Leading Bameno

My name is Penti Baiwa and I am Huaorani from the community of Bameno in the Ecuadoran Amazon. I have always lived in the forest in the communities and have seen what is happening to us. I wanted to do something to help my people.

I know how we live as Huaorani and the big problems we are facing. There are problems with the oil companies. No one wanted to help our people in the communities so I decided to speak up and help confront the company. Our community is very far from the company and we live like the Huaorani always have and we fear that the company keeps on getting closer. In other Huaorani communities some of the leaders work with the companies and only think about themselves. But when they work like this, it is not a benefit to the whole community. The community gets nothing. I say the community itself is getting tricked.

The companies have come to many communities but there don’t seem to be many benefits. The company says they are being careful of the land, but that is only on one side. I see the contamination and the damage they do to the land. Sometimes they need to discharge their dirty water and they do it right into our rivers. No one controls them to tell people that they are doing these bad things. Their stations and camps always look very clean but I see the pipes that leave from these places and then empty in the rivers or the land itself, hidden underground. I have seen for myself the pools of crude that is so black and sometimes the animals try to drink this water because they think it’s a salt lick. In February and March when the animals go to these places for nutrients, they don’t know the danger and I see them dead, right there. Capybaras, macaws, agoutis, and guans. These I have all seen dead.

Some of the water that reaches us by the rivers is dirty, it comes from upriver where there are bridges and roads and the oil pipes pass over the rivers. Sometimes, you can tell it’s dirty because when the rivers go up and down you can see all the dead plants along the banks. Sometimes, people get sick. Our children swim in the water, swallow some water, and then get sick. In the dry season there is little water to drink and sometimes we have to take the water right from the big rivers. Who is going to control that? In our community we have been thinking of ways to control what is thrown into the water. With the pipes right there over the river, if it breaks everything will die. All those different animals depend on it and, of course, so do we. This is one of our biggest fears.

Becoming a Leader

First, I studied in Tonampare in the missionary school. Then I went far downriver to visit my relatives to live with them back in the forest. I saw that some outsiders were taking advantage of these people and I decided that because I spoke Spanish I could help them organize to confront these people and also to protect this remote area from the oil companies.

Not too long ago, my relatives, even my father and mother, used to travel like nomads different times of the year to different places and houses depending on seasonal fruit and weather. Some months it was better for hunting and others for gathering wild palm fruits. This is how we used to live. A few still live like that. As we got contact with the outside, the families decided to form a community in one place. We called it Bameno. We thought it was good to have a school so that our children could learn to speak some Spanish to help them defend our territory in the future.

I always want to feel Huaorani and have my family raised in that way. It’s my pride to work for my people and help. I always try to give a good example to others. I show people and even my own family how proud I am to be Huaorani. I keep to the traditions and always speak my language. This is how I want to live. I still use blowguns and spears to hunt like we always have done.

I felt I had to work to help. I got involved in our Huaorani organization called ONHAE from its beginning. This is where I learned about what it was like to live in the city. I saw all the problems we faced and did not like living in the city. I missed my family and the traditions back in the community. When I was in the city, there was no one in my community to really help them understand and confront the outsiders who would come periodically. I wanted to be there in the community to help out more. I was the only person from my community who really spoke Spanish. We live far away from the other communities and it’s hard for us to move around. I need to be working there trying to get some resources for our families and staying in contact with the other communities and the events that take place in our territory. In emergencies who could organize the help that was needed? I knew I could help mobilize help and support for my community. Being far away from all the other communities, we needed some way to move around and know what was going on.

I was recently meeting with other Huaorani leaders and ONHAE. I want to keep working with them for my people but the projects I want to do are in my own community. We want to set an example that can help all the Huaorani and ONHAE. I think that if we work well, we can bring direct benefits to the organization. We need to work together, not for one’s own interest, but for the benefits of everyone.

We have been working on developing a small tourism cabana. We have gotten some support from the Ibis Project but the work is not complete. It is still very costly for me to move around to help organize. We lack funds to move around. This travel is critical to understand our area and work to protect it as park guards. We have such a big area and this is what we want to do. We want to control and manage our territory. We need be able to find ways to patrol what is going on, the loggers, the companies, the outside tour guides. We have wanted to manage where we can hunt and other areas that we want to reserve for tourists where no one hunts. We have a huge land near our community so we can do this and protect the animals. This is what we are trying to do.

I have been working to find support for these ideas and programs that we want to do. People in my community, the families, they do not want the oil companies to come close. That is why we need to find another way to help the families provide for their children. School supplies, medicine, and money for emergencies are always not enough. We like to have tourists come and we run our own tours. We have received training and some basic equipment to get started, but need more. It is hard because we also need money for outboard motors and gasoline so that we can move around, organize, and patrol. It’s been very difficult for me to be a good leader without the resources to move around.

Penti Baiwa is a respected community leader and president of Bameno. Scott Braman is a documentary filmmaker who has known Penti for almost four years and has worked with Bameno to help initiate a tourism project.

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