Catastrophe in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Action Alert from Accion EcoIogica, Quito, Ecuador August 1997

Traditional Tribes face the threat of extinction as oil developers violate their ancestral homelands. Please write letters of concern. Addresses and a sample letter can be found at the end of this article.

In April 1997, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) sounded an alarm. It reported California-based Occidental Oil’s plans for seismic testing and oil well drilling. RAN warned that these activities and the construction of their roads network threaten with extinction four native Ecuadorian peoples and their ancient tribal cultures.

The cultures on the verge of extinction today are the Huaorani, the Tagaeri, the Secoya and the Siona People. All live in the area north of the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon designated as Block 15. If these indigenous tribes and their ancient knowledge of the forests' plants and animals are to survive, there is no time to waste.


Block 15 is a million-acre tract of lush, primary Amazonian rainforest. This is home to the four endangered tribes -- the Huaorani, the Tagaeri, the Secoya and the Siona People. Eons ago their ancestors inhabited this Upper Region of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

In 1986, Occidental Petroleum Corporation leased this pristine area for oil production from the Ecuadorian Government.


On a map of South America, the Amazon Rainforest resembles a continuous green carpet stretching from the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. This extremely diverse rainforest is one of the largest intact wilderness regions left on Earth. Half of the world's bird species and thirty-five thousand species of evolved flowering plants thrive in the Ecuadorian Amazon alone.

This natural biological refuge was untouched and unaffected by the Ice Age. As a result, Ecuador's Rainforest served as a massive gene pool and seed base for our entire planet.

The Huaorani, the Secoya and the Siona have lived for centuries as wise stewards of the forest plants and animals. They have cultivated a deep understanding of the living library surrounding them. As master gardeners and scientists, their respectful preservation of the forest has likewise preserved their ancestral cultural heritage -- their social and spiritual survival

Looting of this biological treasure chest began with the rubber tappers, then missionaries, colonists and oil companies. Complete destruction of its plants, animals and people will surely follow unless a moratorium on oil development starts immediately.


Of Ecuador's indigenous tribes, the Huaorani are the most recently "discovered." Until thirty-five years ago, they had no contact with the contemporary world. Their language, Waorani Terero, has no linguistic connection to any other known language. While several clans of unknown number still remain uncontacted, their known population is about 1,200 people. For thousands of years, they have honored and protected the over two million acres of primary rainforest they claim as their ancestral homeland.

As botanists, biologists and ecologists, many consider the Huaorani to be the most experienced scientists within this jungle canopy.

The TAGAERI are one of the several Huaorani clans who still have had no direct contact with missionaries, colonists, oil companies or tourists. As such, they represent one of the world's last remaining self-contained, sustainable cultures. Their actual number is unknown, but estimates are small. Still, they ferociously continue to drive off all outsiders. In 1986, they attracted world wide attention. After Occidental gained access to Block 15, the Tagaeri speared to death missionary bishop Alejandro Labaca of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, who had followed the developers he jungle to convert the natives.

Riverside dwellers along the Aguarico River reported their axes and machetes stolen and claimed to have seen the unique footprints of the Tagaeri. In July, 1996, the Capuchin Mission entered the area to attempt contact with the Tagaeri. ln February, 1 997, eye-witnesses saw two naked Tagaeri crossing a from the Shuar Community of Puca Pena. On June 15, 1997, a Secoya youth, while fishing, heard voices in a language he did not understand. When he turned a bend in the river, he saw fifteen Tagaeri instantly fleeing into the forest.

Encroachment from Occidental is escalating and the clan is presumed to be migrating north of the River. They have settled in this area, evidently unaware it is Occidental Petroleum's leased land.

SECOYA and SIONA PEOPLE are ethnic minorities among the indigenous Amazon tribes. SECOYA means "River of Colors" and SIONA means "For the Garden". There are only about 350 Secoyas remaining in Ecuador. Together with even fewer Siona People, they number only about six hundred, living on the banks of the Aguarico River in the northeastern Province of Sucumbios. They and Huaorani are authentic forest people. Their elders, families and healers continue to live as their ancestors did, observing their ancient traditions amidst the white water and black water ecosystems

The pristine primary forest homeland of these original rainforest inhabitants and their unique and noble ancestral cultures are in grave danger today. They face the threat of political instability and colonization. The encroachment continues as Occidental Petroleum's industry invades their fragile habitat.


Although the oil company has not yet begun to meet all the promises made in their highly criticized agreement with the Secoya, they have begun exploration of 45,000 acres of land legally titled to the tribe. At the same time, California-based Occidental is making exploratory lines from the Aguarico to the Napo River and into the territory of the Tagaeri in the headwaters of the Panayuco River. This premature activity is already disrupting the delicate natural balance of all four native cultures in the area of Block 15.

As Occidental penetrates the pristine forest it opens access to missionaries, land-hungry colonists and greedy corporate investors. Giant Caterpillar tractors scrape away the fragile topsoil. Chainsaws devastate the ancient living canopy. An irreversible way now exists for pollution of waterways from oil and physical and spiritual pollution from prostitution, disease and alcohol.


