Dangerous liaisons

November 5, 1999

After a bloody warning from a fierce Amazonian tribe, a student research group left in a hurry. Jennifer Currie asks if such expeditions tread too perilous a path.

John Groom knows he is a lucky man. With several years of survival training under his belt, he felt the most dangerous thing he might encounter trekking in Ecuador's Amazonian rainforest with a group of London students was a poisonous snake. To be faced then with three members of the Tagaeri, one of the Amazon's most feared tribes, last seen more than five years ago, was something no training could have prepared him for.

"I had split off from the group to go and purify some water, when I was approached by three Tagaeri," Groom says. "The tribesmen were naked, save for a piece of string around their waist, and they all carried spears with serrated edges. The older Tagaeri took the spears from the two younger men and stuck them in the ground. With one hand he pointed in the direction we had come into the jungle. He used his other to flick his own spear downwards and then he jabbed it into my thigh. It was definitely a warning to us to leave the area."

Despite his wound, Groom made his way back to the group through the fast-gathering gloom. "Sheer adrenaline kept me going," Groom recalls. "When I got back to the others, our Ecuadoran guide thought we should vacate the area immediately." The frightened researchers took only two hours to return to the main camp - a trip that had taken four daylight hours. "We had to navigate our way through dense jungle, classic snake country, in the dark," Groom says. "Someone must have been looking out for us that night - not one of us was bitten."

Today Groom knows how lucky he was to escape with a minor leg wound. In July 1987, Monsignor Lebaca, the bishop of Coca to ask the Tagaeri if they would consider leaving the area before the oil companies moved in to explore for oil.

The bishop and Sister Ines Arango were dropped into a clearing by a helicopter and warmly welcomed by the tribe. When the helicopter returned days later to collect its passengers, the pilot found the bishop's naked body pinned down in the clearing by 17 spears decorated with feathers. He had been stabbed 180 times. Sister Arango's body was found in a similar condition. Missionaries, oil workers and soldiers have also fallen prey to the Tagaeri over the years.

The Tagaeri, whose name translates as the "angry ones", were formed after a raid in the 1970s divided the larger Huaorani clan. The splinter group fled deep into the rainforest. Little is known about this dwindling tribe, but its scant chronology of contact with the outside world is peppered with killings.

"We have had the dubious honour of meeting the Tagaeri and of walking away," Groom says. "It is important to understand that this warning is a big change in the way they behave. They have been on the run for a long time, and perhaps they are tired of being persecuted. I think their warning was a way of showing us that they are not savages and that they just want to be left alone."

But the incident is bound to raise questions once again about whether student-led expeditions tread too dangerous a path. In January 1996, four Cambridge students on a science research trip were kidnapped by a band of West Papuan guerrillas. The students were released unharmed, but their abduction forced some universities to rethink their attitudes towards field trips. Glasgow University has since ruled that a staff member must accompany any expedition.

Groom, a science research officer with the Royal Navy, accompanied a group of eight students from Royal Holloway College, part of the University of London, to Ecuador's Yasuni National Park in June, on a ten-week research project to assess the impact of the oil industry and a rise in tourism on the Huaorani. An academic report on the expedition is to be presented to Ecuador's National Parks Department, Survival International and Tourism Concern, and the Royal Geographical Society. The group will also produce a leaflet for travellers outlining the Huaorani's feelings about tourism.

When the Cambridge students were kidnapped in West Papua, travel writer Julian Evans attacked their "science-tourism", in which, he said, "the privileged products of our universities travel as residents of the free world patronising the poor". Students and researchers, he argued, "have become consumers of travel", just like the package holiday-maker, seeking far-flung corners of the globe to conduct their research, which "is of highly variable quality".

It is a charge that Chris Abbott, the Royal Holloway expedition leader, is quick to reject. "We worked really hard to give the Huaorani something back. I do think that some people go abroad with the wrong idea, but we did not go to have a laugh." A psychology undergraduate at Royal Holloway at the time of the trip, he is pleased that the project achieved its aim of increasing the Huaorani's awareness of tourism's pitfalls.

"As well as recording rites of passage, we were able to explain to the Huaorani that their dances and songs might become just for show, as the number of backpackers (travelling to Ecuador) increased. We also instigated community discussions that showed that many members had mixed feelings on the issue, though the leaders all give an impression of consensus."

Royal Holloway's college secretary, Mike Miller, worked with the college's safety officer, Ben Timson, to ensure that the students were prepared for the trip. "All field trips and expeditions, whether organised through departments or clubs affiliated to the students union, must adhere to a rigorous safety code that includes a thorough risk assessment," Miller says. "Given the complexity of the Yasuni expedition, the college went further, reviewing the group's insurance and emergency plans and lodging emergency funds with the British embassy in Quito. Having conducted this review, the college was satisfied that it had done all it reasonably could to protect its students."

In December To the Ends of the Earth, a one-hour documentary, will be screened on Channel 4. Made by a two-person camera crew from Cicada Films, it records the students' travels in Ecuador, where they spent five weeks living in accommodation provided by the Huaorani. It will reveal that the students' decision to trek further into the jungle was made after they heard rumours of the whereabouts of a breakaway tribe who had moved after disagreements arose over the increase in the tourist trade. "We went in search of them because we thought it would be interesting to see what problems they had with tourism," Groom recalls. "It fitted in well with our research aims."

Groom is thankful that the spearing incident was not caught on film, as he fears that it could easily be misinterpreted. "It would be very easy for those with a vested interest in the area, oil companies, for instance, to use this as a chance to hurt these people," he says. Abbott also praises the college for its handling of the situation. "They were obviously concerned, but they knew it was a one-off and that we had been unlucky. It would have been stupid if they decided not to allow any more student expeditions because of what happened to us."

In fact, Royal Holloway has taken the opposite approach and is supporting a return visit to the Huaorani next year.

"The college should feel no responsibility for what happened," Groom says. "Part of the achievement of an expedition is knowing the risks, accepting them and overcoming them. Between 80 and 90 per cent of expeditions come unstuck at some point, and 50 per cent fail very badly. There was no negligence on anyone's part. What happened to us was a complete fluke, and there was no way we could have planned against it. At the end of the day, we had this remarkable incident and still managed to get our research done. We are all really chuffed."

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