One day in 1991, a strange letter arrived at the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco, where Joe Kane was working. It was from members of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador, wild folks who have lived in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years. Their jungle home had fantastic biodiversity, including many species that live nowhere else on Earth.
The letter said that DuPont-Conoco was planning to destroy their ecosystem and culture. The Indians were perfectly happy with their traditional way of life, and they had no interest in being destroyed. They just wanted to be left alone. Help! Kane quit his job and moved to South America. Several years later, he published Savages, which described his exciting, chaotic, and painful adventure.
Unlike our society, Huaorani men and women really have equal status. It is never OK to give orders, or to raise a hand against a child or woman. Family harmony is important. A priest was amazed by them, “They are joyful in a way that is complete and without self-consciousness.”
The Huaorani strive to be in tune with the abundance of the forest, so they will always have enough to eat. Sharing is essential. “There is no higher manifestation of this ideal state than unqualified generosity, and no act more generous than to give away food.” In the days prior to contact with outsiders, most natives never encountered more than seventy or eighty people during their entire lives, most of whom they knew by name. Imagine that — a world without strangers or loneliness.
Hunting in a dense rainforest is not easy. Their technology included spears and blowguns. Poison darts would kill monkeys in the branches above, requiring the hunter to climb up and retrieve them. Over time, the feet of men who spent a lot of time in the treetops changed shape, making it easier for them to climb (see image above). Big toes bent outward, providing a tighter grip.
Until the 1950s, the Huaorani had almost no contact with the outer world. Then, the missionaries arrived, to save the souls of the demon worshippers. They believed that the Indians needed to live in permanent settlements, clear the jungle, become farmers, join the cash economy, and pay taxes. Their children needed to learn Spanish, and get a proper civilized education, so they could abandon their backward culture and language. Maidenform brassieres were distributed to the jungle camps, so women could conceal their shameful boobs.
The missionaries were walking disease bombs, and they knew that the natives had no immunity to the pathogens they brought into the rainforest, but they were on a mission from God. Even ordinary influenza could wipe out uncontacted people. It was vitally important to convert the savages to the one and only genuine interpretation of Christianity, before other missionaries arrived and introduced them to one of the many false interpretations (especially Catholic), condemning their souls to the eternal fires of Hell.
The missionaries held the natives in low regard and, likewise, the natives resented the freaky aliens. The Huaorani word for outsiders was cowode (cannibals). In their culture, sickness, misfortune, and death were never the result of mere bad luck, they were always caused by sorcery conjured by others. When someone died, even an infant, justice required relatives to identify the culprit and kill him or her in revenge. While this clashes with the virtuous morals our culture has invented, it kept their numbers stable. Their ecological ethics were far superior to those of the aliens.
Kane became friends with Enqueri, a smart but unreliable Huaorani lad who could speak Spanish. In 1956, his father and friends killed five missionaries, because soon after missionaries visited, many died from ghastly diseases. It was easy to determine the source of this sorcery and deliver rough justice.
Clever missionaries realized that two could play this game. After deaths, they would accuse the native shamans of demonic acts, and grieving families believed them. By 1991, most shamans had been murdered. Kane met a shaman named Mengatohue. “He could enter an ayahuasca trance and become a jaguar.” Missionaries told schoolchildren that he was an agent of the devil. Kids mocked him.
Rachel Saint was the sister of one of the speared missionaries, and she continued to pursue his work. One of her first native converts, Toña, became a preacher. He attempted to convince the Huaorani that their traditional culture, everything they knew, was totally wrong. Enqueri said that Toña “brought with him an evil so strong that it killed a child.” To avenge this misfortune, he was killed with seven spears.
In 1967, oil was discovered in Huaorani country, an estimated 216 million barrels, enough to fuel American gas-guzzlers for about thirteen days. In 1969, Saint created a protectorate (reservation) for the Huaorani, with a school and chapel. Before long, all 104 Indian residents had polio, 16 died, and another 16 were crippled.
The Company (oil interests) helped Saint create and operate the protectorate. They wanted to clear the Huaorani off their traditional lands, so they could build roads, do seismic testing, drill wells, and construct pipelines without bloody resistance. Saint was thankful for their kind assistance, but regretted their dark side, the booze, prostitution, and violence that came with the full-scale capitalist blitzkrieg. However, she never doubted that God was smiling on her holy ethnocide.
Ecuador’s government was impressively corrupt and incompetent. They excelled at boosting debt, stashing stolen funds in Miami banks, and driving up food prices. Seventy-nine percent of the people lived in poverty. Officials were desperate for income from the oil industry, and they cooperated in every possible way. Soldiers kept journalists and activists out of oil country, and the Company was free to pollute the land to the best of their abilities. Toxic crud was dumped anywhere, and pipelines often leaked. Rivers turned black, fish died, birds died, caimans died, bananas died, and natives got very sick. For natives, middle age was 25.
Ecuador was also eager to rid their crowded cities of poor people. The government promoted the colonization of the rainforest. When roads were built, a four-mile strip (6.5 km) on each side was dedicated for settlement by colonists. They flooded into the wilderness, erased jungle, built flimsy shacks, and attempted to produce coffee and cattle on low quality rainforest soil that was quickly depleted. Many became laborers for the Company, where the work was hard, and the pay meager. No effort was made to interfere with widespread illegal logging.
Colonization was a rapidly spreading cancer that wouldn’t stop until its ecosystem host was destroyed, including the tribal people. There was fierce conflict between the Indians and colonists, many died, and many shacks were burned, but the cancer persisted. A wise guy once noted that the words “road” and “raid” come from the same root. No place is safer than a vast roadless forest.
The struggle against modernity continued, on and on, with little success. Kane liked his Huaorani friends, but he wasn’t willing to dedicate his life to their struggle. To the powerful, he was an annoying troublemaker, so he was unlikely to die from old age. Kane returned to California and wrote his book. By the last page, everything was worse, a saga of endless bullshit, craziness, and tragedy. There are millions horror stories similar to Kane’s, for every commodity utilized by industrial civilization.
José Miguel Goldáraz was a Spanish priest who had spent 20 years in South America. By and by, he lost interest in soul saving, and became an activist. He had no doubt that the natives would kill oil workers in defense of their land. “When the Huaorani kill, there is a spiritual discipline to it. Americans kill without knowing they are doing it. You don’t want to know you are doing it. And yet you are going to destroy an entire way of life. So you tell me: Who are the savages?”
Chevron vs. the Amazon is a 2016 documentary on YouTube. Abby Martin visited oil country in Ecuador to observe the current state of affairs.
Kane, Joe, Savages, Vintage Books, New York, 1996.
Photo: “Feet” by Phil Borges.