Despite the Tagaeri's fierce success in holding off developers, these recent events threaten to wipe out their traditional, nomadic way of life. Their physical survival is at risk. Environmental activists report that there may be other unknown, uncontacted Huaorani clans in Block 15. Road access to their remote forest brings diseases and cultural contamination that neither the defenses of the native people nor the rainforest are able to resist.

Industrial intrusion and the creation of support facilities for heavy equipment and crews have already destroyed intricate rainforest ecosystems. This is the fatal first step toward irreversible ethnocide of the Tagaeri and other unnamed Huaorani clans. With the destruction of the environment on which they depend for food, water, shelter, clothing and medicine, can the destruction of the Huaorani, Secoya and Siona People be far behind?


Urgent community meetings are being held more than ever because of Occidental's interest in the area. On February 24, 1997, Occidental Petroleum called a meeting with the Secoya community to discuss negotiations for 45,000 acres of their tribal land. To attend community meetings, the Secoya and Siona People must navigate the Aguarico River in dugout canoes for anywhere from one half to three hours A few families have outboard motors. Full representation is impossible since not every family has a canoe. Recent attendance has further declined as Occidental called, then canceled community meetings. As a result, those attending the February meeting were largely the young and inexperienced delegates to the Secoya Peoples' Organization (O.I.S.E.). Only a few women and elders were present to safeguard the tribe's traditional interests from the petroleum industry.

In May 1997, Occidental called another meeting where only 130 Secoyas were present. With threats of military intervention and revocation of land titles, the Company secured the sign-over of their homelands from the O.I.S.E. delegates. Then they promised such "gifts" as outboard motors and western medicine - - promises yet unfulfilled.


The majority of the Secoya and Siona People strongly oppose any oil operations on their lands. Despite the opposition from the community elders and women, the 26-year-old leader of O.I.S.E., Javier Piaguaje, agreed to allow Occidental to prospect on Secoya and in exchange, he received one outboard motor, 1300 sheets of tin roofing, 44 sets of aluminum pots, 5 rolls of plastic (10 meters per family), 50 rolls of chicken wire, 200 pounds of nails, 200 plastic tubes and I ,OOO acres (US 3O cents) per meter of seismic line cut. This means the Secoya community will receive a total of US$36,000.

Possessing very little financial experience, the Secoya are squabbling over the distribution of money and goods. The women and elders unanimously oppose all of Occidental's activities as they fear a cuItural and territorial extinction. By admitting Occidental Petroleum into their homelands, they say their young leader has signed a cultural and territorial death sentence for his community of 350 Secoyas, 250 Siona and an unknown number of Tagaeri, and other uncontacted Huaorani clans.


The human destruction began fifteen days after Occidental Petroleum constructed their base camp in the Secoya Communal Center of Sehuaya. An Occidental employee raped a Secoya woman. There was no criminal investigation. Occidental Petroleum simply dismissed the rapist from his job. The oil business continued as usual. The oil companies disregard the native people in this region to such a degree that rumours persist of a fifty dollar bounty posted by one company for the life of a Tagaeri and any other Huaorani clan.


Ecuadorian environmental and human rights organizations have condemned Occidental's operations and are calling for a moratorium on all its activities. Unless the oil company stops NOW, the shameful genocide of these cultures -- especially the Tagaeri -- is virtually assured.

The time is short but it is not too late to act. Environmental groups depend on widespread popular support to be effective. We must all ask ourselves: Is it worth destroying the pristine rainforest of the last natural peoples on Earth to harvest what amounts to about 1 4 days of petrol for the United States?

What You Can Do

We can stop the Occidental enterprise and prevent the further loss of priceless and irreplaceable natural resources. Individuals and groups must give voice to their concerns. Write a letter now, such as the accompanying sample, denouncing the exploitation of Block 15 and demanding a moratorium on Petroleum Corporation's activities in the Secoya, Siona and Huaorani ancestral, tribal homelands.

Address letters to:

1. Accion Ecologica
Attention: O.l.S.E.
Casilla 17-15-246C
Telephone: (593 - 2) 547-516
E-mail: ebravo@acecol

2. Rainforest Action Network
Attention: Shannon Wright
Amazon Campaign Director
221 Pine Street, 5th. Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

3. Presidente de Ia Republica del Ecuador
Palacio Presidencial
Garcia Moreno y Chile
Quito, Ecuador

4. Especially effective are letters of disapproval to and boycotting products of Occidental Petroleum Corporation
Attention: Dr. Ray I. Irani, President
Occidental Petroleum Corporation
10889 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90024


Every day unconscionable destruction of the Amazon Rainforest moves forward. If we understand ourselves as stewards of the Earth, we must do whatever we can to protect the life of our planet and all its peoples. What is happening in Block 15 in the Ecuadorian Amazon affects the indigenous people living there and ultimately all people everywhere. We must safeguard the cultural heritage of these original people to keep our world humane. We must insure the survival of these unique and fragile tropical ecosystems to keep our world diverse. If we lose these indigenous people, we will have lost forever something precious and irreplaceable in our human family. If we lose the rainforest itself, we endanger all life on our planet.

I demand a moratorium on all Occidental Petroleum Corporation's activities in Block 15, the legally titled ancestral homelands of the Secoya, Siona and Huaorani Peoples.