Nearly 500 years after the Spanish conquest of Latin America precipitated the destruction of native Indian cultures, oil companies are involved in a grim battle with one of the last Amazonian communities living in the Stone Age. The Ecuadorean government has granted exploration rights in territory where the Waorani Indian tribe has lived for centuries to an oil consortium including Braspetro of Brazil, Elf of France, and Britoil of Britain.
In their fight to defend that land, a group of Waorani Indians, the Tagairis, last month killed two Roman Catholic missionaries who were trying to contact them.
The ferocious manner of the killings reflects the growing desperation of the Indian community, which has been forced further south by oil exploration.
The Ecuadorean government, strapped for cash, is anxious to extract as much wealth as possible from its oil-rich Amazon provinces. It suspended debt payment after a March 5 earthquake ruptured its oil pipeline and anticipates that external debt will rise to $9 billion this year.
Until the price of oil slumped last year, petroleum accounted for more than 60 percent of the country's exports earnings. (In 1985, Ecuador earned $2.9 billion in foreign exchange.)
Meanwhile, even if the consortium of 21 foreign oil companies strikes lucky, Ecuador's share of the oil production is still expected to have peaked by as early as 1995. The extent to which the oil companies will take on the Indians will depend on how far the government will go in backing the oil companies.
The first clash between the Indians and the petroleum companies occurred 18 years ago, when a cook was murdered in an oil camp. The next was in 1977 when three oil workers were killed by lances as they crossed a river to a Tagairi settlement. And three years ago, two oil workers were severly wounded by spears flung from a canoe. One Indian was then killed.
In the latest incident, a helicopter dropped the missionaries near a Tagairi settlement. Bishop Alejandro and Sister Ines, part of the Capuchin Mission in Coca, had agreed to locate and pacify any Indians who stood in the way of oil extraction.
Their mission, according to the Capuchin Mission, was not to preach but to protect the Indians, to save them from imminent genocide if the government were to call in the military to defend oil workers from the Indians.
The deaths have thrown a wrench into the work of the consortium. Having invested $30 million and allowed four years in which to conduct seismic studies and sink three wells, the consortium has had to indefinitely postpone its analysis of the 500,000-acre area.