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Big Oil is the Law on Waorani Ancestral Lands PDF Print E-mail


By Veronica Goyzueta

Seven indigenous Waorani were accused of sabotaging oil wells and arrested by police and Ecuador's military. The Waorani say it never happened.

  • Seven Waorani were taken into custody at the end of a meeting with representatives of the Brazilian oil company Petrobell, located in Tigüino in Ecuador's Orellana province, in January 2015.
  • About 60 Waoranis from the communities of Tigüino and Bataboro launched a protest when they learned of the arrests, and were forcefully repressed by 120 soldiers and 50 police officers.
  • All of the men were released by July – the most recent in the decades long conflict between the Waorani, the Ecuadorian government and the oil industry.

On July 7, 2015. Wilson Enqueri, the president of the Waorani indigenous Indian community of Bataboro, adjusted the tie he had learned to wear in order to appear as a respectable citizen before the Ecuadorian court. He did so in hope of finally being allowed to leave Sucumbios' Prison in Lago Agrio, in the Ecuadorian jungle, where he had been jailed for the previous six months.

His lawyer, Andrés Acaro, had all the required documents on-hand to expedite the process, but the presiding judge inexplicably delayed the release by nearly 48 hours until 9 pm on Thursday, July 9th. Acaro accused the court of constructing this unjustified institutional roadblock as a way of punishing his client, and teaching Enqueri and the Waorani community a lesson that would force them into obedience.

Enqueri and six other Waorani men had been arrested on January 6, 2014 on a serious charge: sabotage.

2Wilson_EnqueriWilson Enqueri, president of the Waorani Indian community of Bataboro, being arrested in El Coca in January 2015. Photo credit: Human Rights Commission of Orellana.

The seven Waorani were taken into custody at the end of a meeting with representatives of the Brazilian oil company Petrobell, located in Tigüino in Ecuador's Orellana province. Those arrested included tribal elder Bay Nihua, the 65-year old Waorani community wise man, who was freed later, because of his advanced age.

Enqueri and the others had gone to the meeting in good faith, at the suggestion of the governors of Orellana and Pastaza, to discuss the failure of Petrobell to comply with agreements it had made with the Indians. These agreements included the offer of 20 jobs to community members, the construction of 70 homes, the building of a drinking water supply and other infrastructure, in trade for allowing oil drilling on their lands.

At the meeting, the Waorani also complained about their mistreatment by oil company employees. That mistreatment appears to have continued with the sudden, unexpected arrest of the Waorani community negotiators.

Outside the Petrobell oil facility waited about 60 Waoranis from the communities of Tigüino and Bataboro. When they learned of the arrests, they launched a protest, but were forcefully repressed by 120 soldiers and 50 police officers commanded by Pastaza's government. The confrontation ended at 3 pm, three hours after the imprisonment of the Waorani leaders.

One media account of these events contends that: "On January 7, seven Waorani warriors invaded the Petrobell oil field in the Amazonian province of Pastaza, causing enough damage to shut down 11 oil wells operating at the facility. Ecuadorean military were called to the scene and six soldiers were wounded in the clash with the warriors who were armed with blowguns, shotguns, pistols and spears."

Clash between Big Oil and the Waorani

The case against Enqueri and the other Waorani is full of contradictions, suggesting, some say, that the oil company meeting was set up as an ambush of the community leaders, and was meant to cause a protest. "It's a way of telling [the community] that we are in Waorani territory, but the ones who rule are the oil companies," said an official source upon condition of anonymity.

Sofia Waorani, who was at the protest and is a relative of one of the prisoners, said the military arrived in helicopters and pointing guns at those outside the Petrobell facility, an assertion that is not documented in the official account. In her limited Castilian Spanish, Sofia claimed that the government threatened the protesters. "The prosecutor said that if we do not stop protesting, they will remain prisoners for 30 or 90 more days," she said in January, which is what happened.

In a press conference days after his imprisonment, Pedro Enqueri, Wilson's brother and president of the provincial coalition for the Waorani of Ecuador, reported that the protestors were dispersed by soldiers and police with tear gas and rubber bullets, prompting some Waorani to defend themselves.

"From the legal point of view there was no flagrant [community resistance]. The [Waorani leaders] were in meetings all the time. They were arrested outside the camp," said Xavier Solis Tenesaca, a lawyer with The Human Rights Commission of Orellana, a non-governmental organization in northeastern Ecuador.

Bay_NihauThe elder Bay Nihua, wise man of the Waorani community, who was arrested in El Coca in January and freed a few days later, because he was more than 65 years old. Photo credit: Human Rights Commission of Orellana.

