- Often in articles about indigenous struggles or resistance, there is a need to write about communities as being victims of the extractive sector, or warriors fighting to defend their territory. I’ve been writing about indigenous resistance in Ecuador for about three years, and I’ve often fallen into the same dynamic.
- In my case, I seek out the warriors. But what if the news media allowed indigenous people to be whole and multifaceted?
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Don Lizardo was sitting in his hammock, rocking gently back and forth, as he told us heartbreaking stories about working in haciendas when he was younger.
We were sitting in his living room, in the house that he built with his own hands, in the indigenous Kichwa community of Llanchama in the middle of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. The frogs and tree crickets provided the background music as Don Lizardo told us about the time the hacienda boss, or el patron, ordered a member of staff to be punished. He ordered one of the chefs to give the man 25 lashes, which ended up killing him. I forget what this punishment was for exactly, as it was only one of several stories he told us.
The chef ended up losing his job afterward, which left Don Lizardo as the only chef in the whole hacienda at the time. He was terrified to work alone, he says. The local indigenous Waorani community had a habit of attacking the haciendas, particularly the other indigenous staff who worked there, ultimately supporting the system.
“Were you scared?” asked his daughter, who was listening with us in the living room.
“Yes!” he said. And the whole family burst out laughing; he admitted it.
Listening to Don Lizardo’s stories that night and sitting with his family in the intimacy of their living room was one of the more memorable moments I’ve had during fieldwork. Not only did it help me get to know Don Lizardo a little bit more, but it also helped me understand the community in general, as I later learned that most adults here have similar stories.
That night also exemplified something that I constantly struggle with as a journalist: how do you complicate the final narrative to better reflect the lives and experiences of the people you’re writing about?
Often in articles about indigenous struggles or resistance, there is a need to write about communities as being victims of the extractive sector, or warriors fighting to defend their territory. I’ve been writing about indigenous resistance in Ecuador for about three years, and I’ve often fallen into the same dynamic. In my case, I seek out the warriors.
But what if the news media allowed indigenous people to be whole and multifaceted?
Llanchama was founded in 1978, after the hacienda system had crumbled, by individuals who had lived through years of migration, torture, and conflict with other indigenous groups.
But these individuals also created a kind of stability in the new community, walked out of the oppressive hacienda system, and independently negotiated a truce with a neighboring warring indigenous nation. Knowing this might not advance a news story, but it could get you closer to understanding how the community and its identity was formed, and how strong-willed its members are.
I met Don Lizardo and his family in Llanchama in April. The small community of some 65 families lies in Yasuni National Park in the northeast of Ecuador, along the Tiputini River. It’s also on the western border of oil block 43, otherwise known as the controversial ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) project.
I went to Llanchama as I was told it exemplified a community that’s been divided by the oil industry, which has had a detrimental effect on it. This also looks to be a continued problem, as the Ecuadoran government recently approved the expansion of new oil wells in block 43.
It turns out these divisions are real. Don Lizardo and his family have long been pro-oil, mainly because they believe that it provides opportunities for the community. But his wife, Ana, no longer speaks to her own brother, Andres, whose family has been leading the fight against the oil industry because of its impact on the environment.
But even before this, Llanchama lived through a long history of oppressors.
Don Lizardo says the memories from working in the haciendas continue to haunt him. Not only did he receive violent treatment from el patron and witness acts of torture, he also worked alongside racist colonos, the mestizo population who had migrated to the Amazon from other parts of Ecuador to look for work.
“You’re indios, gross, donkeys, they called us … What else could we do? We just had to listen to them. I can’t get it out of my mind even today,” he told us.
Don Lizardo, now in his sixties, spent a lifetime under these circumstances, as he started working in haciendas when he was 10 years old, cleaning cattle stables. This was normal for many of the adults in Llanchama, who had migrated up and down the Tiputini and Napo rivers working on the various haciendas in the region, as these were the only jobs at the time.
Their fathers and grandfathers did the same. Don Lizardo spoke about his grandfather who traveled as far north as Putumayo, a state in Colombia along the Ecuadoran border, to look for work in the rubber industry. The industry at the end of the 19th century was brutally violent, with anthropologist Michael Taussig describing it as a “culture of terror” that created “spaces of death.”
I remember reading Taussig when I was doing my master’s in anthropology, and some of the torture scenes he describes have stuck with me over the years. But I always read his texts as a distant history, not something that still makes up part of the individual and collective memory of the community.
Don Lizardo and his family say the petroleum industry had a lot to do with the end of slavery on the hacienda systems. Western Oil & Gas was one of the first companies to enter the region around the Tiputini River, said Don Lizardo, and this was the first time indigenous people who sought jobs had an alternative to working in the hacienda system, and were actually paid a proper wage.
“When the first oil company came in, that ended slavery. And the patrones had to learn how to wash their own dishes,” Don Lizardo said, giggling. Then we all burst out laughing.
When more and more families began to move to Llanchama, build houses and create a community, the local indigenous Waorani people got angry. This territory had historically been theirs, though the Kichwa contest this. Don Lizardo told us about the first time the Waorani entered Llanchama, wearing war paint and armed with spears. He imitated how they banged their spears on the tables to intimidate the Kichwa — which worked, as the Waorani had, and still do have, a reputation for being intense. Don Lizardo said he had previously witnessed several of his friends murdered by the Waorani, and even found bodies with spears launched through them.
“We were terrified. We Kichwa are soft and passive. We’re not tough,” he said, giggling again. His family burst out laughing once more.
It was at that first meeting in Llanchama that the two nations also established a dialogue. In 1999 they signed a treaty agreeing on the borders between their two territories, without the help of any government intermediaries. Both sides have respected this agreement ever since, and they are expected to renew it this summer.
I recently met an anthropologist who did two months of fieldwork in Llanchama who told me there was no such thing as a pure or untouched rainforest. They’ve always been a living and dynamic area. This is often overlooked in the news media, which is focused on the current fight against the extractive industries, be they oil, mining or logging, interrupting the purity of the forest, or the purity of indigenous cultures.
That’s why I share Don Lizardo’s story here, more or less the way he told me that night in April. He’s already lived through many oppressors, which has shaped social relations both in the community and beyond it. He recounted his past with sadness, a kind of pride for having overcome it, and humor — qualities that go beyond the “victim” or “warrior” tropes.
Acknowledging this dynamic past, and complicating the narrative brings us closer to really understanding these communities, where their current fight really comes from and what they are fighting for.
Banner image: Don Lizardo sits in his living room, which he built himself with nearby materials in the jungle, in the Kichwa community of Llanchama in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. Image by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.