Hostages in the Amazon: Sentinels to Our Consciences

John Perkins

Upper Amazon, Ecuador -- Indigenous warriors took ten oil workers hostage in December 2002. Although they have been branded as terrorists, part of Al-Qaeda and the Axis of Evil, their story is a complex one that challenges the very nature of democracy.

Only the latest in a series of hostage takings here, it was similar to the others in that it ended nonviolently with an agreement between indigenous communities and the Ecuadorian government. But it was unlike the others in one key aspect.

The hostages were neither foreigners nor trained seismologists. They were tribesmen -- Kichwas, Shuars, and Achuars -- who had, in the eyes of an Achuar leader, "betrayed their families." What they had done was new to this region of the world, yet they were part of a strategy that is as old as empire.

The people of the Upper Amazon live in an area teeming with as much life and biodiversity as any place on earth. For thousands of years they have harvested, hunted, and protected it. They never questioned the ancient wisdom that long-term survival depends on good stewardship.

Then, beginning in the 1960s, along with missions and schools, came the oil companies: Shell, Texaco, Arco, Conoco, Occidental, Burlington, and others. The distinction between teachers, missionaries, and oil workers was often whisker thin. Oil companies donated money to the missions and built schools; missionaries and teachers encouraged their minions to deed their lands to the companies, cut the forests, and work the oil fields.

By the 1980s, vast areas of rain forest had fallen, the macaws and jaguars had vanished, and the tribes were in disarray. According to the California-based Amazon Watch, during Texaco's heyday from 1964 to 1990 three Ecuadorian indigenous cultures were driven to the verge of collapse, 2.5 million acres of virgin forests had disappeared, billions of gallons of toxic wastewater had been dumped into the rivers, and cancer rates had reached 1,000 times higher than normal in some villages. On December 9, 2002 lawyers representing the indigenous groups announced that that they would file suite in Ecuadorian court against ChevronTexaco Corp, seeking up to $700 million in damages.

Meanwhile, the oil companies were implementing a strategy that has worked in places like Nigeria, Indonesia, and parts of the Middle East.

I learned a few of the details about this strategy during recent meetings with members of several tribes in the Amazon outpost city of Puyo, Ecuador. I was joined by representatives from The Pachamama Alliance (TPA), a San Francisco-based non-profit and The Center for Economic and Social Rights, an Ecuadorian non-profit, partially funded by TPA. Many of the men and women we met with were from the community accused of taking the hostages. Some had walked for days through the jungle before reaching Puyo. Others had flown in on small planes, funded by the non-profits. A few wore their traditional kilts, face paint, and feathered headbands. Most emulated the city-dwellers, wearing slacks, pressed shirts, and shoes.

Kichwa members of Sarayacu (where the hostages were held) reminded us that this was the beginning of a special season in the Amazon, the fruiting of the chonta. A tree sacred to indigenous cultures, its fruit comes but once a year and signals the start of the mating season for many of the region's birds, including rare and endangered species. As they flock to it, they are extremely vulnerable. The tribes enforce strict policies forbidding the hunting of these birds during mating season.

"The timing of the soldiers couldn't have been worse," a Kichwa woman explained. We listened as she and her companions told their tragic stories of how the soldiers ignored the prohibitions. They wantonly shot down the birds for sport, as well as food. In addition, they raided family gardens, banana groves, and manioc fields, often irreparably destroying the sparse topsoil. They used explosives in the rivers for fishing and ate family pets. They confiscated the local hunters' guns and blowguns.

"We had two choices," the leader of the group told us. "We could fight back or we could swallow our pride and do our best to repair the damage. We decided it was not yet the time to fight, that we would give you and the organizations trying to help us one more chance."

They attempted to compensate for the military's abuses by encouraging their own people to go without food. They called it a "fast", but in fact it was closer to voluntary starvation. Children became malnourished, and grew sick; a few had died.

Time and again, from Achuar, Shuar, Kichwa, and Zaparos we heard tales that broke our hearts. We learned that the soldiers dug improper latrines, polluted the rivers with fuel oil, soaps, and solvents, sexually molested women, and neglected to properly dispose of garbage, which attracted insects and vermin. The leaders had to devote their time and energy to dealing with the problems, trying to hold their communities together, and restraining their young men from retaliating.