The arrests, protest, and subsequent trial, are a continuation of more than seven decades of conflict between the Ecuadorian government supported oil industry and the Waorani – also called the Huaorani – native Amerindian hunter/gatherers from the Amazonian region of Ecuador.

Waorani ancestral lands cover more than 2 million hectares (7,722 square miles) in the Napo, Orellana, and Pastaza provinces of Ecuador – a nation in which they had lived, but of which they had never heard, when first contacted by oil exploration teams in the 1940s. The Waorani ancestral lands, located between the Curaray and Napo rivers, have been threatened by, and encroached upon by the oil industry ever since.

A confusing trial

The primary accusation against Enqueri and the Waorani is that of sabotage; the government contends that the Waorani shut down a number of oil wells. Defense attorneys maintain, however, that the Waorani do not have the technical knowhow required to operate shut off switches on the wells, and argue that only oil company employees could have done that.

The Orellana judge accepted the accusation of sabotage, and instituted a preventive detention of 30 days. A month later the judge denied those accused of their right to habeas corpus, leaving them in the dark as to the full range of charges against them and not giving them a hearing.

"Beyond the sentences, the Waorani were imprisoned undeservedly because, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) agreement and the decisions of the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, preventive detention was not applicable, and in the case of the Waorani was an unanticipated penalty," said their lawyer Andrés Acaro. The 169 Convention of the ILO on indigenous peoples and tribes recommends alternative penalties to prison for lawbreakers, taking economic, social and cultural circumstances into account.

The prosecution ignored the ILO and the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court, as well as the recommendations of Judge Alvaro Guerrero, who asked for anthropological expertise.

Though the alleged sabotage had been committed against a private company, the Ecuadorian Government asserted that the attack against the corporation also constituted an attack against the state, an aggravating factor that could lead to 10 years in prison.

1peligroDanger sign warns people away from oil pipeline on the road to Sucumbios. Photo credit: Veronica Goyzueta.Danger sign warns people away from oil pipeline on the road to Sucumbios. Photo credit: Veronica Goyzueta.

According to prosecutor Wellington Marquez, the economic harm done to the company by the protests also harmed the state, because the energy sector of the economy is strategically linked to the country, and resulted in a loss of $852,000 dollars. Among the Waorani offenses cited by the prosecutor was their state of nudity – a normal, natural state among Ecuador's Indians.

The defense pointed out that the oil company in question is not state-owned, but rather is part of the Synergy Group, an international conglomerate of Colombian-Brazilian Germán Efromovich, also the owner of airline, Avianca. Diego Villagomez, an executive of Synergy in Ecuador, confirmed via email that the legal proceedings were pressed directly by the Ecuadorian government and not by the company.

The Ecuadorian government justifies taking on the case on the basis of Strategic Ecuador, a government vehicle responsible for all agreements between Indians and extractive industries. Neither the central government nor the ministries of Interior, Defense, or the Environment, responded to mongabay.com requests for an interview seeking clarification on this case.

New government allegations

On March 9th, two months after the arrests and with the release of the protesters about to occur, trial judge, Alvaro Guerrero, was suddenly replaced by the government. At the same time, Ecuadorian military Colonel, Luis Enrique Rivera, presented a new complaint – the attempted murder of six soldiers, all who are alleged to have been wounded by pellets supposedly fired at close range by the Indians.

"The denunciation reports that the soldiers wounds affected vital organs, as well as legs and arms," ​​said the provincial public defender of Orellana, Moris Mariño Chávez. He was the lawyer of some of the Waorani leaders, and confirms that the prisoners did not participate in the protests.

The new charges were controversial because the government had already ordered the release of the Waorani leaders, Solis said. Waorani lawyer Andrés Acaros, noted that these last minute accusations were made without allowing any time to prepare a defense.

Strangely, the government documents offered in the original proceeding describe semi-naked Indians armed with spears and blowpipes, but the new accusation cites shotguns, revolvers and carbines – weapons that have never appeared in evidence. The weapons already offered in evidence include several spears and one axe. Another curious fact is that none of the prisoners were asked to perform the paraffin test to verify the firing of weapons.

"Most likely, these pellets were fired by police weapons, and the officers injured themselves during the confusion and shooting," said Mariño Chávez.

A jaguar in a cage

In July, Wilson Enqueri and Richard Ima, the last of the seven Waorani leaders still imprisoned, were finally released from the Sucumbios prison. Ima, like others among those accused, speaks almost no Castilian Spanish, which means he was tried without a full understanding of the language in which he was judged. Remarkably, the Indian protesters on trial were offered no right to translation. "They have been treated like Westerners, even though they have another world view; they must be treated differently," said public defender Mariño Chavez.

