For a gallery of photos for this expedition, please click here.
WITH THE WAORANI, ECUADOR 2012
A few years ago film-maker, the late Adrian Warren, a member of the Scientific Exploration Society, travelled to the land of the last sad and ‘savage’ Waorani. Writing about his time with these somewhat isolated people Adrian said “The Waorani tribe of Amazonian Ecuador first became world famous in 1956, when they speared to death five American missionaries who had landed their light plane on a riverside sandbank and were trying to explain their plans to build an airstrip. Outsiders may have been shocked by the manner of the missionaries’ departure, but to the Waorani, no way of dying could have been more ordinary. Spearing accounts for 40 per cent of deaths, usually in interfamilial vendettas; 20 per cent are shot or kidnapped by outsiders -a fact that may have influenced their way of greeting missionaries; and snakebite and other accidents account for most other deaths. Only about 1 per cent is natural”.
Waorani to the Waorani, means ‘people’. But to Ecuador’s predominant indigenous group, the Quechua, they are Aucas, ‘savages’. Indeed, there is much about their life-style that would invite the label. They have no writing, no reason to count higher than 10 and no history other than a tribal recollection that their ancestors came from “downriver long ago”. They roam naked in the jungle, hunting monkeys and birds with wooden blowguns and curare-tipped darts; for pigs they use spears. In the past they also used spears to deal with the incapable elderly, and unwanted babies were strangled with vines, burnt or buried alive. And by and large their contacts with the Quechua or any other outsiders have not been notably peaceable. However it is the Waorani who have suffered, especially from the intrusion of international oil companies into their land. Originally there were believed to be six villages in Ecuadorian Amazonas, but through fragmentation these have grown into 44 settlements with populations of varied sizes up to around 160. Deeper in the interior are another group of Waorani, the “untenables” or “untouchables”, who have chosen to live traditionally and completely apart. They threaten to kill anyone entering their territory. This is respected by the Ecuadorian Government and no one knows how many there are but it has been estimated there are four groups.
Today the Waorani are increasingly threatened by Western ways and diseases. In many areas their water systems have been polluted by crude oil and chemicals thanks to irresponsible oil drilling. Roads cut into their hunting grounds have been populated by colonistas and people of other tribes eagerly seeking land. The Waorani say “The Government want our land, the oil companies want our oil and the missionaries seek our souls”. They are very much aware that they are at the top of a slippery slope that will lead to the loss of their culture and the destruction of the abundant sources of food and natural medicines on which they depend. Amongst their problems many of their communities urgently need clean drinking water.
In 2010 the Ecuadorian Environment Ministry, that is doing its best to assist the Waorani, asked Colonel John Blashford-Snell (JBS) and his colleagues to help. Thus in September 2012 with support of the Just a Drop water charity and the approval of the Scientific Exploration Society (SES), a team went in to install clean water systems in three villages. The expedition also aimed to provide medical and dental aid, school books and reading glasses, whilst listing the fauna along their route.
The twelve strong group arrived in Quito on 15th September 2012 and included an architect, two doctors, a RAF dentist, two retired Royal Engineers, a solicitor, a surveyor, a property manager and an economist. Just a Drop had already contracted the Ecuadorian Company, Agro Consultores, whom had previously done tasks for them in Eastern Ecuador. The British Embassy in Quito kindly gave a supply of books for the schools and the SES provided a grant to purchase more school books and medical supplies for the Waorani.
Having been briefed by the Environment Ministry, the team drove past puffing volcanoes and down into the Amazon basin spending the first night at the popular El Auca hotel in the booming oil town of Coca. This gave them an introduction to local wildlife, for the hotel garden was the home to Agouti rodents, Squirrel monkeys, colourful macaws and large tortoise.
Yolima Cipagauta, SES’s and Just a Drop’s representative in South America, had already purchased rations, stores and tools for the project. Next day the team set out on the Via Auca, a tarmac road flanked by a major oil pipeline, that led South through Jungle and past colonista’s homesteads. After several hours the vehicles turned East on an unsurfaced trail, heading into the Yasuni National Park. Inspite of its status, it too had been infiltrated by the oil companies. Pitching their tents at a station, manned by Waorani rangers, the team was joined by two Environment Ministry officers, Paola Carrera and Louis Ashki and set off to make an initial visit to the Tobeta community, whom JBS and Yolima had met on the previous year’s recce. Davos, the Chief was there, waving an axe and a machete but being engaged in an argument with an oil company truck driver, left the arrangements for the team’s programme to the lady president of the village. Very calmly Myriam Nagomene set up the thatched roofed community’s “cultural centre” as she called it, to be used as a clinic. Meanwhile Agro Consultores engineer, Ruben, was hard at work completing the new drinking water system which involved water being pumped up from a unpolluted creek to storage tanks on a ridge above the village and then distributed through a filter system to the scattered houses and the school. Thanks to electricity having reached this settlement, electrical pumps could be used. Next day our doctors, Steve Kershaw and Roger Schofield, treated patients in one part of the Cultural Centre whilst RAF Squadron Leader Karina Fletcher, helped by Katharine Gillmore, tackled the Waorani’s dental problems. Yolima and Issy Gallagher gave out school books to excited children and spectacles to older folk whilst Lt Col Tom Gallagher used his Sapper experience to monitor the work on the water supply. Tim Harrison, the cartographer and Mark Entwistle made a plan of the village and Dr Justin Snell, a skilled photographer and artist, recorded the task for posterity and the official opening of the system.