"For years," the president of the Shuar Federation told us, "We've worked with nonprofit organizations to set up health and education programs. Now, all those have fallen apart. We don't have time or resources for them. Our schools have closed. It will take years to get back to where we were!"

"The oil companies bribe our people with lots of money," a Kichwa elder added. "My son speaks English, as well as Spanish, and several indigenous dialects. He worked as a guide and translator for an eco-tourist company. They paid him a decent salary. Burlington offered him ten times as much. What could he do? Now he writes letters denouncing The Pachamama Alliance, his old eco-tour company, and all the others who come to help us, and in his letters calls the oil companies our friends." The Kichwa leader shook his body, like a dog shaking off water. "He is no longer one of us. But, I can't really blame him in a way. He's rich and his kids have fancy cloths and television. He lives here in Puyo. They taught him to drive. He bought a car last week."

"And if we don't cooperate. . ." the Shuar president lifted a fist as though holding a knife and slammed it against his heart. "You know about those three FIPSE (Shuar Federation) officials who opposed the oil companies and died in that plane crash? Well, I'm not going to sit here in Puyo and tell you what everyone knows, that the oil companies caused the crash. But I can tell you that those three deaths dug a big hole in our organization. And the oil people lost no time filling it. They're spending more money than we have among all the Shuar to get their own people elected to FIPSE. As soon as those three men - all good friends of mine - were buried, company representatives started making speeches against the NGOs and came in with brochures about all the wonderful things oil does for us - promising to hire our young people, build schools and roads for us. But you know. . ." He paused frowning. "We're not as stupid as they think. We saw what they did to the Hoaoranis in the 1980s. Sure, they got jobs. Prostitution! Schools that teach them to be oil slaves. And roads drenched in oil that poisoned the land and rivers and brought in the colonists and lumber companies. The Hoaoranis lost everything!"

He showed us a contract. In exchange for $300,000, it ceded a vast territory over to a lumber company. It was signed by three Indigenous officials. José, the lawyer, studied it. When he looked up, he shook his head. "This is no contract," he said. "It's missing dates, surveyors' information, many things the lumber company lawyers would have included." He studied the signatures carefully. "I know these men," he said at last. "These aren't their signatures."

The Shuar president nodded his agreement. "We know that." He managed a laugh. "At least we leaders do. It's another type of assassination. Burlington circulated this." He waved the contract in the air. "To make our leaders look bad. That's how the oil people work!"

It is easy during a time when the President of the United States tells us "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists" to conclude that anyone who takes oil workers hostage is an "evildoer" and member of Al-Qaeda. Such conclusions may bring comfort to armchair warriors, but they are also dangerous -- and in the end likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The issue is not so much about oil as about justice, democracy, and the right to have one's grievances heard and fairly judged. It is an issue that reaches into the bedrock of our democratic society. At times like these, of crises and fear, we must be especially careful to honor our most cherished principles. The people of the Amazon stand as sentinels before the gates of our collective consciences.


Arts & Entertainment features John Perkins and his work in the Amazon on a television special aired frequently on the A&E and History channels ("Headhunters of the Amazon" narrated by Leonard Nimoy). Italian Cosmopolitan ran a major article on his Shapeshifting workshops for corporate executives in Europe. TIME* selected the NGO he founded and chairs as one of the 13 in the world whose websites best reflect the ideals and goals of Earth Day (

John Perkins served in the Amazon as a Peace Corps Volunteer, 1968-71, and has since devoted much of his life to working with indigenous cultures there and around the world. He is a highly successful businessman, author, and workshop facilitator who teaches about the importance of transformation in our personal and professional lives. He served for over three decades as a consultant to the United Nations, World Bank, and Fortune 500 companies, and as President and CEO of an energy company that played a major role in changing the U.S. utility industry. He has taught at universities and learning centers on four continents, and been initiated into shamanic circles in the Amazon, Andes, and Asia. His highly acclaimed books - published in many languages - include Shapeshifting; The World Is As You Dream It; Psychonavigation; Spirit of the Shuar; and The Stress-Free Habit.

* April 26, 1999