- The long life and sudden 2020 death of Waorani elder Nenkihui Bay encapsulates his community’s struggles against territorial loss, environmental degradation, oil drilling expansion, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Leaders like him are called “Pikenanis” and are local figures of authority, territorial guardians against external threats, and teachers of traditional knowledge related to environment, cultural laws, and livelihoods.
- Increasingly impacted by oil drilling, Bay helped his community navigate the changes and struggle for their rights.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
A longer Spanish version of this essay appeared in the Journal of Latin American Geography.
Indigenous elders play a key role in the protection of their culture and livelihoods. A death of an elder threatens global conservation efforts since Indigenous livelihoods and knowledge represent key elements to understand and fight environmental degradation.
This is the story of Nenkihui Bay, a Waorani (or Huaorani) traditional leader and elder, a Pikenani (in Wao Tededo language), who died in May 2020 in the Waorani territory. In Waorani culture, Pikenanis are local figures of authority, territorial guardians against external threats, and teachers of traditional knowledge related to environment, cultural laws, and livelihoods.
The Upper Amazon has important ecological functions for global ecosystems and the atmosphere. The Waorani have gained significant international attention in recent years for their environmental resistance to oil drilling and Indigenous marginalization in the region. Recently Time magazine recognized 34-year-old Waorani activist Nemonte Nenquimo as one of the 100 most influential people of 2020, for her leadership in a landmark ruling protecting the Waorani’s ancestral territory in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The Waorani are Ecuador’s most recently contacted Indigenous group. Starting in the late 1950s, missionaries and oil exploration workers contacted the Waorani in the rainforest, leading to decades of oil exploitation, territorial displacement, and cultural colonization (Cabodevilla, 2010; Rival, 2015). Today, some 2,000 Waorani remain in their Amazon territory in northeastern Ecuador, including some Waorani tribes that continue living in voluntary isolation in the Zona Intangible.
While large parts of Waorani territory are technically legally protected either as Indigenous territory or as the Yasuni National Park, state-sanctioned oil drilling continues to expand. This expansion of the oil frontier in the region, together with illegal logging and settler encroachment, inter-ethnic disputes, and now COVID-19, present existential threats to the Waorani livelihood (Lessmann et al., 2016; Lu et al., 2016; Narvaez Collaguazo & Trujillo Montalvo, 2020; Rivas Toledo, 2020; Silveira et al., 2017; Vallejo & Alvarez, 2020).
The life and death of Nenkihui Bay retells ongoing stories of Waorani struggles from a local perspective against territory loss, environmental degradation, oil expansion, and the COVID-19 pandemic. These stories have been collected with Nenkihui Bay’s grandson Juan Bay, translated from Wao Tededo and Spanish, to remember Nenkihui’s life and to nurture collective memory of remarkable leaders and individuals, of whom we lost so many in 2020.
A Pikenani’s wisdom and early life
With the death of a Pikenani, the Waorani lose an important carrier of traditional knowledge for the defense and conservation of their territory. Oral histories preserve the legends and stories of their ancestors and the rainforest, frequently involving spiritual shapeshifters between animal and human forms.
To avoid getting lost in the rainforest, Waorani learn the paths of the elders who have already walked them. They learn to break branches on their way to know how to return; how to make backpacks out of leaves to carry items collected throughout the forest; how to chop palms for edible chonta worms to grow; and how to prepare poisonous hunting darts with curare.
The Pikenanis teach younger generations how to craft four-meter-long blowguns, cultivate fields, fish, hunt, build houses, weave, heal, climb trees, sing, and live by the norms of Waorani society. The elders also recount their long hunting walks from which Waorani routinely return laden with peccaries of up to 40 kilograms on their shoulders.
Nenkihui Bay was an excellent hunter who could easily kill a monkey or peccary using his traditional four-meter spear or blowgun. Even a knee injury did not slow his hunting speed or precision.
When Nenkihui was young, he cofounded his home community of Bataboro, which means “big tree” in Wao Tededo. The community is located within the Waorani Indigenous territory and Oil Block 66, operated by Petrobell S.A. The community is at the end of a long road, derogatorily known as Auca, which was built deep into the Yasuni for oil drilling. Auca means ‘savage’ in the Kichwa language.
