As two military-style helicopters touch down in a remote village in the jungles of Ecuador, masked men with guns hop out and scurry into a one-room schoolhouse. Inside they capture their target: a 6-year-old girl who doesn’t speak their language and can’t even guess why they are kidnapping her. They carry the terrified child, Conta, into the belly of one of the helicopters and it quickly rises up and away. Inside a thing she has only ever known as a screaming demon that roars across the sky, she is flown to a nearby city. There, she is taken by these armed strangers to a hospital that is a teeming petri dish of germs for which she has no immunity, since she has never been in a city before.

This is the second time in seven months this girl, who grew up in a tribe without access to metal tools, has been violently wrenched from her daily life and thrust into a new and terrifying world.

Conta is part of a small and little-known tribe called the Taromenane. Along with her little sister Daboka, Conta is one of two known survivors of a family group of uncontacted indigenous people – tribes who do not trade or communicate with any outsiders and violently reject all attempts by outsiders to do so with them – that lived in the Yasuni jungle in Ecuador. Experts think there are fewer than 200 uncontacted people living in the Yasuni, but very little is known about their location or their customs.

Even compared to the Amazon’s other isolated peoples, in Brazil or Peru, Ecuador’s uncontacted tribes are remarkable. They live in a comparatively inhospitable patch of jungle, with no large rivers that could make hunting, fishing and gathering easier. They never had a large population, as far back as the Spanish conquest, so the 200 or so that live now aren’t remnants of a larger tribe. Rather, they’ve sustained that tiny population level for hundreds of years, through whatever plagues and wars have threatened their existence. Linguists say the tribes’ language group is completely unrelated to any other, so lack of contact with outsiders is not a new policy. They do not wear clothes, are seminomadic, and have not developed much in the way of tools, yet they somehow, magically, co-exist on the same planet with people who send information into space and back, or via interoceanic cables, to catch up on viral cat photos and share listicles.

Last March, the people in Conta’s family group, probably more than 20 in all, were massacred by warriors from a neighboring tribe, the Huaorani. Conta and Daboka were then taken as hostages by the men who killed their family.

The facts regarding this horrific incident were widely known across Ecuador by early April, but eight months went by before the government even acknowledged them. For months, the government was either actively hiding the story, or hiding from it – officials cast doubt on whether there had been a massacre, and even on whether the Taromenane still existed. President Rafael Correa downplayed whatever happened that bloody day in March as just one of many conflicts between the tribes, not mentioning that it nearly led to the extinction of an entire ethnicity.

The Huaorani warriors who took part in that massacre initially bragged on national television about their bravery – the systematic slaughter of dozens of naked and unarmed Taromenane men, women and children with rifles, pistols, and long spears – and sold photos to the highest bidder. However, after the attention they were getting turned negative, they went quiet, shut down access to their villages and threatened to run through with a spear any outsider who came near.

Rather than prosecuting the murderers, or even investigating the massacre, the government built traditional thatch houses for the Huaorani families that had kidnapped Conta and Daboka – allegedly so the girls could live in a structure familiar to them. One of the Huaorani families was allowed to legally register Daboka as their adopted daughter.

And then, in went the helicopters. Without warning, the Ecuadorean government snatched the girls back. Four days later, on November 30, Correa defended the armed extraction on national television, saying “the girl couldn’t be allowed to live with the murderers of her family,” and the crimes committed by the men who killed the Taromenane and kept the girls as trophies of war “can’t be left in impunity.” Six Huaorani were arrested, and now face charges of genocide.

Miguel Angel Cabodevilla, a Spanish Capuchin priest who was a missionary among the Huaorani for many years, says Correa’s about-face has caused more problems than it solved. Cabodevilla has been a dogged critic of the government’s handling of this clash between the Taromenane and the Huaorani. Charging that there hadn’t been an adequate investigation into what happened or why, he wrote a book about the massacre that includes much of the evidence Correa presented on TV to justify taking the girl.

This massacre has ripples of implications for Ecuador’s government, all of them bad, in part because it is legally required to protect the uncontacted Taromenane, and also protect those around them from harm at their hands. On both counts, it failed abysmally.

1-3-13_FE0301_Massacre_02 An oil tanker crosses a bridge over the Amazon River. Oil exploration in the interior of Ecuador is increasingly threatening the traditional lives of indigenous people living on their ancestral lands.
Julio Etchart / Panos “I will die when you take this spear out of me!”

On March 5, the bodies of two elders from the Huaorani tribe were discovered on a path in the village of Yarentaro. Protruding from their bodies were Taromenane longspears. The man, Ompure, was dead when his distraught family members arrived. His wife, Buganey, was still alive, though barely. Four spears, each as thick as five fingers, pierced her torso. The agony of her dying moments was captured on a cell phone video. “Give me water, put water on my head,” she screams. “I’m still alive, but I will die when you take this spear out of me.” Her son can be heard in the background yelling and crying: “I’m going to kill them! I’m going to kill all the Taromenane!”