Enqueri and Ima were the main defendants in a trial in which other Waorani were absolved and freed for lack of evidence. Among the evidence presented by Vicente Chamba, the prosecutor, was a video in which the two men are seen leading the group that protested against the oil company, as well as technical reports about the damage caused, along with police testimonies.

In jail, they were forced to live in conditions completely foreign to them. They were unable to communicate in their native language and ate foods that they were not accustomed to. "I've never been in jail," said Ima, who threatened to kill himself if convicted.

comida_WaoraniTypical Waorani food includes baked fish in banana leaf – not the Western food that prisoners were served in prison. Photo credit: Veronica Goyzueta.

"They had stomach problems [and] lost weight," reported an anonymous official source, who described the jail food as unsuitable for people who eat what the land gives them.

Pressure from officials, and the Indians' fear of condemnation, led lawyer Andrés Acaro to propose a "summary procedure." This is a legal solution akin to plea bargaining in which the defendants admit responsibility, even if they have not committed the crime, in order to reduce their sentence. It was through this process that Enqueri and Ima avoided a conviction and sentence of up to ten years in prison. Instead, they were sentenced to four months in jail – completed in July – plus eight months of community work, including the cleaning of Petrobell wells.

"Locking up an Indian in prison is the same as putting a jaguar in a cage. They are men used to walking," said Xavier Solis. He explains that the conflict between the government and Waorani on their indigenous lands escalated in 2007 when Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa assumed the presidency and aligned the state more closely with the oil sector. In August 2014, Correa approved the Organic Integral Penal Code, which criminalizes protests and inflicts tougher penalties for protesters. A roadblock, for example, is now regarded as sabotage.

Defense lawyer Andrés Acaro noted that the Indians of Ecuador are "invisible" and, because they do not speak Castilian Spanish, nor have traditional Western educations, have no legal means for seeking redress of grievance. Protests are seen as the last resort for protecting indigenous rights. "Who cares about seven Indians against the resources of the entire country?" said an anonymous source – an all too common public response to the plight of the Indians of Ecuador.

Xavier Solis also notes that Correa government repression isn't exclusive to indigenous people. The president has also put legal pressure on NGOs and human rights defenders, and even persecuted judges who oppose his administration. "The best thing we could do to defend ourselves is to make everything public," said Solis.

Spanish missionary Miguel Angel Cabodevilla and journalist Milagros Aguirre, authors of the book A Tragedy Hidden Away, a criticism of the government concerning the massacre of 20 Tagaeri-Taromenani Indians in 2013, saw their work censored, phones tapped, and were summoned by the prosecution.

José Proaño, an anthropologist very close to the Waorani, has been pressured to the point that he will no longer talk to journalists. In January, judge Miguel Angel Arias resigned after a 16-year career. In a public letter, Arias said he does not want to be complicit in the violation of fundamental human rights and accuses the current judiciary of not being independent.

Expelled from paradise

Up until the 1940's, the Waorani led a traditional hunter/gatherer lifestyle in the Ecuadorian rainforest. That's when they first came into contact with modern outsiders (cowode in their native language). This first meeting with Shell Oil employees doing exploratory drilling on Waorani ancestral lands was not a positive one. The company's uninvited intrusion was met with a fierce Waorani response.

Recognizing the vast oil resources lying beneath Waorani lands, the oil companies persisted.

3WaoraniWaorani indian. Credit: MJDHC - Minister of Justice and Human Rights in Ecuador.

Further contact in the 1950's by evangelical missionaries – five of whom were killed – eventually led to an uneasy peace between the Waorani and the cowode. In the late 1960s, Texaco approached the Ecuadorian government seeking permission to drill on Waorani land. The missionaries were instrumental in achieving this agreement, which resulted in the displacement of hundreds of Waorani from their homeland and their relocation at evangelical missions – radically altering their traditional lifestyle and thrusting them abruptly into the modern world.

David Suarez, a sociologist, researcher of environmental issues, and representative of the group Yasunidos, said that the original American missionaries from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) were complicit in moving oil company plans forward through the evangelization of the Indians. "It was a rapid change culture, now known to have been sponsored by the oil industry," he said.

The arrival of Texaco heralded the expansion of Ecuador's oil infrastructure, which over the last six decades has inexorably pushed the Waorani from their home territory. Some were forced deeper into the rainforest, where they continue to live today, avoiding outsiders. Others settled in depressed frontier towns like Coca, where unemployment and drug addiction is rife.

4selvaEcuadorian Rainforest on the road to Lago Agrio. Photo credit: Veronica Goyzueta.

