Environmental Justice Case Study: Ecuador’s Huaorani Indians Fight Against Maxus Energy Corporation’s Plans to Extract Oil on Their Traditional Territory

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The Problem

The Dallas based Maxus Energy Corporation has been engaged in a dispute with the Huaorani Indians, whose traditional territory lies deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon (the "Oriente") for many years. The problem began when the Ecuadorian Government granted Maxus Energy Corporation a concession to explore for oil on native lands in 1992. The Huaorani feel that thier territory has been "given away" by the Ecuadorian Government in the name of national interests to a company that expresses no respect for the Huaorani's culture, history, people and more importantly their land. Like many isolated indigenous cultures, the Huaorani contend that their livelyhood and existence depends upon the health of their forest and waters. Their subsistence lifestyle and spiritual beliefs are intricately woven together. To tug on one thread, would mean the unraveling of their culture and identity as a people.

Maxus has stated that their presence will impact the rainforests and the Huaorani minimally and that their operations are environmentally safe. The reports from the Oriente suggest otherwise. Maxus has deforested thousands of acres of pristine rainforests, polluted hundreds of rivers and has even intimidated communities or people that oppose their presence. Probably out of good will or as standard operating procedure, Maxus has developed their own environmental impact reports but refuses to release them. Even deadly violence is not uncommon for these communities. Maxus has been implicated in the violent death of a Huaorani tribesman.

The government of Ecuador has supported Maxus’ operations at every turn despite Huaorani claims to their territory, pleas for basic human rights and pressures from environmental organizations and human rights groups. The government has even supported Maxus claims to the land by providing military protection speculated to be trained by the United States Army. It is no surprise that Ecuador supports Maxus because it depends on its oil resources for half of its income. None of these monies will land in Huaorani hands of course, but money is not what the Huaorani seek. They only desire their land to be healthy and undisturbed. Unfortunately, it appears that the inevitable outcome will be the total destruction of a people, their culture, their history and their home, all for an estimated amount of oil that will power the United States for 13 days.

The American government is also to blame. Based on the argument that oil operations contribute to national security, the United States has funneled a large amount of money into Ecuador. With embassy support and military support, World Bank and other development loans, intelligence operations, research grants and USAID funds that promise assistance from influential non-profit organizations, the fate of the Huaorani and of the Oriente appears to be in the hands of the ordinary tax-paying American citizen.

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The Ecuadorian Amazon, or Oriente, is home to thousands of indigenous peoples that depend solely on its tens of thousands of plant species, insects and animals for their survival. The Huaorani (or "The People") are just one of many indigenous cultures that are struggling for their survival in the face of rapid, unregulated oil exploration and development. They are a group of semi-nomadic hunters with a population of approximately 1,200 that reside in the Oriente. Huaorani existence, however, is threatened by the continual destruction of their land and waters, disease and the colonization by an estimated 250,000 immigrants who have followed the oil roads into the Oriente.

The first major oil discovery in the Oriente came in 1967 when Texaco, without permission from any indigenous nations, began to drill for oil on their land. Texaco operated in the region, virtually unregulated for seventeen years, and in that time it is estimated that approximately 16.8 million gallons of raw crude spilled into the Oriente’s waterways. In addition to the raw crude, it has also been estimated that thousands of gallons of oil ruptured from Texico's pipeline and flowed directly into the watershed. Also, millions of gallons of untreated toxic waste are were dumped into the surrounding rivers. Abandoned wells and waste pits that contain heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, cyanide, lead and mercury along with many other toxic wastes remain to this day and regularly overflow into the adjacent rivers with heavy rains. Texaco still claims the wells have been cleaned up.

In addition to the destruction of the environment, Texaco has severely impacted the social and cultural components of indigenous groups of the Oriente. Foreign diseases, malnutrition, destruction of cultural traditions and the forcing of a highly competitive market economy into their culture have pushed many indigenous groups to near collapse. At least one indigenous group, the Tetetes, has been completely destroyed. The Cofan group has also suffered significantly. Their population has been reduced from 15,000 to about 300 with their culture experiencing rapid acculturation, disorganization and near extinction. The fate of uncontacted groups remains to be seen.

The building of "oil roads" have also exacerbated the problem for the Huaorani and other indigenous groups. Maxus’ oil road that was cut through Yasuni National Park (a United Nations recognized World Biosphere Reserve) and into Huaorani territory promises much of the same destructive processes for the Huaorani as it has for other indigenous groups. The road has and will continue to attract loggers, farmers, ranchers and land speculators who deforest the land and attempt to eke out a living on the typically poor soils of the Amazon rainforest. The result will be a continual deforestation of Huaorani lands. Ecuador’s government, of course, defends and encourages such practices as an attempt to alleviate pressures on land elsewhere in the country.

