Tale of Conta

BAMENO, Ecuador – Before her mother was killed, Conta climbed trees and fished in the streams. She sang like her ancestors, who had roamed the Amazonian forest for hundreds of years.
Her world was shattered in 2013 when a Huaorani clan swept into her isolated settlement and murdered as many as 30 people, including her mother and brother.
The killers kidnapped Conta, then thought to be about 6, and her younger sister, Daboka, 3.
Months later, Ecuadorean agents rescued Conta and brought her to Bameno, a quiet Huaorani village deep in the jungle.
“She has been at peace,” said Penti Baihua, a leader in Bameno.
Conta, who was not interviewed or photographed for this story at the request of the Huaorani, is part of a clan of indigenous people who have resisted contact with the outside world, choosing instead to live deep in the forest.
As many as 300 Tagaeri and Taromenane, clans of the Huaorani indigenous people, inhabit Ecuador’s eastern jungles. Indigenous rights advocates fear they are in danger of being killed off as oil workers, colonists, loggers and others move into their ancestral territory.
The Huaorani had defended their territory with spears for centuries. Missionaries made peaceful contact with them in 1958. The Tagaeri clan refused contact and split off from their Huaorani relatives in 1965.
Less was known about the Taromenane, who killed a Catholic priest and nun who tried to contact them in 1987.
Baihua said he feels a kinship with the isolated tribesmen, despite the fact that they have been at war with the Huaorani for decades.
The Tagaeri are long-lost relatives, he said. “We don’t want to wipe out the Tagaeris because they are Huaorani.”
By 2007, some reports said only 20 to 30 Tagaeri survived. Some indigenous rights advocates feared none were left. Others speculated they had joined the Taromenane, but no one really knew.
Today, experts believe that 80 to 300 or more Tagaeri and Taromenane remain. A confidential August 2013 memo by Ecuador’s Ministry of Justice, Human Rights and Religion said 22 houses and 11 vegetable plots belonging to the tribesmen in three different areas had been detected.
The Tagaeri clan was named after a warrior named Tagae, who was killed more than three decades ago. Baihua said he suspects that Conta belongs to the Tagaeri clan because she had heard of Tagae when she came to Bameno.
Baihua said Conta told him her mother taught her to fish in a stream near their house. Her father taught her to chase young peccaries, which resemble pigs.
She knew how to swim and use a machete. She knew the Huaorani word for plane – ebo – and had asked her father what they were after seeing aircraft fly over their settlement.
Conta wondered why Huaorani in Bameno insisted she wear rubber boots – she had never worn anything on her feet. But she knew about poisonous snakes and decided boots were OK.
Baihua said he has tried to learn all he can about her family, but she can’t answer all his questions.
“She’s only a child,” he said.
Conta’s mother and brother were killed in the 2013 attack, but she doesn’t know the fate of her father.
Under Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, isolated indigenous people are protected and their rights and land are guaranteed.
In practice, dozens of them have been murdered since 2003 in territorial battles and revenge killings.
Some rights advocates believe the Huaorani are key to their survival. They live the closest to the isolated tribesmen and understand their language.
The Tagaeri and Taromenane, like the Huaorani, need land to survive, Baihua said.
Conta “needs her territory, her future,” he said. “We have to fight for her, too, not just for us.”
Bameno is located on the border of the Yasuní National Park, one of the world’s most biodiverse spots.
In 2007, Ecuador said it would ban drilling in the Yasuní if developed nations contributed $3.6 billion. The Yasuní initiative fell apart after the international community contributed just $13 million in compensation.
In August 2013, Correa announced that he would allow drilling in Yasuní, which contains the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini (ITT) oil fields, thought to contain 846 million barrels of crude.
Environmentalists had rallied around the Yasuní initiative, but Baihua said the territory that must be protected is much bigger than the national park.
“Everyone’s in love with the Yasuní, but that territory is bigger than the Yasuní,” said Baihua, leader of a group called Ome Gompote Kiwigimoni Huaorani, which means, We Defend Our Huaorani Territory.
Unfortunately, he said, is that the Huaorani are divided. Many work for oil companies and support drilling.
“We live in two worlds,” he said. Some Huaorani “live off the oil companies and don’t worry about their territory.”
Others want to preserve their territory and their way of life.
“We have a way of life that centers around hunting, fishing,” Baihua said. “The jungle gives us everything.”
In past decades, his father and other Huaorani killed outsiders to prevent them from stealing their land or cutting down all the trees.
Nowadays, Baihua and other Huaorani are trying to negotiate with the government to secure their land.
“Instead of killing , we have to have dialogue with the government,” Baihua said.
But the government has refused to meet with Baihua or any other Huaorani leaders who question of wisdom of drilling for oil in the eastern jungle. Government officials only meet with Huaorani who support drilling, Baihua said.
He said if he could speak to president, “I’d tell him our territory is very important because land gives life. I’d tell the government to leave that territory alone so that our children in the future can live free, without worries.”
Baihua said he’d also tell authorities that “they have enough oil fields” and should leave the isolated tribesmen alone.

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