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aerial view of the Napo river Across the undulating terrain where the Amazon meets the Ecuadorian Andes is a place called "E1 Oriente." Protected from explorers and missionaries by impassable mountains, El Oriente was the last piece of Amazonia revealed to the eyes of those who brought western civilization upriver from the Atlantic coast. Here, a one-hour plane ride from Quito, Ecuador's capital city, large tracts of land still lie undisturbed by modern development. El Oriente has been called one of the richest biotic zones on the planet. Here half the rivers that form the Amazon begin to flow.

The Huaorani call themselves the bravest people in the Amazon. They are superb hunters and feared warriors who inhabit a world that is green, wet, and filled with the sounds of many creatures. Until 1956 they had never had any contact with the modern world beyond the forest. They have fought hard to protect their land and have shown no mercy to unwelcome intruders. Life is changing for the 2,000 or so that now dwell in the region, but in remote villages like Quehueriuno, hunting is still the way of life and the key to survival. man with bird shot with a blowgun In their minds is a knowledge of animals that is intimate and profound. It stems from a total reliance on the natural world.

Under the rain-forest canopy and along a pale green river, a Huaorani hunting party moves silently through the forest—listening, sniffing, calling to the animals. A hunter slowly raises his blowgun and draws a thin arrow from his quiver. All his senses are focused on a monkey overhead. He raises the gun to his lips and blows. One hundred and fifty feet overhead, the monkey flounders and falls as the poison on the arrow tip takes effect. The hunter slings the monkey over his shoulder and the group moves on.

The nearest "town" to the Huaorani is Coca—a jungle boom town where the streets are literally paved with crude oil to hold down the dust. Like a town in the 19th century American West, there is alcohol and there are women. Street vendors sell tin pots and rubber boots, shovels and chain saws. In open-sided buses, Indians and colonists travel from village and farm. Big rigs haul giant machines out to the oil fields. The search for oil after World War II first brought changes to E1 Oriente. Today's oil market has created a ground swell of development that is surging across the region.

bow of a dugout canoe A dugout canoe protrudes from the back of an army troop carrier that moves through town and into the forest. Up front in the passenger seat Rocio Alarcon, a native to Ecuador, views the passing scene. Alarcon has witnessed the changes—new roads, bigger wells, more pipelines, and the continued displacement of indigenous people. As an ethnobotanist she has spent almost two decades in the remote villages of El Oriente collecting information about forest plants from local tribes. She may now know more about indigenous populations than anyone in Ecuador. She is a petite woman with a rugged determination that has earned her respect from Indian groups throughout the region.

The vehicle moves down a road that follows a pipeline. Along it roar flaming plumes of natural gas. Occasional bursts in the pipe have coated trees with oil. As we travel deeper into the forest, Alarcon tells me some of her history: "My mother was a botanist. It came naturally to me. In college I realized the only way to understand the forest was through the eyes of people who lived there. The forest is infinite, and their knowledge is infinite. In a lifetime I will never learn it all. But things are changing quickly."


Photos: (1-3) Joe Seamans.

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