White Wolf Pack

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.

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.

“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.”