Barely two generations have passed since Waorani first contact, which for indigenous peoples means "recent contact." According to Ecuadorian and international law, "recent contact" should mean protection from Western trials like the one imposed on Enqueri and his fellow Waorani. Or at the very least require that a judge be supported by anthropologists and translators. None of this was available to the Waorani accused of sabotaging the oil wells, despite the appeal of Judge Alvaro Guerrero in February, who called for an anthropological survey and was then removed from the case.

The government continues to paint the Waorani with a savage, war-like brush. The Indians gained this reputation due to several violent incidents, including the notorious 1956 killing of five SIL American missionaries. Another attack came in 2003 when a group of Waorani, including Richard Ima, killed 10 women and five children of the Tagaeri-Taromenani nationality, a nomadic people that remains isolated and has refused contact. In March 2013, in revenge for the death of two of its leaders, the Waorani killed 20 Tagaeri-Taromenani and kidnapped two girls, ages 3 and 7, as war prizes. All of these incidents occurred in indigenous territories and should be judged by Waorani not Western cultural and legal standards. They also occurred on Waorani lands that are now oil fields, a corporate invasion of indigenous territory that according to Ecuador's own constitution is utterly unlawful.

While it is true that the Waorani have conducted tribal attacks on the 300 remaining Tagaeri-Taromenani, it is also true that those attacks occurred on traditional tribal lands, and in areas now claimed by Spanish oil company Repsol in oil block 16. Likewise, the Petrobell plant where the Waorani protest occurred is on Waorani territory, and so under their cultural jurisdiction.

Article 57 of the Ecuadorian Constitution guarantees that Indians will not be displaced from their ancestral lands, and bans any kind of extractive activity in areas with isolated villages. "The State shall take measures to guarantee [indigenous peoples'] lives, and enforce their determination and will to remain in isolation," says the document, which describes the breach as "ethnocide".

There has never been a trial to assess the guilt of oil companies in seizing and degrading Waorani ancestral lands.

Instead, as in the Petrobell case, the Ecuadorian state has consistently sided with the oil companies, and been severe in judging the conflicts between corporations and Indians – designating indigenous protests as serious felonies, and criminalizing indigenous actions. "They accused a village in recent contact with genocide. It is unheard of! Indigenous peoples committing genocide against a state that has not assumed any responsibility," said another anonymous source critical of the government's actions.

The doctor Adolfo Maldonado, of the NGO Accion Ecologica, has studied the effects of oil exploration in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He says the Waorani (numbering about 2,200 according to the 2010 census) live in just a third of what was once their ancestral territory, a federally recognized indigenous reserve covering just 6,800 square kilometers (2,625 square miles).

"Oil companies taught them to be beggars," said Washington Huilca, a researcher from the Alejandro Labaka Foundation in El Coca, an organization that seeks to protect and raise awareness of the isolated frontier town where many Waorani have settled after displacement.

Huilca offers his views on the Petrobell case, noting that oil company incursions have prevented the Indians from pursuing traditional hunting or fishing. So it is only logical for the Waorani leaders to seek compensation from the oil companies who profit hugely from the drilling of ancestral lands. Conflict has arisen when the petro corporations fail to meet those compensatory commitments.

Suarez, of Yasunidos, points out that oil stations and road infrastructure have increased pressure on those Waorani who wish to live traditional lives. Since 2003, a rise in illegal economies such as logging and the smuggling of precursor chemicals used in cocaine production has also negatively impacted communities.

Huilca traveled through the Ecuadorian jungle on-foot 35 years ago, and claims to have seen isolated Indian groups illegally hounded by the encroachment of oil production – with its terrifyingly alien sounds such as those made by hovering helicopters and pumping oil rigs. "Conflicts always occur where there is a lot of noise," he explained.

letrero_territorio_WaoraniWaorani Indians raise a sign that says "Waorani Territory" in an official photo by the Ecuadorian government. Photo credit: MJDHC - Minister of Justice and Human Rights in Ecuador.

Other mongabay.com interviewees, who asked that their identity be kept confidential, said that the Ecuadorian government has evidence of isolated Indian populations living in the oil fields, but has hidden such information under the pretext of it being subject to national security.

"For them [the Indians] oil plays a role inside the ground. Outside the land it is death," said Huilca, who claims the Waorani were never as violent before contact as they have been in the last decade, when the government and oil companies have turned increasingly against them.

Ironically, in the Waorani language, the name they have given themselves translates as the "friendly people." Unfortunately, that is a moniker these Amerindians have found difficult to maintain in the face of modern nationalism and oil exploitation.