Oil and Aguardiente in the Ecuadoran Elections

Puerto Francisco de Orellana, Ecuador

In the run-up to the Ecuadorian elections of April 26, 2009, Guadalupe Llori — the Pachakutik movement candidate for prefect of Orellana province in the eastern Amazonian region — promised the Quechua community of Pako Rumi a paved road. The road would connect Pako Rumi with the highway to the provincial capital of Puerto Francisco de Orellana, colloquially known as Coca; the promise was made after the Pachakutik candidates had traveled the road themselves several times while preparing for a community dance.

Llori’s name had become intimately linked with the practice of road paving in 2007 during a prior term as prefect, when 40 kilometers of asphalt destined for the road from Coca to the oil-producing town of Dayuma were reduced to 23 kilometers of asphalt due to the state´s failure to pay the road construction company. Following a November strike by the residents of Dayuma, whose complaints also included the lack of adequate compensation for oil contamination and the lack of motivation on the part of the oil companies to hire local labor, Llori was deemed to be a strike instigator, removed from the prefecture, and imprisoned for 10.5 months in Quito on counts of terrorism and sabotage. As the strike impeded oil production more than did the missing 17 kilometers of asphalt, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa expanded the terrorism charge to apply to all those who were opposed to the country´s development.

Hugo Chávez offered a slightly more refined response to popular objection to road conditions, decreeing on a March 2009 episode of his television program Aló Presidente that asphalt did not benefit poor people, anyway. At the dance hosted by Pachakutik in Pako Rumi in April, the Chávez model was contested by Guadalupe Llori, who declared that a paved road leading to the community was only the first step in a process of modernization according to which the Quechua would one day be able to watch television and drink cold glasses of water. The latter luxury was currently prohibited by the absence of refrigerators, and by Pachakutik´s decision to cater its party with 5-liter water jugs that had been emptied and filled with aguardiente, which was administered to all party attendees from the same plastic cup.

Llori assured the Quechua of Pako Rumi that modernization would not detract from cultural tradition, proof of which she located in the fact that she herself watched TV and drank cold beverages but still knew a few phrases in Quechua. A Pachakutik candidate for the Ecuadorian national assembly added tourism as another potential catalyst for Pako Rumi´s transformation, and drew Quechua attention to the presence in the dirt-floor dance hall of my friend Amelia and me, who had inserted ourselves into the Pachakutik election campaign in Coca as a means of traveling to indigenous communities without having to pay for transport; were thus not exemplary models for the economic advantages of tourism; were contributing to cultural tradition in Pako Rumi by being paired with local dance partners who refused to make eye contact. The pairing was coordinated by Pachakutik campaigners, as was the music, which blared out of two large speakers in between generator malfunctions.

The speakers had been bounced in from Coca in the back of a pickup truck along with a team of men to keep them from bouncing out. The superior efficiency of paved roads was highlighted once again a few days later in the Quechua community of Alto San Miguel, which Amelia, the musical equipment, and I reached by motorized canoe and where we then waited approximately 10 hours while the pickup truck transporting Pachakutik mayoral candidate Anita Rivas got stuck in the mud. Running for reelection, Rivas was also known for her commitment to asphalt, and reminded her constituents that pedestrians in Coca no longer had to wear mud boots.

Rivas arrived to Alto San Miguel’s dance hall at midnight without the truck and with further promises of pavement. Amelia’s and my dance partners endorsed the scheme as the logical follow-up to the solar energy panels that had already been installed outside their shacks, and continued not to make eye contact. When we asked whether indigenous aspirations also included television sets and cold glasses of water, the dancers informed us that the Huaorani tribe had DVD players—a consequence of preferential treatment by oil companies—in addition to its own officially recognized territory.

Preferential treatment of the Huaorani had begun in the 1950s, when evangelical Christian missionaries in eastern Ecuador adopted a Huaorani woman named Dayuma who had fled her tribe and who aided in evangelical acquisition of the Huaorani language for purposes of Bible translation. Other missionary pastimes included dropping cooking pots on Huaorani areas from helicopter and encouraging the inhabitants to relocate to protectorates in less oil-rich areas, where they were provided with all of their material needs in addition to a variety of diseases. The state of Israel might yet learn from such subtle paradigms of displacement, and add kitchenware to its cache of items regularly dropped from helicopters.

Huaorani territory in its contemporary form consisted of approximately 600,000 hectares and overlapped with the Parque Nacional Yasuní, a biosphere reserve which, aside from being filled with tens of millions of animal and plant species, hosts a number of oil blocks, including the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) block, subject of the Yasuní-ITT initiative. The aim of the initiative, supported by Pachakutik, was to refrain from exploiting ITT oil reserves in exchange for international compensation and freedom to exploit all other blocks; the initiative´s attractiveness generally fluctuated in accordance with drops in the market price of crude oil.

