I just returned from a visit to the northeastern sector of Waorani territory where I got to see some old Waorani friends. These men and their families had left their ancestral lands in the 1960's and 1970's when their Christian relatives in the southwestern sector invited them to join them to hear about God and to escape the vicious vendetta that was flooding over them like a never- ending black, broiling thunderstorm. Once among their Christian relatives they abandoned the killing and began to see the possibility of a peaceful future for themselves.
Then about a decade ago they began returning to those ancestral lands they had left. Every man I talked to walked me around pointing out childhood memories.
"That hill over there is where my uncle took me the first time to teach me how to blowgun meat."
"Right here where we are standing is where my mother was born. We had a huge longhouse here. Oh, you can't imagine the fiestas we used to celebrate here. The dancing, the flutes, the singing... and gobs and gobs of food. "
"Right over there is where my grandfather Wadeca was buried - you know, the one we named you after."
"Look at that grove of chonta palms. I helped my mother and father plant those. Now my grandchildren are drinking their fruit."
Over and over I heard stories about the past, all of them highlighting how important the land is to the Waorani. I could certainly identify with them. As I get older, living in the mountains where I grew up has become a powerful magnet to my soul. There is something about going home.
But for the Waorani, it is more than I will ever be able to fully appreciate. They have cleared the land there, worked the soil, planted, built homes from trees they themselves chopped. Their very survival from day to day has been inextricably entwined with the land.
Now, however, a pall hangs over them. Oil was discovered under Waorani soil. Powerful oil companies from all over the world have built a vast network of roads criss-crossing the hunting lands. Oil wells now sit on top of old house and garden sites, with monstrous diesel engines howling day and night to suck the black from the deep. The sounds of the forest are now silent, driven away or smothered by the roar of engines. The stars are obliterated by piercing shafts of light surrounding acres of wells. Even the horizon glows red at night from burning gasses released from the belly of the earth.
But more devastating is the never-ending stream of people pouring over the land seeking wealth from timber, gold, poaching, or the dream of a piece of land of their own. Colonists seeking escape from trouble or pressure elsewhere dominate the scene even more than the blatant oil machine. Quichuas from the Andes, Quichuas from the rainforest, blacks and mestizos from the Ecuadorian Coast, Shuar from the Ecuadorian-Peruvian border, Colombians of various stripes - they all invade with the persistence of a horde of army ants, consuming the forest in their path. In the vanguard, clearing the way for all of these are an aggressive pack who have low regard for life in general, but for Indians and Waorani in particular. They are shoving the Waorani farther and farther into the recesses of what lingers of the forest. Over a decade ago the government ceded legal right to the Waorani for some of their ancestral lands, but total disregard of law and an all-pervading corruption are eroding the borders of even that concession.
As I talked with a Waorani friend and his wife, their passioned story left me feeling helpless and depressed. They had moved back to the ridge where he grew up and built their house on the banks of the river that forms the legal boundary of Waorani territory. An oil road crosses the river at that point. They moved there to try to stop the timber and game poachers from exploiting the territory there and to prevent the colonists from moving onto their land.
Last year his wife became ill, and Thorn-vine had to take her to a hospital. When they returned their house had been destroyed, their gardens pulled up and every possession they owned, down to their cooking utensils, stolen by the colonists. They were left with nothing. Appeals to the authorities were shrugged off. In the meantime an aggressive colonist had moved across the river into Waorani land just beyond their old house site. When confronted, he pointed a shotgun at her chest and pulled the trigger. Three attempts to fire the gun failed.
Today Thorn-vine and his wife live in a hastily-constructed lean-to made of the sheets of metal roofing they salvaged from their destroyed house. They have no food and are surrounded by people who would like to see them dead; in fact, they expect violence to come at any time. They are very much alone in their attempt to halt further loss of their land. As one man said, "how can we be Waorani if we lose our land to survive on?"
The oil companies who a decade ago agreed to control access to the traditional Waorani lands to help protect the Waorani have now become one of the principal forces in destroying both the land and the people.
I have often said that to accept something as "inevitable" is to contribute to its fulfillment. The story just described is but one of many, and it almost seems futile to try to stem the outcome. It leaves me feeling helpless and dumb. But we cannot let it just go on without trying. If you have any ideas that you think would help, please pass them on to me!
God blesses those who are kind to the poor. When you call, the Lord will answer. "Yes, I am here," He will quickly reply. For the Lord God says to the rulers: "Quit robbing and cheating my people out of their land, and expelling them from their homes. You must stop oppressing the weak... You have trampled and crushed beneath your feet the lowly of the world, and deprived men of their God-given rights, and refused them justice. No wonder the Lord has had to deal with you. Ps. 41:1-3; Is. 58:9; Ezek. 45:9; Lam. 3:34-36
Shell, Pastaza, Ecuador
April 25, 2001