The Common Property Regime of the Huaorani Indians of Ecuador: Implications and Challenges to Conservation

This paper shows that the Huaorani Indians of the Ecuadorian Amazon possess
a long-standing common property management regime fostered by secure
ownership status of the land, the small size and kinship ties of residence
groups, the existence of mutual trust and reciprocity, and culturally sanctioned
rules of behavior. This regime, however, was focused on maintaining harmonious relationships between residents of the nanicabo and not on resource conservation (although it may have fostered epiphenomenal conservation).
It cannot be presumed that communal management of resources invariably
leads to conservation; other factors need to be present, such as a perception
of resource scarcity. The common property regime was designed for a situation
of plentiful resources, low population density, clear membership, and
behaviors held in check by respect for kin and the desire for good standing. It
was a sufficient and simple system for delimiting common property resources
from private property, based on implicit social boundaries and cultural understandings.
Now, confronted by powerful external forces, population growth,
and intermarriage with non-Huaorani, the system is faltering. Conservationist
practices, however, can be encouraged by adapting the earlier system to reflect
current conditions.


Using models from optimal foraging theory, Alvard (1993, 1994, 1995)
tested the hypothesis that the Piro Indians of Peru are conservationists,

i.e., make “subsistence decisions that are costly to the actor in the short
term but aimed at increasing sustainability in the long term” (Alvard, 1995,
p. 790). Alvard examined Piro hunting, specifically their inter- and intraspecific
prey choice and patch choice, and his results did not support the hypothesis
that they demonstrate conservationist behavior. The Piro were not
found to show restraint in hunting species vulnerable to overexploitation
(the large primates, tapir, and cracid game birds); they were not preferentially
killing individuals within a species with the lowest reproductive
value (males and individuals not of reproductive age); and they did not
avoid taking game opportunistically when travelling through depleted zones
on their way to more distant hunting areas. Alvard writes, “The apparent
balance of traditional peoples with their environments is more parsimoniously
explained with reference to their low population densities, limited
technology, and highly mobile foraging patterns. In such a context
the people simply did not have the capacity of overexploitation” (Alvard,
1995, p. 801).
Alvard’s work is commendable for its systematic exploration of conservation,
the use of quantitative field data, and the sparking of academic
debate. In a response to his work, Alcorn (1995, p. 803) provides a critique
that includes two points salient to this paper: first that contacts with outsiders
over the past several centuries have caused “drastic organizational changes
and fragmentation of cultural based knowledge” among Amazonian populations,
and second, that an investigation of conservation should examine
“the hypothesis that communities can effectively implement conservation
restraints through common-property resource-management systems.”
Ruttan (1998) takes this debate a step further, pointing out that common
property management systems cannot be presumed to be resourceconserving
and sustainable. For instance, monitoring the effects of extraction
on the resource base may be complicated by time lags, species with
complicated population dynamics, and density-independent factors. Moreover,
the primary aim of these management systems may be “gain rather
than restraint,” limiting who harvests the resource but not necessarily how
much is harvested (Ruttan, 1998, p. 50). Thus, it is important to document
whether populations of indigenous people are currently acting in a conservationist
manner, and also to explore the larger context of forces influencing
behavior and the conditions under which conservationist behavior is likely
to emerge.
This paper addresses Alcorn and Ruttan’s comments and examines
the resource management system of the Huaorani, a hunter–gatherer–
horticulturalist population in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I show that their
system was indeed a common property regime. I assert that this regime was
fostered by secure ownership status of the land, the small size and kinship

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani
ties of residence groups, the existence of mutual trust and reciprocity, and
culturally sanctioned rules of behavior. However, this regime did not necessarily
conserve resources. Instead, it had more to do with mediating interpersonal
relationships and boundaries than conservation of rain forest
resources that the Huaorani did not (and still do not) feel are critically
scarce. The common property regime was designed for a situation of plentiful
resources, low population density, clear membership, and behaviors held
in check by respect for kin and the desire for good standing.
Those conditions are changing dramatically as the Huaorani are currently
undergoing a period of rapid cultural change. This process of acculturation
was begun by missionary contact and subsequent market involvement,
formal schooling, and sedentarization, and has been catalyzed
by petroleum development leading to environmental degradation, increased
contact with outsiders, and more wage labor opportunities. I show how these
external forces impact the Huaorani common property management regime
and specifically discuss the challenges posed by a breakdown of the former
value system and demographic change. The common property management
regime, based upon cooperation and respect for cultural boundaries, now
is confronted by these rapid, pervasive, and profound forces of exogenous
change. Conservationist practices, however, can be encouraged by adapting
the earlier system to reflect current conditions.


