The Waorani are a tribe of hunter-gatherers that live deep in the rainforest. They were once so fierce and territorial, they remained untouched by the outside world for possibly thousands of years. In fact, they were so isolated their language is not related to any other language in the world. Armed with long spears and blowguns, the Waorani were able to kill off most intruders, including a slew of surrounding tribes such as the head-shrinking Shuar, the mighty Inca, and even the Spanish Conquistadors. Due to the high murder rates within their own tribe, anthropologists consider them the most violent people known to anthropology. A neighboring tribe dubbed them “Aucas” or “savages," a name that is still commonly used to describe them throughout Ecuador. They had no non-violent contact with outsiders until 1955, and even today, two family groups still voluntarily remain in isolation.
The world, however, may owe an enormous debt to the Waorani’s ferocity. Without it, their massive territory in Eastern Ecuador, which is now known to be the most species-rich place on the planet, would have long ago been devastated. Surrounding their territory, the remains of rainforest cleared by slash-burning, logging and oil companies offer a sad reminder of how neighboring tribes succumbed to outside influence. Biodiversity in these areas is scant, disease rampant, and poverty epidemic.
Over the years, influence from Christian missionaries prompted many Waorani communities to renounce violence, while waves of disease introduced by outsiders weakened their culture. Without violence, populations grew and sedentary Waorani communities were established. They began to over-hunt wild game near their communities. Oil companies bribed them with motors, rice and fuel for access to oil-rich land, and they became increasingly dependent on material goods from outside their territory. With each additional oil and logging access road came an influx of development, and new opportunities for black market trade of timber and exotic pets. In Ecuador, negative stereotypes of indigenous people reduce available opportunities. Education is poor and underfunded, and it often undermines core values within their culture. Waorani students are taught little that translates to the world beyond, and they are losing many of the skills that made them successful in the world they know. In the 56 years since first contact, Waorani life has changed drastically. Without a certain level of awareness about these changes, and a drive to preserve the forest they have so aggressively defended, the Waorani risk losing the complexity of their forest and the sacred traditions centered around it.
This is a new era for the Waorani, and much is at stake. They are the sole proprietors of their territory, and in the face of poverty and disease, oil and logging concessions are tempting options. Their lack of Western education and experience in the world outside of their community leaves them little hope of making a decent living outside their territory. As a loosely organized society, one rogue signature can represent the Waorani nation as a whole, signing away their land to exploitative forces. Should this happen, few natural resources would be left to support their communities, forcing the Waorani into neighboring towns and cities with none of the education or opportunities they need to support themselves. Their legacy of a pristine forest, one that has sustained them as an independent people for thousands of years, will be lost. This new generation of Waorani is tasked with a new kind of stewardship. Either they find a way to maintain their independence and way of life, or they succumb to outside pressures and surrender their territory. Such a loss would be a loss to the world.
With great hope, the students of Kewediono are fighting back with a novel strategy using traditional knowledge as their weapon. Their knowledge of the forest, when translated into modern scientific assays and investigations, will prove to the rest of the world the ecological and practical value of their territory as an intact forest. Within their own tribe, it will restore a sense of respect for their own knowledge and culture, something that has been discouraged since first contact.