The Cost of Progress in Ecuador's Indigenous Yasuní Region

“Defining a territory doesn’t mean tracing a circle in a map,” states leading Ecuadorian anthropologist José Proaño in an interview for the series Secrets of the Yasuní. For the pueblos ocultos, or indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation with little or no contact with modern civilization, defining where their borders start and end is particularly difficult, resulting in a host of problems and challenges.

In the Amazon's Yasuní region in Ecuador, the ambiguity of where these indigenous territories lie has at times erupted in violent clashes, many of which take place near or inside the boundaries of oil operations. In 2003, and more recently a deadly ambush of two Waoranis in March 2013 (and the subsequent acts of revenge the victims' families carried out), are cause for concern all the way from indigenous leaders to Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador.

Competition over resources, the physical encroachment of their native spaces, noise and environmental pollution, and the change in the rainforest's landscape all foster tensions and violent sentiments. Shrinking territories due to national economic interests are also another factor, especially for those who have no official documentation of their land claims.

The majority of oil companies already operating on indigenous-owned lands and reserves, anthropologist Proaño says, are already "controlled by Chinese oil firms" because the government has "weak economic agreements" with China to oversee and organize the process, resulting in a lack of oversight.


In 2007, Correa's administration launched the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) initiative as a more ecological and non-invasive way of profit from Ecuador's natural resources. The ITT was a promising and innovative proposal that would stop oil reserve exploitation in Yasuní national park; in exchange, the international community's wealthiest nations would commit to paying 50% of the reserves' value. The aim of the ITT initiative was to reduce CO2 emissions, protect the park's vast biodiversity —the highest in the world— and the livelihood of the many indigenous peoples who live in the area. The payments from the global powers would be used to bring Ecuador out of poverty and reduce the country's social debt. The proposal received a positive reception worldwide and millions of dollars were pledged, but it would ultimately fall through.

During a televised speech on August 15, 2013, however, President Correa officially dismissed the Yasuní-ITT initiative, citing that the economic goals had not been reached due to what he called "the great hypocrisy" of polluting nations, as reported by an article in  The Guardian. According to the same article, Correa had wanted rich nations to pledge approximately $7.2 bn, or "half the revenue expected to be generated over 10 years from the 846 million barrels of heavy crude estimated to be in Yasuní." The contract, Proaño describes in a personal interview, was "very nationalistic": Ecuador would have full control of the funds, making it unattractive to foreign companies. Additionally, there is doubt as to the real quantity and quality of oil present in the region, since "no concrete studies" exist and the oil that is already being extracted is of "low quality."

In September, Correa met with the representatives of the 48 indigenous Waorani groups, as reported in  this news segment from CN Plus. The Waorani expressed a desire to outline their different land borders for the reason that "many people enter Waorani territory without respect." Another representative stressed the need for "development, health, and education," which no government of Ecuador has ever given them, and described how "during 30 years, oil companies have come each time, colonizing, placing [their] people into more danger."

In Ecuador, some indigenous groups have strong representative organizations, holding meetings like the one mentioned above and marching to Quito, the capital, to ensure their rights are respected. The work towards the protection of peoples in voluntarily isolation, however, only started six years ago and, despite the urgent need to understand these issues, extensive research and dialogue is still in its early stages. Little is known about these indigenous groups, yet the government and foreign companies are making decisions in the name of progress that deeply affect their way of life. 

In the words of Proaño, "It seems to me that if we are going to have progress, it will be when these peoples' rights have been fully guaranteed, when they actively participate in the decisions that take place on national territory. That is the progress that I would like to see."


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