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"The Huaorani of Ecuador Against Multinational Oil Companies" by Gabriela Ulloa

The Huaorani of Ecuador Against Multinational Oil Companies

by Gabriela Ulloa, Ramapo College of New Jersey

Abstract: Indigenous peoples around the world are marginalized and face discrimination. They are constantly fighting to maintain their cultural identity and their land. Multinational companies and countries see their land as a means of gaining profit through oil drilling. What they have failed to realize is that oil drilling jarringly impacts the biodiversity and the livelihood of indigenous peoples. Throughout my paper, I will discuss how indigenous peoples in Ecuador have found their voice and responded against mining from multinational oil companies. The many actions they took that worked and did not work. And how their models can potentially be used to empower other indigenous peoples to rise against multinational oil companies. In April 2019, the Waorani people of Pastaza, Ecuador successfully won a court case against a multinational oil company. The importance of indigenous peoples aligning themselves with transnational advocacy networks (TANs) has allowed them to accomplish such victories. They use TANs to their advantage to prove to the world that they are deserving of rights and boundaries since their countries fail to provide them with such privileges. The broader areas of my research paper will analyze how the judicial branch of Ecuador has been more effective compared to the executive branch. Using both political and economic lenses I can analyze the factors that are driving the Ecuadorian government to allow mining in the land of indigenous peoples.



The relentless efforts of indigenous communities to make their voices heard creates the most riveting stories. Unfortunately, most of their successes are unheard of because of the lack of public attention that is given to them. The Huaorani on April 26, 2019, in Pastaza, Ecuador fought, and won, against the auctioning of their land by the government to multinational oil companies. The Huaorani are indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Much of their land lies in the Amazonian region of Ecuador in Napo, Orellana, and Pastaza. Their victory received international attention due to the rarity of indigenous peoples ever being winners in their constant battle to protect their land, especially when the battles are being fought against multinational oil companies. My paper will explore how Ecuadorian indigenous peoples along the Amazon responded against mining from multinational oil companies, while also taking into account how influential the actions of indigenous peoples can be in serving as a model for other groups. Hopefully, this case serves as an example to other indigenous peoples that it is indeed possible to come out victorious when going against multinational oil companies.

Background of Huaorani

Since colonial times in Latin America, indigenous peoples have been marginalized. Ecuador disregarded the interests of indigenous peoples and instead focused on developing a European model. This European model resulted in efforts to “develop” and “modernize” the country perpetuating the belief, which still exists today, that indigenous peoples are “backward” and hinder their efforts towards modernization (Ávalos, 2012). As a result, this classic model not only disregarded rights, and liberties to indigenous peoples but it also created a hierarchical system of racial and social stratification that is very much alive in both countries today.

Mestizaje, or the mixing of races during the colonial era describes mestizos and mulattoes. Mestizos are those mixed with indigenous peoples and white Europeans. Mulattoes are mixed with African and white European ancestry. White-mestizos in Ecuador are noted as having more white phenotypic traits, making them superior to mestizos, mulattoes, and indigenous peoples (Wilson, 2000). Up until mid-twentieth century mestizos, exploited indigenous peoples for labor. Public policy has also favored white-mestizos in Ecuador and has, for many years, silenced the voices of indigenous peoples (Ávalos, 2012). While Ecuador has developed reforms and ratified international agreements to provide more rights to indigenous peoples, indigenous peoples continue to face marginalization.

The Huaorani people, “Waorani,” “Waodani” or “Wao,” are hunter-gatherers native Amerindians with an estimated population of 2,000 people in Ecuador (Waorani Nation, 2019). Compared to other indigenous peoples in the region the Huaorani were recently discovered by the oil industry in the 1940s. Their first unpleasant interaction was with the oil company, Shell, in the 1940s. Then followed an American Christian missionary group in 1956 (Waddington, 2003). In the case of the Huaorani, the Huaorani people made international headlines after spearing five American missionaries. One of the missionaries was Jim Elliot, a well-known Christian missionary. People across the world mourned the loss of the five missionaries, while others criticized their work (Pena, 2020).

This instance led to the belief of the Huaorani people as lacking human-like qualities. The pejorative term “Auca” came about to describe the Huaorani as “naked savages” (Rodgers, 2006). Over fifty years have passed since this event and stereotypes continue to surround the Huaorani. Like other indigenous groups the Huaorani have the burden to prove to others that they are not savages, and simply are protecting their land. This instance points out that remnants of the colonial creation of inequality based on race and class still exists.

