A Village in Ecuador’s Amazon Fights for Life as Oil Wells Move In

At the headwaters of the Amazon River system in eastern Ecuador, the nighttime jungle is not quiet at all. The chatter of nocturnal canopy birds and crickets, mixed with the submarine sonar–like pinging of tree frogs, is startling to the first-time visitor. The 80 or so Waorani villagers who live here find comfort in these sounds. They tell them that their ancestral home is healthy, that it still teems with life, that the relentless march of oil wells and logging into the jungle hasn’t reached here yet.

Inside a dirt-floored hut constructed of layered palm fronds, I speak with a muscular, middle-aged man, Penti Baihua, who knew nothing of the outside world until he learned Spanish at an elementary school run by missionaries. He makes the case for the survival of his people, whose way of life today is largely unchanged from that of their ancestors centuries ago. But increasingly, he is seeing oil spills contaminate the jungle and eliminate the game these indigenous people depend on. He is seeing cocoa and coffee plantations replace the rainforest. He knows precisely the stakes for which he is fighting.

To an outsider visiting the rainforest of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, it seems almost inconceivable that Baihua and his people have survived as hunter-gatherers there in the 21st century—and even harder to believe they’ll be able to do so for much longer. Momentum is not on their side. This year, in January, drilling began on a new oil well by Petroamazonas, a division of the Ecuadorian state oil company Petroecuador, just 15 miles from the village. It is the first of 97 wells likely to sprout within the national park as a result of the Ecuadorian government’s decision in 2013 to allow petroleum extraction inside the wildlife and anthropological reserve.

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