Air Date: December 31, 1996||
Joe Kane, author
(This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, Senior Producer: This is Common Ground, a program on world
affairs and the people who shape events.
JOE KANE, author: Can you imagine if we turned all of the indigenous people in
Alaska—their health, education, and welfare—if we turned that all over to Exxon. This is what
we’ve done in the Oriente. The oil companies are in charge of educating the Huarani and teaching
them, and they work hand-in-hand with the evangelical missionaries to indoctrinate the Huarani to
strip them of their culture and to pacify, and essentially, enslave them.
DAVIDSON: The existence of one of the most remote tribes of Indians in Ecuador is
threatened by that country’s oil production. We’ll talk with an American who’s lived with the
Huarani Indians on this edition of Common Ground. Common Ground is produced by the
Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Author Joe Kane first wrote about South America’s rain forest in his national best seller,
Running the Amazon. In his new book released in paperback this fall, he focuses on a tribe
of Amazonian Indians isolated from the rest of civilization until very recently. The book titled,
Savages, is partly an adventure story about the months Kane spent living in Ecuador’s rain
forest with the Huarani Indians, and in part it’s a plea both to preserve the territory the
Huarani roam and their fast disappearing way of life. This rain forest is one of the richest
places on the planet in terms of biodiversity, but that diversity and that of the indigenous
people there, has been threatened ever since the discovery of oil in the region called the
KANE: Texaco was the first company to exploit oil commercially in the Oriente. They
discovered oil in ’67. It produced the first commercial oil in 1972. From 1972 until 1992, it
extracted one and a half billion barrels of oil, shipping it from the Amazon over the Andes
through a 20,000 foot pass and down to the Pacific Ocean through a 312 mile pipeline. During
those twenty years, that pipeline burst, it ruptured, at least twenty-seven times and spilled at
least seventeen million gallons of raw crude directly into the forest itself. That’s one and a
half times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spilled off the coast of Alaska. And that’s just a
fraction of what was spilled, a fraction of what was spilled.
DAVIDSON: And there’s none of the outcry that we even got with the Valdez oil spill.
KANE: Nobody ever knew about it, no. [They] knew about it in Ecuador, the government knew
about it and there were some records of it, that’s why anybody knows about it now. Around each
well—Texaco sunk approximately 300 wells—and around each well they put in two or three waste
pits, as they’re called. They’re simply holes bulldozed out of the forest floor about the size of
an olympic swimming pool. Nothing more than dirt. And into these holes is dumped all of the toxic
byproduct of the oil extraction process. Waste oil itself, which is extremely toxic, the heavy
metals that come up from underground with the oil, including lead, arsenic, cyanide, radioactive
water that also comes up with the oil, the industrial solvents and ? that are used to drill the
holes. All this goes into the waste pits.
DAVIDSON: And you couldn’t even call those holding tanks. There’s nothing lining them,
KANE: No, the Oriente is one of the wettest places on the planet and those pits, after
two or three or four years, they just wash out and the whole cargo washes right into the forest.
Those pits are dumping, on average, and they’ve been doing this for 20 years, about four to five
million gallons of toxic waste into the forest every single day, every day. You’re talking an
incredible field of contamination down there. A team from Harvard Medical School went in in 1993
to look at the oil production areas. I should point out that in South America, if you live on top
of oil, that’s not your oil. You have no subsurface oil rights. It all belongs to the government.
DAVIDSON: Even if you own the property?
KANE: Even if you own the property. Not only do you not own the oil, you have no right to
stop development of the oil. The well can go in right on top of your house if the government
wants it to. Texaco sunk wells right next to the drinking, fishing and bathing supplies of many
people. It dumped its crude right into their fishing, drinking and bathing supplies. So when
Harvard Medical School went in in 1993, they found malnutrition rates as high as 98% in the oil
production areas. They found extremely high rates of spontaneous abortion, of birth defects, of
skin cancers and indicators of much deeper cancers to come in the ensuing years. It was just
And the poverty at the same time was incredible. From 1972 to 1992, Texaco pulled out almost half
of Ecuador’s oil reserves. When the boom started in ’72, Ecuador had an external overall debt of
$300 million, a manageable [debt]. After 20 boom years, they now have a debt of almost $14
DAVIDSON: So despite the boom, the country has not benefited.
