National Geographic : 2013 Jan
114 national geographic • January 2013 the central axis around which the entire Yasuní- ITT question revolves—a capped exploratory well for the Tiputini oil field. Along with others like this one, it’s the reason officials know the ITT Block holds more than 20 percent of Ecua- dor’s petroleum reserves, roughly 850 million barrels of Amazon crude. A more inconspicuous testament to Ecuador’s prospective oil wealth could scarcely be imagined. What happens if the workers come back? I ask. Is Alvarado in favor of them pumping the oil from beneath his village? “We want health and education for the community,” he says. “If they take care of the environment, then we’ll be for it.” FOR MOST WAORANI, by contrast, such a future does not look nearly as inviting. On a sticky, overcast morning, I set off from the city of Coca with native guides in a truck to journey south down the so-called Auca Road. Built by Texaco in the 1970s to move drill rigs to the oil fields and lay pipeline from them, the road split former Waorani territory straight down the middle. Adding insult to the injury, the company christened the road Auca, the name applied to the Waorani by their enemies, mean- ing “savage.” We’re bound for the bridge at the Shiripuno River, the gateway to the Untouch- able Zone, where at least two Waorani groups, the Taromenane and Tagaeri, live in voluntary isolation from the rest of the world. Careering down the winding asphalt, we pass a landscape of denuded hillsides and ranchos that bear witness to the uncontained rush of land-hungry settlers that followed the road’s construction 40 years ago. Several impoverished Kichwa and mestizo communities lie strewn along feeder tracks branching off the Auca. At a place where the road bends sharply to the right and disappears in a spray of foliage, we jog left and follow tire tracks up a steep hill. I’ve heard that uncontacted Indians have re- cently turned up outside the exclusion zone, in an area where oil development is in full swing. Soon we’re navigating a labyrinth of back roads serving a growing sprawl of oil wells and pump- ing stations. We fishtail around a hairpin turn and come face-to-face with a high wall of jun- gle, where the road abruptly ends. Ahead to the right, a new drill rig rises behind a chain-link fence. A sign on the gate identifies the site as the Nantu E oil well. Off to the left, a knot of thatched shacks sits back in the woods—the Waorani village of Yawepare. Yapping mongrels surround us as we hop down from the truck. A muscular man in shorts and a tight T-shirt wants to know my business. Satisfied that I am not from the oil company, he suggests we talk in the open-air communal hut nearby. His name is Nenquimo Nihua, he says in fluent Spanish, and he’s currently serving a two-year term as the community chief. “This is a dangerous area,” Nihua warns. Tensions have been on the rise since oil work- ers arrived a few months ago to work on the well next door. Villagers here are worried that the racket created by heavy vehicles and ma- chinery could provoke a violent response from uncontacted groups in the surrounding jungle. The isolated groups feel their land is shrinking. “ They’re being flushed out of the forest,” he says. “We don’t want conflict with them. We want themtofeeltranquilos.” Nihua confides that some of the nomadic tribesmen are actually his relatives. “My mother- in-law has a brother in the isolated group,” he says. In fact, two dozen of them stood on this very spot just three weeks ago. Nihua’s father saw them with his own eyes. He’d gotten up in the How many oil workers did Kemperi and his comrades kill that day? HE counTS on HiS fingErS. Five, maybe six. “We killed them so they would never come back,” he says.