(In April of 1994 I went on a trip to the Huaorani in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Here are some of my reactions to this trip.)
Although we were a ways into the jungle, this area along the Napo River is heavily colonized. We had to walk an hour or two before we got to anything resembling virgin forest. The Huaorani community we visited (Kakataro) is only a kilometer or so within the demarcation line of Huaorani territory. It is a new community--it has only been there a couple years and was put there to protect the demarcation line. Apparently the Huaorani have constructed a belt of communities along the demarcation line to protect their territory from colonists and other intruders.
I was surprised at the similarities between this community and lowland Quichua communities which I have visited. Food, houses, medicinal plants, etc. were all similar. There is even some intermarriage between the Huaorani and Quichuas. My experience was very limited so I don't know how universally applicable these observations are. Perhaps this was a more "acculturated" community. Everyone wore western clothes (women in dresses and men in shorts), there was a radio, rifles for hunting, etc. Currently there isn't a radio station that broadcasts in the Huaorani language, but apparently there is talk of starting one up. I don't know any details about this project, though.
I was also struck by some of the contrasts, especially with some of the highland Quichua communities I have visited. Unlike in the highlands, these people have never been conquered or colonized. They struck me as proud and happy. In the highlands, there are many people who are embarrassed to admit that they speak Quichua; this was definitely not the case here. I think most everybody is functionally bi-lingual, but the only time I ever heard any Spanish is when someone said something directly to me. Because I don't speak any Huaorani, I missed a lot of things--maybe most everything in terms of what they are thinking and what their political attitudes are.
Ecuador is holding Congressional elections May 1, and I saw 2 election posters in the community--one for Lista 5 (Democracia Popular, a center- left party) and one for Lista 6 (Partido Social Cristiano, right-wing). That may not mean anything, though. Maxus has build the community a school (although they don't have a teacher yet), and gave everyone green "Maxus- Huaorani Amigos" t-shirts. Make of it what you will. I think from the Huaorani point-of-view, they don't get any economic help from the Ecuadorian government, NGOs, religious or international solidarity organizations. So I think they take help from where they can get it, even though Maxus' motivation could hardly be termed altruistic.
Someone asked me before I left about a new Huaorani organization. I asked my guide Juan about it, and he said that there was only ONHAE (Organizacion de la Nacionalidad Huaorani de la Amazonia Ecuatoriana). Yesterday I picked up the latest CONFENIAE newsletter (Voz de la CONFENIAE, Febrero- Marzo 1994) and it includes an interesting editorial "Maxus compra conciencias a Huaoranis." The editorial mentions "a new political-organizational front: the Consejo Bille Huaorani Durani Baie, which rejects ONHAE's line" and "accuses Maxus of 'buying the consciousness' of Huaorani leaders and that ONHAE no longer represents the interests of the Huao people but rather the interests of petroleum companies." I think there are deep cracks within the Huaorani people over this issue of oil. The same thing is happening within Quichua communities in Block 10 in the neighboring province of Pastaza.
I was very well-fed in the community. I simply can't eat 5 meals a day and drink quart-sized bowls of yuca chicha. The people seemed healthy, but again my experience was much too limited to tell if this matches Marshall Salhins' comments on original affluent societies. When we left, though, people pounced on the food we left behind. I don't know if it was because they were hungry, because it was products which they can't make in the community (butter, ketchup, soup bases, etc.), or if it was just the novelty of having something different. I'm not sure, though, that some of the shit-for-food that we brought in would really improve their diet. They seemed to live mostly off of yuca which they grow and meat (birds, small rodents, monkeys, wild boar) which they hunt. There were few domesticated animals in the community (a couple dogs and chickens) and no large animals. My guide said that large animals (cows, horses, etc.) would pass diseases too readily among the barefoot kids.
I went on this trip as a tourist, but my real reason was "anthropological curiosity" (even though I am a historian). Many native organizations would say that neither reason is good enough for such a trip. I had deep reservations (that I think anyone who has read Joe Kane's article or Randy Smith's book would share) about making this trip. I'm glad I made the trip and I don't think it was as disruptive or destructive as it might have been, largely because of having a Huaorani guide, because I went alone rather than in a large group, and (according to my guide) the people liked me. But I come away from this experience believing more deeply that ethno- tourism is not something to be encouraged. When we arrived in the community, there was a "pirate" guide from Tena (Patricio) there with 2 tourists. They said that he had made 3 such unauthorized trips in the last 2 months into the Shiripuno National Park. If you make such a trip to the Huaorani, be sure that your guide has authorization--he will have a letter stating this. I think going with someone like Patricio is not only morally wrong but potentially very dangerous.
I think ethno-tourism should be run by the communities themselves or by native organizations. I paid my guide $200 for what turned out to be a very short trip, and other than the $20 park entrance fee (which I'm not sure that he paid) very little goes to the community. At least a guide could bring in medicine or some such help. Seen in a broader context, it makes sense why they turn to Maxus for help. It boils down to very simple survival strategies. So the guide (who, in this case, although he is Huaorani is also "acculturated" and spends little time in the community) makes a lot of money and the community is left with nothing. This can create jealousy and all sorts of social problems.
One thing that seems universally true in small rural communities in Latin America is that the kids (and probably the grownups too) are incredibly curious as to what these gringos carry in these huge bags of theirs. When I opened up my backpack all the kids gathered around to stare (though I might say, unlike Kane relates in his article, no one ever took anything). I always travel with a frisbee (it is one of my most useful travel accessories) and the kids wondered what it was so I took them outside to toss it around. People always ask me to leave my frisbee with them, but I never have. My guide suggested that I leave it with the community. Somewhat begrudgingly, I did. A bright purple frisbee disk looks oddly out of place in a Huaorani community situated in the middle of the lush green rainforest on a high plateau at the junction of two rivers. In college our Ultimate Frisbee club used to take out an ad in the college Yearbook that said "World Peace Through Frisbee." Maybe somehow my bright purple frisbee disk will help bring that about.