Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Saturday, 2 April 2011 11:59 UK

Ecuador's Amazon culture under renewed threat

Two Huaorani men and blowpipe
The Huaorani still hunt with blowpipes that take a week to make

Following the Chevron-Texaco US oil company's $9bn fine for environmental damage in Ecuador's Amazon region, the indigenous Huaorani people there worry about surviving in the rainforest because of the possibility of more oil exploitation in the area, as the BBC's Linda Pressly reports.

Kemperi is in his hut, swinging gently in his hammock. The smell of smoke from a gone-out fire hangs in the air. And tiny, intense shafts of tropical light beam through the palm-leaf walls, reflecting his face and the coloured beads around his neck.

With his even features, bright eyes and perfect teeth, I think maybe Kemperi is one of the best-looking people I have ever met.

Kemperi sitting in his hammock
Kemperi's friends killed the first outsiders they saw on their land

Kemperi is the 89-year-old shaman of the Huaorani people - the conduit of the jaguar spirit. He says the jaguar walks the entire territory, but that the spirit is troubled.

There is pressure on Huaorani land from oil companies, and the jaguar is warning of great conflict - death even.

It is oil exploration that has defined - and threatened - the very existence of the Huaorani over the last 50 years. And it is the reason why they began to have contact with outsiders.

I ask Kemperi if he remembers the first people he encountered who were not Huaorani… It was in the 1950s or 60s, he says. That day, he and his friends were in the forest hunting monkeys.

One of them spotted a new trail - definitely not a Huaorani trail. They followed it.

Someone on a megaphone shouted down in Huaorani: "live good lives; do not kill"

There were three men camped in a clearing - one was sleeping. But that man would never wake up: Kemperi's friends killed all three - they were workers for an oil company.

This was how the Huaorani defended their territory against invaders.


Soon after Kemperi's bloody encounter with the oil men, a plane flew over. It was the first he had ever seen. It buzzed around for three consecutive days, and on the fourth day it flew low over their huts.

You can hear Linda Pressly's Crossing Continents report on oil in Ecuador's Amazon on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 7 April at 1100BST and on Monday 11 April at 2030BST
You can watch her film on Newsnight on BBC2 on Thursday 7 April at 2230BST
Or you can listen on the iPlayer or watch on the Newsnight website

Someone on a megaphone shouted down in Huaorani: "live good lives; do not kill".

Kemperi only learned much later these were missionaries - authorised by Ecuador's government to move the Huaorani away from their oil-rich territory. By the 1970s many had been re-located. Others died in epidemics.

We were invited to Bameno to experience Huaorani culture, and hear the people's concerns in the face of further oil exploration.

We too arrive by small plane - a sometimes terrifying journey through thick cloud with visibility at nil. I try to console myself with the thought that the pilot wears a nicely pressed shirt, so he obviously has not come to work to die.

Approaching Bameno, we dip below the clouds and the rainforest is there in all its lush, green glory.

Daborto (Penti's wife) sitting against a tree
Daborto feels she can no longer grow food along the river

Then we are bumping along a grassy airstrip. As we tumble clumsily out of the plane - together with a tonne of television equipment, rubber boots, supplies and a bag of croissants - we are swept up in an orgy of hand-shaking and name-exchanging.

The people who greet us are more or less naked, their faces and torsos painted elaborately with black and red dye. The women are adorned with beads and palm fronds.

Each of the men carries a blowpipe, and wears a string tied around his waist that he tucks the end of his penis into.

Parrot attack

And from its perch on a muscled brown forearm, a great beast of a blue and gold macaw watches us quizzically.

Macaw holding a piece of croissant
The macaw successfully caught its croissant prey

Kemperi is there smiling and laughing, and his nephew Penti formally welcomes us.

Penti is a neat, intense man and one of the few adults in this small community who speak fluent Spanish.

Over the next 24 hours we are treated as special guests. First there are songs and dancing in Penti's hut. Then he demonstrates how to shin up a palm tree to harvest the fruit at the top.

While I hold my breath willing him not to fall, others call encouragement from the ground, and the cameraman and TV producer discuss how to film it all without showing too much of Penti's buttocks - not a problem for my radio report, obviously.

There is a brief interlude where we munch on croissants.

I spot that fearsome macaw looking a bit too interested, and stuff mine all in my mouth very fast. The children are delighted when moments later the macaw dive-bombs from a rafter, and snatches the producer's croissant right out of his hand, drawing blood in the process.

The afternoon is a bit calmer as we travel by motorised canoe deeper into the forest. We are taken to a giant kapok tree - it is home to a harpy eagle, and revered by the people of Bameno.

They sit against it chatting and laughing, the young men hugging its roots. Penti says as long as this tree survives so too will the Huaorani. His wife, Daborto clearly loves this place too.

Huaorani man with traditional body paint
Red and black body dyes are part of traditional adornment

But there is anxiety. She tells me later she cannot grow food close to the river anymore because of the oil contamination that comes downstream.

The decision on Ecuador's future oil development will be made by next year. Meanwhile, in this tropical paradise, the jaguar spirit stalks the forest, watching, waiting and warning.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

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Story by story at the programme website

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