This isn’t a book review about Savages, by Joe Kane, published in 1995. This is an attempt at a synopsis, although such a meaty and universally relevant book is hard to encapsulate.
On the surface, it is a travelogue, depicting the author’s extended visit to the Amazon rain forest, where ancient meets modern in dramatic but understated violence. In 1991, Kane, a journalist originally working for an environmental group in San Francisco, came across a plea for help from members of the “savage” Huaorani, indigenous clans of Ecuador, primitive jungle dwellers who live off the land and are known as fierce warriors who have never been conquered.
The mysterious letter claimed DuPont-owned Conoco was trying to destroy their land and way of life. At issue was the massive development of oil fields in the Amazonian jungles by many oil companies, but especially by Conoco. Maxus Energy Corporation, which was slated to develop “Maxus Block 16” on traditional Huaorani land, also becomes a major player in this book’s drama.
Author Kane wanted to discover for himself what the Huaorani were like and how they lived. He writes about befriending tribal leaders/members, and hiring one of them, Enqueri, as a guide to Maxus Block 16, deep in tribal lands but slated for oil drilling and exploration, if the Huarani could be appeased. The story delves into the author’s encounters with other locals, the military, the oil company representatives, government officials, missionaries, environmentalists, and the land itself.
Savages becomes a personal story about the Huaorani, especially members Moi, Enqueri, Nanto, and others who are fighting for their land and traditional ways, but they are forced by inevitable change to adapt, each in his own way. Kane describes his first, danger-fraught trip by truck, canoe, and foot through the jungle, with nothing but a machete for defense, and virtually no clothes.
He provides entertaining but respectful cameos of the individuals and Huaorani settlements. He emphasizes Huaoranis’ resourcefulness, their ability to go without food for days, to build leak-free shelters out of palms within minutes, and their bountiful good humor in the face of adversity. Deemed savages by some, because of their reputation of vengeful killings of invaders, the Huaorani that Kane depict come across as lovable and kind, well adapted to the jungle but sadly naïve about the world beyond their territory.
Kane describes multiple instances in which his jungle-bred friends collapse in laughter. They spend afternoons in communal bathing, playing and flirting. Sharing food is a sublime act of generosity, because for them, it is feast or famine. They adore their children. The Huaorani can also stand motionless, without expression, for hours, observing everything.
The story offers adventure deep into the Amazon rain forest and shows its contrast with the new age of oil exploration and development by the generic “Company,” which includes Shell, Texaco, Conoco, and most egregious, Maxus Energy Corporation. The author reveals the horrific degradation of the land caused by the “Company.” The Huaorani refer to all non-clan members as “cowode” or “cannibals” who have brought roads, pipelines, colonists, oil spills, overflowing toxic waste pits, oil in the streets, towering flames of natural gas, and the pervasive smells of petroleum. The Company has clear-cut vast acreages of jungle.
The Company has led to poverty and disease like never before, but it has also brought gifts, jobs, and schools. The missionaries have in some ways run interference between the Company and the local populations, but they have imposed their own agendas, and have convinced younger generations that tribal ways are evil.
Since 1970, the national debt of Ecuador has gone from $300 million to $35 billion, the opposite of what the oil extractors promised, yet the Ecuadorean government—like so many other governments—has played along and accepted enormous debt in the peoples’ name. They have looked the other way as filth replaced natural wonders and pristine natural habitat. As Ecuador sank ever deeper into debt, oil prices declined, and oil companies claimed costs were higher than expected. They assured the government that clean-ups were being handled and going well.
The trajectory of the book shows how the natives are killed or absorbed, killed by disease from infection, toxic waste, contaminated drinking water, malnutrition, and all manner of accidents. The author specifically mentions malaria, polio, and tuberculosis, as well as fungal infections. He also describes the toxic effects of crude oil and cleaning up oil spills for slave wages by hand.
But the gifts were seductive, and the jobs attracted those who wanted a more modern life. Food like rice, salt, a kind of Kool-Aid, and lollipops, as well as tools, outboard motors and gas, began to creep into the jungle to take their places alongside the traditional manioc and monkey meat. The Huaorani wanted schools and health care, which the missionaries and oil companies promised to provide. Kane mentions the double-edged sword of literacy. Children were taught by missionaries to read (the Bible), but not to write.
The story hasn’t ended, but the fate of this hitherto isolated culture seems destined to change, and to change dramatically. At this point it doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, because it’s too late. Huaorani children are already forgetting the history of their clans, or they are being taught it was a “savage” one well left behind.
But, still, the book raises the disturbing question: “Who, after all, are the real savages?”