Any discussion of conservation needs to take into account not only
actual patterns of resource use but also the social relations of property,
resource use rules, and conceptions of ownership. According to Bromley
and Cernea (1989), property is not a physical object such as land, but rather
a right to a benefit stream that is only as secure as the duty and obligation of
all others to respect the conditions that protect that stream. The nature of
property and the specification of rights to resources are determined by the
members of a society and the rules or conventions they establish, not by the
resource itself (Gibbs and Bromley, 1989). A structure of rights and duties
characterizing the relationship of individuals to one another with respect to
a particular resource is known as resource regime, of which there are four
types. The first are state property regimes, where ownership and control
over use of land and resources rests in the hands of the state (for example,
a national park). The second are private property regimes, in which the
owner has the social and legal sanction to exclude others and resist, through
the power of the state, unwanted intrusions. Similar to private property
regimes arecommonproperty regimes that can be viewed as private property for the group, and will be discussed further below. Finally, there are open
access regimes, which are characterized by the lack of property rights and
result from a breakdown of a management or authority system. There are
no property rights involved with open access, only capture, possession, and
defense (Bromley and Cernea, 1989).
Hardin’s claim that resources held communally are destined for overexploitation
(Hardin, 1968) has been challenged by scholars such as Bromley,
Ostrom, McKean, Berkes, McCay, and Acheson, who have argued that
Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” refers to a situation of open access
regimes, not common property regimes. Rather, in common property
regimes, a group of individuals can act as a private owner, sharing property
rights and creating a regime of common property rights for common
pool goods (McKean, 1996). A group of owners could still reap the benefits
of private property rights through long-term planning, investment in the
productivity of a resource, and stewardship.
Common property regimes are not a free-for-all but a structured ownership
arrangement within which management rules are developed, group
size is known and enforced, incentives exist for co-owners to follow accepted
institutional arrangements, and sanctions work to ensure compliance
(Bromley and Cernea, 1989, p. iii). According to Stevenson (1991, p. 40),
common property is a form of resource ownership with the following seven
necessary and sufficient conditions:
1. The resource unit has bounds that are well-defined by physical, biological,
and social parameters.
2. There is a well-delineated group of users, who are distinct from persons
excluded from resource use.
3. Multiple included users participate in resource extraction.
4. Explicit or implicit well-understood rules exist among users regarding
their rights and duties to one another about resource extraction.
5. Users share joint, nonexclusive entitlement to the in situ or fugitive
resource prior to its capture or use.
6. Users compete for the resource, and thereby impose negative externalities
on one another.
7. A well-delineated group of rights holders exists, which may or may
not coincide with the group of users.
All other resource use regimes fail to meet at least one of the conditions.
Stevenson (1991) describes common property as lying between private property
and open access on the gamut of resource regimes. Like private property,
common property arrangements have a definitive set of users and exclude
outsiders from use, and users control resource extraction. Like open access,
common property arrangements include multiple users who compete for the

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani 
resource. But because common property regimes define a specific user group
and control individual use rates, such arrangements—like private property
regimes—offer a solution to the open access problem.
Commonproperty regimes are a human invention specifically appropriate
for the management of a certain category of resources, called commonpool
resources. Common-pool resources are characterized by two traits: (1)
an exclusion problem and (2) subtractability.As with public goods, it is costly
to exclude noncontributing beneficiaries from them, which makes it unlikely
that these resources will receive investments in maintenance or protection.
As with private goods, the resource units harvested by one user are not
available to others; common-pool resources are at risk of being depleted
(McKean, 1996). Many environmental resources fall into the category of
common-pool resources, such as forests, grasslands, arable land, fisheries,
animal populations (especially mobile species), and waterways. A common
property regime is created when members of a group agree to limit individual
claims on resources in the expectation that others will do the same. Without
a critical mass of cooperation, resource conservation in a commons is
not possible.Without coordination and restraint an individual will consume
without regard to the whole.
There is increasing recognition that common-pool resource management
by local communities can promote the sustained use and conservation
of natural resources and ecosystem services. Case studies exist from such
diverse locations as Canada (Berkes, 1987), the United States (Acheson,
1987), Switzerland (Netting, 1981; Stevenson, 1991), Southeastern Borneo
(Vondal, 1987), Ethiopia (Bauer, 1987), Morocco (Gilles et al., 1992), India
(Blaikie et al., 1992; Jodha, 1992; Wade, 1992), Japan (McKean, 1992),
England (McCloskey, 1976), and Peru (Campbell and Godoy, 1986). Interestingly,
despite the commonly held perception of native Amazonian peoples
exemplifying the ideals of communal and collective living (e.g., Clad, 1988),
there are few studies (one exception being May, 1992) pertaining to common
property regimes in Amazonia. This omission is an egregious one given the
otherwise enormous attention given to sustainable use and conservation of
Neotropical rain forests.


The Amazonian region of Ecuador, or Oriente, encompasses substantial
cultural and linguistic diversity. Quichua and Jivaroan (Shuar and Achuar)
speakers are the most prominent, while the Cof´ an, Siona, Secoya,
Huaorani, and Zaparoan speakers comprise small groupings(Whitten, 1978).
Of these, the Huaorani are considered one of the least “acculturated” into
Ecuadorian society. Numbering approximately 1500–2000 individuals,
the Huaorani are scattered into two dozen villages located in the Napo,
Orellana, and Pastaza provinces of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Prior to sustained
contact with outsiders beginning in the late 1950s, the homeland of
the Huaorani was spread over an area of 20,000 km2, bordered on the north
by the Napo River and on the south by the Curaray River (Yost, 1991,
p. 97). These boundaries were maintained for generations by warfare among
Huaorani groups and with all outsiders, who were considered cohouri, a term
meaning “nonhuman cannibal.” This pattern of violence led to the title of
auca, a Quichua term meaning “savage” or “barbarian.” They refer to themselves as huaorani, meaning “the people,” speak huao tededo (a linguistic
isolate), and are known for their ornamental wearing of large balsa wood
earplugs (although this practice has declined dramatically in the younger
population). The first peaceful contact with the Huaorani by outsiders was
in 1958 by two women from the Summer Institute of Linguistics/Wycliffe
Bible Translator Inc., and Christian Missions in Many Lands. The missionaries
strongly discouraged Huaorani practices of warfare, infanticide, and
polygamy, and concentrated many of them into a “protectorate zone” of
about 1605 km2. This concentrated settlement pattern not only facilitated
the process of evangelization, but also removed “hostile” Huaorani from
areas that, beginning with a large find by a Texaco-Gulf consortium in 1967,
were being used for petroleum exploitation.
As in precontact days, the Huaorani economy is based on hunting, horticulture,
gathering, and fishing for subsistence. They derive most of their
carbohydrates from domestic crops and most of their protein from hunted
game or fish. Before the advent of firearms, arboreal prey such as monkeys
and birds were hunted with blowguns, whereas terrestrial game such as peccaries and tapir were taken with spears. Increasingly important sources of
protein, fish are taken with barbasco poison, scoop nets, hook and line, small
harpoons and diving visors, dynamite, and weighted nets. The greatest bulk
in the diet comes from manioc (Manihot esculenta), which is consumed as
a premasticated drink many times a day. Plantains, peanuts, peach palm
(Bactris gasipaes), and sweet potatoes also are important cultigens. The
Huaorani receive important supplements to their diets from wild fruits, nuts,
and tubers that they eat almost continually while walking through the forest
(Larrick et al., 1979, p. 162).
Currently, like the vast majority of native Amazonian societies, the
Huaorani are becoming increasingly integrated in the market economy.
Money earned from oil company work, tourism, sale of handicrafts and
timber, and work for the Huaorani federation is used to purchase shotguns,
ammunition, flashlights, clothing, pots, medicine, rice, tuna, lard, cola,
radios, and a slew of other manufactured items and outside foods. Young

