History of the Ecuadorian Amazon

The Arrival and Conquest of the Spanish

Gonzalo Pizzaro

Accounts of Amazonian history in Ecuador often begin with the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th Century, but the Amazon basin is considered to have been home to some of the oldest cultures on the planet, surviving in some cases for over 10,000 years in the tropical rainforest regions of Ecuador and other countries of Latin America. Indeed, in 1996, remnants of a previously unknown culture in the Brazilian Amazon were discovered…a culture that existed 14,000 years ago.

After a first visit in 1526 to the Ecuadorian coast searching for Inca riches, Francisco Pizarro returned to South America in 1532 with his half-brother Gonzalo Pizarro, and began the Spanish conquest of Peru. He landed accompanied by 167 fully armed men and 12 horses, with the objective to conquer the Incas and find the mythical cities of gold hidden in the Amazon region. With the help of Indian allies, he successfully vanquished the Incas.

Nine years later, after moving northward from Peru, Gonzalo Pizarro led an expedition from Quito eastward to the Amazon in search of cinnamon and the mythical riches of the Amazon. Francisco de Orellana was second in command of the group, which included over 200 Spaniards and about 4000 Indians. Prior to reaching the Coca river, disease, desertion and encounters with warrior tribes had cost the lives of over half the force, and a shortage of food had left the remainder of the expedition near the point of collapse. Orellana was ordered to build a small ship to search downriver for food, but he never returned. Instead, he continued downriver, and is now credited with “discovering” and exploring the Amazon River. He later sailed to Venezuela, and returned to Spain. Pizarro struggled back to Quito with only a few survivors.

Impacts on the Indigenous Populations in the Amazon


Engraving from Theodor de Bry. Americae pars quarta. [Francofvrti ad Moenvm, Typis I. Feyrabend, impensis T. de Bry] 1594. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

From the beginning of the Spanish conquest in search of gold and other riches, the result was the death of millions of indigenous peoples of the region, including the Amazon. Diseases brought by the Europeans for which the native populations had no resistance, executions, enslavement, forced labor under dangerous conditions all contributed to a dramatic reduction in population of the indigenous people in the years that followed. In the Amazon of Ecuador, the Quijos tribe, now known as the Napo Quichuas, were forced to move downriver along the Napo where they combined with other indigenous populations, changing their traditions and marking their first contacts with the outside world. There are currently nine indigenous groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon; nearly all of these were impacted in some way by the Spanish occupation of Ecuadorian territory.

In the late 1800’s, the rubber boom continued this process of increased contact with the outside. This was followed in the 1940’s with the first oil exploration in the Amazon, when the Shell Oil Company set up operations just outside Waorani territory and built airstrips within their territory. The Waorani killed several oil workers during the 1940’s, and in 1950, Shell abandoned its operations in the area. However, this was not the end but the beginning of oil exploration in the Amazon region of Ecuador, an activity that was to have an enormous cultural and environmental impact on the lives of the indigenous populations of the Amazon.

Missionaries, Oil, and the Waorani People

Waorani Man

Waorani man. Photo by Carolin Meyer, 2008

From the time of the Spanish invasion, efforts began to “civilize” the “savages” of the Amazon region, with the Spanish bringing the Catholic religion and their ways of life to the indigenous populations of the jungle. In the history of the region, nearly all of the indigenous tribes have been contacted by immigrants trying to convince them that religions and traditions are “better”, and many tribes have forcefully resisted.

The case of the Waorani offers one recent example. In 1955, the first groups of missionaries arrived with the intent to make contact with the Waorani people. The following year, the Waorani made news by killing five missionaries, but in 1958, peaceful contact was made by Rachel Saint (the sister of one of the killed missionaries) using a runaway Waorani woman to initiate the contact with the tribe.

Ten years after this contact, in 1968, Saint’s evangelical organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), was authorized by the Ecuadorian government to create a small protectorate in Waorani lands for the relocation of three Waorani groups. This land area was equivalent in size to less than 10% of their traditional lands, but by the mid-1970’s, about 80% of the Waorani population had been relocated to this protectorate with the help of oil company helicopters. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, oil exploration resumed in areas that had been abandoned by the Waorani people. Many believe that this was a government-missionary-oil company project with the goal of clearing the hostile Waorani from their territory to permit more secure oil exploration and extraction.

Obviously, this relocation dramatically changed the way of life of the Waorani people. Where previously there had been several nomadic, self-sufficient dispersed groups, the result was a confinement to a small territory, leading to a sedentary, missionary-dependent way of life for the people. Their traditional way of life was lost, and they were converted to a foreign religion and a new set of social norms. In 1969, a severe polio epidemic hit the SIL settlement, resulting in a loss of 16 lives and handicapping many more. This has been blamed on inadequate sanitation and vaccinations within the settlement, placing responsibility directly upon the SIL.

Oil damage in Ecuador's Amazon

Photo from http://chevrontoxico.com; taken by Lou Dematteis and Kayana Szymczak (from "Crude Reflections")

Oil exploration in the traditional territories of the Waorani intensified with Texaco’s construction and opening of the Auca road in the 1980’s, a road extending 120 km into Waorani territory and without control points, leading to colonization and uncontrolled deforestation in the area. Spur roads created somewhat later to access other oil fields compounded the problems. The Auca road still provides access to oil fields today.

This area, and the Waorani people, are now part of a current class action lawsuit against Chevron, now the owner of Texaco. The suit, Aguinda v. Chevron Texaco, was filed in 1993 in the US, and moved to the Ecuadorian court system in 2003. Local residents and indigenous groups from a large area of the Ecuadorian Amazon (including the Waorani) allege that Texaco dumped over 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste in unlined pits and local waterways during their operations in the area from 1964 to 1990, an amount far greater than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez and considered to be the worst oil-related ecological disaster on the planet (and considered by some to be the second worst ecological disaster in history, second only to Chernobyl). Rates of cancer in the area are far above normal, and by one estimate, over 1400 people living in the region have died of cancer caused by the contamination. The decision, expected in 2009, could dwarf the award in the Exxon Valdez case…a court-appointed expert has estimated damages at about $27 billion.

The Creation of the Waorani Ethnic Reserve

In 1975, because of resource depletion in the protectorate created by the SIL, many of the Waorani people began to move back to their traditional lands. In 1983, the Ecuadorian government created a reserve for the Waorani covering about 667 km2, including the territory of the protectorate. Over the years, this reserve has been expanded to about 7000 km2, about a third of their traditional territory. However, although the land was granted to the Waorani, the state retains subsurface rights, and the Waorani cannot reject oil activities sponsored by the government.

The Creation of Yasuni National Park and the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve

The largest protected area in Ecuador (9820 km2) and the only Amazonian National Park, Yasuni was created in 1979. During the years that followed, the government of Ecuador offered bidding for oil leases within the park, then in 1990 reduced the size of the park to avoid legal challenges resulting from drilling in a protected area. The park was again enlarged in 1992 to its current dimensions.

Yasuni is considered to be one of the most biodiverse regions on earth, holding 150 identified species of amphibians, 121 identified species of reptiles, about 600 species of birds and 200 species of mammals. Several of these species, including both plants and mammals, are considered critically endangered, endangered or threatened on a global level. Species density is exceptionally impressive, with up to 655 tree species found in just one hectare of the park.

In 1989, the area of the park and some of the surrounding area was declared a Man and the Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This reserve covers 16,820 km2, including parts of the Waorani Ethnic Reserve.

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