Today, the Waorani routinely describe the location of their home by the oil drilling block number and the company that owns the rainforest around their village. While the Pikenani traditionally decided who enters the territory, today oil companies largely control the territory and have erected checkpoints along the road, effectively restricting mobility into the Waorani communities within an oil block.
Like many Waorani, Nenkihui —which translates as “Son of the Sun”— also carried a Western name and became widely known as Carlitos Bay. Adopting Western names for the formal state registry is one of the many exercises of symbolic violence by cowodes (‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ in Wao Tededo) that make state discipline visible, and control Indigenous cultures that lie outside the state’s reach. Even after Nenkihui adopted a Western name though, he did not collect the monthly human development payments that the Ecuadorian government usually gives to people living in extreme poverty.
Local oil resistance in Bataboro
Oil exploitation in Bataboro began in the early 2000s, and large quantities of oil have since been extracted through a vast network of pipelines. Yet, despite the massive growth of drilling infrastructure around them, in 2021 Bataboro still has difficult access to basic services, including water, education, and healthcare. In fact, Bataboro residents still bring water in on a motorcycle, or they need to ask one of the oil company trucks to help them transport water from the Cachiyacu River five kilometers away.
Nenkihui left this world believing that oil is the worst fate for his people due to the cultural changes it has produced, and the increasing damage to the environment and Waorani health and livelihoods. Despite the expansion of oil drilling and the resulting influx of workers in the region, the government has not fulfilled its promises to provide communities with income opportunities.
In fact, the income of most Waorani in Bataboro remains far below the minimum wage, making it nearly impossible for most to travel to the city for medical treatment. Just the bus ticket from Bataboro to the closest hospital in the provincial capital of Puerto Francisco de Orellana (known as El Coca) costs about $3—far out of reach for many locals.
In the face of these injustices, resistance was a continuous thread throughout Nenkihui’s life. Always looking for a better life for his community and demanding respect from the state and from the oil companies in Waorani territory, he was regarded as a bien parado (‘strong and courageous’) warrior, as his grandson Juan Bay describes.
Paradoxically, by necessity, for years Nenkihui worked for the oil industry in untrained, low-paid, and short-term positions to supplement his family’s traditional subsistence livelihood. All the while, he became notorious for opposing the oil companies in Waorani territory. And as a Pikenani, he purposefully used his local influence and cultural weight among the Waorani to speak up and represent his people against the local oil company.
In 2011, Ecuador’s new Hydrocarbon Law protected oil companies further against liability in local communities, including those requiring welfare provision and labor compensation for workers. The state’s interventions that followed were slow and clumsy, and local Waorani from Bataboro and neighboring Tiwino spoke up against the changes. They did so in open acts of resistance that they saw as being in line with Waorani culture.
Confrontations and injustices have continued for years. In 2015, Nenkihui Bay was arrested and imprisoned as one of their most outspoken local defenders, after confronting local management and impeding local operations. He persistently demanded more—and better—pay, and, most importantly, more stable, long-term employment from the oil company that was working nearby, yet brought relatively little benefit to the Waorani.
Related reading: Ecuador court orders end to gas flaring by oil industry in Amazon
Nenkihui’s illness and death during the pandemic
COVID-19 arrived in Bataboro by May 2020. With the devastation wrought on his community by polio and flu etched into his memory, Nenkihui insisted that his people move to a small farmstead he had built deep in the rainforest, about eight hours downstream. He thought that retreating to the farm was the only way to be safe from COVID-19.
Before being able to head there, however, Nenkihui fell ill with respiratory problems in Bataboro around May 10, 2020. He was sick and fragile for five days. His wife, Ube (meaning “Boa” in Wao Tededo), and grandson Juan helped him reach their designated health center in Tiwino, a small subdistrict medical service unit further to the north, but still within Oil Block 66. The center has a few very committed professionals who cover the medical needs of about 15 Waorani communities with extremely limited resources. Hours passed slowly for the three on their journey while Nenkihui’s condition worsened.
He arrived at Tiwino health center around five p.m. on May 17, 2020. Around 8 p.m. that night, Nenkihui asked for a glass of water. After a sip, he struggled to hug his wife, and fell unconscious. Doctors tried to help, but their lack of equipment forced them to send him and his family by ambulance to the provincial hospital. This meant another race against the clock to the provincial capital known as El Coca, three hours north of Bataboro.