That afternoon another clinic was set up at Miwawono, a village of some 144 people in need of medical and dental help. An expensive water system set up recently by the local municipality was found to be inoperative due to technical errors in its construction but sadly nothing could be done to repair it in the time available. However the team’s engineers went on to Yawapade village where the Waorani had made a real effort to assist the Agro Consultores workers. Using forest timber they had built a 5 metre high tower and the expedition arrived in time to assist in lifting a 5000 litre storage tank onto this. A bulldozer working in the area was useful in lifting the tank part of the way so it could then be manhandled into position. Returning to their camp the team enjoyed a tasty supper cooked by Yolima and some Waorani women.
On first sight it seemed the task at Yawapada would not be finished for many days. However on 20th September the village Chief got everyone working at top speed. Muscular Waorani directed by Ruben carried the pump and filters through the forest, over a creek and into position at a dam that was already filling with water. Women cut trenches to take distribution pipes to their homes and by early afternoon clean water was filling the massive tank. Women and children danced with joy as the taps were opened, saying that they believed the long treks for water along a snake infested trail were now over. Many had been bitten and they were clearly delighted by the new system.
Next day a banner thanking a team of Just a Drop supporters known as the Bournemouth Ladies, for their marvellous fundraising, was hung out and photographed as laughing toddlers pranced around naked in the flowing water. It made the team realize the joy that accessible drinkable water can bring to a community. “I’ll think of this every time I turn on a tap at home” commented Mark Entwistle.
Driving South along a rough track the expedition reached a centre of elevated buildings on the Shiripuno river run by the Environment Ministry, to find beds and showers awaiting them. However Yolima had no time to stop and set off at once by canoe with Ruben to ensure all was ready for our arrival at the next task site. Two hours down stream an isolated community of over 160 Waorani live at Noneno. A water system put in years before by the municipality had broken down and the job was to renew the pumps and filters and get it working. Again Ruben had achieved miracles in getting the necessary equipment to this remote village, which can only be reached by canoe. Thunder and heavy rain cooled the temperature and soaked the expedition but on 22nd September a clinic was set up at Noneno and the team’s engineers and cartographer monitored the project.
As the team climbed back into the two 40 feet motorized canoes, the sky blackened and for much of the next three hours rain fell in rods. When darkness fell, navigation became challenging. The hulls repeatedly crashed into sunken logs that threatened to split the seams. However the bedraggled team reached the Shiripuno Lodge and found the Waorani staff ready to serve a welcome supper. The cook deserved congratulations for producing such a well presented meal. Jarol Vaca, the owner, has built up this lodge, deep in pristine rain forest in the hope of training the Waorani people to organize and support responsible eco-tourism as a means of sustaining their own way of life.
The Western Amazon basin is one of the last great wilderness areas and it is possible to walk from here to Southern Venezuela, a distance of 2000 kilometres without crossing a single road. It was indeed a privilege to be in the core of the Yasuni Biosphere and Waorani Ethnic Reserves. Based in wooden huts with comfortable beds and even bathrooms, the team were to have the opportunity to explore the jungle with Jarol and his colleague Francisco, two self taught English speaking, biologists. Wearing gum boots for protection against the deep mud and snakes, expedition members spent four days tramping the trails instructed by these skilled guides. For many miles Jarol strode through the forest, clutching a telescope and tripod and recording animal calls to replay them later with a small loud speaker, thus attracting replying calls and enabling the team to see rare species of birds.
High in the canopy, monkeys played whilst at ground level the guides sharp eyes found frogs, crickets, praying mantis and a wide variety of spiders. There were fascinating trees and shrubs as well as banks of fungi flowering on fallen trunks. On the river the expeditioners saw capybara and caught fish for supper with simple local rods and line. At night there were spectacled caiman lying on the banks, their eyes reflecting the torch light. As one member commented “it was an incredible lesson in biology and botany.
On the way back up river the team paused to inspect Agro Consultores completed work at Noneno. A deadly coral snake squirming in the reservoir did not deter the engineers and the new pump and filters were installed by 5pm. A simple inauguration ceremony took place and once again children danced in the water and gifts were exchanged.
Pausing at the Environment Ministry Centre, the team bid farewell to the helpful Government staff, including a lovely lady named Ruth, from the Ministry of Justice who guard the Waoranis’ welfare. Then it was back up the Via Auca to Coca where a farewell Burns Supper was held to mark the completion of the expedition. Tom Gallagher recited the ode to Stahlys Quality Haggis in broad Geordie and a dram or two was sipped in memory of the poet.
On 29th September the team flew back into Quito and recovered from their endeavours at the comfortable Hotel Quito. JBS and Yoli had numerous meetings, including one with the Reverend Byron Argoti for whom Just a Drop had funded a water supply system for the Ashuar people in 2010. That expedition had been quite a challenge, but was completed successfully thanks to the helicopter support from the Ecuadorian Air Force. Apparently the system is being well maintained by the people and as a result of having clean water the population of their village has risen from 420 to 560. A really successful Just a Drop project. The Vice Minister for the Environment, Senora Mercy J. Borbor Córdora gave sincere thanks to JBS and Yoli for the expedition’s projects and the help given to the Waorani by Just a Drop and the SES. She also suggested future projects in Ecuador which will now be considered.
It has been a revealing expedition that had taken 18 months of planning and successfully completed, thanks to the work of the team and especially Yolima who had been the sole point of contact with the Ecuadorian Government departments, the Waorani and Agro Consultores.