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Joe Kane tells the story of the Huaorani, an Amazonian tribe affected by oil production in Ecuador.

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Ecuador free-for-all threatens tribes, trees
Weak government lets loggers prevail
Jim Wyss, Chronicle Foreign Service
Friday, September 3, 2004
Original URL

Tiguino, Ecuador -- Penti Baihua, a community leader of the Huaorani Indians, knew there was more to the massacre of 26 members of a rival Amazon tribe than mere revenge.

In May 2003, nine Huaorani warriors from the village of Tiguino killed 26 Tagaeri men, women and children. They justified the massacre of nearly one- fifth of a tiny tribe that shuns outsiders as payback for a 1993 murder. But Colombian loggers may have instigated the raid so they could seek lucrative stands of Spanish cedar and a mahogany called aguano abundantly found on Tagaeri land, according to recent interviews with government officials, police investigators and several Huaorani leaders.

"They (the loggers) were scared of the Tagaeri and went to Tiguino," said Penti Baihua, a Huaorani leader who spoke with several of the nine raiders after the attack. "They told them: 'We'll give you gasoline and bullets if you kill the Tagaeri. We want to work in that area.' "

Regional laws protect the Tagaeri -- a nomadic tribe of fewer than 150 people who subsist on hunting and fishing in a 1.7 million-acre reserve -- as well as thousands of other indigenous peoples living in remote areas of the Amazon rain forests of Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. But all are feeling the pressure of "civilization" advancing on their territories.

Baihua hopes his village of Bameno does not wind up like Tiguino, whose residents crave consumer goods and have exchanged traditional palm-thatched homes for zinc roofs and blowguns for rifles. "They have garbage everywhere, and everyone drinks alcohol," said Baihua, while sitting in a thatched-roof home with his eight children. "That is what happens when Huaorani work with oil companies and loggers. I want my children to use blowguns and know the jungle, like the Tagaeri. There is no reason to kill them; they are just like us. They are family."

The Ecuadoran rain forest has long attracted rubber-tappers, oil companies and timber concerns backed by a federal government eager to exploit the natural riches of the Amazon.

Even though commercial logging is strictly forbidden in the region, independent loggers from Colombia have pushed deeper into Tagaeri territory as well as the nearby Yasuni National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that is home to thousands of species of plants and more than 500 species of birds, Huaorani residents say.

Ecuador is the world's leading exporter of balsa wood and the third- largest exporter of plywood, 70 percent of which goes to the United States. But the South American nation of 14 million also has the region's highest deforestation rate. Some 3.2 million acres -- an area the size of Connecticut -- were cut down between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

And although no reliable statistics are available, some industry sources say as much as 70 percent of lumber from Ecuador's Amazon is illegal.

"We know the Huaorani and Colombians are working together to take out mahogany and cedar, but there is very little we can do about it," said Marco Vivar, the general manager of Green Vigilance, an agency of Ecuador's Ministry of Environment that monitors illicit logging. "If we put inspectors (in Huaorani territory) ... we would have a pair of dead inspectors. It's a no- man's-land out there."

On a 17-mile stretch of the Tiguino River, a reporter recently saw three illegal logging camps and dozens of 6-foot cedar planks floating downriver to market. According to interviews with local residents, about five boats a day ply the river, each loaded with 70 to 100 cedar planks. From there, they travel 143 miles to the jungle towns of Coca and Puyo before reaching Colombia, where a single plank can fetch as much as $25. In the United States, a cubic yard of Spanish cedar sells for between $600 and $650, according to industry sources.

One young Huaorani, who wanted to remain anonymous, looks the other way when Colombian loggers cut down cedar trees near his home. "They pay me $1 to $2 for every plank. I can make $100 in one day; there is no other way to make that much money," he said.

Ecuador is also politically volatile, with six presidents in the past eight years and dozens of Cabinet changes, including three environment ministers in the past 19 months.

As a result, law enforcement in the Amazon is negligible. There are only 12 guards to patrol the 2.4 million-acre Yasuni park, permitting loggers to forge alliances with indigenous leaders who control key access points, according to government officials.

Yolanda Kakabadse, a former environment minister who helped establish the Tagaeri reserve in 1999, says the nation's institutional weakness has left the environment open to attack. She says that just five months after the massacre, Ecuador's powerful timber lobby sought an injunction against SGS, a global inspection firm based in Switzerland that the state hired to regulate forestry licenses. Even though an Ecuadoran court acknowledged that SGS had helped increase the confiscation of illegal wood tenfold, the court ruled that the government had violated the constitution by delegating its responsibilities to a foreign concern and voided the contract.

"Instead of defending national interests and protecting Ecuador's forests, the (court) gave in to political pressure," said a statement after the verdict by the Ecuadoran Committee for the Defense of Nature and the Environment, a prominent association of more than 80 nonprofit organizations.

Moreover, in December, the Ministry of Finance withdrew Green Vigilance's $334,000 operating budget, leaving the agency to survive on donations. After intense lobbying by Ministry of Environment officials, 70 percent of the budget was restored in June.

"Logging is a huge business in Ecuador, and our job affects interests at every level," said Vivar of Green Vigilance. "There are a lot of people who would like to see us shut down."

The Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C., helped finance this report.

Development in Ecuador's Amazon a tale of 2 tribes
Jim Wyss, Chronicle Foreign Service
Friday, September 3, 2004
Original URL

Tiguino, Ecuador -- In the years since development began in Ecuador's Amazon region, the Huaorani and Tagaeri Indians have taken very different paths.

In the first recorded encounter with the outside world in 1956, the Tagaeri -- also known as Auca or Jivaro -- killed five American missionaries. In 1987, they murdered Spanish Bishop Alejandro Lavaca and a Colombian nun, Ines Arango, with poison-tipped spears. An oil company helicopter had dropped the two off so they could bring the word of God, discuss the arrival of oil workers and offer ways to help the tribe.

In contrast, Ecuador's government spent decades working through U.S. missionaries, the Catholic Church and the armed forces to "civilize" the 2,000- strong Huaorani tribe and pave the way for oil drilling in their ancestral lands. In 1989, Babae Ima, the leader of the Huaorani, settled in the community of Tiguino along an oil road, which remains the only land access to the muddy Tiguino River. Ima, who is in his 70s, charges a fee to all outsiders who enter his territory. No one travels down the river without his consent -- not missionaries, eco-tourists or illegal loggers.

Standing beside a ramshackle outhouse on the outskirts of his remote Amazon village, Ima shook a yellowing canvas sack until a grisly object rolled into view -- a human skull from the raid that he led last year that killed 26 Tagaeri in what he called revenge for the death of a Huaorani man by a Tagaeri spear-thrower in 1993. The gruesome memento is a long-standing tradition of Amazon warfare, he said.

Federal investigator Marco Vargas, who visited the massacre scene a week afterward, said revenge might have been one reason for the deadly raid, "but I'm absolutely sure it wasn't the only one. The business ties between the loggers and Tiguino are very, very strong," he said. "The only people who represented an obstacle to the loggers (in that area) are now dead."

Vargas' investigation -- detailed in a 200-page report -- was abruptly cut short by the Organization of the Huaorani Nation of the Ecuadoran Amazon, a council of elders of 32 Huaorani communities, who pardoned all nine attackers after they promised never to do it again. Ecuador's 1998 constitution gives indigenous communities the right to settle internal conflicts according to their traditions.

Meanwhile, violence between the two Amazon tribes continues.

Soon after the massacre, Tagaeri warriors torched an eco-tourist complex near Tiguino. More recently, raiders from Tiguino -- perhaps at the behest of loggers -- attempted two more attacks against the Tagaeri, according to Huaorani eyewitnesses. Nobody was killed in the fire, and the raiding party was driven back by low water levels on the river and fallen trees, which impeded access into Tagaeri territory.




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