Sunday, January 8, 2017

Ecuador 2017!

It's really hard to believe it's been six years since we started this project.  Over that time, we've been grappling with how to adapt and condense such a complex story into an hour and a half film.  But we're reaching the end.  This trip is probably the last we'll do for the film.  Today is our eighth day here.  Our group consists of me, Keith and Ricardo Ballesteros, our student from the BURECS Program at Boston University who was kind enough to join us as our translator/intern.  Originally from Mexico, Ricardo is a native Spanish speaker, which was most helpful for our interviews with the former and current Presidents of AMWAE, the Waorani women's organization, who live in a Waorani community in the town of Shell.

First, we interviewed the current president, Patricia Nenquihui.  She dressed in traditional Waorani clothes, and painted the area around her eyes with the waxy red coating found inside an achiote fruit, Bixa orellana.  As the new president, she talked about the many challenges the Wao face, in particular, of early pregnancy among young Waorani women.  She said the laws imposed on the Wao by the Ecuadorian government prevented them from disciplining their children the way they are accustomed to, and their children have thus run amok.  Kids learn about sex at increasingly younger ages, many at 5 or 6, and an alarming number are giving birth to their own children as soon as they are physically able.  In this era, with their land and way of life at such risk, Nenquihui believes proper education is the only way forward for the Wao.  That will never adequately happen with pregnant young women dropping out of school.  But also, the quality of the education they are able to receive is often abysmally low, which presents yet another challenge. Since first contact in 1957, a succession of schooling systems have been imposed on the Wao, initially from the evangelical missionaries, and later on from the Ecuadorian government.  One of the major problems is simply finding teachers willing to travel to Waorani communities, which are sometimes extremely remote, for very little money.  Those willing are often poorly educated themselves, and cannot find jobs elsewhere.  Worse, it is not uncommon for these teachers to form inappropriate relationships with their students, and many young Waorani women are giving birth to their teacher's children.  Those students able to make it all the way through school aren't developing skills sufficient to compete in the outside world, and worse, these schools take the Wao out of their traditional classrooms in the forest, so they are losing the skills necessary to survive in their own world.

The women of AMWAE are working to create opportunities for their children in ways the larger Waorani governing body is not.  Through promoting the sale of traditional artesian crafts and a new venture to grow and produce their own brand of chocolate, they are creating economic opportunities for the Wao to generate a sustainable income.  This, Ima hopes, will provide an economic platform from which Wao families can both maintain their traditions and have some stability in the outside world.  The work these women do is truly inspiring.  They seem to have the ability to realize a vision for their children and their people where others, both Wao and outsiders, have not.

Right now, having traveled from Quito to Puyo and Shell, then Coca, we've now parked ourselves at a bridge along the Via Auca, which crosses the Shiripuno River.  In a few minutes, we'll take a canoe up that river for 3 hours or so until we reach the Waorani community of Keweriono.  When we first started coming here, the trip took at least 6 hours, sometimes longer.  That's changed in part because of the failure of the ITT Initiative, which gave oil companies the go-ahead to drill in parts of Yasuni National Park and Waorani Territory.  To gain access to their land for seismic testing and eventually drilling, the oil companies traded motors, boats, generators, and satellite phones to the Waorani, so what were once heavy, dugout canoes have now been replaced with those made of lighter fiberglass.  The new boats and motors are much faster on the water, and since we are smack in the middle of the rainy season, water levels are high, which usually makes travel a little quicker.  

When we come back to civilization on the 15th, we hope to have plenty of media to share.  See you soon!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Defending Eden Sponsor-A-Showing Overview

Defending Eden shares the incredible story of five Waorani students as they document their ancestors’ knowledge of their homeland through a transmedia initiative that employs the photography and videography talents of the students. From their first introductions to the art of photography, the students demonstrated vast curiosity and remarkable artistry for this medium of expression and documentary. In order to pursue their interest and promise in documentary, Prehensile Productions is looking for sponsors to display and sell Waorani student photographs in local venues to educate others about this project and to buy the students cameras with the revenue generated from their photos.

