LET ME LIVE
Stanley Stewart investigates how travel saved the Huaorani tribe from the Big Oil
WORDS BY STANLEY STEWART
In Ecuador’s Oriente province, in the remote headwaters of the Amazon, the Huaorani tribe were living a Stone Age existence until their first contact with the outside world in the 1960s. They poled their canoes through the headwaters of the Amazon. They slipped naked through the shadows of the forests with their blow pipes and their spears. Their isolation was complete.
The Huaorani language bears no relation to any other language on earth; not even those of their aboriginal neighbours. They have no numbers above ten, no form of writing, no clear idea of their own origins. They are famous trackers, able to keep their bearings through vast stretches of forest; when they are unsure of the way they fall back on the old technique of following a butterfly. They make little distinction between the physical and the spiritual, and hope to become jaguars in the next life. They practise polygamy, and possibly polyandry as well, hunt monkeys for food, scavenge maggots as a tasty hors d’oeuvres. In the years of their isolation they had a reputation for antipathy to outsiders. An early missionary pamphlet offers a few useful Huaorani phrases. Prominent among them is “Do not spear me” and “Let me live”.
The missionaries arrived with the oilmen, an unholy alliance set to change their world. The deforestation of the Amazon through logging and cultivation is a familiar issue. The incursion of the oil industry, and the havoc they have wrecked in regions like Oriente, is a less familiar scandal. Oil drilling has proceeded in Oriente with little regulation or restraint. Catastrophic oil spills have ruined vast swathes of jungle and polluted the water table. A hundred miles north of the Huaorani, the arrival of reduced the Cofan tribe from a prosperous, thriving society to virtual extinction in the space of twenty years.
Oil brings many benefits that are superficially attractive – jobs, money, schools, clinics. But it also signals the end of a way of life, bringing pollution, diseases and waves of Andean settlers keen to clear the forests for farming. For the past twenty years the Huaorani have been battling the oil companies in the hope of saving their forests and themselves – a battle admirably described in ‘Savages’ by Joe Kane.
In an effort to provide an alternative to oil as a source of revenue and an opportunity for manageable, low-scale development, the Huaoroni have turned to another of the developed world’s industries: tourism. In partnership with Tropic, an enlightened Quito-based tour operator and PURE member, they have built a small lodge in the depths of their ancestral lands – an area still far from the depredations of the oil companies. I had come to the Amazon to see if a remote, five-cabin project could be a useful weapon in a battle against Big Oil.
The flight into Huaorani territory left from a town with an ominous name – Shell. As we banked eastward, the forest began to close in. The tracks and the clearings dwindled and disappeared until the only breaks in the billowing arboreal quilt were snaking clay-coloured rivers. Studying an area of this forest the size of two football fields, botanists recently found 437 species of tree, more than in all of Western Europe. Somewhere between the Rio Napa and Rio Curaray, a break appeared in the tree canopy and we came down bumpily onto a grass airstrip.
Quehueri-ono (the name translates as “the river where it is good to live”) remains a traditional Huaoroni village, a place of palm thatch houses and piroques, of hunting and gathering, of spears and blowpipes, of chanting and forest spirits. Yet even here Oil casts a shadow. Young people are drawn away to the wells and the oil towns by glamorous salaries and the promise of opportunities. And when they go, they rarely return.
For developing societies, tourism has always been a double-edged sword. It can act as the vanguard of westernising influences that do so much to undermine the values and cohesion of a more traditional world. But, ironically, it can also become a saviour. Sensitively managed in partnership with indigenous people, tourism can offer support to a way of life that struggles to find economic value.
In Kenya, wildlife lodges like Tassia and Il N’gewsi provide Maasai tribes with employment and an income to manage low-scale development, without breaking the bonds of their own traditional societies. In Basilicata, in the instep of the Italian boot, life has returned to the unique troglodyte city of Matera due almost entirely to its appeal to visitors. In the steppes of Outer Mongolia nomads can escape the pull of Ulan Batur by supplementing pastoral incomes by renting horses, acting as guides and hosts to small parties of visitors. In Kakadu, in the Northern Territories of Australia, the stories, the knowledge and the skills of aboriginal elders are no longer something being outflanked by modern society, but a culture that is drawing admiring visitors and providing economic value. And in the Amazon, the Huaoroni’s five-cabin lodge is bringing income and employment to a remote community.
Bei was my Huaorani guide. A shy, slender man with high cheekbones and a crooked smile, he wore a crown of toucan feathers and two criss-crossing strips of woven palm leaves across his chest. He had been educated in a mission school and spoke some Spanish.
We slipped downstream in a quillan, a wooden piroque. The jungle grew close along the banks. We glided between viridian shadows and open sun. Bei leaned heavily on his long pole to keep the current from slewing us into one of the mud banks. We saw no one. We seemed to be gliding through an uninhabited world.
After an hour or so we drew into a wooden landing stage, and followed a path to five wood and thatch cabins set back above the river. Each had a porch and screened windows. Inside it was summer camp simplicity, functional and comfortable. There were twin beds, a couple of chairs, an en-suite bathroom with hot water and a flush toilet. Further along the path was the main building with the kitchens, the dining facilities, and a wide communal porch.
Tropic provides guests and a lodge manager to bring a professional eye to operations, while the Huaoroni provide the local staff – from cleaners to boatmen, cooks to waiters. It is hoped the tribe will eventually take over more and more of the operation, leaving Tropic just to market the lodge to international visitors. Eighty members of the tribe share the work at the lodge, and part of the income goes towards community projects.
After dinner of mashed plantain, rice and beans, we sat outside on the porch. Fireflies floated along the dark paths while pygmy owls called back and forth in long staccato phrases.
When I asked Bei what his hopes were for the lodge, he touched on another benefit of tourism, beyond the economic value it gave to their forest life.
“We cannot remain invisible,” he said. “We want visitors here to remember us, so that when the oil companies come, we might have friends in the wide world to help us.”
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several hundred articles based on journeys across five continents. As well as being a contributing editor of Condé Nast, he writes for The Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times in the UK, National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa, and the Australian.