Can an indigenous culture survive in a jungle petropolis?
The roadways slashing through the rain forest instigate both extraction and attraction, becoming the medium for still larger territorial reorganization. As roads are built, forest is cleared to make way for three rows of agricultural plots, each 820 by 6,562 feet, creating a space 7.5 miles wide and, in aggregate, hundreds of miles long, a vast linear settlement occupied by colonos from elsewhere in the country—well over a quarter million have poured into Oriente since the discovery of oil. Much of this is pasture land: rain-forest soils are a poor basis for conventional agriculture, and clearing the jungle dooms the richly symbiotic biodiversity it supports. The pattern brings a new economic organization as well as new styles of agricultural activity, new homesteads, new villages, and new towns. Much like the Jeffersonian gridding of the American west, the remorseless geometry of subdivision accomplishes a dramatic literal and conceptual shift: What was once “wilderness” becomes urban, part of a global system. The long miles of farms and villages in the cleared jungle and the check-point at Block 16 are part of the same Petropolitan urbanism that produces the freeway morphology of Los Angeles and Houston and the glittering skylines of Dubai or Kuwait City.
Of course, an urban environment requires urban citizens, and the boom has attracted hundreds of thousands. But what of those already there and their sedulously un-urban lifestyles? Two years after Texaco discovered huge reserves of oil in Oriente, the Ecuadorian government created a protected “reserve” for the Huaorani. Desperate to cash in on the oil but anxious about the potential cauldron of conflict between native peoples, oil workers, and the accelerating influx of settlers and tourists, José Velasco Ibarra, the president at the time, handed the protectorate’s administration to the Sumner Institute of Linguistics, a Protestant evangelical group that has been active in Ecuador since the 1950s and specializes in the translation of scripture into native languages.
Like that of their missionary predecessors from centuries past, the Sumner Institute’s tragic endeavor entailed forcing the “natives” into villages, establishing schools with the Bible at the center of the curriculum, and introducing capitalism. The results included forest clearing for larger fields, agricultural specialization, a money economy, plus the rapid introduction of alien cultural forms, from trousers and radios to beer and zinc roofs. The natives were urbanized, made into model citizens for a new order. Resistance was not long in developing, and there were numerous instances of speared priests and oil-workers. More important, there has been remarkable grass-roots political organization and consciousness-raising by native peoples, a crucial result of which was the formation in 1986 of CONAIE, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, which has now become a major political power working on behalf of both human and environmental rights.
In 1989, the Ecuadorian government, faced with declining oil prices and eager to keep its revenue stream flowing, prepared—with financing from Conoco Oil—a new “management” plan for the as-yet-untapped Yasuni Park, under which half was zoned for oil-company use, the other half for the Huaorani. In 1993, a modified plan was put into place in which the Huaorani were nominally incorporated into the administration of the combined entity. For them, this meant jobs as security guards (in their own formerly peaceable homeland) and oil workers. It also meant new—and desperately inappropriate—houses for some, generally clustered in what can only be described as concentration camps. This for a people that has, for millennia, lived nomadically. In addition, it brought the ravages of imported diseases and a rapid education in modernity.
This is not the place to settle the question of the rights of indigenous people or to debate the respective arguments for literacy, technology, and participation in national life versus the logics of protecting the ability of “primitive” peoples to defend and continue historic patterns of settlement and life. The point is simply that the lives of these people have undergone tremendous rupture and their culture sent down the road to extinction on the basis of somebody’s idea of the greater good—that of the Ecuadorian economy, which continues to float on oil (as it had earlier done on monocultures of cacao and bananas). Oil sales provide close to 50 percent of government revenue (about half of which goes to the military). And since the final nationalization of oil in 1989, the oil economy has put the government in the admirable position of actually owning the source of its own revenue.
The machinations in Yasuni, with the repeated redrafting of the borders of the park, the concessions, and the ethnic reserves (for a people whose imagery did not house the concept of such boundaries) are part of a broader system of overlapping territories defined by relations of property that inscribe in the jungle the patterns of modern space and exchange. Northern Oriente shows all of this raised to a flashpoint of toxic weirdness. Those troops in Yasuni were not simply protecting the oil but keeping out the cocaine industry (increasingly forced toward and over the Ecuadorian border by the U.S.-sponsored “Plan Colombia”) and its own networked system of extraction and distribution along a parallel labyrinth of roads, airstrips, laboratories, villages, and flows of capital.
Like any city, this one overlays infrastructures, territories, interests, technologies, densities, communities, histories, and morphologies. Its differences from the “post-urban” edge cities that have become the characteristic mode of urban growth in so many parts of the world are not of kind, simply of degree. Both patterns are environmentally corrosive and conceptually predicated on the domination of distributed rather than concentrated systems. And both are based on a model of urban development that privileges extraction—of oil, cocaine, or land values—over sociability, permanence, or culture. Although only half the world’s population—by traditional means of measure—lives in cities, the planet itself is immeasurably more urbanized.
Yasuni and the Amazon basin throw this into such sharp relief because the rain forest remains our paradigmatic “state of nature”—the antithesis of urban civilization—and because as our green sensibility grows (and the jungle disappears) we have come to understand the degree to which our own survival depends on the fate of the forest. In much the same way, respect for indigenous peoples and traditions is an emblem of our understanding of the risks of globalization’s obliteration of difference and freedom of economic action. The Huaorani are probably doomed, but in their demise, it is urgent that we see ourselves.