Huaorani men started making trips into town to buy ammunition, and on March 24, a dozen or so set out to hunt down their enemies. After seven days of tracking, they finally found a Taromenane hut. (The Taromenane live communally in one large structure.) The Huaorani surrounded the house and loaded their weapons.

Cabodevilla tells the story of what happened next in his book, A Hidden Tragedy, based on oral testimony from people who were on the hunt, and the photos they took and sold to media outlets after the fact. “When they started leaving the house, we shot…. ” said one of the men. “We killed them on their way out. We killed them like fat animals… blood, lots of blood, blood flowing like water… I shot one in the stomach, I don’t know if they lived or died. I ran out of bullets… One Taromenane came at K. with two spears, but couldn’t get him. You know how the bullet is, much faster…. After all the people we killed, we felt dizzy.”

A Taromenane woman gripping the hands of her two daughters approached the Huaorani hunters, begging for her life. She offered herself as a wife to one of the killers to save herself and her daughters. The men killed the woman in front of her daughters, took the two girls with them, and left.

At least 20 Taromenane were killed that day, 14 of them women and children. “They were horrible deaths. Of infinite cruelty. Of people who were absolutely innocent,” Cabodevilla says. “They were vile, and incredibly useless deaths.”

Six months late, when Cabodevilla was ready to publish his book about the massacre, someone from the attorney general’s office sought an injunction, claiming it contained uncensored photos of the kidnapped girls (it did not). A judge issued a ban on the book on September 25, 15 minutes before it was to be released.

The court apparently missed the irony of censoring a book called A Hidden Tragedy, but few others in Ecuador did. Outrage exploded on social media; digital versions of the book went viral and were available on torrent sites minutes after the ban was announced. Correa’s top ministers took to Twitter at 7 a.m. the next day to say they opposed the ban, and by 9 a.m. the judge had rescinded her order.

The book ban, short-lived as it was, enflamed the country because it confirmed what so many already suspected: The government was embarrassed by the massacre and didn’t want it talked about, much less investigated. And behind that ugly massacre lies an uncomfortable truth that threatens to topple Correa’s government.

1-3-13_FE0301_Massacre_03 Amazon women clash with riot police during a protest against the Federal Government and a resolution related to oil exploitation on October 17, 2013 in Quito. Edu Leon/LatinContent/Getty Images Ecuador Holds Itself Hostage for Ransom

Land is at the heart of the decades-old conflict between the Taromenane and the Huaorani. Since the first oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s and the Huaorani tribe’s initial integration into mainstream Ecuadorean society, their population in the Amazon has exploded. The Huaorani now number more than 2,000, and their population boom has slowly pushed the Taromenane deeper into the jungle. The oil companies that the Huaorani allow into their territory, like Repsol, also create pressure. Ecuador’s indigenous confederation says that many of the conflicts over the years between the Huaorani and the Taromenane are due to the presence of oil companies. As the last tribe that still exclusively hunts and gathers to survive, the Taromenane are the most vulnerable to major changes to jungle land use, and their response when under pressure has been to attack. To kill. Oil workers, loggers, Huaorani, missionaries and other cowori, or outsiders, have all been killed by the spears of the uncontacted tribes since the colonization of the Amazon began.

That’s clearly a problem, but the Taromenane aren’t supposed to have to fight to protect their land or their splendid isolation. The Ecuadorean Constitution declares that their lands are “irreducible and intangible,” that the state guarantees their voluntary remove from the rest of the world, and that any extractive activities on lands of the uncontacted tribes is to be considered ethnocide.

Despite this constitutional protection, and mere months after the Huaorani massacre, the National Assembly voted to permit oil extraction in the Yasuni-ITT, a 200,000-hectare parcel that overlaps with the “intangible zone” set aside by law for the uncontacted tribes. To authorize that drilling project, the national assembly had to creatively reinterpret the constitution, and have triggered massive public opposition.

The Yasuni-ITT section of the Yasuni National Park was always a highly politicized piece of land. Since Correa’s “21st century socialism” government was elected in 2007, the state has spent more than $1 million to promote the Yasuni ITT Initiative: a scheme for foreign governments and corporations to pledge money to spare the ITT from oil extraction. The Initiative hyped the ITT land as “the most biodiverse place on Earth” and home to thousands of endangered species, as well as uncontacted tribes. Here was the audacious offer to the world: If the ITT fund reached $3 billion by this year, half of what the 845 million barrels of crude underground Yasuni ITT is said to be worth, then Ecuador would not drill there.

