The Huaorani (Waorani) are hunters and gatherers who have lived in the Amazon Rainforest since before written history. Their traditional territory includes the area now known as Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve, in the Republic of Ecuador. Yasuni is world-renowned for carbon rich forests and extraordinary biological diversity, and is one of the last refuges for fresh water dolphins, jaguars, harpy eagles, tapirs, scarlet macaws, blue macaws, black caiman, howler monkeys, and other threatened and endangered rainforest species.
The Huaorani are legendary, even among other Indigenous peoples in Ecuador’s Amazon region, for their extensive knowledge about the rainforest and its diverse plant and animal life. They are also famous for their hunting skills, and long spears and blowguns.
For centuries, Huaorani warriors—renowned and feared for their strength and ferocity—defended their ancestral territory from intrusions by outsiders who sought to exploit the Amazon Rainforest and conquer its inhabitants. Before “contact” (with the outside world) and the arrival of “the civilization” and first oil company, Texaco (now part of Chevron), the Yasuni Huaorani defended their territory with hardwood spears. Now, the “contacted” Huaorani communities in the Yasuni area must find new ways to protect Ome, the forest that is their home.
The first peaceful, sustained contacts between Huaorani and outsiders were in 1958, when evangelical missionaries from the U.S.-based Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) convinced Dayuma, a Huaorani woman who was living as a slave on a hacienda near Huaorani territory, to return to the forest where she had lived as a child, and help the missionaries relocate her relatives into a permanent settlement and convert them to Christianity.
In 1967, the U.S.-based oil company Texaco (now Chevron) discovered oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon, near Huaorani territory. As Texaco expanded its operations and advanced into Huaorani territory, Huaorani warriors tried to drive off the oil invaders. In response, Texaco and Ecuador’s government asked the missionaries to speed up and extend their campaign to relocate and pacify the Huaorani.
Using aircraft supplied by Texaco, missionaries searched for Huaorani homes, and pressured and tricked Huaorani clans into leaving areas where the oil company wanted to work. More than 200 Huaorani were contacted and physically removed from the path of the oil crews, and taken to live in a distant Christian settlement. Other Huaorani fled deeper into the forests of Yasuni, away from Texaco and the missionaries. It was during this period, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that most Huaorani were first contacted by outsiders.
The Huaorani who went to live with the missionaries (in the western edge of ancestral Huaorani lands) were told that Huaorani culture is sinful and savage, and were pressured to change and abandon their traditions and way of life. Among other hardships, they suffered from severe culture shock and stress, as well as epidemics of new diseases that sickened, and even killed, many family members. Important rainforest products were quickly depleted in that area, there were food shortages, and the Huaorani, whose culture places a high value on independence and sharing, had to rely on imported foods and medicines obtained by the missionaries.
Large areas of the rainforest that had been their home were invaded and degraded by outsiders. In addition to oil infrastructure (wells, pipelines, and production stations), Texaco built a road into Huaorani territory, and settlers used the road to colonize Huaorani ancestral lands. Today, those areas are so degraded by oil field pollution and deforestation that the Huaorani can no longer live there. Chevron (Texaco) no longer operates in Ecuador, but its tragic legacy remains, and other oil companies continue to incrementally expand oil exploration and production operations into new areas.
Today, some “contacted” Huaorani have chosen to settle in towns such as Puyo, or near roads built by oil companies. But many Huaorani still live in the forest, in harmony with the “giving” rainforest that is their mother and source of life. At least one group, the Tagaeri-Taromenani, has continued to resist all contact with outsiders. The most traditional of the contacted Huaorani live in the remote communities of Bameno, Boanamo and Wema. Both groups live in “The Intangible Zone,” a spectacular refuge of intact, biologically rich rainforest that spans nearly 3,000 square miles of ancestral Huaorani territory in the area now known as Yasuni. The Intangible Zone has been designated as a conservation area by the government of Ecuador, but is nonetheless threatened by encroaching oil companies, settlers and illegal loggers.
The Huaorani communities of Bameno, Boanamo and Wema have organized themselves to defend The Intangible Zone and their culture and way of life — and make real the promise of conservation and human rights for Indigenous peoples in Yasuni, including the right of their “uncontacted” neighbors to live in voluntary isolation in the forest. They call themselves Ome Gompote Kiwigimoni Huaorani (We Defend Our Huaorani Territory), “Ome Yasuni.” Huaorani Community Tours is part of this unprecedented grassroots conservation initiative.
Many people claim to speak for the Huaorani and Yasuni. With Ome Yasuni, the contacted Huaorani in the heart of Yasuni are speaking for themselves. We invite you to support the work by Ome Yasuni to protect what remains of their rainforest homeland and defend the right of grassroots Huaorani families to continue to live in freedom, as Huaorani, in their ancestral territory.
Please sign Ome Yasuni’s petition to the President of Ecuador at www.change.org/omeyasuni.
Note about the spelling of Huaorani (Waorani):
Huaorani (also spelled “Waorani” and “Waodani”) means humanos (humans or people) in the language spoken by the Huaorani, and either spelling can be used to represent the same word. Huaorani culture is oral, so spelling is not important to most Huaorani. Their language was first transcribed by U.S.-based missionary-linguists, who initially used “Waorani” and now sometimes use “Waodani.”
In 1991, a group of young men who had attended secondary school together—and learned some Spanish—organized ONHAE (Organization of the Huaorani Nationality of the Ecuadorian Amazon), in an effort to engage with the outside world on new terms and speak for themselves. At the time, it seemed that oil companies, missionaries, and conservationists were increasingly vying for control of the Huaorani and their lands. The new organization worked to protect Huaorani territory by (1) demarcating strategic territorial boundaries to prevent further intrusions by settlers; and (2) opposing plans by the Conoco-Maxus oil consortium to build a road and develop new fields in Yasuni. The founders of ONHAE chose the Spanish-language spelling “Huaorani” to assert their independence from the missionaries.
In 1994, the president of ONHAE signed a “friendship agreement” with the oil company Maxus (now part of Repsol), beginning a new era in the history of the Huaorani organization. ONHAE opened an office in a town that is located outside of Huaorani ancestral lands, and officers of the organization began to leave their communities to work there. Both the officers and the organization became dependent on funding from the oil company, and disconnected from the Huaorani communities. By 2007, the leadership of ONHAE had such a bad reputation—in the communities and with outsiders—that the officials decided to change the name of the organization to NAWE (Waorani Nationality of Ecuador), and their spelling of “Huaorani” to “Waorani.”