Reaching Waorani (also spelled Huaorani) territory deep in Ecuador’s swath of the Amazon rainforest takes time and commitment. From Quito, take a van ride to the lowlands, board a small twin prop plane with one small and carefully weighed backpack, touch down on a narrow grass airstrip in the middle of the forest, and travel by dugout canoe for several hours to a the community-owned Huaorani Ecolodge, which was created to cater to intrepid travelers. Given the logistics to even get there, it’s perhaps not surprising that this elusive tribe of hunters were one of the last ones in the western Amazon to make contact with the rest of the world.
Responsible tourism is considered the least harmful of possible income streams in this part of the world. Oil exploration and extraction leave deep scars and pollution throughout the greater area. Palm oil plantations tear down healthy rainforest and displace wildlife only to rob the soil of its scarce nutrients with the punishing practice of monoculture. It’s quite the stark contrast to how the residents and stewarts of these lands have lived for hundreds of years.
To the Waorani people there’s no distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds. Before and after something as simple as a traditional hunting party or fishing expedition, the community’s shaman will pray for hours for success and to ensure that the spirits of the hunted animals will live on in peace and without grievance.
The Waorani have drastically changed their outlook on visitors compared to their ancestors. Historically the Waorani commanded both fear and respect in this part of the Amazon known as El Oriente. The Waorani lived in family units far away from one another and were known as fierce warriors and savvy hunters. While their shared language, beliefs, and customs bound them together, a slight offense would result in death whether you were Waorani or not. The neighboring tribes took notice and stayed away. During the early part of the 20th century, oil exploration and rubber plantations entered the Amazon and the Woarani moved deeper into the forest in an attempt to stay isolated and unaffected by the changes.
In 1956, a group of U.S. missionaries were compelled to make contact. They started by airdropping packages near a settlement. After the missionaries received small gifts in return, they thought time was right to meet the Waorani on the ground. They set up camp on a sandy riverbank that they used as a landing strip a few kilometers away from the closest settlement, and announced that they wanted visitors using a PA system. A small group visited first and then another. This second group was part of an ambush. One of the missionaries fired his gun and hit one of the assailants, who died a slow death several months later from his injuries. All five missionaries were killed by spears. Fearing retaliation, the attackers stripped the fuselage off fabric, dispersed the bodies, burned their own huts to the ground and relocated to another part of the jungle.
In an unexpected twist, the wives of one of the missionaries later settled in the area and was able to convert several to Christianity, including at least one of the assailants. Over the decades that have since passed, most Waorani now live in small villages, speak Spanish, wear clothes, and have blended their traditional ways of life with some modern conveniences. But there are still several hundred who have retreated deep into the forest and refuse any contact whatsoever with the rest of the world.
Waorani is linguistically isolated from other languages and spoken only by the 4,000 members of the greater tribe. Even this people’s origin story is strictly its own. Legend has it an anaconda was basking in the heat of the sun when an eagle attacked it with its strong claws. The anaconda tried to escape, but the eagle split it in two. From the head came the women and from the tail came the men, and that’s how the Waorani people came into the world. Their gods are the sun, fire, water, the eagle, the jaguar, and the anaconda.
Today the Waorani face a lot of external threats and pressures in their homelands. Petroleum development and illegal forestry is literally changing the timeless landscape, bringing pollution and confrontations with oil workers and loggers. A few clans have chosen to remain uncontacted and live deep in the forest, whereas the majority of the Waorani straddle the competing realities between its traditional ways of life with the complicated and often destructive forces of the modern world.
The community-driven Huaorani Ecolodge closed in 2016 after the Ecuadorian government granted oil exploration permits to this part of the Yasuni National Park. For a closer look at the Waorani, their lands, and how they’re impacted by oil exploration, be sure to check out this video with Emmy award-winning media presenter David Yetman.
Thank you to Eric Segalstad from Gondwana Ecotours for permission to share the photograph.
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