Unlike Texaco's disregard for indigenous cultures, Maxus appears to be waging a public relations battle on all fronts: international, national and local. Maxus has realized that support from the indigenous groups is vital to its successful operation. It is not, however, what it appears to be. They hope to garner support through coercive measures such as providing health care, education, medical care and health clinics. Bribery in the form of personal gifts for community leaders, employing indigenous men and providing funds for political organizations is also common. Human rights groups have denounced the Ecuadorian government for relinquishing traditional government responsibilities to Maxus. This dangerous precedent has divided the Huaorani people thus distancing them from other human rights groups, indigenous groups and environmental organizations. Scientists working for Maxus have told the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) that Maxus implicitly demanded them to prevent Huaorani from building coalitions with other indigenous groups. This has further isolated the Huaorani, thus leaving Maxus in complete control of their fate.

Other oil companies such as Oryx Energy and ARCO continue to create problems for the Huaorani. They both are developing oil fields on or very near Huaorani territory with effects on the environment and the people.

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Key Actors

The Huaorani Indians are a group of semi-nomadic people that live in and depend on the Amazon Rainforest at the base of the Andes Mountain range. They were first contacted by the "civilized" world in the mid-1950s. They remain semi-acculturated in that in order to survive they have extracted and used certain aspects of the currency-based "modern" culture that has been forced upon them. It has been speculated that a few Huaorani settlements remain uncontacted.

Maxus Energy Corporation is based out of Dallas, Texas and is currently involved in extracting raw crude inside and adjacent to Huaorani territory.

The government of Ecuador continues to allow foreign oil companies to exploit the oil resources beneath Amazon Rainforest. It also continues to subvert efforts made by indigenous nations to prevent oil exploration on their traditional territories.

The United States Government, through bureaucratic channels, has indirectly and directly affected the environmental and human rights violations occurring in the Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador.

The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) is a non-profit organization based out of San Francisco, California. They have been one of the leading supporters and advocates of the Huaorani in their struggle against the Maxus Energy Corporation.

Texaco, Incorporated still remains a key player in this area because of their relatively unregulated drilling and extracting of raw crude from the Amazon Rainforest for nearly 20 years. Wastes that were dumped into the rivers and oil spills that flowed into the forest and into the watershed have created extensive damage to the living and non-living systems of the rainforest.

Oryx Energy is a Los Angeles, California based company that is currently involved in extracting oil from Huaorani territory.

ARCO is a Dallas, Texas based company that is currently involved in extracting oil from Huaorani territory.

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Due to the difficulty of assessing demographic data of dispersed clans of semi-nomadic groups that may or may not have been contacted by the "civilized" world, the population and income numbers are not official and may vary.


It has been reported in the literature that the Huaorani number around 1,200, dispersed throughout the Oriente. Villages may move because of environmental conditions or from threats from other groups of indigenous peoples.

The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (SCLDF) has reported that the influx of colonists has more than tripled the local population of the Northern Oriente from 74,000 to about 260,000. The government has also reported that the Oriente was growing at twice the rate compared to the rest of the country.


Traditionally, the Huaorani culture does not include the use of money as a means of exchange. It is typically a communal type of living where everything that is acquired is shared with the entire community.

Some Huaorani, however, do earn wages with the oil companies or other places on occasion. The pay is poor and the income is used only for acquiring essentials such as gas, sugar, and ammunition for the community. In this way they have been somewhat acculturated to a market economy.

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The Huaorani have internationalized their conflict and they continue to do so. The Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visited the Oriente in 1994. Unfortunately, they only spent two days in the Oriente but did not even spend any time in Huaorani territory. Opportunities like this must not be lost. Their effort to involve human rights groups, non-profit groups and environmental groups in Ecuador and internationally continue.

The Huaorani have involved local environmental groups. The Quito based group Acción Ecológica has conducted workshops with the Huaorani identifying their legal rights and oil development on their lands and continues to advise them.

On behalf of 30,000 residents of the Oriente, an American lawyer has filed a $1.5 billion class-action suit against Texaco for damages on their environment and their health. The suit was filed in the United States because Texaco is an American company. The Ecuadorian government was unable to block the suit from being heard in the United States.

On behalf of all indigenous nations of the Oriente, activist groups have called for boycotts against Texaco.