The “Plurinational” State

The new Constitution of Ecuador was adopted in 2008 under Rafael Correa’s presidency. With much success, the Constitution established a united “plurinational state.” As former president Correa stated in a press conference in Quito, ‘Plurinationalism’ means admitting that several different nationalities coexist within the larger Ecuadorian state, which is obvious in this country and need not scare anyone,” and he added, “Everyone should have the same opportunities” (Lucas, 2008). Interestingly, in the same press interview, Correa also mentioned that the Constitution does not state that indigenous communities have ownership of natural resources on or under their lands. Natural resources belong to society and are the property of the state. His statement fails to consider the detrimental nature of drilling for natural resources in the land of indigenous communities. Therefore, showing that even though the Constitution was a step forward for indigenous communities there was still a clash of ideas between Correa and indigenous peoples.

Chapter Two, Article 6 of the Constitution states that “Ecuadorian nationality is a political and legal bond between individuals and the State, without detriment to their belonging to any of the other indigenous nations that coexist in plurinational Ecuador” (Constitutions and Comparative Constitutional Study). Not only is the Constitution granting political rights to indigenous communities, but it is also stating that their sense of belonging to their communities should not be interfered with. As indigenous peoples assert their sense of belonging to their communities they simultaneously organize towards participation and inclusion in the political arena to defend their culture, rights, lands, and identities (Ávalos, 2012). As discussed in Globalization and Belonging, nations are composed of people that share culture, therefore this plurinational state will put away the idea of culturally homogenous Ecuadorian citizens (Croucher, 2003). In addition to promoting a “plurinational” State, the Constitution also states a “pluricultural, and multiethnic identity of Ecuador” in efforts to create a State where nations can coexist. The prefixes 'pluri' and 'multi' used to describe ethnicities, nations, and cultures mentioned in the Constitution shows that the impact of globalization has caused people to yearn for a sense of belonging in a society that is rapidly changing. This sense of belonging comes with the ability to have their voices be heard in the political arena.

The Confederación de las Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE) program, since 1986, has been behind every major protest championing for indigenous peoples' rights. Professor Kenneth P. Jameson from the University of Utah, who has conducted extensive research in Ecuador, mentioned that CONAIE “ unified the different indigenous groups of the coast, sierra, and jungle and their federations as different "nationalities" and thus fundamentally embodied the "plurinational" concept” (Jameson, 2011). Today, CONAIE has declared itself as a voice for the nationalities and indigenous people of Ecuador; it has also expressed its resistance towards a capitalistic and neoliberal economic reforms (Jameson, 2011). Examples of the neoliberal economic reforms are austerity measures, deregulation, and privatization. Instead, CONAIE has shifted its focus on the “plurinational” State. As the acting “government” of nationalities, CONAIE has made it a point to go against mining and oil operations in indigenous territories.

International agreements have also been important in securing rights for Ecuador. Ecuador ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 and the International Labour Organization (ILO), Convention 169 in 1998. Article 32 of UNDRIP states,

“Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources... States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

This adoption of UNDRIP and ILO makes it seem that the government supports indigenous peoples' ability to take command over their land and even the resources available in their territories. Similarly, Covenant 169, Article 6 of the ILO also mentions the importance of consultation before any procedures take place in their lands. The country's adoption of these international laws does not reflect the ideas of Rafael Correa, who did not intend to grant them control over their land, and current president Lenin Moreno who recently adopted neoliberal reforms. Both leaders have failed to not only take the UNDRIP and ILO into consideration but also the Constitution. Chapter Four, Article 57, Line 7 of the Constitution mentions,

“To free prior informed consultation, within a reasonable period of time, on the plans and programs for prospecting, producing and marketing nonrenewable resources located on their lands and which could have an environmental or cultural impact on them; to participate in the profits earned from these projects and to receive compensation for social, cultural and environmental damages caused to them. The consultation that must be conducted by the competent authorities shall be mandatory and in due time. If consent of the consulted community is not obtained, steps provided for by the Constitution and the law shall be taken” (Constitutions and Comparative Constitutional Study).

