[ Oil for 2 soccer balls and a whistle ]   [ Oil companies militarize jungle ]      [ Los Soberanos Documental ]   [ cineasta
AUA of BEMENO / photo by michael(AT)seyfert.com
   [ dictionary ]      [ photo album ]      [ get there ]   [ en español ]   [ en italiano ]      [ the 2003 incident ]  


The Waorani have the reputation of being the fiercest warriors in the Amazon. They have never been conquered or colonized. Very confident, stoic and self-reliant people, they don't show anger and share their goods and food freely and equally. They are aggressive fighters but also have an egalitarian society in which the genders are treated equally.

Reams of writing - part anthropological, part touristic, and part environmentalist -- have been produced about their folkways, their hunting, and their bravery. Writers never fail to mention the spears and blow guns of the Waorani. Sometimes they are called "savages." Author/activist Joe Kane wrote a sensitive book about them by that name, using the term in full irony.

The Waorani once numbered in the tens of thousands and possessed a much more extensive territory than they do today. Today they number only around 2,000, and their territory continues to face the threat of oil development and colonization. The Waorani occupy a Massachusetts-sized portion of some of the most remote territory in the central and northeastern part of the Oriente. Their traditional lands overlap with Yasuni National Park, which covers part of Pastaza and Orellana provinces.

Waorani lands situated in the northern provinces of the Oriente were severely affected early on, and today six oil concession blocks overlap Waorani territory. The block that has already done the most damage, and that has been the focus of the most Waorani resistance, is Block 16. Part of Block 16 is in Yasuni, a "protected" zone.

For the Waorani, the history of the last three decades has been one of encroachment on their land by oil companies and usurpers, both Mestizo colonists and other indigenous groups alike. Contamination and loss of hunting grounds have caused the Waorani to flee from advancing "civilization," while they simultaneously fight a rearguard battle to preserve some vestige of their autonomy.

An ongoing problem for the Waorani has been the lack of cultural preparedness for dealing with the oil threat. Spears, clubs, and the courage of a hunter are not adequate to face the modern corporate incursion onto Waorani territory. The Waorani organization ONHAE (Organization of the Waorani Nation of the Ecuadorian Amazon) was formed relatively late in the history of resistance to oil development, and it has taken time for its activists to learn to effectively withstand the maneuvers of what they simply call "the Company."

In 1990 the Waorani were granted communal legal title to over 600,000 hectares of their territory, in the largest title grant to that date. However, this is only around one third of traditional Waorani land. And due to the Ecuadorian government’s constitutionally-based claim to subsoil minerals, the Waorani did not receive true autonomy with their titles. Not only do they not own the oil under their ground, but conditions attached to the title agreement forbid them to obstruct oil development, and prohibit them from receiving any royalties from the oil.

In 1991 the Waorani responded to the impact of oil development by forming ONHAE. ONHAE works to unite Waorani communities, and conducts pressure campaigns against the government, criticizing them severely for negotiating with the oil companies without the involvement of the Waorani. The organization demands that the oil companies clean up areas that they have polluted, and calls for assistance in education, development, and health care projects.

The ongoing assault of the world’s oil companies outmatches the Waoranis’ fierceness. They will continue to struggle for their survival, but in order to preserve their homelands and traditions they must, paradoxically, adopt modern ways just to be able to preserve some part of their territory and culture.

Visit Wildlife Amazon

Indigenous Waorani Seek Oil Moratorium on Their Amazon Lands

WASHINGTON, DC, May 17, 2005 (ENS) - Members of the South American indigenous group, the Waorani, are calling for a moratorium on all oil activities in their ancestral Amazonian lands in northeast Ecuador.

Two Waorani leaders traveled to Washington, DC last week and requested assistance in protecting their homelands during visits with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, and with representatives from the International Monetary Fund, nonprofit organizations.

“Our people have been severely harmed by the intrusion of the petroleum industry onto our lands for the past 20 years,” said Moi Enomenga, a leader of the indigenous tribe who was profiled in Joe Kane’s best-selling book "Savages."

