashed by the oil industry become ever more deeply established in Madre Selva, the last of the hidden forest peoples – whose culture has survived since before the arrival of the Conquistadores – may finally succumb.


*See ‘The Honorary Consulate’, Dublin Review 54 (Spring 2014)

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