Showing sponsorships range from the coffeeshop to museum levels. Each sponsorship covers the cost of photo printing, framing, matting, promotional materials, refreshments, shipping, and any additional expenses depending on the sponsor. Sponsors also determine the duration of the showing and the venue details for the display. Please see below for sponsorship details and cost overviews.

Thank you for helping the Waorani students continue their incredible work!

Coffee Shop Sponsorship
30 Student Photos
5 Student Portraits
Showing Programs and Posters..............................................................................$750
College Campus Showing
30 Student Photos
5 Student Portraits
Showing Programs and Posters
Informational booklet about the project featuring a selection of student   photos......$800
Gallery Sponsorship
30 Student Photos
5 Student Portraits
Showing Programs and Posters
6 Booklets featuring Waorani student photos...................................................$1,250   
Museum Installation
30 Student Photos
5 Student Portraits
Museum-quality photo frames
Showing Programs and Posters
6 Booklets featuring Waorani student photos..................................................$4,000

Sunday, April 29, 2012

©Tom McElroy

The Plight

Guest post by Tom McElroy  

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are more than 370 million indigenous people living in 70 countries throughout the world.  Despite their remoteness and relative separation from the western world, indigenous groups like the
Waorani often find themselves and their independence imposed upon by extractive industries, religious missionaries, settlers and states seeking political and territorial control.

Despite these groups historical continuity, the impact of outside contact generally has had deleterious effects on their physical, social and cultural well being.  In fact, indigenous people suffer from less education, greater poverty, higher suicide rates, infant mortality, incidences of communicable disease, rates of nutritional deficiency, and earlier deaths than the rest of the surrounding population in almost every nation (Amnesty 2008, IWGIA, 2006).  According to WHO, indigenous people are among the world's most marginalized population groups globally, and are frequently and pervasively subjugated to discrimination, violations of the right to life, health, land and traditions.  Essentially, they are the people whose position in the modern world is the least tenable (Niezen, 2003).

Indigenous cultural groups are marauded by a myriad of forces that impede their right to territory, natural resources, administration of justice, culture, education, autonomy, political participation and the right to self-determination.  As indigenous people struggle to manage the encroachment of the western world, they also struggle to maintain their historical connection to their land and traditions.  However, this is not always easy, and indigenous groups often find themselves caught.  As stated by a woman of the Tiwi Islands “Our children are stuck somewhere between a past they don’t understand and a future that won’t accept them and offers them nothing."

After years of neglect, the United Nations officially recognized the particular vulnerability of indigenous people with the creation of the ILO Convention #169 in 1989, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007.  As recognized in the Declaration, “indigenous people have suffered from historic injustices as a result of their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests."  Since the creation of the ILO 169, various steps have been taken and UN agreements have been created within human rights law to protect the rights and well being of indigenous groups. The movement gaining the most attention began in 1993 with the UN declared “International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People” (1995-2004)--a decade devoted to promoting international cooperation with regards to indigenous issues related to human rights, culture, the environment, development, education and health.

Despite the intentions of this decade, numerous UN members, including Kofi Annan, declared this decade a “complete failure” and indigenous people continued to suffer from the worst health reports globally (UNESC, 2004).  Due to the pervasive belief in the failure of the first decade the UN decided to create the “Second Decade of the World’s Indigenous People” from (2005-2014).  While some progress has been made during this decade, many problems persist and Indigenous People continue to face gross human rights violations from numerous actors.

As I continue blogging, I will attempt to show where and why international regulations fail to protect indigenous people by identifying accountability gaps in international laws that allow Transnational Corporations to avoid responsibility toward Indigenous groups.  I will also focus on how these loopholes have impeded the administration of justice in the case of Chevron/Texaco and the Waorani.