While the Constitution grants indigenous peoples the right to receive autonomy over their land, this has not been the case. UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, visited Ecuador in 2018 and urged the Government to implement and build on indigenous peoples’ fundamental rights (Tauli-Corpuz, 2018). International and Constitutional law, however, is unclear with what entails a “prior informed consultation.” UN Special Rapporteur Tauli-Corpuz agrees that there must be a concrete action on these procedures. The ambiguous nature of these laws resulted in it being highly debated in Ecuador’s court of law. It is precisely this law that the Huaorani said was violated since they did not receive proper consultation from the Ministerio de Energía y Recursos Naturales No Renovables.

Alison Brysk, Millichap Professor of Global Governance at the University of California mentions on her book From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and International Relations in Latin America mentioned that land rights in Ecuador have improved but tentatively. Several indigenous groups in the low land of the country have been able to achieve some success by receiving some land grants. The Huaorani along with other groups like the Quichua, Shuar, Cofan, and Awa have secured some land grants (Brysk, 2000). Yet, it is noticed that these land grants are not enough when multinational oil companies are ready to jump at any moment to get a hold of indigenous land for resources.

Case Study: Huaorani

It is admirable to see that despite the continuous push back, the Huaorani managed to successfully prevent a major setback for not only the Ecuadorian government but also the multinational oil companies that planned to drill their land. The plaintiffs in the case were co-filed with Pastaza Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality Ecuador Pastaza (CONCONAWEP) and Ecuadorian Human Rights Ombudsman, representing 16 villages against Ministerio de Energía y Recursos Naturales No Renovables. Their victory suspended 180,000 hectares from being auctioned to oil companies. On top of that, the verdict also ruled against the auctioning of 16 oil blocks that cover 7 million acres of indigenous territory (Loki, 2019). This landmark case is not only a win for the Huaorani but also serves as a beacon of hope for other indigenous communities.

Their win has stirred a lot of controversy from Ministerio de Energía y Recursos Naturales No Renovables, who Tweeted an official statement declaring that they will appeal in hopes to have the sentence reversed (Recursos y Energía EC, 2019). They believe that they did perform an admissible “prior informed consultation.” On November 27, 2019, the Huaorani experienced another win when the Constitutional Court of Ecuador found the action filed by Ministerio de Energía y Recursos Naturales No Renovables inadmissible.

Social Capital

Much of the success of the Huaorani results from their ability to operate at various levels from the community, provincial, regional, national, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). The social capital gained through these networks has vastly helped the Huaorani in a countless amount of ways. One specific example that helped the Huaorani win their landmark court case was the maps that were developed with the help of Digital Democracy, Amazon Frontlines, and Alianza Ceibo, an indigenous-led local Ecuadorian non-profit, composed of members of Kofan, Siona, Secoya and Huaorani.

Sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman, and Robert Putnam are widely known for their work surrounding the concept of social capital. Developed by Bourdieu and Coleman, social capital focuses on “individual benefits and microscale relations” (Claridge, 2019). Since its creation, social capital has developed many interpretations. Most notably, Putnam has “shifted away from individual actions and benefits to the collective spread of effects through society” (Perreault, 2003). Putnam does acknowledge that there are benefits of social capital, he labels four of them as information, reciprocity, collective action, and identity/solidarity. His work has helped analyze the importance of social relations and organizational networks, and the influence it has on economic outcomes and state accountability. Social capital serves as a theoretical framework to analyze how indigenous communities engage in relationships with the state, NGOs, regional, and provincial organizations. The three types of social capital that exist are bonding, bridging, and linking (Claridge, 2019). Bonding pertains to ties between people who are already similar in some way. Bridging is weaker ties compared to bonding, between people across social groups or communities. Lastly, linking is the weakest since it is the ties between different social powers. These three forms of social capital are used when analyzing the importance of the maps that were used in the court case.

The extensive work on the maps was critical to the victory of the Huaorani. Digital Democracy went to the Amazon and encouraged the Huaorani to use technological tools such as GPSes, night vision cameras, and drones to make maps of the Huaroani’s territory (AJ+, 2016). The members of Digital Democracy were welcomed despite not having any previous personal relationship. Unequal in their power and resources compared to the indigenous communities, Digital Democracy, an outsider organization, was immediately believed to be perceived as a threat by the Huaorani. That was not the case. The mutual goals shared between the non-profit and the Huaorani along with trust, respect, and sense of equality of status allowed for the creation of these maps. Before the fourteen months of the process, mapping workshops took place in the villages of Nemopare and Kiwaro to acquaint indigenous peoples with the members of the non-profit and what was going to follow in the process.