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani 
Huaorani men especially spend significant periods of time living away from
the communities in towns such as Puyo or Coca.
Before missionary contact and subsequent aggregation and sedentarization,
the typical Huaorani settlement pattern involved one or two extended
families uniting to make a clearing that they occupied together (called a
nanicabo). The preferred pattern of residence is matrilocal, but is characterized
by a high degree of flexibility. They would move to other locations
every three to four months, always returning to the same locations cyclically
(Larrick et al., 1979, p. 163). This seminomadic pattern served many
functions: it dispersed human depletion of soil nutrients, faunal populations,
and other natural resources, and reduced the threat of attack by cohouri or
other Huaorani. The Huaorani possess an egalitarian political structure, and
are intensely independent and individualistic. There are no strict sex roles
in Huaorani society, but generally speaking, the men provide the family
with meat, clear the large trees for new gardens, and—before the advent of
the missionaries—protected the household and engaged in warfare.Women
undertake most of the agricultural tasks (planting, weeding, harvesting),
prepare the meals, and take care of the children. Women may engage in
hunting, and men may engage in more agricultural tasks than just chopping
trees, and there is no assessment of greater value or worth on one sex or
the other because they perform different tasks (Yost, 1991, pp. 108–109). A
recent assessment of changes in Huaorani gender relations and time allocation
is beyond the scope of this discussion and will be the subject of a later


When beginning dissertation fieldwork in 1996, I thought it would be
sufficient to devise a questionnaire asking about which resources are scarce
and how these resources are regulated, as a first step to learn more about
Huaorani concepts of property and resource regimes. In the 7 months I spent
living in the two communities of Quehueiri-ono and Huentaro, located along
the Shiripuno River, I conducted interviews with heads of all 18 households.
I inquired about resources available for use by all community members, use
rules and sanctions, areal extent and condition of resources, and requirements
for membership and rights to use resources. Interviews were mostly
conducted in Spanish with Huaorani conversant in the language, or in Huao
tededo, with the assistance of a resident teenage girl as a translator. I interviewed knowledgeable non-Huaorani (such as the Quichua schoolteacher in the village and missionaries). In particular, interviews with Patricia Kelley,
who has worked with the Huaorani for over two decades, provided a longitudinalperspective otherwise lacking because of a paucity of historical
documents. Participant observation was also undertaken at community activities, such as mingas (communal work days, discussed below).
The answers I received time and again from my Huaorani informants,
however, indicated that I was approaching the issue incorrectly by assuming
that the regime was conscious and codified. Repeatedly, I was told that no
resources were rare or scarce (except one instance when someone said that
the white-lipped peccary was uncommon). Different people used almost the
same phrases. One man said, “No faltan nada” (We lack for nothing), and
another said “No faltan recursos aqu´ı” (We do not lack resources here).
Responses about the existence of resource use rules were again very similar,
often using words like “libre” (free), “cualquier” (whatever, wherever), and
“tranquilo” (tranquil). One man told me very bluntly:
No hay control. Aqu´ı es libre. Nadie dice nada. Quiere pescar, pesca. Quiere hacer
caza, caza . . . Huaorani quiere vivir libre, cualquier sitio quiere hacer casa; cualquier
lugar, quiere hacer pesca; cualquier lugar, caceria. Libre, sin problemas.
There is no control. It is free here. No one says anything. If you want to fish, then fish.
If you want to hunt, hunt . . . The Huaorani want to live free, want to build houses
wherever, want to fish wherever, want to hunt wherever. Free, without problems.
(My translation)
Such responses highlight the point that property regimes, like other resource
management systems, do not have to be conscious, explicit, deliberate, or
codified, but maybe instead embodied in a cultural “script” (sensu Alcorn,
Little has been written about Huaorani collective activities, conceptions
of property and ownership, and resource use regimes. Rival (1992) reported
few traditional collective activities among this population, such as group
hunting of white-lipped peccary herds. Patricia Kelley (personal communication, April 30, 1997) added that when the Huaorani lived in small, kinbased settlements (nanicaboiri), food preparation, house building, and even
birth could be community-level activities. However, day to day obligations,
economic and otherwise, are limited to resident members of the group. Even
within the kindred, autonomy is the rule and active participation is minimal.
Outside the household or house cluster, little or no sharing or cooperation
takes place (Robarchek and Robarchek, 1998, p. 103).
In terms of traditional Huaorani concepts of property and ownership,
one of the few published sources I have found on the topic is Rival, who
Commonproperty, like private property, is a very confusing concept for the Huaorani. The village site is associated with the grandparents of the village founders. Therefore,the Huaorani live in a particular village in their capacity as “followers”. They are free

