QUITO, Ecuador—Wearing a traditional headdress and a white vest woven from the bark of an Amazonian tree, Manari Ushigua held a megaphone to his mouth to denounce Ecuador’s latest oil deal: A multi-million dollar contract that will allow oil drilling on his tribe’s territory for the first time in four decades.
“We don’t want oil drilling in our lands,” said Ushigua, one of the most well-known leaders of Ecuador’s tiny Zapara tribe. “Our culture is at risk of disappearing; so is our language and our way of relating to the rainforest.”
For several years Ecuador has been trying to increase oil production by inviting foreign companies to drill in the Sur Oriente, a largely untouched area of the Amazon rainforest that’s about the size of Massachusetts and considered one of the most biodiverse places on earth.
On Jan. 25, the government signed one of the first concessions in this remote area: A four year deal that allows Chinese consortium Andes Petroleum to operate on two parcels of the jungle covering 45% of the Zapara's ancestral lands.
The tribe, whose population numbers between 350 and 500, has vowed to take the case to international court because they fear that drilling will pollute the jungle and erode what’s left of their traditional way of life. They are the latest group threatened by Ecuador's expanding oil frontier.
“If they put an oil well in our land, it would be like they are destroying our laboratory, our knowledge,” Ushigua, the president of the Zapara Nation, told me after his protest in Quito.
“We want development but we want to have it our own way,” adds his sister, Gloria, as she prepared for a conference call with U.S. organizations that are helping the tribe to get more international visibility.
The Zapara live far removed from Quito, along a 65-mile long tract of jungle that straddles several narrow waterways in the northwestern corner of the Amazon. There they subsist in small villages that are inaccessible by road.
Anthropologists who have studied the group say that their culture is largely one of self-subsistence, with most community members growing their own crops and hunting in the forest for monkeys, tapirs, wild pigs and fat worms that reproduce in tree trunks.
Tribal leaders fear that oil drilling could pollute rivers and scare away local game, forcing the Zapara to migrate to cities, or to work for money at home, to import food.
Manari Ushigua says the discovery of oil wells would probably lead to pipelines, roads and the encroachment of western civilization, luring young Zapara away from their traditions.
“Go to Coca [an oil town in northern Ecuador] and you will see how Indians live there,” he told me. “It’s a big party all the time; there are empty crates of beer everywhere. There is prostitution and people no longer know how to hunt and fish.”
The Ecuadorean government is pitching a different story.
Rafael Poveda, Ecuador’s minister for strategic sectors, promises that oil projects on Zapara land will be good for indigenous people because revenues will be used to finance local schools, roads and hospitals. Drilling doesn’t threaten indigenous cultures as long as oil companies are forced to comply with strict environmental rules, the government insists.
After signing the Andes Petroleum deal in January, Poveda assured investors that this year, Ecuador will launch a new round of oil concessions in the country’s southeast.
"Exploring the southeast is part of our responsibility with future generations," Poveda said.
For several decades oil has been Ecuador's main export. During President Rafael Correa's administration, which began in 2007, oil revenues have helped to boost public spending from 21% of GDP to an impressive 44% in 2013. The socialist president says his administration has directed oil money towards infrastructure projects and social development schemes that have helped reduce the national poverty rate by 15%.
Correa also tried to sustain high levels of public investment by committing most of Ecuador’s oil exports to China in exchange for $18 billion in loans over the past seven years. But now, as the global price for oil falls to its lowest level since the late 90s, Ecuador’s finances are becoming increasingly shaky.
The government says it's trying to boost production in the Sur Oriente to ensure revenue in years to come. But with low prices and high exploration costs in the remote area, the strategy has some experts scratching their heads.
“It’s a flawed strategy,” said Carlos Larrea, an economist at the Andean University of Quito. “We have to recognize that oil prices are volatile, and look for alternative ways to grow.”
The Zapara, meanwhile, say the central government’s financial issues are not their problem.
Ushigua says his tribe is already considering taking their case before the Inter American Court of Human Rights, an international tribunal that could order Ecuador to stop drilling on the Zapara’s lands.
Carlos Mazabanda, a geographer who works with the Zapara, said that the tribe's case is based on a recent court sentence that obliges the government of Ecuador to hold consultations with indigenous people before awarding oil contracts in their territory. The government, he insists, did not do that in good faith in the case of the Zapara and neighboring tribes.
Instead, Mazabanda says the government consulted only 7% of the Sur-Oriente’s 140,000 adult inhabitants before they started to auction off that chunk of the Amazon.
“We have qualitative and quantitative proof showing that this consultation did not meet international standards,” Mazabanda said.
The Zapara, although small in number, have already proven to be internationally savvy. Fifteen years ago the tribe worked with an Ecuadorean linguist to get its culture and language [spoken by just a few elders] into the UNESCO World Heritage List. That award generated awareness about the tribe in a country where few people knew that they even existed.
Zapara leaders then started to travel around the world to build alliances with environmental groups, and indigenous people’s organizations. Recently the tribe also set up a natural reserve within their land that could bolster their case against oil drilling.
“We will fight oil until our last breath,” Ushigua told me. “Our spirit needs a healthy environment.”
When the Zapara sleep, Ushigua explained, their spirits leave their bodies and travel the forest to look for answers to their problems.
“In a polluted environment there are no answers,” Ushiguia said. “But in the jungle you can find inner peace. And the answer to many things.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.