The ITT Initiative has been mocked in the international press as attempted blackmail, or as Ecuador holding itself hostage for ransom. But Ecuadoreans believed that saving Yasuni would prove that a new world is possible, and that first-world polluters can pay for their sins by preventing further damage to the planet. The ITT initiative let Ecuadoreans see themselves as the moral, green, anti-capitalist conscience of Earth.

Alberto Acosta, an economist and a former member of Correa’s inner circle who helped create the initiative, says it was meant to appeal to the global community as a way to prevent greenhouse gas emissions. But it was also a response to a local environmental problem in the Amazon. Four decades of drilling by foreign companies in the oil-rich province of Sucumbíos left behind little but an 85 percent poverty rate, cancer rates of 31 percent and a 20-year-old class-action lawsuit against Chevron for profligate pollution that still hasn’t been resolved.

When the deadline for the initiative came and went this summer, Correa announced that “the world failed us.” In August, he officially asked the National Assembly to approve drilling in Yasuni ITT, and they did.

“If Yasuni ITT was the flagship program of this government, and Yasuni ITT has failed, then this government has failed,” Acosta said in October to a packed auditorium at the Central University in Quito.

Although Correa may have jumped from “Save the Yasuni and the Taromenane!” to “Drill, baby, drill,” in a matter of weeks, most Ecuadoreans weren’t ready to make that leap. Protest marches shut down major roads, Amazonian women walked five days from the jungle to Quito to present their grievances to the National Assembly. The end of the Yasuni ITT initiative triggered protests more organized and eloquent than anything Correa has faced before.

Diabluma, a radical left wing activist group that had backed Correa, is one of those not ready to let go of the dream. In their headquarters across the road from the National Assembly, they are plotting how to gracefully split from their former allies in government. “I’m depressed,” says their leader, Felipe Ogaz. “We had a chance to really go up against the rich, but instead we’re going against the Taromenane.”

Ogaz saw the Yasuni ITT initiative as a promise to Ecuadoreans that the country could end its dependency on oil for income, and find an alternate (and sustainable) way to develop. If that promise is broken, he says, Correa’s radical reform is a lie. “The rich are getting richer in this country, now more than ever,” he says. “Why can’t we get the money from them, instead of putting more pressure on the most vulnerable people?”

A group called Yasunidos is collecting signatures to force a binding national referendum on whether to drill in Yasuni. For that, they’ll need to get 5 percent of the electorate to sign their petition: 600,000 signatures. Yasunidos estimates they’re getting 4,500 signatures a day across Ecuador and from Ecuadoreans living abroad, and believe they’ll meet their goal by the January deadline. If they accomplish the astronomical feat, though, there are many obstacles the constitutional courts or the national elections council could throw in its way to prevent the question from going to a vote, and even if they get the question on the ballot, they’ll have to contend with the state’s massive propaganda machine to win at the ballot box.

1-3-13_FE0301_Massacre_04 A road being built in Block 31, an area assigned to Petroamazonas (part of the state oil company Petroecuador) for oil exploration, through the jungle of Yasuni National Park. Ivan Kashinsky / Panos An Incredibly Systematic Extermination

Salvation for the Yasuni may have to come from outside Ecuador, and it may hinge on the human rights of the Taromenane. Lawyer Veronica Potes says a legal claim has been submitted to get the Inter-American Human Right system involved. Since the government is now approving oil extraction in their territory without studying how it will affect the uncontacted groups, Potes thinks there’s grounds for international intervention.

“When we were promoting the Yasuni ITT Initiative and we were the moral conscience of the world, the purpose of keeping that oil underground was above all to guarantee the voluntary isolation of these people. But now it turns out all that has been tucked away in a drawer. And when they’re inconvenient, they disappear from the map,” she says.

And disappear from the map they will, say the experts, unless something changes. “Today…we are tuning in to watch the end of tribes that have lived thousands of years,” Cabodevilla says. “They’ve survived terrible killings, epidemics, plagues, and an incredibly systematic extermination of their kind that has been going on since the time of the conquest. And now, they are being exterminated. In our time.”

A World She Does Not Understand

Conta can’t know that the jungle she was snatched from by those armed men in helicopters is a rallying cry for 15 million people in Ecuador. She can’t know that the land rights and human rights of her people are the cause of a massive movement to force the president of Ecuador to do something he does not want to do. And last of all, Conta can’t possibly comprehend the full impact of what Correa wants so badly from the Taromenane: the crude oil underneath their homes, a commodity that powers a world she does not understand that threatens to swallow her.

The girl who was kidnapped twice in one year has unwittingly become the symbol of Correa’s worst nightmare: a substantive opposition with real grievances against him. Human rights activists, environmentalists, student movements, and opposition political forces now rally as one for what Conta represents: the Yasuni, free and untouched, wild and protected.

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