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani
to move their houses around, and to cultivate gardens wherever they choose, but there is no notion of land property. . . . In sum, the Huaorani do not seem to have a conception of collective ownership, because belonging to all, public property would not belong to anyone in particular. Such an abstraction is non-sensical. They do not conceptualize ownership as either private or public. When they say that a person (generally an older person), is the owner of a nanicabo onco, it means that he/she has built it with those who live in it with him/her: they are his/her “followers,” but he/she has no particular rights or obligations over them. (1992, pp. 305–306)

Huaorani concepts of ownership, as “libre” as Rival makes them sound, still
manifest a form of property rights and the right to possess as well as the right
to exclude.By saying that “he/she has no particular rights or obligations over
them,” Rival asserts that the Huaorani use a system of open access, but this
is not the case. Open access exhibits the absence of ex ante (prior to capture)
rights and duties. In open access, no one has the right to exclude another
from extracting a resource, nor is there any security of possessing a certain
amount of a resource.With no relationships based on rights and duties, in an
open access situation there is no property and no owners (Stevenson, 1991,
p. 51). I also disagree that the concepts of common property and private
property are “confusing concepts” for the Huaorani. Their culture provides
a means to conceptualize and categorize property that is sensible and explicable
for them, but may not be easily described using Western concepts
and a Western frame of reference. I believe that the traditional Huaorani
ownership regime can be categorized as common property, and I will show
this using the seven necessary and sufficient conditions for common property
from Stevenson (1991). I will also show that counter to Rival’s assertions,
the Huaorani differentiated between private and common property in two
ways: the capture or creation of a resource, and the establishment of cultural
Hill (1996, p. 167) described the resource use regime of the Ach´e of
eastern Paraguay as follows:
Individuals hunt, fish, and gather fruits anywhere on the reservation. They collect
firewood and fell trees for honey, insect larvae, or toolmaking whenever and wherever it suits them. Communal fishing : : : takes place whenever a sufficient number of people are willing to work together. There are no controls on the number, age, or sex of any animal species that is harvested, and there are no controls on the harvest of fruit trees (whole trees are often cut down). Although small plots of land do become the temporary property of individuals who clear them for planting (farmland is abundant and there is no competition for location or amount), the reservation’s resources are considered the property of any community member who wishes to exploit them.

The Ach´e regime has many parallels to the Huaorani situation. I have mentioned
earlier that the Huaorani deny the existence of any rules or quotas on
the number, types, or locations of any animal species harvested. People are
free to choose any location not already being used to clear a plot of land for
a garden. I have witnessed Huaorani out foraging for forest fruits cut down
434 Lu
multiple trees in one excursion. Despite sounding rather “open-access,” I
maintain that the Huaorani resource use regime falls under the category
of common property. These aforementioned behaviors hardly equate with
Western notions of “conservation,” and one of my points is that a common
property regime is not always synonymous with conservation. The key
question is, what conditions foster the development and maintenance of conservation?
One factor, the perception of natural scarcity, will be discussed
The first requirement for a common property regime is that the resource
unit being owned or managed has well-defined physical, biological,
or social boundaries. I do not propose that the Huaorani have common property
regimes for all resources, only for certain ones, such as forest land for
gardening and in some cases, hunting areas. Huaorani populations in various
communities have clearly defined physical boundaries for their territory
versus that of other ethnic groups, and between the territories of different
Huaorani subpopulations. According to Yost (1981), when contact was established
by missionaries in 1958, the Huaorani population was divided into
four groups (the Guequetairi, Piyemoidi, Baihuairi, and Herpeiri) totaling
about 500 people who were mutually hostile to one another. These groups
occupied distinct areas within the larger land base and were hesitant to traverse
boundaries for fear of attack; thus, social boundaries existed as well.
As the settlement pattern changed to that of more permanent communities
centered around a school and/or landing strip, what has not changed is a wellunderstood conception of the area belonging to each village. My Huaorani
informants were able to indicate on a topographic map where the area allocated
to Quehueiri-ono ended, which areas belonged to other villages, and
where there were interstitial regions.
Another body of evidence that supports the notion of physical and social
parameters defining resource unit boundaries is the names given to some
waterways in Huaorani territory (P. Kelley, personal communication, April
30, 1997). For instance, “To ˜ nampare” means “To ˜ nae’s stream” and Quihuaro means “Quihua’s river,” (To˜ nae and Quihua being the names of two men).
Interestingly, Quehueiri-ono means “river of the cannibals,” which indicates
that historically, the area was occupied by non-Huaorani, the cohouri. Thus,
it is possible that the naming of waterways after specific people or groups of
people was a means of territorial identification.
The second condition for common property according to Stevenson is a
well-delineated group of users, distinct from persons excluded from resource
use. Resources in Huaorani territory belong to a specifically defined group
of members, the Huaorani themselves, as distinct from other ethnic groups
such as the Quichua, Shuar, mestizos, etc. This distinction between Huaorani
and cohouri was traditionally clearly, and forcefully, made through Huaorani

