Indigenous Groups of the Ecuadorian Amazon
The Ecuadorian Amazon is home to nine different indigenous nationalities, each with its own language and culture, traditionally living in harmony with their tropical rainforest environment. In the past, each group lived on its ancestral territory and contact between groups was often perilous. However, today, contacts between tribes are common and many intercultural marriages have taken place. In 1986, several nationalities formed CONFENIAE (Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon) in order to stimulate communitarian development, fight for indigenous rights and for legalisation of their territories, and to preserve the rain forest. The latter is important, as greater economic integration often includes destructive use of natural resources. Responsible tourism provides an alternative income source for many of these communities, avoiding such options as oil production or cash crop plantations.
Secoya and Siona
Although these groups began to merge at the beginning of the 20th century, the Siona (approx. 200 people) and Secoya (approx. 250 people) are two different nationalities. Their cultures are similar, and their languages both belong to the Tucano language family. Their communities are found along the Shushufindi, Aguarico and Cuyabeno rivers.
Cófanes / A’i
The Cófanes, or A’i as they call themselves, probably migrated to Ecuador from the Columbian Andes. About 800 Cófanes live in northeast Ecuador between the Guamués and the Aguarico river, close to the Secoya and Siona peoples, to whom they are linked through intercultural marriages.
Considered to be the fiercest warriors of the Amazon basin, the Waorani were able to keep settlers, oil and timber companies out of their territory until the mid-20th century. However, in the 1950s, missionaries established contact with these forest dwelling people and pushed them to move closer to roads and rivers. Like other indigenous nations, their population fell to a couple of hundred people as infectious diseases spread epidemically. Today approx. 2,000 Waorani live in Ecuador between the rivers Napo and Curaray and, although men and women have different responsibilities, they are considered socially equal.
While the Tagaeri belong to the Waorani, the Taromenani are said to be an independent nationality that came from Peru. Together they form the last of the indigenous family groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon that refuse contact with outsiders and maintain their traditional semi-nomadic way of life inside the rain forest. They are threatened by oil exploration and much more so by illegal logging.
With 80.000 people and growing, the Kichwa are the most numerous indigenous nationality of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Though they speak a dialect of the Andean Quichua, they form a different cultural group. The Quichua language was introduced to Ecuador by the Incas, and was introduced in the Amazon by the churches after the lowlands have been discovered [link to history section]. So the Kichwa are supposed to have emerged from various pre-colonial indigenous tribes that developed a common identity and culture. Today many live in the cities of Tena and Puyo and surrounding communites.
The Zápara are the smallest indigenous group and in Ecuador only 170 Zápara remain, many already of mixed ethnic origin. According to their myths they descend from the Red Howler monkeys (alouatta seniculus). They live in three remote communities situated between the Conambo and the Jandia Yacu river in the Pastaza province that can only be reached by airplane or a canoe trip of several days.
6.000 people form the Achuar nationality. In their language, Achuar means “the people of the morete palm”, which is a common palm tree (mauritia flexuosa) often found in Amazonian swamps. Living in the remote upper basin of the Pastaza river, close to the Peruvian border, the Achuar were unknown till the end of the 1960s. Their cosmos is formed by the sky and the earth, which is surrounded by water and the upper river – down river axis is more important than west and east.
Schuar man from the IKIAM community project
The Shuar were famous for their ritual of tzantza or shrinking human heads. The aim was to dominate the victim’s soul which was contained in the head in order it could not harm the warrior or his family anymore.
Today they are 80.000 people that live close to the rivers Pastaza, Upano, Zamora and the Morona’s tributaries.
The 1.200 Ecuadorian Shiwiar live in the southeast of the Pastaza province. Similar to other nationalities the families live in subsistence from their “chacras” (forest gardens) and additionally hunt, fish, collect wild fruits and buy products like clothing, gasoline or aluminium pots in the cities.