The reserve also contains the Tagaeri and Taromenane, pueblos no contactados who had rejected civilization by religion and oil and existed in voluntary isolation. The Tagaeri were direct relatives of the Huaorani and the Taromenane were presumed to be related, as well. According to our Quechua dance partners in Alto San Miguel, the fundamental difference between civilized and uncivilized Huaorani was that some wore jeans and some wore much less, but that this didn’t stop them from killing each other with spears.

The morning after the dance, Amelia and I reported to the Pachakutik office in Coca with a list of suggestions for Enrique, the man in charge of the weekly campaign agenda. The agenda consisted of a stack of pages that was stapled together and continuously consulted but never adhered to; our suggestions included avoiding 10 hour delays in the future and organizing an excursion to Huaorani territory, whose inhabitants were implicated in Ecuador’s mandatory voting law, violations of which incurred a 12 dollar fine. Enrique consulted the agenda, announced that the Huaorani had already been politically courted, and put a video on for us of his attendance at a ceremony conducted by Huaorani wearing less than jeans; he explained that the featured Huaorani were in fact civilized and that they were merely dressed up as uncivilized Huaorani for the benefit of a visiting delegation from the embassy of Spain.

Amelia and I persisted in our electoral advisories, which Enrique eventually put a stop to by placing us in the back of a Pachakutik pickup truck he claimed was headed in the direction of the Huaorani community of Tigüino in the neighboring province of Pastaza, approximately 2.5 hours from Coca by car—or 13 if you were depending on the Ecuadorian military for a ride on election day. The Pachakutik pickup deposited us one kilometer outside Coca on the road to Tigüino and returned to headquarters, a situation we rectified by flagging down a passing truck.

The truck driver took us as far as Dayuma, site of the 2007 strike and named for the evangelical adoptee that had paved the way for the extraction of regional resources — now expedited by the fact that all 40 kilometers of the way to Dayuma had been paved as well. In Dayuma Amelia and I were picked up by an oil industry employee named Fabián who claimed that the paved road illustrated Correa’s charitable nature but who was nonetheless not voting in the elections on account of the fact that his company would pay the 12 dollar fine.

Fabián was en route to an oil facility in Tigüino run by Canadian Petrobell. The rest of our ride with him was thus interspersed with English pronunciation practice of such words as “Halliburton” and “sustainable development”—Fabián´s definition of which was for foreign firms to exploit Ecuadorian gold mines in addition to oil reserves. Fabián claimed to have a degree in environmental science; Amelia and I detected further themes of betrayal in the behavior of Rafael Correa, who had followed up his 2007 presentation of the Yasuní-ITT initiative to the United Nations by referring to environmentalists as románticos and the failure to exploit resources as immoral.

Fabián pointed out that members of the Huaorani community were also employed by the oil industry and that at least he did not have ties to illegal logging, as well. Amelia and I meanwhile joined the list of betrayers by attending a dance hosted in Tigüino that evening by the Movimiento Popular Democrático (MPD), rival of Pachakutik, the members of which noted further discrepancies on the part of the employed Huaorani, whom they claimed had no need for employment as they subsisted on handouts from oil companies, the government, and other concerned organizations.

The effects of a history of handouts were illustrated when the MPD pickup truck was tasked with escorting various Huaorani to their respective houses with large food sacks they claimed to have just received from Chinese seismic contractor BGP. The escort process consisted of the Huaorani banging extensively on the back of the truck whenever they wanted the driver to stop or go; a dentist in Coca later confirmed the clan’s authoritarian nature, based on a Huaorani patient of his who had insisted in having his molar removed despite the fact that there was nothing wrong with it.

At the dance that evening in Tigüino’s cement-floor pavilion, the MPD revealed that they did not cater their functions with 5-liter jugs of aguardiente. Amelia and I responded by handing out rainbow Pachakutik bracelets to a group of Huaorani bystanders and proposing that they bang extensively on the MPD pickup truck in order to procure transport to the licorería. At the licorería we sponsored a few 2 dollar bottles of aguardiente and suggested the group petition BGP for supplements.

Back at the dance, the aguardiente was once again dispensed from a single plastic cup while we and the other partakers accommodated ourselves in school desks that had been dragged into the pavilion (and that later provided the dentist in Coca with more evidence that the Huaorani behaved like children). Amelia and I conversed with Jonathan, the Huaorani whose school desk was closest to ours and who was thus the only person we could hear over the music.