Of particular concern is the scheduled construction of a new oil road into the core of Yasuní National Park and Waorani territory, known as Block 31, by the Brazilian oil company, Petrobras.

“We are asking for an immediate moratorium on all new oil projects on Waorani territory, so that we may organize our communities,” said Enomenga, but that request appears to be too late.

News reports from Ecuador that road construction by Petrobras had begun reached the indigenous leaders in Washington.

Yasuní National Park is the largest park in Ecuador and is among the world’s most important protected areas. The park contains some of the highest records of biodiversity ever documented for trees, amphibians, birds, insects and other wildlife.

Yasuní has been recognized for its outstanding biodiversity by being designated a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO).

Eleven species of primates, 23 globally threatened mammals, and many other species of concern, such as the scarlet macaw, the ocelot, the white-bellied spider monkey, the blue-headed parrot, the Amazonian tapir and the giant otter inhabit the national park.

Petrobras’ oil concession Block 31 lies almost entirely within the park and in Waorani territory.

According to Enomenga, “The company had signed an agreement with a leader of the Waorani, but the terms of the agreement were not made available to the Waorani communities, and the leader was subsequently ousted for his lack of transparency.”

Now, Enomenga and other individuals are speaking out for remote forest communities who have had little voice, some of whom are still uncontacted by representatives of other civilizations.

“The former leader who signed the agreement lives in the city," Enomenga said. "He does not live among us in our communities and does not suffer the same impacts that we do from petroleum development.”

The Waorani women have recently organized themselves into a group, the Association of the Waorani Women of the Ecuadorian Amazon (AMWAE), in opposition to oil development because of their frustration with the lack of success in stopping the oil companies.

“We are very familiar with the problems of pollution and illness that impacts our communities because of the petroleum contamination of the water, the destruction of the forests, and harm to animals,” said AMWAE President Alicia Cahuiya. “So, we are doing this as mothers to protect our children and to protect the forests. And, we also want to state that we do not accept any more oil development in our communities.”

A group of more than 50 renowned scientists with research experience in the park have also spoken out about oil exploration, opposing any new oil roads within park boundaries.

It remains to be seen whether Ecuador’s newly implemented government will respect the park’s boundaries.

In April former President Lucio Gutierrez was forced out of office after public protests related to his firing of the Supreme Court.

Gutierrez also was criticized for not doing enough to end political corruption and improve Ecuador's troubled economy.

On April 20, Ecuador's Congress voted to oust Gutierrez and unanimously voted to replace him with his Vice President Alfredo

Palacio. Newly installed President Palacio, Environment Minister Anita Alban, and Energy Minister Fausto Cordovez now hold the future of Yasuni National Park in their hands.

“Even though the government does not protect it very well," Enomenga declared, "we are here to defend our land,”

Many respected scientists have asked that Ecuador forbid construction of the Petrobras road. In January, the world’s largest scientific organization dedicated to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems, the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Ecuadorian government to prohibit the construction of the proposed Petrobras road.

"Building a new road in the Amazonian frontier is like opening Pandora’s Box," said William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution in Panama, who is president-elect of the ATBC.

"Once a new road goes in, it’s nearly impossible to stop subsequent colonization, over-hunting, and deforestation along the road," Laurance said.

Last November, 59 neotropical researchers from institutions in 10 countries, calling themselves the Scientists Concerned for Yasuní, wrote a letter to the presidents of Ecuador, Brazil and Petrobras recommending that the proposed road be stopped.

"We concluded that the negative impacts caused by new access roads in primary rainforest environments can not be effectively controlled," said Margot Bass, executive director of Finding Species and lead editor of the Scientists Concerned for Yasuní report. "We strongly recommend that all planned and future oil extraction in Yasuní utilize a roadless off-shore model."

Quote of Note
"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." -- Aldo Leopold, American environmentalist and author / Copyright Environment News Service.

Location:  Between Napo and Curaray rivers in Napo and Pastaza provinces, Amazonian Ecuador; south and east of town of Coca to near Nuevo Rocafuerte and Peru, between latitudes 0°26'-1°40'S and longitudes 77°30'-75°25'W.
15,920 km²: 9820 km² in park, 6100 km² in reserve. Altitude: . c. 200-350 m.
Tropical moist forest: tierra-firme, várzea, swamp and igapó forests.
c. 4000 species, high diversity; potentially high in regional endemics.
Useful plants: 
Medicinal, ornamental and timber species.
Other values: 
Large wilderness, diverse fauna including regional endemics and threatened species, potential genetic resources, Amerindian land, watershed protection, ecotourism.
Road construction and oil pipeline; illegal settlers and logging.
National Park, Ethnic Reserve, Biosphere Reserve, forthcoming Research Station.



The eastern portion of Ecuador in the Amazon Basin (the "Oriente") comprises the lowlands that gradually slope downward from 600 m to less than 200 m at the eastern frontier with Peru (Balslev and Renner 1989; Tschopp 1953). The topography is low and undulating to slightly hilly terrain between broad swampy floodplains of the main rivers. Geologically the Oriente is part of the extensive area filled with Cretaceous-Tertiary sediments between the Andes and the Brazilian Shield (Tschopp 1953).

This region is drained by the Napo and Pastaza river systems, which diverge respectively toward the north-east to east and the south-east from the depression between the Andean uplifts of the Serranía del Napo (with Sumaco Volcano) and the Sierra de Cutucú (Tschopp 1953). The Napo is the major river, flowing eastward to join the Marañón River near Iquitos, Peru and form the Solimões River, which in turn flows eastward to Manaus, Brazil.

Yasuní National Park covers 9820 km² south of the Napo River and north of the Curaray River in Napo and Pastaza provinces of central eastern Ecuador, extending eastward from c. 40 km east of the town of Coca (76°40'W) almost to Nuevo Rocafuerte near the border with Peru. Much of the park's northern boundary is the Tiputini River and much of the southern boundary is the Curaray River. There is a roughly rectangular north-western extension of the park to the south bank of the Napo River at Añangu and westward to the Indillama River.

The adjacent Waorani Ethnic Reserve includes 6100 km². The eastern part of the reserve is largely encompassed to the north, east and south by the park. The reserve extends westward to c. 77°30'W, but is almost bisected by the Auca road which runs south from the town of Coca (or Puerto Francisco de Orellana), an oil centre and port. A broad swath of land 10 km wide on either side of the road is occupied by colonists, but more or less south of the road a corridor provides the Waorani Amerindians access between the eastern and western portions of their reserve.

Most of the park and reserve has low hills of red clay dystropept soil. Low humic gley soil probably occurs in the swampy or poorly drained areas in the eastern part of the park (Duellman 1978; Neill 1988b). There are no peat swamps or podzols (Balslev and Renner 1989).

Weather stations some distance west and east of the park suggest that the annual temperature averages 25°C (with extremes of 15° and 38°) and the annual rainfall is 2425-3145 mm, with a humidity of 88%. Although rarely rainless for more than c. 10 days, between August and February some months may be drier (Balslev et al. 1987; Blandin Landívar 1976; Duellman 1978). Flooding is not seasonal (Balslev and Renner 1989).

Return to Top


The entire region is within the tropical moist-forest life zone of the Holdridge system. The park and reserve are in the Solimões-Amazonas phytogeographic region (Nations 1988). Four main vegetation types have been recognized within the park and reserve, but the vegetation has not been mapped.

1. Probably more than 90% of the area is unflooded upland ("tierra-firme") forest, occurring on the low hills of red clay dystropept soil. The canopy is 25-30 m high, with emergents such as Cedrelinga cateniformis (to 45-50 m tall and 2-3 m dbh) and Parkia spp. Canopy trees include several Myristicaceae (Otoba glycycarpa, Osteophloeum platyspermum, Virola spp.). Simaruba amara, Dussia tessmannii, Hymenaea oblongifolia and several genera of Moraceae and Sapotaceae also occur. Trees with buttresses or stilt roots are frequent. The understorey on hills may be quite open with small trees and shrubs, lianas may be abundant, and epiphytes are less diverse and abundant than in wetter forest nearer the Andes (Neill 1988b). The ground layer tends to be only weakly developed (Balslev et al. 1987).

2. Along the banks of the Napo River is a narrow strip (200-1000 m wide) of relatively fertile soil, enriched by sediments from the Andes when the river floods. This "várzea" forest is generally flooded only once every several years. The canopy layer is somewhat higher (35-40 m) than in the upland forest, with occasional emergents such as Ceiba pentandra and Ficus spp. to 50 m tall. Common canopy dominants include Otoba parvifolia, Chimarrhis glabriflora, Celtis schippii and Guarea kunthiana. The ivory-nut palm Phytelephas macrocarpa is a common small understorey tree.

3. The third type of vegetation is swamp forest, which occurs in extensive stands along the Napo River and the lower reaches of the Tiputini River, a main tributary of the Napo. Swamp forest is flooded for much of the year, but the ground is exposed during dry periods. Characteristic are nearly pure stands of the palm Mauritia flexuosa, as well as a few other swamp species such as Virola surinamensis and Symphonia globulifera.

4. The Yasuní River is a black-water river, which bears very little sediment because its headwaters are in the Amazon lowlands rather than the Andes. The waters are stained the colour of dark tea by tannic acids dissolved from riverside vegetation. Along the banks of this river and associated lagoons is "igapó" forest, which is almost totally floristically distinct from the upland and várzea forests. Common trees include Macrolobium acaciifolium, Coussapoa trinervia and the palm Astrocaryum jauari.

Return to Top


The Napo River region of Ecuador and Peru has been proposed as one of the primary Pleistocene forest refugia, characterized by a high degree of animal and plant endemism. The refugium extends from the foothills of the Andes eastwards to the "Trapecio Amazónico" of Colombia and Peru (Duellman 1978; Prance 1982) - the park and reserve are within a more finely delimited South Napo Pleistocene refugium.

The upper part of the Amazon Basin may have emerged from a mid-continental lake and become forested as recently as 1.8 million years ago, with the greatest uplift of the Andes. During climatic fluctuations of the Pleistocene and Holocene the forest may have become fragmented, and then rejoined north and south but been separated by drier areas to the east (e.g. Duellman 1978). For the Oriente as a whole, which however is just a part of the postulated Pleistocene refugium, Balslev and Renner (1989) estimated endemism at only 1%. The plant species composition of the park and reserve remain unknown, as does the extent of regional endemism represented within them.

The little collecting and study done so far at one area (Añangu) showed high but not exceptional richness for moist lowland forest (Balslev and Renner 1989). Some 394 species of trees over 10 cm dbh were found: 153-228 species per ha in unflooded forest and 146 in floodplain forest, with 19% shared. As usual in the neotropical lowlands, Moraceae and Leguminosae were most frequent. So little known is the region that in two weeks of field work near an exploratory oil well in the western part of the park, several new species of trees and at least two new orchid species were discovered, as well as over 15 records of orchids new for Ecuador (Neill 1988b). The flora of the region contains many species in common with the lowlands of the nearby Gran Sumaco and Upper Napo River region, but the distribution of the flora in Amazonian Ecuador is highly heterogeneous - many species present in the wetter Gran Sumaco region do not occur in the Yasuní region, and vice versa.

In late 1992, botanists from the National Herbarium of Ecuador and the Missouri Botanical Garden initiated a large-scale floristic inventory along the oil-pipeline road which is being built through 120 km of primary forest in the Yasuní National Park and Waorani Ethnic Reserve. Specimens were collected from felled trees. This survey has continued for two years and will provide much more thorough knowledge of the flora.

Return to Top

Useful plants

Little that is definitive can be said until the flora is better known. Hevea guianensis is present - a less commercially desirable rubber tree than H. brasiliensis, but an important genetic resource. Phytelephas macrocarpa (the vegetable-ivory palm) also is found - a species that has received renewed international commercial interest. Cedrelinga cateniformis, which is prized for construction of dugout canoes, has potential as a commercial timber. This species might replace the dwindling Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) and bigleaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), which are among the valuable timber trees selectively taken from accessible areas along the rivers.

Ethnobotanical studies in lowland Ecuador (Kvist and Holm-Nielsen 1987) include various medicinal and other uses of species by the Waorani (Davis and Yost 1983): e.g. Bactris gasipaes (blowgun wood), Curarea tecunarum (arrow poison and fungal diseases), Minquartia guianensis (fish poison), Banisteriopsis muricata (hallucinogen), Renealmia spp. and Urera baccifera (snake bites), Piper augustum and P. conejoense (toothbrush and decay preventive), Sphaeropteris sp. (local dental anesthetic), Virola spp. and Iryanthera spp. (fungal diseases).

Return to Top

Social and environmental values

The park and reserve provide extensive habitat for many animals, e.g. harpy eagles, macaws, jaguars, primates, freshwater dolphins and anacondas. The area's great expanse provides a rare chance to conserve unfragmented and undisturbed ecosystems and populations functioning naturally, including threatened species.

The two protected areas are embraced by the large Napo and Upper Amazon lowlands Endemic Bird Area (EBA B19), which extends from southernmost Colombia and eastern Ecuador eastward into northern Peru and westernmost Brazil. Ten species of birds are limited to this area, although they essentially represent the most restricted species of a (distributionally poorly known) suite of birds that are confined to the river islands, riverine forest and várzea forest of the Amazon Basin rivers. The birds in this EBA, just one of which is considered threatened, are seemingly confined to the tierra-firme or várzea forests.

The Waorani Ethnic Reserve protects tribal land of the Waorani ("Auca") Amerindians, some of whom have fiercely resisted all outside efforts to contact them (Nations 1988; Whitten 1981; Yost 1981). Oil exploration began in their area in the 1940s. The Waorani ethnobotany is notably different from that of neighbouring peoples, suggesting their past isolation. Several family groups of Waorani live in the eastern portion of Yasuní park.

Economic assessment

In 1992, a large-scale conservation programme known as SUBIR (Sustainable Use of Biological Resources) was initiated for the Yasuní region as well as two other protected areas in Ecuador. The goals of SUBIR are to promote conservation by increasing the capacity of Ecuadorian agencies to protect core areas, as well as encouraging non-destructive uses of natural resources by peoples living in buffer zones around the protected areas. Financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, SUBIR is carried out by a consortium of organizations led by CARE International, with the collaboration of the Ecuadorian Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería (Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock) and local environmental and community organizations.

The SUBIR programme seeks to help develop viable economic alternatives that will enable people in the buffer zones to produce sufficient income without causing deforestation or other resource-destructive activities. These alternatives may include ecotourism, production of handicrafts and other goods from the forest, and improved agricultural techniques that obviate the need to continually clear more forested land. SUBIR is an experiment in its initial stages; its results will not be evident for several years.

Return to Top


The forests of Ecuador's Oriente are undergoing extensive deforestation as a result of oil exploration and production followed by colonization, which began with the most recent and successful phase of exploration in 1964-1969 (Schodt 1987). These activities led to the construction of a 420-km oil pipeline to transport petroleum from the Oriente oil fields over a 4300-m high pass in the Andes and down to the port of Esmeraldas on the Pacific coast. With the pipeline, the first roads were constructed into Ecuador's north-eastern Amazon and then south, in 1971 opening the region to colonization, e.g. through relocation of farmers from the over-crowded coastal and mountain regions of the country (Bromley 1973; Neill 1988a). Where a few thousand lived 20 years ago, now over 100,000 people live in Napo Province and are transforming large tracts of forest into agricultural fields and pastures (Uquillas 1984). African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is the favourite plantation crop. Selective logging occurs where the trees are accessible.

In the mid 1980s, new oil fields were located in the Pastaza and Napo river valleys, including a significant reserve of 150 million barrels of heavy crude petroleum beneath the Waorani Ethnic Reserve and Yasuní National Park. Ecuador's plan for extraction by building a road as well as a pipeline to the oil fields through the untouched Yasuní forest, instead of flying in materials, sparked intense controversy within Ecuador as well as internationally. The government's PetroEcuador awarded a concession for development of the oil reserves in petroleum block 16, which occupies 2000 km² within the Waorani reserve, to the U.S.-based company Maxus. In December 1992, construction of the road and pipeline began from the Napo River south into the centre of the Waorani reserve-Yasuní park territory, amid continuing opposition from Ecuadorian environmental organizations.

The environmental mitigation plan for the development project within the Yasuní-Waorani area includes some provisions for reducing negative impacts. Strict control of persons entering the road is planned to avoid settlers and logging, and wells are to be drilled in clusters to reduce deforestation. However, the feasibility of being able to prevent invasion of the park and reserve by colonists once the road is established is questionable. The events that often follow the building of a road in a protected area are sadly recorded nearby. Construction of oil-pipeline roads through the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve north of the Napo River led to colonization of the area by more than 1000 families.

Return to Top


The discovery of oil in the Oriente has brought considerable prosperity to Ecuador (oil exports provide 70% of the country's income) (Schodt 1987), greatly increased opportunities for colonization in the region and emphasized the need to protect its diverse biological resources - which also are of economic significance. Two large reserves were created in 1979: Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve (2547 km²) north of the Napo River and Yasuní National Park (originally 6797 km²) - the largest mainland park in Ecuador.

Due in part to the conflict between conservation of protected areas and development of oil fields, the size and shape of Yasuní park have been changed twice by governmental decrees. An ethnic reserve of 1600 km² for the Waorani was established in 1968, south-west of the original Yasuní park boundary (Whitten 1981). Until the 1960s, the Waorani were nomadic over c. 20,000 km² (nearly all of the territory between the Napo and Curaray rivers) and their hostile reactions to all outsiders had kept their land nearly undisturbed (e.g. Kvist and Holm-Nielsen 1987).

In 1990, the Waorani Ethnic Reserve was enlarged eastward to 6100 km², and a large part of Yasuní park was ceded to the Waorani reserve, including the major portion of the oil fields near the Yasuní River. As partial recompense for loss of the park lands, additional territory was added on the south-east of Yasuní NP. In 1992, the park was enlarged again to 9820 km². Together with the Waorani reserve, the officially protected Yasuní region now comprises almost 16,000 km².

An important step toward the legal protection of the region was the May 1989 declaration of the park and its buffer zone as a Biosphere Reserve, under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme (Coello Hinojosa and Nations 1989). The Biosphere Reserve now includes the Waorani Ethnic Reserve and the enlarged Yasuní NP. However, the future of the park and reserve remain uncertain. The oil reserves will last only 20 years. Over the long term it will be more productive to protect the genetic resources of the region and promote tourism that can generate steady income. Future generations of Ecuadorians especially could have the legacy of a great Amazonian park, the homeland of indigenous people, and an extraordinary representation of plant and animal species in one of the world's diverse large wilderness regions.

A preliminary master plan for the park has been prepared by the Departamento de Administración de Areas Naturales y Vida Silvestre of the Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería (Coello Hinojosa and Nations 1989). However, the changing boundaries of the park, the establishment of the Waorani Ethnic Reserve and the petroleum development necessitate thorough revision of the management plan for the region. Legal mechanisms for future management and environmental protection of the Waorani Ethnic Reserve, in particular, have not been clarified by the government. The conservation outlook for the Yasuní region is not yet bleak - the Maxus petroleum company which holds the development concession in the area has demonstrated a commitment to support conservation efforts.

Among other contributions, Maxus agreed to build a scientific research station within the park, which is to be managed by the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Quito. The first major research project of the station is studying the forest dynamics of a diverse 50-ha permanent plot established on the Tiputini River (Foster 1994).

Return to Top