The Intangible Zone and Ome Yasuni
The Intangible Zone is a spectacular refuge of carbon-rich, biologically-diverse rainforest that spans nearly 3,000 square miles (758,051 hectares) of ancestral Huaorani lands. Roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, The Intangible Zone is located in the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve, and has been designated by Ecuador’s government as a conservation area—off-limits to oil extraction, mining and logging—since 1999. The designation is significant because Ecuador permits oil extraction in other protected areas, including Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve, and in lands that are titled to the Huaorani (and other Indigenous peoples) without their consent.
But despite the protection on paper, The Intangible Zone and the Huaorani who live there continue to be threatened by encroaching oil companies, settlers and illegal loggers.
The Intangible Zone is home to the last known group of people still living in voluntary isolation in the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador, a Huaorani family group known as the Tagaeri-Taromenani. It is also home to three communities of “contacted” Huaorani: Bameno, Boanamo, and Wema. The Huaorani (also spelled “Waorani” and “Waodani”) who live in Bameno, Boanamo and Wema understand that they must conserve and protect the rainforest in The Intangible Zone in order to survive and protect their culture and way of life. They have organized themselves to work together, as communities, to protect The Intangible Zone and the right of their “uncontacted” neighbors to be left alone. They call themselves Ome Gompote Kiwigimoni Huaorani, which means “We Defend Our Huaorani Territory.” For short, they say Ome Yasuni.
The importance of The Intangible Zone to the communities—and the reason why they oppose oil extraction there—was aptly described by Kemperi, a Huaorani elder and shaman who lives in Bameno, in a “message to the peoples who live where the oil companies come from:”
My message is that we are living here. We are living bien (in a good way). No more [oil] companies should come, because already there are enough. They need to know that we have problems; I want them to comprehend what we are living. Many companies want to enter, everywhere. But they do not help; they have come to damage the forest. Instead of going hunting, they cut down trees to make paths. Instead of caring for [the forest], they destroy. Where the company lives, it smells nasty; the animals hide; and when the river rises, the manioc and plantain in the low areas have problems. We respect the environment where we live. We like the tourists because they come, and go away. When the company comes, it does not want to leave. Now [the company] is in the habit of offering many things; it says that it comes to do business, but then it makes itself into the owner. Where the company has left its environment, we cannot return. It stays bad. Something must remain for us. Without territory, we cannot live. If they destroy everything, where will we live? We do not want more companies, or more roads. We want to live like Huaorani, we want others to respect our culture.
Among other activities, the communities of Ome Yasuni are working to develop community-based alternatives to oil extraction and logging that do not damage the environment or disturb the Huaorani who live in voluntary isolation. These alternatives include community-managed tourism (Huaorani Community Tours). The communities are also involved in monitoring, educational, and advocacy activities to protect the Yasuni Rainforest and defend their human rights.
The Huaorani are proud warriors and guardians of the rainforest, who have defended the area now known as Yasuni since before written history. Although Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve have existed—on paper—since 1979 and 1989, respectively, for years international conservationists and Ecuador’s government paid relatively little attention to protecting the area, and most Huaorani did not know that a park and reserve had been superimposed on their lands. But in recent years, as financial support for international conservation has surged, there has been growing national and international interest in the biologically-diverse, carbon-rich forests of Yasuni, and the Huaorani family groups who live in voluntary isolation.
The Huaorani of Ome Yasuni welcome the growing concern for Yasuni and the Tagaeri-Taromenani—and are thankful that so many people want to protect the forest that is their home. But they are concerned because so many people in government agencies, international institutions and nongovernmental organizations want to direct programs and projects that make decisions about Yasuni without taking them or their rights into account. Despite international recognition of the value to conservation of the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples like the Huaorani—and significant commitments by governments and conservation organizations to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples in development and conservation policies and activities around the world—the new projects that purport to protect biological and cultural diversity in Yasuni still follow a technocratic, tops-down approach that empowers outside professional “experts” and excludes local communities from decision-making processes. This approach not only ignores the rights and interests of community members, but also fails to appreciate that the vital link between the continued existence of the Huaorani people, their culture, and the “giving” ecosystem that is their home represents the best opportunity for sustainable conservation in Yasuni.
If you browse the web, you will see that many people clam to speak for the Huaorani and Yasuni. With Ome Yasuni, the contacted Huaorani in the heart of Yasuni are speaking for themselves. They want the outside world to understand that Yasuni is their home, that they are committed to protecting the forest for future generations, and that they want to continue to live as Huaorani, in freedom, in their ancestral lands.
The communities have made concrete proposals to the government of Ecuador to protect human rights and the environment in The Intangible Zone and some adjacent areas, and are seeking to engage in a dialogue with Ecuador and the outside world in order to make conservation and human rights a reality in Yasuni. It remains to be seen whether their voices will be heard, and their rights respected.
To listen to a video message from the Huaorani of Yasuni—from Ahua, Kemperi and Penti—go to YouTube, at:
We invite you to support the work by Ome Yasuni to protect what remains of their rainforest homeland and defend the rights of the Huaorani who there.
Please sign Ome Yasuni’s petition to the President of Ecuador at www.change.org/omeyasuni.
This is why a visit to The Intangible Zone with Huaorani Community Tours is much more than a tour. In addition to experiencing the trip of a lifetime, you will be supporting an extraordinary community-based initiative to defend Huaorani culture and protect the Amazon Rainforest.
If you can’t visit the Amazon, or want to do more to support the Huaorani community conservation and human rights initiative, you can contact the coordinator of Ome Yasuni, Penti Baihua, at <firstname.lastname@example.org> (Penti speaks Spanish and checks his email when he visits the city), or send an email to Judith Kimerling at <email@example.com>.