KANE: The more oil Ecuador produces, the further in debt it goes. UNICEF estimates that
79% of the people in Ecuador can now be considered poor by their standards.
DAVIDSON: And you wrote even, was it in the city of Quito in Ecuador, there’s graffiti
that you find all over that translates…
KANE: Yeah, mas petroleo es mas pobreza—more petroleum equals more poverty.
DAVIDSON: So the people are understanding that the oil in their country is not benefiting
KANE: More and more now. That the oil essentially has been stolen and they call it
24-hour dollars. The money comes in to pay for the infrastructure and for the price of crude
itself, which is not where you make your money in oil; you make your money in production. The
money stays—they say it stays for 24 hours—then it goes right back to the United States into
the personal bank accounts of oil executives and Ecuadorian officials. In fact the Vice President
of Ecuador was driven out of the country in January. One of his political opponents exposed his
Swiss bank account. After three years in office, the Vice President had managed to amass $50
million and had to fly himself out of the country in his own Cessna at three o’clock in the
morning. That’s been going on for as long as oil’s been coming out of the ground down there.
DAVIDSON: And nobody’s being accountable even today for the cleanup of these…
KANE: You can go to the oil executives, and I have, I’ve gone to Texaco, gone to Arco,
gone to Occidental, gone to Orex, to Mobile, to Maxus and at every office said the same thing,
how can you do this? And I get the same answer each time. We’ve broken no laws. And they’re
absolutely right, they have broken no laws. There is no law that addresses the environmental
consequences of oil production in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
DAVIDSON: Well let’s talk about the main subject of your book, Savages, which is
the Huarani Indians. Tell us how you got involved in this whole issue of oil exploration in
Ecuador and its effect on the Indians.
KANE: In the winter of 1990-91, I was working at the Rain Forest Action Network. I was
going in one or two days a week to help them edit their newsletter and stuff. And the director of
the organization, Randall Hayes, walked into my office with a piece of paper and said, “I don’t
know where this came from. I don’t even know what it is. I found it on my desk. It was in a stack
of papers. I don’t know when it got there, I don’t know how it got there.” He handed me the
envelope and the piece of paper and the envelope had no address, no return address, no stamp, no
postmark. The paper inside was a letter written on a single piece of white paper on a manual
typewriter and it said in Spanish at the top, it was addressed at the top to General Manager,
DuPont Conoco Company, United States of North America. It said Dear Sir. It went on and had some
resolutions on it. It said it was from the Huarani people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. It said, “We
are opposed to oil development in our territory. We’ve seen what the oil contamination does to
the fishes, birds and plants. The oil company’s holding meetings about us at which we are not
present. How can they do that when it’s about our lives?” It went on and it closed by saying, “We
are the bravest people in the Amazon and we will defend our land with spears from all sides.” And
there were three signatures of what purported to be the officers of this organization. So I got
an assignment from The New Yorker and went to Ecuador with that letter to see if I could
find the Huarani, find out if it was for real.
DAVIDSON: So who are they?
KANE: Well, the Huarani are…
DAVIDSON: I mean, they’re one group out of many indigenous…
KANE: There are eight indigenous groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon. There’s probably
150,000 or so indigenous people in the Amazon there, in that region of the Amazon. The Huarani
number only about 1,300 or 1,400, about 1% of the indigenous population there I guess it would
be. But they are, by reputation and by act, they are considered the fiercest forest people on the
planet. Although there’s only 1,500 of them or so, 1,300 I guess right now. They have, for as
long as anyone knows, roamed an area the size of Massachusetts and defended themselves against
all comers, against the Incas, the Conquistadores, the rubber barons, the colonists, against
everyone up until the coming of what they call the Company. They call all petroleum interests the
Company. They say the Company fights in ways they’ve never seen people fight before. The Company
fights by destroying life, the source of all life itself—the forest.
The Huarani were known as the Auca for a long time. It’s a Quichua Indian word, Quichua being
their arch enemies. The Quichua outnumber the Huarani a hundred to one but have never been able
to get Huarani land because the Huaranis fight them off. Auca means savage in the Quichua tongue.