--Tom McElroy is a graduate student in International Policy at the University of Connecticut, and a professional photographer


Amnesty International. (2008). Leave us in peace! targeting civilians in columbia's internal conflict. Amensty International, AMR 23/023/2008, Retrieved from

IWGIA, 2006. The Indigenous World 2006, International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), ECOSOC Consultative Status, p10

Niezen, R. (2003). The origin of indigenism:human rights and the politics of identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

United Nations Economic and Social Council (2004). Report of the Secretary-General on the preliminary review by the Coordinator of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People on the activities of the United Nations system in relation to the Decade. New York, UN.

WHO. (2007). Health of indigenous people. World Health Organization Fact Sheet No 326,Retrieved.from

Thursday, April 26, 2012

©Tom McElroy

 Dirty Deeds

Consequences of oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon

©Tom McElroy
Since first contact over 50 years ago, a slew of environmental catastrophes wrecked havoc on the Waorani people’s homeland.  In the late ’60’s, the now defunct American oil company, Texaco, discovered oil near their territory, though further exploration provoked deadly clashes with Waorani warriors.  This prompted both the oil company and the Ecuadorian government to turn to missionaries, whom they provided with resources for relocating the Waorani to a “protectorate”.  More than 200 individuals were contacted and physically removed from Texaco’s path.  Many fled deeper into the rainforest where they still remain in voluntary isolation.  Of those lassoed into the protectorate, most converted to Christianity, and largely abandoned their traditions and way of life.  Alien diseases wiped out half of their population, and new sedentary lifestyles depleted valuable natural resources near their communities, forcing a dependence on imports.  As oil companies swooped into their ancestral lands, the forest fell devastated in the wake.  Today, this land and nearly all that of surrounding tribes became a “rainforest Chernobyl”, a wasteland of black sludge and frequent oil spills, which prompted a $6 billion lawsuit that remains unresolved today.  Beyond these damages, the rest of Ecuador’s lush environment also suffered.  Between 1990 and 2005, the country lost roughly 21.5 percent of its forest cover, and the rate of deforestation increased by 17 percent after the ’90’s.  Despite relatively recent efforts to assuage its deplorable reputation, Ecuador still has the highest deforestation rate and the worst environmental record of any South American country. 

Ecuador’s forests suffer at the hands of a number of industries including mining, illegal logging and slash/burn agriculture, though the most problematic has long remained oil production.  The aforementioned lawsuit is the controversial subject of the documentary, Crude, in which 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians sued Chevron (which bought Texaco) for Texaco’s 25 years of environmental misdeeds.  During that time, numerous oil spills in rivers, some exceeding volumes of the ExxonValdez in 1989, and the dumping of more than 20 billion gallons of toxic drilling by-products caused irreparable environmental damage.  Moreover, they were linked to an epidemic of dire health problems within nearby indigenous communities including cancer, skin infections, spontaneous abortions, and respiratory infections.  Despite damning evidence, Chevron vehemently denies any connection to or responsibility for these ailments.  But beyond the acute damages, perhaps the most devastating and long lasting of all deeds is road construction, which continues to inspire settlement and mass deforestation.  It single handedly encourages the annual destruction of hundreds of millions of acres, gradually whittling away viable hunting grounds for indigenous people, including the Waorani.  Living off the land is quickly becoming a memory of ages past.

©Tom McElroy
Of course, the glaring question here is how does a small group of indigenous people defend themselves and their forest against seemingly insurmountable odds?  With relatively little legal experience, they face the power of the government and an enormous multinational corporation.  For decades, Ecuador’s indigenous people’s have struggled to bring a multi-billion dollar corporation to justice while also challenging basic principles of international law.  Tom McElroy, a master’s student in International Policy at the University of Connecticut dedicated his thesis to identifying loopholes in the international legal system, which allow transnational corporations to circumnavigate international human rights regulations.  He has generously agreed to guest blog about his work.  Be on the lookout for his post coming soon.  In the meantime, check out his photography.  It’s awesome.

