In April 2019 Waorani people in Amazonian Ecuador won a key legal battle against plans to sell oil concessions on their indigenous territory. I analyze their engagements with oil as part of an emergent eco-political “middle ground” (Conklin and Graham 1995) characterized by Waorani men working for oil companies and new alliances against oil extraction. Waorani activists lament not the violation of a pristine natural environment separate from themselves and in need of conservation, but threats to the qualities of Waorani land (wao öme) that allow people and other beings to “live well.” In the context of generational changes, their engagement in environmental politics involves translating and moving between different conceptions of indigenous land. While becoming “environmental citizens” (Agrawal 2005) evokes discourses of nature, culture and stereotypes of Amazonian people as natural conservationists, current eco-political alliances are based as much on close working relationships with outsiders as symbolic politics. In this context, some Waorani engage productively across different understandings of their territory and its conservation to challenge oil. This middle ground under-construction shows that indigenous concepts like wao öme are not fixed in opposition to the “West,” but are integral to thoughtful and strategic engagement in contemporary environmental politics.
- environmental politics
- middle ground