So that’s who the Huarani are, nominally, if you will. On an individual basis, it’s much more.
DAVIDSON: You titled your book Savages, but clearly there is more than one meaning
to who are the savages?
KANE: The title came from a Capuchin priest who was in Coca. Coca was the town on the
dateline in the letter and it’s a little oil boomtown on the Napo River of about 1,000 people. In
1987, the Brazilian National Petroleum Company had a concession in the Ecuadorian Amazon and they
sent a team of mercenaries after the Huarani. They managed to kill some of the Huarani and the
Huarani in turn injured some of the mercenaries and the Bishop of Coca found out about that and
he had befriended some of the Huarani clans that were on the periphery of the territory, he had
learned some Huarani, which is not easy. They are so isolated, they speak a language unrelated to
any other on the planet. But he went to oil company and said, “Please, let me go in there and
contact these Huarani and warn them that you’re coming so they’ll move so you won’t kill them.”
And Conoco Oil dropped him by helicopter in a settlement, a Huarani clan hut, right next door to
the hut, and left him there and came back there days later and found him pinned to the ground
with seventeen palmwood spears sticking out of his corpse like porcupine quills. His body had
been punctured in 89 places.
I showed up three years later and went to the Capuchin mission in Coca and talked to his closest
friend, Jose Miguel Golgaraz (sp?).
DAVIDSON: This was before you went out and met the Huarani?
KANE: This was before I actually went into the territory. Yeah, and it was Jose Miguel
Golgaraz who told me where the Huarani were. They were right in the mission compound. There was a
funky little cinderblock shack in the back of the compound. Jose Miguel still had the 17 spears
taken from the bishop’s body. But he said, “You want to see the Yuarani; there they are.” And he
pointed me toward this shack and I walked back there and knocked on the door and a very robust
young man opened the door. He was quite quiet but you know he was heavily muscled, wearing a
clean white tee-shirt, blue jeans, long black hair and he just looked at me and said, “Are you
still alive?” I said yes, I’m still alive. He said, “Are you coming here?” I said, “yes, I’m
coming here.” And he left it at that.
DAVIDSON: Who did he think you were?
KANE: He didn’t know. He was just opening the door. And I could see there were four or
five other young men behind him and I had this letter and I said, “I was told that I could meet
some Huarani here.” And he said, “Yes, I’m Huarani.” I said, “well, I’ve got this letter and I’d
like to know if it’s for real.”
DAVIDSON: Now you’re speaking in Spanish, right?
KANE: We were speaking in Spanish, yeah. And I said I’d like to know if this letter is
for real. And he said, “Of course it’s for real; I wrote it. There’s my name on the bottom. Why
would anybody say it wasn’t for real.” And this was Nanto, the president of the Huarani
organization. And I said, “well, in the United States, they say this letter’s not real and that
there are no Huarani in the oil zone.” This is what I’ve been told by the NRDC and by the oil
companies. And he said, “No, this isn’t true.” And I said, “well, can I talk to you about it?” He
said, “Okay.” And I went inside and there were I guess five other young Huarani men in there, all
very silent as I walked in, sitting on four bunk beds and just checking me out as I went in. And
we went in and nobody said a word and I didn’t know what to say. And there was a man sitting off
to my right, Enqueri as it turned out, who I would come to know very well. And he was wearing a
pair of head phones and the wire was tucked into his right hip pocket. And so to make
conversation I asked him, I said, “what are you listening to?” He said, very solemnly, “I am
listening to my pants.” I just let that hang.
DAVIDSON: You had a lot of conversations stoppers. It’s like that through your book.
KANE: Yeah, where you just, as I did then, I just said, you know nobody reacted to it and
I thought I had crossed some line here I don’t understand. And then of course after about ten
seconds, they just started cracking up.
DAVIDSON: You were in another world.
KANE: You know, they were just rolling on the ground laughing, it was a big joke on the
cannibal, me being the cannibal.
DAVIDSON: You’re the cannibal?
