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The Waoranis of Ecuadorian Amazone
The Huaorani (Waorani) are hunter-gatherers who have lived in the Amazon Rainforest since before written history. Their traditional territory includes the 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 caimans, howler monkeys, and other threatened and endangered rainforest species.
I was told about the Huaorani community of Bameno, and had read about them as the most remote and isolated tribe in Ecuador. I was born with that fantasy of the forest and tribes, so, while maintaining my documentary perspective, it was also a personal quest for me.
I began my journey in the Amazonian city of Puerto Francisco de Orellana—also known as Coca—gateway to the jungle. In recent years, the Bameno people have had motorboats to reach the city in two days, when it previously took between one week and 10 days.
I knew about the chief of the Bameno people, so I stayed in Coca and waited for him to show up. He speaks Spanish, learned to read and write, and can explain all the oil developments on a map. He is invited to the political conferences and is now the leader of a very modern fight. We managed to meet and I told him what I wanted to do; then he took me back with him and I spent a month with them in the forest.
Most of the tribes in the jungle in Ecuador have been contacted already, so the notion of contact doesn’t even apply anymore… It’s now the third or fourth generation that has lived in the modern world and in traditional ways. They have not lost their beliefs but they don’t speak about them that much.
My first surprise, arriving in the village, was realizing how modern it was compared to the images I’d seen portraying a primitive way of life. They had clothes and hardwood homes. I’d seen shots in which the people were all pictured naked with leaves, but they don’t live like that. They wear shorts and T-shirts and boots. It’s far from their traditional reality and my photos and project shed a light on all these contradictions. Although the tribe is in transition, you still feel the strong connection they have to their culture. They are hunters, warriors and are very proud of what they are. They like to hunt with their spears—even the children play with spears—but now they have shotguns to hunt with too. They will fight and they are very proud of defending their territory.
Each family in the community provides for itself, so every morning members of the community leave to hunt in the forest with a spear and each family goes fishing, but now they also go to the city to buy food. They are very connected to nature and are a very strong, healthy people. Even the 90-year-old Shaman in the village still goes out hunting in the forest.
Being with the Bameno people made me realize how fast the modern world enters these communities as soon as electricity arrives, rapidly followed by the arrival of TV. In Bameno, they didn’t even know the outside world 50 years ago; now they have a big TV with 3D lenses because there’s a generator in the village. When TV arrives, so do the products, commercial music, and trends. They watch a lot of novellas [soap operas] and TV shows like The Voice, so the kids all want to go to the states.
When I left the village, I asked the chief what development he most wanted there. When he said the Internet, I wasn’t surprised, because as the leader of their tourism activities and defense of their territory, he has to go back to Coca every week or two just to manage his emails and he’s bored with travelling for two days along the river, each way.” “As tourism is a way for indigenous people to survive, the community invites people to stay with them. They’ll organize boat tours to see dolphins along the river, and visitors pay a fair, ecotourism price for their stay. As they become more well-known, more people who are visiting Ecuador want to experience a three or four-day stay with them.
What I saw inspired me to work on my documentary CONTACTED from an intensely personal point of view. It explores how oil exploitation has impacted the Quemperi Huaorani in Bameno, their struggles and challenges and how they are caught up between what they want to defend, why they want to defend it, and their life as a modern tribe. The Bameno tribe want to retain their tradition while integrating certain aspects of modern life, but I question our role in their journey and our responsibility in not just being solely a witness to their disappearing culture.
From an occidental point of view, my film and photos are a critique of how we still fantasize about the image of tribes—a problem in photography, TV, film, and even video games without giving much thought to the impact that Western progress has had on them. These tribes now play a game of images too, which is something they have to do to preserve their culture and way of life.
“Culture is the last weapon tribes worldwide have to fight for their land, their territory, and their community today.”
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. Once they had been in contact with Western civilization and “pacified”, they became known as the “contacted”.
Today, some “contacted” Christianized Huaorani have chosen to settle in towns. 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”, their culture and way of life. They call themselves Ome Gompote Kiwigimoni Huaorani (We Defend Our Huaorani Territory), “Ome Yasuni.” https://huaoraniintangiblezone.wordpress.com/the-huaorani-waorani/
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