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani
spearing raids of all outsiders. To this day, Huaorani are very clear on the
fact that only people belonging to their culture (and some of those who have
married in, as I elaborate below) can use the resources in their territory.
Another, even finer, distinction can be made between huaorani and
huarani. Huaorani literally means “the group of us,” and is a collective
term referring to the house-groups that share the same territory, feast together,
and intermarry. Huarani literally means “others,” and is used to name
Huaorani who are not related and who live in a different territorial unit
(Rival, 1992, p. 427). Traditionally, all huarani were seen as enemies or potential enemies, and were not to be trusted. So membership and the ability
to use resources in a specific area was not only limited to Huaorani people,
but even to a subcategory of Huaorani based upon kin relations. The
distinction between huaorani and huarani was perhaps more marked and important during the period preceding outside contact, when subpopulations
of Huaorani were mutually hostile to one another. Back then, the use of
resources of a specific nanicabo (house cluster) by an individual categorized
as huarani would probably result in conflict.
The third condition for common property is that multiple included users
participate in resource extraction. In other words, multiple people are eligible
to use a resource, and multiple people do the using rather than each
person having an entitlement to a separate segment. This condition helps
to differentiate common property from private property, as the latter obviously
involves control of a resource by one person, whereas common property is shared private property. This condition is easily satisfied by the Huaorani case, in which subpopulations of Huaorani numbering from less than a dozen to more than a few hundred compose communities that use local resources.
The fourth condition is an important one, and is difficult to substantiate in the Huaorani case. This condition states that explicit or implicit well-understood rules among users regarding their rights and duties to one another about resource extraction must exist in a common property regime.
For the Huaorani, I believe that many, if not all, of these traditional rules
are implicit cultural scripts having to do with social boundaries and understandings about when a resource was communal and when it was private
property. For example, peach palm trees are cultivated, and bear fruit after
a few years. This fruit ripens in the first few months of the year and creates
a time of plenty and a period of feasts and parties. Trees are owned by
specific individuals (those who planted them) and are handed down to family
members when these owners die. So one implicit cultural understanding
in Huaorani culture is that people are not allowed to harvest peach palm
fruit from other people’s trees without permission. In another example, a
Huaorani woman may discover a source of clay by the river with which to
make pots. She will talk to others about this clay source, and may divulge the
location of this resource, but it is understood that others will not go there
on their own to harvest it, but will instead ask her to take them to “her”
clay source. Similarly, when a Huaorani encounters a rodent and chases it
into a hole, the prey belongs to the person who initially found it, although
other people may help in flushing out the animal and killing it. In these
cases, the distinction between common property and private property has to
do with creation, discovery, or capture of a resource. These examples illustrate
rules that establish individual claims from the Huaorani commons—the
land, river, and faunal populations. An implicit mutual agreement existed
between individuals to respect one another’s peach palm trees, clay sources,
etc., and this recognition was rewarded.When people brought back meat, or
fruit, or resources to make handicrafts, they would often share those among
other residents. And if others needed garden produce, clay, etc., all that was
required was to approach the owner of that resource and ask him or her to
accompany them to harvest it. These requests were rarely turned down. By
respecting the property of others, the Huaorani maintained good relations
and kept themselves in a favorable position in sharing networks and social
The Huaorani also differentiated between common and private property
through the establishment of spatial social boundaries; for example the
space within a longhouse or nanicabo where, each hearth and associated
hammocks belong to specific people and define a social boundary. When
dinner was ready in each cooking-fire site, the members of that microspace
could simply turn their backs on the others and eat, and others respected
their privacy. Even children knew about these social boundaries. They may
want the food being consumed around one hearth, but they know that they
are not free to just walk into that space and take it. Patricia Kelley mentioned
the sight of a young child standing outside of another’s hearth, crying
and pointing at the food he desperately wanted but could not just go over to
eat! As part of their shared cultural understanding, the Huaorani had a clear
sense of social space and social boundaries that informed them about what
was a common area and what was private property. These boundaries were
established through mutual agreement and mutual understanding and were
not conceived of as explicit “rules” regarding rights and duties to one another
about resources.As Stevenson states, “In cases in which the rules of resource
extraction are traditional and implicit : : : this authority may be no more and
no less than the group consciousness and peer pressure” (Stevenson, 1991,
p. 42).
Condition number five for common property states that users share
joint, nonexclusive entitlement to the in situ or fugitive resource prior to
its capture or use. This condition also helps to further distinguish a private

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani
property regime from common property. Under private property, the in situ
resource is said to belong to a particular person, who has secure expectations
about possessing particular physical units as well as particular amounts
of the resource. Under common property, however, users may have secure
expectations about possessing certain amounts of the resource but not particular
physical units. This condition means that participants in a common
property arrangement share simultaneous prior-to-capture claims on a resource.
Therefore, an essential step in the use of common property resources
(except those which are more like public goods) is that they are “reduced”
to sole ownership through capture (Stevenson, 1991, p. 42). In the Huaorani
situation, the resources of the territory are open to any member who
wishes to exploit them, but the member must first clear and plant the garden,
stalk and kill the animal, pursue and capture the fish, or identify and
gather the forest fruit before he or she becomes the sole owner of that
Condition 6 states that users compete for the resource, and thereby
impose negative externalities on one another. This is not to imply that users
cannot cooperate in terms of resource extraction, but this condition helps to
distinguish common property from a corporation, in which two or more users
found an enterprise to exploit a resource by pooling their real and financial
assets and skills in order to enjoy a common return (Stevenson, 1991, p. 43).
This condition clearly applies in the Huaorani case. One user’s harvest of
animals means that fewer are available for another user; one user’s day
of barbasco fishing in a small stream renders that stream unproductive for
fishing for a few weeks until more fish recolonize and replenish it.Whenever
one user collects Astrocaryum chambira fiber, vines to make curare, tepenga
fruit, or any other wild forest product, that resource is unavailable to the next
The last condition for a common property regime is that a welldelineated
group of rights holders exists, which may or may not coincide
with the group of users. This condition recognizes, for instance, that common
property rights holders may rent their resource use rights to the actual
users. Where the rights holders and users diverge, this condition requires
that the rights holders be a group of people who fulfill the other institutional
criteria of common property. So if the Huaorani chose to rent part of their
territory to a company or to a rancher to start a cattle farm, continuing to
deem the use regime as common property would still be appropriate.
To summarize, I assert that traditional patterns of Huaorani resource
use falls under the category of common property. They were forms of resource
management in which a well-delineated group of competing users
(i.e., Huaorani people) participated in the extraction or use of a jointly
held fugitive resource according to implicitly understood rules (the cultural
script). These rules are not the type common in other societies with detailed
operational rules, for instance involving closed seasons or hunting
quotas, but are rather mutual understandings about how people relate to one
another vis- ` a-vis resource extraction, when common ownership of stock allows individual capture of flow, and about the nature of social boundaries.
With a small body of members controlling a large territory (a density of
about 0.06 persons per square mile at the time of sustained contact (Yost,
1981, p. 679)), a small, adamantly maintained membership obviated the need
for more formal regulations. Apparently there was enough concern to protect
lands and resources from others for the Huaorani to have laid exclusive
claims to their resources, but not enough perceived scarcity for them to
have started to worry about creating detailed and binding use rules. This
resource use regime developed in a specific sociocultural context, and now
faces the challenges of adapting to rapid and profound changes among the