KANE: Everybody—me, the missionaries, the oil companies, the military, everybody beyond
the Huarani borders is a cannibal as far as the Huarani are concerned.
DAVIDSON: Why is that?
KANE: Just a myth, just a myth that developed over time. You know, just like we assume
there are cannibals all through the Amazon when in fact that’s not true. There are probably a
few, but they’re quite rare.
DAVIDSON: And they develop their own reverse myths.
KANE: Oh absolutely, absolutely. Just one of many.
DAVIDSON: But you were telling me the story about the Capuchin priest who brought up the
question that you wrote in the book of who exactly are the savages?
KANE: Well after I got to know the Huarani and traveled with them—I would always come
out of the Huarani territory just reeling like I’d come out of Mars. I never knew what was going
on, you know. The rules of the game were all changed. You know they took everything I had, and I
consider that stealing, but they didn’t at all. That was their custom. I was supposed to give it
away. The Huarani give everything away. They’re so in tune with the abundance of the forest that
they have no fear of need and the way you demonstrate that, you know, what a person of a forest
you are, is by giving away what you have. Because you can always go out in the forest and get
more. And especially you give away food and things like that. But I would come out of the
territory reeling, and I’d often stop in Coca on my way back out and I’d talk to Jose Miguel
Golgaraz. He’s a very kind man. He’s a liberation theologist. He was not a missionary who was
trying to convert the Huarani in every way. He was acting as a political buffer. And one day I
asked him, I said, “well, when it gets right down to it, what right do the Huarani have to be
protected from change?” And he said, “Change is inevitable.” The Huarani will change but the
right the Huarani have and the right all people have is not to have change imposed upon them.
They have the right to the time and space they need to come up with the tools they need to cope
with change, not being bulldozed.” I said, “okay, well you know they’re killers. It’s hard to
feel sorry for killers.” It wasn’t as simple as that, but I was playing devil’s advocate. And he
said, “Yeah, they’re killers. But the killing is part of a much larger cultural ethos designed to
keep them in harmony, keep their families in harmony.” He said, “You know how a Huarani man
kills. A Huarani man kills according to a spiritual code and when he kills, he kills face to face
with the spear he made and any blood he sheds gets on him.” He said, “Now look at you. Your
people are going to wipe out the entire Huarani culture for enough oil to keep your country going
for thirteen days over the next 20 years. You won’t know you’re wiping them out. You won’t want
to know you’re wiping them out. So you tell me in that equation, who is the savage?”
DAVIDSON: You’re listening to Common Ground. My guest is author Joe Kane, who
wrote about his experiences with the Huarani Indians of the Ecuadorian rain forest in his book
Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this Common Ground program are available. At
the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you details on how you can order. Common Ground is a
service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide
range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
One thing that struck me was that you had a friend named Moi, who sees the United States as bent
on destroying the Huarani.
KANE: As far as the Huarani know, the Company is the United States and the history of the
Company is one of trying to destroy their people. They have destroyed other people down there.
Texaco—the majority of Texaco wells are in the Kofan Indian territory and when Texaco showed up
in 1972 the Kofan were a thriving nation. Twenty years later the Kofan have virtually
disappeared. There’s maybe 300 of them left that still have Kofan blood, but almost all of them
in no way retain Kofan culture. They’re just poor defeated poverty-stricken people living in a
big oil patch. There’s a small band of Kofan that have retreated far down the river and have
taken to burning oil wells when they go in and burning oil company helicopters and kidnapping oil
company workers. And they’ve been able to keep the oil company out of their territory. But that’s
all that’s left of the Kofan. The Huarani have seen all this around them.
DAVIDSON: So it is clearly a cautionary tale for them.
KANE: Clearly, yes.
DAVIDSON: I was really surprised as I read the book, as I said, by the sophistication. I
had assumed that the Huarani were completely isolated from other people, but they have quite a
bit of contact with outsiders. I mean they travel in cars, the friends that you made, [flew in]
airplanes even, and several even stayed with you in your apartment in Quito and the friend, Moi,
flew to the U.S. How did they fare in cities?