The Huaorani must model their strategies similar to the successful strategies employed thus far by the Quichua nation of the Oriente. The Quichua have gotten the oil company ARCO to come to the negotiating table by mounting campaigns to increase public pressure in Ecuador and in the United States. Direct confrontations at well sites, and help from non-profit groups such as the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Oxfam America was also instrumental in getting them to the table. All of these actions has resulted in costly delays for ARCO and has convinced them that working with the Quichua rather than against the Quichua would be wiser and cheaper. Aided by the Quichua, a group of Huaorani stormed a Maxus facility and forced them to shut down. They did not allow the facility to come back on line until the company promised to sit down and talk. Unfortunately, during the talks Maxus responded with the usual empty gestures.

Local indigenous nations have been assisting the Huaorani in their fight. The Cofan, once their enemy, has developed a successful tourism economy in their community and is now in talks with the Huaorani in order to help them develop a similar program. This will provide the Huaorani with a cash alternative to the oil companies. With the Cofans’ help, the Huaorani have formed their own tourism commission.

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The Huaorani have had a long uphill battle and I feel it will continue long into the future. One of the keys may be to involve the younger generation to a greater extent. They appear to be more acculturated to the "civilized" lifestyle of the western white man than the older more traditional generations. This is probably a result of oil-funded schools and missionaries that have been established in and around Huaorani territory.

Up to this point the Huaorani have employed many effective strategies but are continually faced with defeat. Because they are such a small disenfranchised group, they must continue to draw on several groups that are savvy in the political and government realms at the national and more importantly the international level. Pinpointing strategies at the United States government may be key since the Ecuadorian government seems to be relying on American corporations, institutions and aid to prop up their country despite atrocious human rights violations.

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Because the Huaorani are such a small group with virtually no political or economic power, they must use conflict to their advantage by drawing on a wide range of people and organizations, national and international. With a broad base of support they will be able to draw on others expertise and money to educate citizens of Ecuador and the international community about their struggle and to clarify the issues being fought over. Another item that is crucial to a successful anti-oil campaign is utilizing the mass media in order to gain international support.

Another effective strategy would be to publicize their struggle through television media. I am uncertain of the national coverage they receive currently. It may be next to nil because the government has such tight controls on virtually everything, especially when it involves the oil industry inside their borders. International television, on the other hand, would be very effective because it would reach a wider base of support. This is assuming of course that the international media can exit the country with such coverage in hand.

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A group of semi-nomadic Indians living in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador (the Oriente).

The "white man" and other neighboring Indian nations consider them to be part of the Auca

group. The Huaorani consider this an insult because Auca means "savages." They call

themselves Huao or Huaorani or "the people."

The Oriente

The Oriente is the name given to the Amazon rainforest that lies at the base of the Andes Mountains of Ecuador.

Maxus Energy Corporation

The oil company based in Dallas, Texas that is developing oil operations in Huaorani territory.

Raw Crude

The physical state of petroleum before refining.

World Bank

A specialized agency of the United Nations acting as an international bank that assists in the reconstruction and development of member nations.


USAID is the acronym for the United States Agency for International Development. The agency conducts foreign development assistance and humanitarian aid to promote U.S. political and economic interests.

Yasuni National Park (a United Nations recognized World Biosphere Reserve)

Yasuni is a National Park on the eastern edge Ecuador. It surrounds nearly the entire eastern side of officially recognized Huaorani territory.

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Key Contacts

Acción Ecológica

Casilla 17-15 246C

Paz 118 y Patria, Ed. PLACSO

Quito, Ecuador

Telephone & Fax: 593-2-547-516


515 S. Flower Street

Los Angeles, CA 90071

Telephone: 213-486-3511

Fax: 213-486-2063

Center for Economic and Social Rights

105 East 22nd Street, Suite 909

New York, NY 10010

Telephone: 212-982-1950

Maxus Energy Corporation

717 N. Harwood Street

Dallas, TX 75201

Telephone: 214-953-2400

Fax: 214-953-2901

Oil Watch (an international coalition of environmental and human rights groups)

Paez 118 y Patria

Quito, Ecuador

Telephone & Fax: 593-2-547-516

Oryx Energy Company

13155 Noel Road

Dallas, TX 75240

Telephone: 214-715-4000

Fax: 214-715-3311

Oxfam America

Latin America Program

26 West Street

Boston, MA 02111

Telephone: 617-482-1211

Rainforest Action Network

450 Sansome Street, suite 700

San Francisco, CA 94111

Telephone: 415-398-4404

Fax: 415-398-2732

Texaco, Incorporated

2000 Westchester Avenue

White Plains, NY 10650

Telephone: 914-253-4000

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