An account from Opi Nenquimo, a member of Alianza Ceibo, describes Digital Democracy as an “important ally” to the Huaorani. He states, “ I have learned new things, how to use a GPS and how to make maps on the computer” (Ryan, 2019). An analogy Opi uses to describe the people arriving from Digital Democracy is of a song sung by Huaroani women about a parrot that flies a long way to their territory. Eventually, it arrives and builds a nest and has babies. His analogy points at the everlasting impact that Digital Democracy has left. Their monumental contribution will continue to impact the lives of the Huaorani for years to come.

Over the years it has been observed how the advancement of technology is often linked to globalization. Paradoxically, the negative effects of globalization have impacted the Huaorani but in this instance, with the help of Digital Democracy, they managed to use the positive effects of globalization to create these symbolic maps. Similarly, Putnam also argues that ties have weakened amongst people for the past twenty-five years. Connections in person have been lost by the increase of technology, making it more likely to lose social capital. What Putnam fails to consider is that technology has proven to connect people across the world. If anything we are more interconnected than ever. The digital interactive maps of the Huaorani are now accessible to anyone in the world who has internet access. Before the technology existed it would have been nearly impossible to fathom the territory of the Huaorani, now with technology, anyone can view with much detail the beauty of their land.

The maps have many uses. One of them is for survival. The maps are an aid that will allow elders to transmit their knowledge about the Amazon to younger generations. As Opi mentioned, the maps will have a legacy. The second form of use is in the courtrooms. In the courtroom, the maps withhold cultural capital that represent indigenous peoples’ most potent source of political power. The maps are symbols of territory, identity, and political autonomy demonstrating the Huaorani’s legitimacy and power.

The maps are useful in showing the overlap of Block 22, the block said to be open for investment, where oil pipelines were said to be placed if multinational oil companies got a hold of the land. Most importantly, the maps were able to bring some sense of humanity into the courtroom. The new maps convey a powerful message showing the relationship and attachment the Huaorani have to their territory. Their social, cultural, historical, and spiritual knowledge is all present on the map. The map labels things such as hunting trails, waterfalls, churches, distinct species of trees, plants, flowers, and animals (Ryan, 2019). Compared to the maps created by the State and oil companies to generate blocks, the maps made with the help of Digital Democracy paint a picture of the lives of the Huaorani in their land.

The lingering threat of oil companies has increased the different ways organizations demarcate indigenous territory. The lack of integration to society by the Huaorani has led them to become one of the most vulnerable indigenous groups to oil exploitation. Before the work done by Alianza Ceibo and Digital Democracy in 2015, a campaign by CONFENIAE was created in aims of demarcating the territory of the Huaorani. FOIN along with OPIP, worked together at the micro level to demarcate the territory of the Huaorani. Together they were able to demarcate 600-kilometer perimeter through the Amazon, even though they were not able to complete the demarcation their efforts debatably granted the Huaorani territorial claims. The difference between the actions taken by CONFENIAE, FOIN, and OPIP in 2015 and Digital Democracy, Amazon Frontlines, and Alianza Ceibo is that today indigenous communities are involved in the process of demarcation, the project has moved passed the micro level, and indigenous communities were introduced to different technological assets.

Linking social capital with Digital Democracy and Amazon Frontlines has enabled bridging and bonding social capital. Bridging social capital is visible when indigenous communities come together to create these maps. Out of fifty-two remote Huaorani villages, only eighteen were chosen to partake in map building. This ongoing project will accumulate bonding and bridging social capital as these eighteen communities teach the remaining communities how to make their maps. Bonding social capital will also increase when members of a community work together to create these maps and these maps are used by the elders to educate younger generations of their land.

Gender and Social Capital

A blind eye is often turned when gender is associated with social capital. T here is research lacking the exploration of how gender inequalities impact the accumulation of social capital. Yet, in the case of the Huaorani, gender plays a role in their success. Women are key players in the movement against multinational oil companies. The Huaorani view women as powerful leaders, as noted in the account provided by Opi Nenquimo. It is without a coincidence that Nemonte Nenquimo, an indigenous woman, is the president of CONCONAWEP and Alianza Ceibo, while also serving as the lead plaintiff in the case.