KANE: A lot of that’s very recent. It’s been a rapid, rapid education for them. They for
the most part did pretty well. Somebody like Moi, who in fact had received some education from
American evangelical missionaries, it was an education designed to indoctrinate him into
DAVIDSON: To convert them.
KANE: To convert them, really to control them. In fact the contract that the missionaries
had from the Ecuadorian government was that they were supposed to pacify, that was the word that
was used, pacify the Huarani, eliminate their culture and replace Huarani culture with an
agrarian culture rather than a hunter/warrior culture.
DAVIDSON: They moved around, lived the more nomadic life?
KANE: The Huarani are nomads, semi-nomadic. They have gardens and they have various clan
settlements and they’re warriors. And they’re hunters, they’re out in the forest and the
government doesn’t want them out there because that gets in the way of oil development. They want
them to have farms and stay in one place. And the American missionaries were contracted to do
that; that was their job.
DAVIDSON: Have they been successful?
KANE: With some of the Huarani, yes they’ve been successful. But with many of them, no. I
never met a Huarani who you’d ever call a true believer, Christian. Many have adopted the facade
of Christianity because they get things. This was the method the missionaries have used which is
to drop—first to fly over the Huarani territory in missionary planes using loudspeakers, speaking
in Huarani and dropping trinkets. Salt was the first thing they dropped, aluminum pots, machetes,
things like that. The Huarani like these things. As they would keep coming back to the drop sites
and eventually there was contact made and they would stay around as long as trinkets were
showing, the Huarani would stay around until at a certain point, the compounds got so big that
there was no more hunting in the area and the Huarani were dependent. They became dependent on
handouts from the missionaries. They became dependent on handouts of rice and salt and sugar and
more importantly, medicine because the missionaries brought in cannibal disease with them. Polio,
for example. In one compound sixteen Huarani were killed by polio, another sixteen were crippled
by it. So this terrible dependency was created that had the illusion of conversion, but there was
no conversion really taking place. But it served very well to raise money back in the United
DAVIDSON: It did create a dependency.
KANE: Oh, a very large dependency.
DAVIDSON: And another part of that double-edged sword that you wrote about was that the
Huarani really valued literacy and wanted to learn to read and write.
KANE: They valued writing. As Moi said when I first met him, you know I told him I wanted
to go into the territory to see what was happening. He said, “Why?” I said I want to write about
it. And he said, “You want to write a letter to the United States of North America?” and I said
yeah, I want to write something like a letter. And he said, “Yes, writing is a very good way to
get things without doing work.” Which had whole layers of meaning I didn’t understand for many
months. It turned out that Moi rebelled from the missionary influence but he did get some
training as a student up to about a fourth grade level and he could write. And he wrote all kinds
of stuff. He wrote poems, he wrote love letters, he wrote denuncias against the government, but
he had discovered, he and his brothers especially had discovered, that if they wrote out a list
of the cannibal stuff they needed, there was some stuff that was very useful to them, rubber
boots that would prevent snakebite for example, a machete for cutting through the forest. If they
wrote out a list of the cannibal goods they needed and then dressed up in their headdresses and
the little G-strings they wear—the Huarani man considers himself fully dressed if his penis is
tied up to his waist with a G-string, he wears nothing else. And if they show up wearing the
headdresses and the kombis as the G-strings were called, carrying their big spears and just you
know—they all look like middle linebackers, you know they’re all just solid muscle. They marched
to an oil compound, knocked on the door, presented their list and just stood there, then they got
everything on that list and they got it right away. And that’s why Moi said, “Yes writing’s a
very good way to get things without doing work.”
DAVIDSON: He liked your profession.
KANE: That’s right. So he liked writing; he definitely liked writing.
DAVIDSON: Did you ever fear for your life? I mean after just the story of that priest who
was set in the midst of the Huarani and was speared to death, weren’t you afraid?
KANE: Yes, I was afraid. I wasn’t so much afraid of being killed. It’s funny with the
Huarani, because they’re—basically they’re very fun-loving and a joyous people. And their joy is
complete in the moment. When something is funny, and they always find things that are funny, they
just laugh and laugh and laugh and there’s just no second… no self consciousness about it.