It was too late. Nenkihui Bay died on the road to El Coca, at the Shiripuno Bridge, just miles from Bataboro—a place where he had spent so many Sundays at the local market, buying fishing hooks and flashlights, selling bananas, and buying treats and extra food there for his grandchildren, whom he had recently started looking after every day.
A jaguar returns to the jungle
Everything is quiet now, but Juan likes to think that Nenkihui did not die. For the Waorani, cultural histories of ancestors are tied to legends of the rainforest, sometimes envisioning spiritual shapeshifting between animal and human forms (Álvarez, 2010). Upon death, Juan says, a Waorani warrior is transformed into a jaguar who guards the jungle and interacts with those who died in a similar way. Recently, Ube, Nenkihui’s widow, told Juan that when she goes to her chakra (traditional vegetable plot) to collect cassava and plantain, she hears the rustling of a jaguar. She believes it is Nenkihui, there to protect his family.
In the shape of a jaguar, Nenkihui is reunited with his ancestors and fellow warriors. The quick and lethal claws of the jaguar have replaced his long spear. His once injured knee is stronger than ever. From upstream to downstream of the Napo and Curaray Rivers, he now patrols the full legendary Waorani territory. This time, though, Nenkihui finds neither oil spills nor oil platforms on his way. From a small hill he sees the vast and green Amazonia more pristine than ever. Parrots, spider monkeys, and tapirs accompany him. Though the world has lost a warrior and activist, the jungle has reclaimed a great defender.
And he has left many traces in his community. Just weeks before Nenkihui felt ill, he, Juan Bay, and Juan’s son Emeñe built a traditional Waorani house, as a tribute to his culture and leaving a lasting reminder among his people.
During the house construction, Nenkihui sang a song that captures his dedication to family and culture (lyrics in Wao Tededo):
Nano kedike ebano kebi anketee ebano kebi ankentee
Wakee Gobi anketee waakee gobi anketee
Gobi anketee ebano kebi wokentee
Kino kebi wonketee ebano kebi wokente
Ante wedonte kinobaikebi wedonte kinobai kebi
Wokente kebi wokente menanii amii ankete
Menani kebi wokentee ogentee gobi wokente
Ogengoa kebi wonkentee kigano kedamainga
Ante wenpogente kigano keka wenpogente
Nani kegainke menpoidi naii kegainke memeide
Nani kedimaite kete kedimante anooba gooba
Kebite anooba gooba kebite nenoga
Nenoga kebite kinobai keka nenogate
Ebano kebi wonkentee meméidi nano kegainte
Tadomenaipoga ongonte menpoidi nani wodogate
Nani kegainke bitowenpokooide kegamke
Anoboemo kekante anobainte kekante
Daempogaka inigate ebano kebo wonkente
I want to say how you made it
I want to say you will do great
How did you make the house look good?
I want to know how you made it
I am surprised because you are like a backpacker bird
One of those who does the same as his ancestors
Leveling the hunguragua leaves well and evenly knitting them up
Keep knitting so we keep knitting like our ancestors, who are buried underground
Work with the strength and spirit of our ancestors and bear the same name of Jaguar warrior.
While reflecting on the construction of this house, Juan commented that “losing a Pikenani is like losing half the territory — because the youth lose their traditions.”
The destruction continues
Oil drilling in the Amazon continues apace. Not only with bulldozers and guns, but also acculturation, racism, alienation, and silence. On the day Nenkihui died in May 2020, new reports came in of nearby invasions of illegal loggers in Waorani territory. Since then, another two new oil spills have contaminated the region further, poisoning the water and animals of the Waorani. Again, the Waorani protest for Indigenous self-determination and creation of spaces for cultural preservation from one generation to the next.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Journal of Latin American Geography.
About the authors:
Danilo Borja is a PhD researcher in Geography at the University of Calgary. He studies the politics of conservation, resource extraction and indigenous rights in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He is especially interested in the power dynamics of benefit-sharing schemes, territorial disputes, and participation. His doctoral research is supported in part by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and The Killam Trusts.
Juan Bay is Huaorani leader born and raised in Bataboro, Waorani community located in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He has held community leadership roles for years, such as Community Director of Education, and has been an active environmentalist on the frontlines of his community’s struggles for most of his life.
Conny Davidsen is an Associate Professor of Environmental Governance at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on the political process and governance behind changing environmental policies, often focusing on indigenous interests and territorial conflict as in the Upper Amazon.
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