-Jennifer Berglund

Friday, April 6, 2012

Photography Class... what I learned.

Before leaving for the Waorani community of Kewediono last year, Jennie and I visited the small documentary team at the Gateway Middle School in Manhattan.  It just so happened that these students were beginning a video pen pal exchange with the students in Kewediono.  That was my first time ever teaching in a classroom, let alone teaching film-making. I had no clue what to expect, but what amazed me was how quickly the students learned how to use the camera equipment and advanced documentary techniques, especially when I compare it to my experience learning to use my first video camera as an adult.  I assumed it was because their generation more than any before grew up in a digitally saturated society.

After the class, the students equipped us with a small Canon Vixia camcorder and a Macbook Pro to bring, on loan, to the Waorani students.  Naturally, I assumed that teaching photography and film-making in Kewediono, a community without electricity let alone digital cameras, Macbooks and skyscrapers made of giant LED screens, was going to be much more challenging than teaching American students.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

There was no difference between the Waorani students' ability to learn documentary skills and camera techniques than people I have taught in the US.  Not just with the Canon consumer camcorder, but also with the professional dSLR cameras that we brought for our production.  At one point, one of the students asked Jennie if he could try her camera, the Canon 60D, which is a completely different camera than the camcorder they used in class. Without any instructions, he immediately disappeared with the camera.  When we found him he was about 30 feet up in a tree looking out over the community's rope swing with Jennie's camera.  Here are some of the photos he took.

Looking at all the photo files from that day, Toca had only taken four photos prior to these amazing shots.

If you think about it, digital technology is just as foreign to the average iPhone camera user than it is to the Waorani.  I have even met professional photographers who don't fully understand the concepts behind aperture, shutter speed and ISO yet capture amazing images.  Personally, I have no clue how companies like Canon then take those concepts and convert them into digital signals on a point and shoot or iPhone camera.  What I do know is that I see something I like and my camera captures it and stores it on a little plastic media card about the size of my fingernail. The objectives of a photographer or filmmaker is to observe the environment they are in, find a captivating subject or story within that environment and understand that subject enough so that they can capture its essence on film.  As hunter-gatherers that rely on all aspects of the forest in which they live, I can't think of anyone else who is more suited to document the wildlife, land, and culture of the rainforest than indigenous groups like the Waorani.  

Hundreds of photographers and filmmakers travel to the Amazon each year to capture the stunning wildlife and stories found there, including myself.  From my experience, composing the shot, setting the exposure and keeping a steady hand is by far the easiest part of capturing wildlife footage in places like the Amazon.  The hardest part is getting to the right place at the right time and knowing what you are looking at.  This is something that I know I will never excel at as well as even the youngest Waorani students.  That is why for me, this aspect of our project is the most exciting.   Because I love watching nature documentaries so much, I am so excited to see the footage they will capture, as well as the unique perspective they can offer as not only documentary-makers but also scientific researchers.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Having just returned from our East Coast tour, I must say it was truly a fantastic adventure.  But the fun hasn't stopped!  To those of you in the Boston area, we are hosting a unique event with the Animus Ensemble, a classical modern musical trio dedicated to expanding the boundaries of the traditional chamber ensemble.  We are combining forces to create an evening of stunning sights and sounds.  Fusing chamber music with a multimedia presentation, Animus Ensemble will perform the works of local composer Eva Kendrick, as well as E. Michael Martin, Ben Stonaker, and Libby Larsen, accompanied by spectacular images and footage from the in-progress documentary and transmedia campaign, Defending Eden. Keith and I will discuss Defending Eden, and the issues facing the Ecuadorian Amazon and the indigenous Waorani tribe. All proceeds will go towards the Waorani Documentary Project, a program providing media education to Waorani students.

Learn more and purchase discounted tickets here:

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Really fantastic event at American University tonight.  Thanks so much to all who came, and especially to Chris Palmer, founder of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, and a member of our board of advisers.