Jonathan appeared to be about 30 and had worked with a local tourism agency as an assistant on canoe rides prior to obtaining employment with Petrobell. He was largely unresponsive to our question of whether cup-sharing traditions in indigenous communities had been encouraged by missionaries as a means of spreading disease, and proved more concerned with a certain female canoe passenger who had wanted to have his babies. Amelia and I were given a ride back to Coca that night with the members of the MPD, who had witnessed the Pachakutik bracelet distribution and who attempted to win us over by purchasing Listerine-flavored wine.

We hitchhiked back to Tigüino the following day to find that a barrier of spears had been set up on the bridge over Río Shiripuno, 20 kilometers outside the village, by indigenous BGP employees and their sympathizers who were disgruntled with a reported 3 month lapse in salary payments. After being deposited at the bridge by two Colombian BGP workers who did not report a lapse in payments, Amelia and I confirmed with the people manning the spear arrangements that it would be possible for us to step over them and proceed toward Tigüino in a non BGP-affiliated vehicle. We were stopped in the midst of stepping by an employee of the Ecuadorian Ministerio del Ambiente, whose duties included preventing illegal logging in the area, asserting the rights of the pueblos no contactados to continue not being contacted, and registering crossers of the bridge in the event they did not return.

Amelia and I were invited into the office that had been erected to one side of the bridge, where additional duties of the environment ministry appeared to include allowing Huaorani takeovers of the office internet and the radio equipment, which they used to very loudly contact other communities down the river. As for instances of Huaorani contact with pueblos no contactados, these were summarized for us as follows:

1993: Group of Huaorani from Tigüino kidnap Tagaeri girl. After a disputed number of days, girl is escorted back to her community but Carlos Omene — one of the Huaorani escorts—is speared while returning to Tigüino and later dies in the hospital in Coca.

2003: Death of Carlos Omene is supposedly avenged during an expedition originating in Tigüino in which a disputed number of women and children plus at least one injured Tagaeri are massacred, despite apparent claims by the victims prior to death that they are not Tagaeri but rather Taromenane. (Other disputed issues included whether the massacre of the no contactados was merely a means of clearing the area in order to respond to a Colombian demand for specific types of timber; after speaking with various inhabitants of Tigüino — some of whom claimed that the Taromenane could fly — Amelia and I determined that most details of Huaorani history were subject to dispute, aside from the universally agreed upon fact that the kidnapped Tagaeri girl did not eat salt.)

Babe Ima, the Huaorani leader in Tigüino, had described contact with the Tagaeri and Taromenane as a means of “civilizing” them, terminology which the environment ministry employee pointed out had not been spontaneously invented by the Huaorani. Additional information garnered during our office visit was that Jonathan—our companion from the previous night’s dance — was the son of Carlos Omene and a participant in the 2003 massacre.

Amelia and I hitchhiked back and forth between Coca and Tigüino for the next several days, intercepted on one occasion by members of the MPD, rivals of Pachakutik, who remained convinced that we were engaging in a civilizing mission of our own. We were intercepted on another occasion by a middle aged Huaorani woman in mud boots who spoke a slight amount of Spanish and who insisted we view a film on her DVD player while she performed yard work with a machete. The film was an American release from 2006 concerning the demise of 5 Christian missionaries who made contact with the Huaorani in the 1950s. The son of one of the missionaries eventually befriends one of the Huaorani responsible for the demise, who has since become Christian and who thus serves as a symbol of hope for future reconciliation between the Huaorani and the relatives of dead Tagaeri/Taromenane.

On April 26, election day in Ecuador, Amelia and I located Jonathan at his home in Tigüino. Exempted from Petrobell duties for the afternoon on account of the rain, Jonathan welcomed us with a book detailing Huaorani medicinal practices and knowledge of plants, and claimed to have the decapitated head of one of the massacre victims lying around somewhere, as well. He still had not made up his mind about whom to vote for.

Jonathan reminded us that the no contactados could not vote as they did not have government-issued IDs, and defended Babe Ima´s mission civilisatrice on the basis that his father Carlos had lived for 3 days with a Tagaeri spear through his side. The clan leader’s interpretation of civilization seemed to have been sanctioned by the Ecuadorian government as well, which had failed to prosecute those involved in the 2003 massacre despite the fact that they spoke openly of the expedition and in many cases confessed to killing far more people than they actually had; Rafael Correa meanwhile contributed to the nebulousness of the crime by making statements that called into question the existence of pueblos no contactados.

Amelia and I accompanied Jonathan to the polling station, where he decided on Lucio Gutiérrez for president. Gutiérrez had recently claimed that Correa and Hugo Chávez had chosen the wrong path for their people; Jonathan stressed the importance of good paths, and wagered that his father may not have perished had the road to Coca been paved in 1993.

BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is traveling with  Amelia Opaliska  in Latin America. She can be reached at belengarciabernal@gmail.com

Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso, and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon.