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Conde Nast Traveller – August 2012 Feature – Huaorani Tribe in the Amazon

July 10th, 2012

In November of last year I had the great privilege of visiting the Huaorani tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon on behalf of Conde Nast Traveller UK. The Huaorani gained notoriety in the 1950s for a spear raid that left five missionaries dead. The missionaries’ deaths galvanized the Christian community at the time and ultimately led to a redoubled effort to reach and convert this particular group – this effort was successful (depending on your point of view) and led by the wife of one of the deceased missionaries. It was also the subject of the film ‘End of the Spear’ and the book ‘Through Gates of Splendor’.

At the time the Huaorani were thought of as savages, and were in fact called that by neighbouring tribes – the Auca. Their language is a linguistic isolate, and any non-tribe members were referred to as non-human. The bottom line? A very isolated and unique group of people. To this day there are a couple splinter groups of the tribe that went deeper into the jungle after the initial brush with the missionaries and remain divorced from modern day life and outside contact.

In the intervening 50+ years much has happened in the Ecuadorian jungle, and most of it centers around oil. There is currently a huge court case working its way through the Ecuadorian (and US) courts that pits some of the indigenous peoples against Chevron (which purchased Texaco – the original company that operated in Ecuador). The 2009 documentary ‘Crude’ is an excellent primer on the current situation that essentially pits David vs Goliath.

And that is how I found myself in a single-engine Cessna departing from the town of Shell (naturally) into the heart of the jungle and landing at a tiny airstrip hacked out of the massive trees. A bumpy, slip-sliding landing, and we were safe and sound in Huaorani Territory.

To combat the outsize influence of Big Oil the Huaorani today have set up a small Eco Lodge with the hopes of drawing in tourists (and media attention) and shining a spotlight on their plight. The equation is quite simple: with enough tourists and media coverage they hope to prevent the oil companies from further destroying the forest and eroding their way of life. It won’t be easy, but let me tell you what a delight it was to spend time with the community and the incredible place they call home. The Huaorani’s effort is being led by Moi Enomenga – conservationist and their tribal leader who has taken their message to Washington and beyond.

I am sharing some of the images that I took here (I have even snuck a shot in of yours truly), and you can also take a look at how the story ran in the magazine here: rowat_cnuk_amazon_201208_web

Stanley Stewart wrote the piece and his prose are a wonderful companion to the experience itself – transporting you along the many bends of the river and wrapping you in the magic of it all. If you have an opportunity to go spend time with this group of people I would urge you to do so – few experiences come close to kayaking down a river in the Amazon, alone but for the toucans winging their way above your head.