The nature of cooperative activities has changed within the last few generations.
The temporary nanicabo longhouses have largely been replaced by
more permanent, nucleated, school settlements. In contrast to the types of
activities the Huaorani engaged in before as a community (processes crucial
to life, like hunting, food preparation, house building, and birth), the
activities they undertake now that could be considered collective often are
associated with external influences. For instance, the minga, or communal
work day, has been instituted along with the advent of formal schooling and
the establishment of landing strips. Most mingas in Huaorani territory involve
using machetes to clear overgrown grass by the school, the teacher’s
house, and on the landing strip. Another minga observed in the study community involved a group of about a dozen Huaorani going the oil town of
Coca to solicit school supplies from the military base there. These examples
illustrate that many collective Huaorani activities now deal with maintaining
the school and requests for goods from outsiders.
Not only has the nature of cooperation changed, but also the Huaorani
system of common property. Goodland et al.(1989) described five factors
leading to the breakdown of traditional common property management
systems: (1) increased participation in market economy, which encourages
overexploitation of resources previously harvested for subsistence; (2)
breakdown of traditional value systems; (3) population growth, leading to

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani
overexploitation of resources to meet subsistence needs; (4) technological
change, making it easier to overexploit; and (5) increased centralization
of power and application of inappropriate pricing, subsidies, legislation,
or other government incentives. Each factor is relevant to the changes in
Huaorani resource use regimes, but I will confine myself here to two: the
breakdown of traditional value systems and population growth.
A key attribute of the implicit property rules and social boundaries
discussed above was that they were tacitly understood and maintained by
mutual agreement. When the Huaorani lived in small subpopulations of
closely related kin, people were much more apt to obey these rules and be
mutually interdependent and much more accountable to each other. People
moved often to be where the resources were, and if individuals moved to a
certain village, it was to be with a sibling or parent or other close relative.
Now communities are defined by a school, landing strip, and soccer field,
and people now move to take advantage of these amenities. As settlements
become centered around a school and landing strip, communities become
larger, more permanent, and filled with more non-kin and non-Huaorani.
These residents are not necessarily accountable to each other.
In one of the villages in which I worked, it was clear that those social
boundaries and practices of respect for other people’s property were
breaking down. People began overstepping the bounds of what used to be
considered appropriate behavior, taking advantage of a traditional system
where possessions were shared extensively, and people were readily willing
to fulfill requests to share resources. One female head of household told me
how she had planted many plantain trees, which had begun to bear fruit.
Such a surplus of food was not lost on some other women, who requested
that she take them to her garden to harvest plantains.As this was the custom,
she readily agreed, but later realized that her initial generosity was taken
advantage of as the other women continued to harvest from her garden surreptitiously.
There are also many instances of theft between households. As
non-kin live together in communities with increasingly disparate levels of income and are consumption, people who are not able to get access to desired
goods and are not in a kin position to ask for them resort to stealing. Almost
every household I spoke with admitted that they had lost some things to
theft, such as pots, nice clothes, money, chickens, and purchased foods. Most
homes in this village had padlocks on the doors, and families tried to have
at least one person at home at all times to stand guard. Former implicit understandings of, and respect for, property ownership, as well as mechanisms
for accountability so integral to the traditional common property regime,
are currently being undermined by market forces, settlement patterns, and
changes in the socialization of youth.