Bonding and bridging social capital is evident when Huaorani women gathered from different communities to take over the streets and the courtroom. Together they traveled to the city where the proceedings were being held. This is seen as an act of resistance since the city is a public place considered “modern” and where white-mestizos are allowed, it is not meant for indigenous peoples let alone indigenous women. The dichotomy that exists between private and public space shows how the racial spatial oppositions impact women the most (Cervone, 2002). When they gathered together to go to the public space, they knew they were going to face government installed institutions, the court, which is dominated by white-mestizo people. Leaving their private space, which is associated with domesticity, shows that indigenous women aside from taking the role of caring for their family, can also go out and protect their territory.

The Huaorani women have been the most outspoken to the injustices that they faced during their trial; their exercise of leadership can also be attributed to their male counterparts migrating. As males migrate to the public area to find jobs, women are forced to step up and take on leadership roles within their community (Cervone, 2002). Paradoxically, when women take leadership roles, they enter the public space just like their male counterparts but have a more difficult time legitimizing their leadership. The actions of the Huaorani women showed that they are stronger together than as individuals.

Their strong ties and shared culture brought them together to sing a song to disrupt the proceedings. Together they were a force of resistance after the judge did not grant the Huaorani to hold their hearing and trial at a closer location to their territory. This action by the judge placed them at a disadvantage because many elders and witnesses were unable to commute to the city on time. This action by the judge emphasizes the fact that the public space is designated space for white-mestizos, it is portrayed as an impossible place for indigenous people to be a part of or even reach in the first place. The judge also failed to provide Huaorani with a translator approved by them. Despite the obstacles that the Huaorani face, women were able to empower each other and amplify their voices against their State and multinational oil companies

Social Media a New Form of Social Capital

The increase in technology over the years has also redefined the way people access social capital. According to Putnam, television distracts people from participating in their community (Graber 2001). Today, television can be switched to the rise of the Internet, causing people to be less active in forming networks. In the case of the Huaorani, Putnam’s point regarding the inefficiency of technology does not apply because technology has proven to be one of the most important resources for the Huaorani. Without the use of technology brought by Digital Democracy, the Huaorani would have not been able to build a convincing argument in the courtroom with their high-tech maps. Technology has also allowed the Huaorani to form networks within their communities and even by forming a global campaign.

The global campaign “Waorani Resistance” was made possible with the collaboration between CONCONAWEP, Alianza Ceibo, and Amazon Frontlines. This global campaign uses social media as a way to garner more attention to the pro-oil drilling government in Ecuador. The Waorani Resistance campaign makes it a point to mention the long battle the Huaorani have had against the State of Ecuador and multinational oil companies as defenders of their territory. The website also promotes the use of the hashtag #WaoraniResistance and #ResistenciaWaorani. Prominent figures worldwide, such as Mark Ruffalo, have voiced solidarity with the Huaorani by using hashtags and posting pictures of themselves on their social media accounts holding a piece of paper saying “I stand with the Waorani” (“Waorani Nation,” 2019). The website also encourages people to take action by signing petitions and donating money, to be a part of the movement.

Aside from the existing global campaign, Amazon Frontline, CONAIE, Digital Democracy use their social media platforms to show the mapping process as well as to share individual stories of the Huaorani. Social media has allowed for the formation of relationships that might not have been created in the first place. The ability to gain from these relationships is also apparent. On the one hand, the Huaorani are gaining legitimacy and global support, while those participating in the movement feel good about participating in a humanitarian cause against the oil-hungry government. Social media has allowed people to be a part of the movement without having to come to the Amazon, regardless of distance people are now able to participate with the Huaorani against the Ecuadorian government and multinational oil companies.


While this case serves as precedent for future cases, the Ecuadorian government is in desperate need of political and structural reforms that will legitimize indigenous peoples’ claims. The everlasting legacy of colonialism in Latin America, also continues to impact the political, social, and economic rights of indigenous peoples. Even though Ecuador has implemented several indigenous rights in their Constitution, the government has lacked implementation. This case is symbolic and should only be the beginning of the change that indigenous peoples hope for and deserve.


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