“We are living through a real nightmare.
We Waorani are humans, and although the oil that fuels big cities comes from our lands,
where our ancestors are buried, we are all but forgotten”.
21 may 2020. Puyo, Ecuador – We are jaguar warriors and ancient guardians of the forest, and for thousands of years, we have lived free from disease. But after the first contact with the Western world, disease arrived into our lands, and over time, our territories were invaded by oil companies and loggers, who, in complicity with the governments in power, not only extracted our resources, but also left us with disease, death and contamination. Today, over one year on since our historic victory protecting a half million acres of pristine Amazon rainforest against oil exploitation, we are organizing to fight and overcome this health crisis throughout our entire territory, a crisis which only exacerbates the existing threats to our existence as a people.
The COVID-19 virus is rapidly spreading in our territory. To date, at least nine cases have been confirmed in the community of Miwaguno and three cases in communities along the Via Auca oil road in the province of Orellana. Many more people are reporting symptoms related to the virus in communities including Toñampare, Meñepare, Obepare, Nemompare and Bataboro, in the Pastaza province; Gareno, Konipare, in the province of Napo; Miwaguno, Yawepare, Guiyero and Dicaro, in the province of Orellana. In the face of this crisis, we publicly denounce the inaction of the Ecuadorian government, which has failed to take prompt action despite our alerts and has failed to establish a concerted emergency protocol in our communities. Despite our continued warnings regarding the risks that we face since the beginning of the national emergency and lockdown, the oil companies’ operations, and the legal and illegal logging of our forests has continued, putting our people and relatives in voluntary isolation at imminent risk of physical and cultural extermination.
We speak out for our relatives who live in voluntary isolation. Today, our Waorani organizations of NAWE and CONCONAWEP, hand in hand with organizations of the Alliance for Human Rights, are filing a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government to demand precautionary measures. Our lawsuit is specifically directed at Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno and Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, as well as the National Emergencies Operations Committee (COE), the Ministry of Health, the Secretariat of Human Rights and the Ministry of Environment and Water.
In our lawsuit, we demand that URGENT actions be developed and duly agreed with our own Authorities, and coordinated between the aforementioned National authorities and the regional Emergencies Operations Committee (COEs). These actions must be aimed at responding to and containing the COVID-19 virus in our territory, and in this way, to also protect our lives and those of our relatives living in voluntary isolation. Several of our communities with confirmed COVID-19 cases are located in close proximity to the Tagaeri Taromenane “Intangible” or Untouchable Zone (ZITT) within Yasuní National Park. Our relatives are at grave risk because they walk the same paths we do in the forest, and they occasionally come into our territories to collect objects, pots and machetes.
We demand that the government prioritize attention to our people, instead of only attending to the needs of big cities. Our local health centers need to be adequately supplied, it is simply useless for doctors to arrive in our territory without the proper equipment. We also demand that extensive testing be carried out in all of our communities, and we demand an immediate moratorium on all extractive activities in our territory, due to the risks that these have already caused to our health.
Over sixty days ago, our national Waorani organizations and authorities had already sounded the alarm to the Ecuadorian government about the grave risk we face as a recently contacted people and the vulnerability of our immune system to new diseases. We intensified our alerts and pleas to the government as we witnessed the ongoing extractive activities (oil and logging) in our territory, which, despite these not being essential activities, continued “business as usual” amid national lockdown.
In addition, we sent several communications to local authorities, in which we expressed our deep concern about the lack of consultation with our own Authorities to develop protocols; We asked that the money from the governmental Amazon Fund be invested in resources and assistance for our people: for example, the provision of biosafety kits and food supplies in order to allow our people to stay at home in their communities, and the delivery of urgent tests and medical attention when our people started to get sick.
While the Ministry of Health did reach out to us, in essence, their response has been culturally unsuitable in the face of the gravity of the emergency we face and inadequate to the context in which we live: our territory extends across three geographically distant provinces, Napo, Pastaza and Orellana. Instead of establishing a committee managing comprehensive and multidimensional care, we were asked to coordinate with different Provincial officials, depending on where our suspected contagions were being reported. The Ecuadorian government has done little to nothing to guarantee our rights to health, life, self-determination and other fundamental rights.
However, we have continued to self-organize, and, exercising our right to self-government, we have developed our own protocols, self-managed humanitarian aid for our population, and used our ancestral medicine to increase our defenses and heal ourselves from disease. We have also established our guardia (land patrol) at strategic points in our extensive territory – in order to monitor and control the entry of third parties into our territory, which puts our lives at risk.
Over the past days, we have been receiving increasing reports from community leaders about the deterioration of the health of our young people and, most worryingly, of our Pikenani (traditional authorities, wise people). We are mourning the first death of one of our elders: Carlos Bay Ima, who died after twelve days of sickness, without the ability to access a local hospital. The passing of our elder is an immense sorrow for our people. He was a great defender of the Waorani territory, and his work to protect our forest was criminalized by the State years ago when he was arrested and accused of terrorism.
Our Pikenani are vital for our culture. The Pikenani support our life as a nation, they taught us the medicine with which today we use to overcome the oblivion of the State. The Pikenani protect the forest – they care for it, while the State instead only appears to exploit the natural resources in our territory, such as oil and hardwoods. In these dark times, we remember this song of our Pekinani, during a large assembly in our communities in 2015: “We are the voice, we are the forest, we are the territory, we are life.”
“In the face of this sanitary crisis which threatens the lives of indigenous peoples, the actions of the Ecuadorian Government are proving to be useless and counterproductive. The government has abandoned us and is not actively coordinating with our indigenous leaders. The virus is already invading our territory, it is an emergency that requires immediate action, but instead, the government’s attention is turned towards the big cities, and they have left indigenous communities in the forest to fend for themselves in this pandemic. They are also building a tremendous bureaucracy that hinders positive responses and is not providing adequate medical care. In order to make up for their lack of testing and proper equipment, the Health Ministry officials are telling our communities that they just have a simple flu, when we know well that this is the coronavirus”.
– Gilberto Nenquimo, President of the Waorani Nation of (NAWE)
“How is it possible that during a global pandemic that threatens people’s lives, the government continues to extract oil from indigenous territories, thus exposing us to the coronavirus? It is clear that they care more about money than our lives. The first Waorani communities infected with coronavirus are located along the oil roads. Oil pollutes our rivers and causes climate change, and now it is bringing more diseases to our territory. The government has to respect the Waorani people’s right to life, and also our Tagaeri and Taromenane relatives. They must stop all oil operations in our territories.”
– Nemonte Nenquimo, President of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador-Pastaza (CONCONAWEP)
“The untimely death of our Pekinani is a loss that we will never recover from. They spiritually return to the forest as jaguars and continue on as guardians of the forest from another world. But when they die, they take with them the knowledge of our history, our culture, our territory, our spirituality, our medicines – everything. They know that we have always faced threats to our territory, from invasions to oil companies and diseases. Today, it is no different and we will continue to fight, resist and govern our territory. I see that without pressure from our leaders, there are no government actions. Without pressure, there is no response. And this has always been the case, it’s not only like this now for the coronavirus. In the Amazon, we are united to defend a single path, to put pressure on the governments that come to destroy our territory and our lives. Only together will we overcome the disease, and we will fight for our rights.”
– Oswando Nenquimo, Waorani leader and spokesperson from Pastaza
For more information, to coordinate interviews with Waorani leaders or other questions, contact: Sophie Pinchetti at +593 98 148 4873