As cultural understandings successfully followed in the past begin to
break down, there are few forms of recourse for individuals who have been
wronged. When I asked a shy man in his early twenties what he does when
someone borrows his canoe without asking and leaves him without transport,
he just shrugged and replied, “Camino” (I walk). When asked about their
responses to theft of their belongings, most of the people I interviewed
admitted that they did nothing and said nothing, preferring to “deja no
m´as” (just let it go). Although most of the time the victims of theft were
almost certain who the thieves were, the only time I observed punishment
being enforced was when the thief was a child who had been caught redhanded.
His punishment was to spend a night alone in an abandoned hut.
In precontact times the Huaorani had few methods of social control, relying
on the small size of settlements, constant face-to-face interactions, social
pressure and gossip, and the incentive of potential marriage partners to
maintain amiable and peaceful interpersonal relations. With contact and
the concomitant rapid change in the size and composition of communities,
non–family members have lost the power to control or to sanction, so unless
someone is angry enough to resort to violence, the only responses are to
keep quiet and let it go, or to move away.
Another important factor leading to the breakdown of the traditional
common property management system is population growth, either through
reproduction or immigration. From my limited data set for two villages totaling
161 individuals, I calculated the gross reproductive rate, children ever
born, and cumulative fertility rate and consistently found that women were
having an average of eight offsprings during their reproductive span (Lu,
1999). I lack data on infant mortality, but it has without a doubt declined because of cessation of infanticide and improved medical care. Observation of
the number of children and toddlers running around in the villages confirms
this impression.
The Huaorani themselves seem less concerned with their birth rate than
with the level of immigration of non-Huaorani into their territory. Most of
these immigrants are Quichua from nearby communities who have intermarried
with Huaorani. In the communities I studied, three of the eighteen
households were intermarriages of Huaorani with Quichua, and one of these
Quichua spouses had brought her family to live in the community. Although
the Huaorani spouse and his or her family may welcome or accept their
Quichua in-laws because they see them as more savvy or “civilized,” there
can be intense resentment on the part of many other villagers because these
Quichua spouses now bring their kin to fish and hunt in Huaorani territory.
Quichua vastly outnumber Huaorani (tens of thousands versus around two
thousand), and Quicha territory is largely depleted of game. Quichua population
expansion has led to their migration toward forest areas not part

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani
of their traditional territory. Two of the principal problems they face are
a lack of sufficient lands and legally established land tenure. The areas set
aside for the Quichua communities near Puyo, Tena, and Archidona are
not sufficient for their populations, and the subdivision of plots that were
titled earlier has left numerous families unable to subsist on their own production.
This has forced people to move to other areas where their land
rights are less secure and has created conflicts with colonists and other native
groups (Hicks, 1990, p. 32). Huaorani territory—defended for generations
with spears, sparsely inhabited, and still rich in fauna—is an enticing
outlet for the Quichua. But the territory is finite, and the Huaorani have
legal title to only a small fraction of their ancestral lands. With a high birth
rate, low death rate (due to medical care and the cessation of warfare and
infanticide), and the immigration of Quichua spouses and their families,
it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the common property regime
and increasingly important to devise a new regime with clear limits on resource
extraction, penalties for cheaters, and strict definitions of members
and boundaries.


As the former property regime becomes increasingly ineffective in mediating
resource use because of culture change and population pressure,
the establishment of a different common property regime will become increasingly
important in the future to avoid resource degradation. If the
Huaorani do not make some enforceable rules to restrict aggregate use,
they will lose the resources. Some characteristics of the Huaorani culture
and environment facilitate such a transition and have been linked to successful
common property regimes (Ostrom, 1992). The Huaorani have a
vast and detailed knowledge of their land base, identify clear-cut boundaries
between their lands and those of other groups as well as between different
Huaorani communities, and can also detect measures of resource conditions.
As members of a common property regime, the Huaorani also benefit
from a population size that is not yet overwhelming, an affinity and connection
to the land, a certain degree of homogeneity in terms of use patterns
and cultural values, and legal title to their lands from the Ecuadorian
Yet the barriers to the successful implementation of a different property
regime are significant. One of the most important is that the Huaorani do
not yet perceive their resources as scarce, and therefore worth the time and
effort to manage. Having experienced generations with a tiny population
relative to a huge land base, they believe in the idea of natural plenty. This
idea is based on the presumption that because the forest has always provided
what was needed, it will continue to do so with the same amount of effort
required on the part of the Huaorani. As Rival states,
The Huaorani refuse to produce more: they believe in natural abundance, and their social relations are primarily based on food sharing and consumption. Their ideal social order is to consume without producing . . . As gatherers, they prefer to rely on any kind of food they may obtain without having to produce it, i.e., through work.
(1992, pp. 379–380)

This idea of natural abundance obviating the need for conservation
becomes more deleterious to the maintenance of a resource base in light
of technological changes that make it easier to overexploit resources, of
demographic changes placing greater pressure on the resource base, and of
increased participation in a market economy that introduces nonsubsistence
considerations in resource extraction. Ironically, one response to these increased
pressures on resources has been for the Huaorani to make greater
demands on oil companies operating in the area for food aid. They have
tapped into a new food resource that for the time being allows them to
retain their relations of production and consumption (Rival, 1992).
Again, it is important to note that even the traditional form of common
property regime did not promote resource conservation. I know of no
resources deemed scarce enough to really implement substantial harvest
quotas and rules. Since no individual had exclusive access to any particular
resource, there was no motivation to forgo short-term opportunities in
exploitation in order to reap long-term gains. Any resource not exploited
immediately may simply be harvested by some other community member in
the future. Thus, apart from cultural rules and understandings about other
people’s property and space (which do not rule out epiphenomenal conservation), the traditional common property regime of the Huaorani did not
establish explicit resource conservation rules in part because of a belief in
natural affluence.
Apart from a concept of resource scarcity and worth, other factors
deemed important for a viable common property regime include common
understandings about membership and the type of access conveyed by membership, solid decision-making processes and mechanisms for conflict resolution, some experience with minimal organization, and solid ownership to the area that is not blocked by the government (Ostrom, 1992). These conditions are not satisfied in the Huaorani case. As mentioned before, intermarrying with Quichua has blurred the lines of membership and the type of access conveyed by that membership. Most Huaorani agree that the Quichua spouse of a Huaorani and their offspring are entitled to full access to resources, but it is unclear to what extent the Quichua’s extended family can legitimately
settle in Huaorani territory and exploit resources. Huaorani are increasingly