DAVIDSON: That’s what I… that’s the way I would describe them, as unselfconscious and I
thought in many ways that would be an attractive culture.
KANE: It gives them a charm and a very uncalculated charm and people who meet them
are—almost everyone who meets them is very charmed by them. They seem innocent and almost
guileless. But then they’re quick, you know, they turn quickly. Because this is the way of the
forest, you know things are not gradual in the forest, things are fast. Death can come quickly.
And when rage takes over, it’s explosive. You don’t want to be around for that. But I was charmed
by them too. I wasn’t thinking in terms of potentially being killed. It doesn’t feel like that.
It’s not like there’s a smoldering resentment going on all the time. It’s not like that at all.
It’s like a flash fire.
DAVIDSON: Did you ever figure out why the priest was killed?
KANE: He was probably, nobody knows, but now the theory is that they probably killed him
to keep his spirit with them, because they didn’t want him to leave. They had befriended him. The
clan that killed him was one of the most remote, it was an uncontacted clan. But what I was
afraid of was not so much getting killed in there, but starving to death. Because a Huarani can
go ten days, if he’s out on a trek he can go ten days without eating anything, and then he’ll sit
down at a single sitting, eat eight pounds of meat or more if its around. I can’t go ten days
without eating, especially not when you’re…
DAVIDSON: You couldn’t fill up with eight pounds of meat either.
KANE: No, I couldn’t, especially not of monkey or rat or something like that. Although I
ate, I don’t say this proudly but factually, I ate more endangered species down there than I had
seen in my entire life up to that point. Including a memorable stew of wooly monkey…
DAVIDSON: Is this the one with the lollipops?
KANE: Yeah, the wooly monkey, ?? monkey, tree rat, peccary which is basically a wild
boar, parrot, toucan, it’s really strange to have a toucan beak come floating up through your
soup bowl, and then oatmeal, rice, cinnamon, onions and two dozen lollipops.
DAVIDSON: And the lollipops, that was an interesting condiment.
KANE: But I came very close to starving to death.
DAVIDSON: Is it going to be a constant battle for the Huarani to protect their territory?
KANE: As long as, yeah, they’ll always be up against oil and the oil will come out, you
know of that there’s no doubt, but what should be done and what can be done is to at least hold
those companies to the same standards they’re held to in the United States. In fact there’s two
big lawsuits going through the courts now here in the states against Texaco. They’re each for…
they’re $1.5 billion class action suits charging that Texaco made all its decision to destroy the
Oriente in the United States, the profits came here, the oil came here and they should be held
responsible here because there’s no chance of justice in Ecuador. So Texaco is scared enough that
they’ve hired Griffin Bell, the former Attorney General of the United States, as their lead
attorney on the case. So, a pretty big deal. It’ll be trying whole new areas of law that are not
well defined at all. But at the least those companies should be held to the standards they’re
held to here. They should not be able to dump that stuff into open pits. Only in Ecuador, only in
Nigeria can you get away with that, is that legal. It shouldn’t be, it should be reinjected. They
should not be allowed to… can you imagine if we turned all of the indigenous people in
Alaska—their health, education, and welfare—if we turned that all over to Exxon. This is what
we’ve done in the Oriente. The oil companies are in charge of educating the Huarani and teaching
them and they work hand in hand with the evangelical missionaries to indoctrinate the Huarani, to
strip them of their culture and to pacify and essentially enslave them. And that should not be
allowed at all.
DAVIDSON: Do you see the demise of the Huarani way of life as inevitable?
KANE: The Huarani warriors, as Jose Miguel Golgaraz, the Capuchin priest said, they will
change. Change is inevitable. But there will be, if they are given the space they need to adapt
to change as it comes, if they’re not bulldozed by it, there will be an essential Huarani nature
that will survive and they will continue to live in the forest. There’s nothing for them in
greater Ecuadorian society. They’ll occupy the lowest rung of a catastrophically poor society if
they are forced to be assimilated. So no, given a little bit of space, they will remain Huarani.
DAVIDSON: Joe Kane has been my guest on Common Ground. He’s the author of
Running the Amazon and Savages. Kane’s account of the Huarani Indians of Ecuador’s
rain forest. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
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