Deep in Ecuador’s Amazon, an isolated tribe fights for survival


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This story was done in conjunction with PBS Newshour. A broadcast report will be found here when it appears on Newshour later this month.

Ramon Inkeri, a Huaorani villager, points to a handful of six-foot-long, serrated lances hanging from the wall of a thatched-roof hut. The spears, he says, are not for hunting animals but for warfare. And the Huaorani have used them for decades as they’ve been locked in a cycle of revenge killings with the Tagaeri-Taromenane, one of the hemisphere’s last remaining tribes living in voluntary isolation.

Of all the biological treasures being protected by the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, the Tagaeri-Taromenane may be among the most vulnerable. An offshoot of the larger Huaorani, the tribe is thought to number fewer than 500 individuals, and the battles are taking their toll.

The latest bloodletting occurred earlier this year. Details are murky, but Inkeri and others say the troubles began when a number of Tagaeri died after eating poison left behind in the jungle. Some say the toxic chemical was dropped by careless hunters who use it for fishing. Others blame oil companies or shadowy multinationals for intentionally poisoning the tribe.

What is known is that the Tagaeri-Taromenane speared a Huaorani elder named Ompure in March, presumably in retaliation. A few days later, a group of Huaorani trekked into the forest with lances and rifles to avenge his death.

“Huaorani don’t cry for three days,” explained Moi Enomenga, a Huaorani leader. “We had to find justice.”

The raiding party is thought to have killed more than a dozen, perhaps 30, members of the Tagaeri-Taromenane — including women and children. They brought two young girls back with them.

Enomenga and other leaders say the killing was justified under Huaorani law. Ecuador’s attorney general says the crime will not go unpunished, but officials have not been able to identify where the massacre took place or filed charges.

Inkeri, 33, is the president of Guiyero, a small Huaorani village where some of the raiding party left from. Under pressure from the government, he said, 18 Huaorani men and boys, including his cousin, have been punished for the raid.

The sanctions involve keeping the men from holding leadership positions for two years and prohibiting them from leaving their communities for one year, he said. When we asked to visit some of the men, he said they were out hunting.

But Inkeri said the community is determined to end the cycle of violence. In July, the Huaorani publically pledged not to attack the Tagaeri-Taromenane again.

However, after a similar raid in 2003 that killed more than a dozen Tagaeri-Taromenane, the Huaorani made a similar pledge.

The true test of their resolve may be yet to come.

Inkeri said a Huaorani elder and mystic named Kemperi has already foreseen that the Tagaeri will counterattack. Kemperi also warned that if the Huaorani retaliate the government will be forced to intervene, bringing an end to the Huaorani legal system and way of life.

“We know they’re going to attack us again,” Inkeri said. “But we can’t kill them or the Huaorani are finished.”

Ivonne Yánez with the Acción Ecológica environmental group, which works extensively in the area, says the recurring violence is a direct effect of the outside pressures on these ancestral communities. Starting in the 1950s, U.S. missionaries and oil companies began operating in the area, bringing massive changes. Some Huaorani accepted the contact while other clans, like the Tagaeri and the Taromenane, shunned the outsiders and moved deeper into the forest.

As traditional hunting grounds have been hemmed in by illegal logging, oil exploration and colonization, violence is on the rise.

“It looks like a rivalry that has lasted forever, an internal conflict, but that’s not the case,” Yánez said. “You have to recognize that the petroleum industry has put a brutal amount of pressure on these communities.”

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