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani
establishing compradrazgo (godparent) relationships with outsiders as well,
not only with the Quichua but also other ethnic groups. This has advantages
in terms of aid in difficult times, a mediator with the outside world, or a place
to stay when away from their own territory, but it has potential costs if those
outsiders seek access to Huaorani resources.
In terms of decision making, conflict resolution, and social organization,
Huaorani culture can be characterized as extremely individualistic and
independent. Before contact with missionaries, the Huaorani lived in small
kin groups, which were autonomous. Even within these groups there were
no headmen and no formal councils. Even within households and nanicabo,
there was no authority beyond individuals’ powers of persuasion or coercion
(Robarchek and Robarchek, 1998). Few opportunities existed between
different kin groups to engage in joint decision making or conflict resolution
because of hostility and warfare. This individualistic pattern has continued
among the more sedentary communities of today, which do not have
elaborate decision-making processes based on consensus or discussion. As
explained by Robarchek and Robarchek, Huaorani social organization is
leaderless and decentralized, with few limits on individual autonomy and
few social obligations. With no institutions conferring authority or otherwise
imposing social control, there are no mechanisms for resolving disputes
or for containing a conflict (Robarchek and Robarchek, 1998, p. 143–144).
When someone feels wronged or conflict arises, the only real options are for
the parties to let the grudge go, for one party to move away, or the increasingly
rare mechanism where conflict provokes anger and spearing attacks.
Moreover, the lack of institutions of social control means that no political
structure is in place to discourage individuals from maximizing short-term
gains whenever a source exploitation opportunity presents itself. Thus, decision
making occurs at the individual or individual household level, with
little coordination at larger scales and few mechanisms to resolve conflict.
Within communities, the only larger-scale social organization in place is a
consequence of the external influence of the school, and is tolerated but not
treated seriously by the Huaorani.
In regards to land ownership, the Huaorani have legal title to their territory.
In 1983, the government legalized 66,570 hectares of their roughly
two million hectares of ancestral lands as a Huarorani “protectorate.” On
April 3, 1990, the Ecuadorian government granted the Huaorani legal title
to an additional 612,560 hectares of their traditional lands (Kimerling,
1991, p. 87). Under Ecuadorian law (“Ley de Mineria y de Hidrocarburos”),
no land titles are truly secure because all subsurface minerals are claimed
as property of the national government, which reserves the right to grant
prospecting concessions to private enterprises. Within Huaorani territory,
the Ecuadorian government has granted a number of concessions to foreign
oil companies, including Conoco, Maxus, YPF, Petro-Canada, Elf Aquitaine,
Petrobras, and Oryx. The Huaorani therefore have no control over when oil
activities will affect them, which company is involved, or where in their
territory such activities will occur. This adds a great deal of uncertainty since
any efforts to invest in a resource base could be undermined by petroleum
development that the Huaorani themselves cannot control. Although some
companies may negotiate with the Huaorani federation to establish a community relations program to maintain their public image, these programs
mostly entail a listing of gifts to the Huaorani in return for their cooperation
during oil activities. Thus, the Huaorani’s ownership of their territory cannot
truly be called “solid” because at any time the Ecuadorian government
could permit a foreign oil company to enter and begin exploration. This uncertainty undermines the sense of land security and ownership required for
a property regime.
According to Richard Chase Smith (1996), for indigenous and nonindigenous
Amazonians, a secure property regime is a crucial condition both
for ecologically viable long-term development and for biodiversity conservation.
The previous Huaorani common property regime functioned through
mutual agreement about boundaries and property, and was an elegant and
sufficient arrangement that organized resource users without incurring high
costs from organizational effort or enforcement. That regime was developed
in a specific context, and it has eroded as a result of contact with outsiders
and concomitant changes in demography, economics, and culture. The
degradation of the resource base caused by new procurement technologies,
demographic growth, and incursions by other groups and oil companies will
necessitate a new property regime that strictly defines members and regulates
their resource use. Such a change, however, needs to be preceded by
a perception of resource scarcity and worth, the establishment of a social
organization conducive to decision making and conflict resolution, as well
as secure land tenure that assures the Huaorani that any investments they
make in the resource base will not be undermined by petroleum activities
or colonist incursions. Only then will the institutional environment be conducive to the conservation of the natural environment. The Huaorani could
hold on to their resources if they had a greater readiness to make rules among
themselves, to create punishments and sanctions among themselves, to apply
these punishments and sanctions to invaders, and to make additional rules to
cover the situation of intermarriage with Quichua. The former regime could
serve as a framework, modified to reflect the current situation—it could be
changed instead of being tossed aside. The danger, as Ostrom (2001) puts
it, is “that exogenous shocks leading to a change in relative abundance of
the resource units occur rapidly and appropriators may not adapt quickly
enough to the new circumstances” (2001, p. 25). The time has come for

Common Property Regimes of the Huaorani

the debate in academia to move away from “ecologically noble savages”
(Redford, 1990) and toward a discussion ofhowwecan foster conservationist
behavior in hand with cultural survival. The Huaorani need the opportunity
to add resilience to their social arrangements.


I would like to thank PatriciaKelley, BruceWinterhalder,MegMcKean,
Lore Ruttan, and two anonymous reviewers for their contributions and critiques
of drafts of this paper.An earlier version of this paper was presented at
the Latin American Studies Association meetings in Miami, March 16–18,
2000. Funding for this research was generously provided by the National
Science Foundation (SBR-9603008), the Inter-American Foundation, and
Sigma Xi. Funding was also received from various sources at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: the Graduate School, the Institute
for Latin American Studies, the University Center for International Studies,
and the Royster Society of Fellows. My deep gratitude also to Chris Holt,
Julie Lu, Luigina Fossati, and of course the Huaorani and Quichua residents
who generously assisted me in dissertation fieldwork.

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17 Responses to “The Common Property Regime of the Huaorani Indians of Ecuador: Implications and Challenges to Conservation”

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