By ELIOT HEADLEY | Moonshine Ink

Living along the riverbanks of the Ecuadorian Amazon are indigenous Waorani communities that have been in a long-fought legal battle to protect their sovereign ancestral lands. The Waorani way of life is changing as the world around them evolves. Within Ecuador, the Waorani territory is recognized as sovereign, though political and economic pressures in South America and abroad have been thrusting change upon the Waorani people.

While it was dumping in Tahoe this past winter during one of the snowiest seasons on record, I was down in warmer climes working in northern Ecuador in the city of Lago Agrio. Through the connection of my good friend Lexie Gropper, who I met in the United States a year earlier, I was invited to work in Ecuador on a soil regeneration and community education project called Amisacho, named after an old indigenous Kofan Nation word for the region. Lexie co-founded Amisacho with her husband, Luis Muños, and his family, who are locals in Lago Agrio. While working in that area, which has its own history of social and environmental injustice from the petroleum industry, Luis received an invitation from the Waorani community of Akaro, where he had helped install solar panels. It was through this invitation that those of us involved  with the Amisacho project were brought to stay in Akaro, one of the most remote Waorani communities.

During our travels south toward Akaro, we stopped in Puyo, Ecuador on Feb. 27. On this day we saw the Waorani march through the city streets for the legal right to their ancestral land, demonstrating the people’s connection to the land and the significance it represents to their culture. Among this group was Memo, one of the Waorani contacts Luis made within the Akaro community. Memo is the founder and symbolic grandfather of Akaro. He was joined by roughly 200 Waorani, Kofan, and other Amazonian indigenous people while marching through the streets of Puyo. With some members of the group clutching spears in their hands, the group chanted, “La selva no se vende,” meaning “the forest is not for sale.” The march ended at the Ecuadorian Provincial Court, where Waorani people, alongside their lawyer, handed over official legal documents suing the Ecuadorian government for leasing the Waorani Territory to foreign oil companies.

COOKING OVER FIRE in the kitchen of the main house of Akaro, Memo’s wife glances toward some of the Waorani children. Courtesy Eliot Headley

Of the many indigenous communities resting along the banks of rivers in the Amazon Basin, Akaro is one of the most remote. It is accessible only by a two-day canoe ride or rudimentary dirt runway. The following day, we departed from Puyo and set out on a three-hour dirt road journey that ended at the banks of winding Amazonian river, Rio Villano. From there we embarked on the two-day canoe trip that would lead us to Akaro.

Standing tall, with the throttle of the outboard engine in-hand, Memo skillfully navigated our canoe, loaded with gear and people, around the curves of the low flow river. That night, Memo and his family set up camp for us at the halfway point to Akaro. As we began cooking our dinner over open flame, Memo shared tales of his childhood, such as the first time he saw an airplane, which was at a time before he had ever seen a white person or amenities such as metal pots.

The next day, half of our party, including myself, set off on the second half of the journey to Akaro by foot through the rainforest. Carlos, Memo’s son-in-law, accompanied us on the hike into Waorani territory, harvesting wild cacao and other edible plants along the way. It was on this hike that we were first shown the vast breadth of useful knowledge the Waorani have about Amazon flora and fauna. The traditional method of the Waorani for hunting animals such as toucans is with a mouth-powered blow dart gun. The darts are tipped with poison derived from liana, woody vines found throughout this region of the Amazon. These plants, which have traditionally been used for generations, are becoming more and more difficult to find.

A PICUNA, or blow dart staff, is traditionally used for hunting toucans, which are a common food source for the Waorani. Poison derived from woody vines called liana is used to make the darts deadly to the birds. Aspiring picuna hunters need a very steady hand and careful aim to hit a toucan high up in the trees. Shortly after this photo was taken, Eliot Headley himself took two unsuccessful attempts at hitting a toucan perched on a branch. Courtesy Eliot Headley

Early the next morning, while at Akaro, Memo entered the living area of the main house with a large sajino (wild pig) on his back. He had left earlier that morning to hunt, unbeknownst to those of us who were guests in the rainforest, and proven his status as one of the best hunters in his community. He returned with the sajino worn like a backpack, each of the pig’s legs tied together with vines also wrapped around Memo’s chest. The sajino, a much-welcomed arrival of sustenance in our remote encampamento, made a weighted entrance as Memo heavily dropped the animal on the wooden floorboards next to the cooking area in the main house of Akaro.

Wildness and the expanse of forest surrounding Akaro is immense. All I had to offer was my anecdotal experience in this place as a 25-year-old recently-graduated student with a bachelor’s in biology. I witnessed the habitat around Akaro and now know just how incredibly species-rich and biodiverse it is. I found myself on that canoe ride into Akaro through a series of serendipitous events and was able to witness the intact Amazon, listening by fireside and through trail talk to the connection that the Waorani have to this land.

ONE ENCAMPAMENTO sits in the thick jungle adjacent to a river. Waorani communities each have a few camps like this one to be used for overnight stays during travel. Courtesy Eliot Headley

I learned through these layered stories that as an effort to protect their lands from foreign oil leasings, the Waorani have mobilized in a historic way. Block 22 is the name that has been given to the large area of the Waorani territory which is in danger of being auctioned off for oil extraction. Akaro is in Block 22. On April 27, a court verdict was delivered in favor of the Waorani to permanently protect 500,000 acres of their ancestral lands from resource extraction. However, following this court decision, the Ecuadorian government motioned to appeal and overturn this decision.

As of July 1, the Ecuadorian Provincial Court has upheld the decision to maintain protection of the half-million acres of Waorani land.

Leading up to this legal victory, Memo and many other Waorani had been very active in voicing just how important it is for them to protect their land from exploitation. I heard that same voice from Memo in Akaro. Sitting on the floorboards of the same room in which he had dropped a hunted boar a few days earlier, Memo explained the importance of his fight to keep the land upon which he, his ancestors, and his grandchildren have grown, away from oil companies. On our final night in Akaro before departing by canoe the next morning, Memo sent us back to our own society bearing a message to spread far and wide: The Waorani land is not for sale.

ON THE BACK OF THE MOTORIZED CANOE, which was the group’s means of reaching the Waorani community of Akaro, Memo navigates through a braiding Amazonian river. Courtesy Eliot Headley

By successfully achieving protection of their land, the Waorani have risen as a symbol of power and potential for motivated individuals and communities to stand up and arise victorious against the pressures of the behemoth oil industry. This victory of the Waorani fosters solidarity and sets a precedent for other areas in jeopardy from oil extraction, such as the other 7 million neighboring acres of the Amazon Basin or the distant Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.