Waorani people from Ecuador's Amazon rainforest gathered in the town of Puyo to protest plans to open up their lands to oil exploration

Puyo (Ecuador) (AFP) - In dugout canoes and on foot, dozens of people from an indigenous tribe have emerged from the Amazon rainforest in eastern Ecuador to protest against government plans to open up their lands to oil exploration.

With painted faces and wearing tufts of multicolored feathers, traditionally dressed Waorani people marched through the streets of the town of Puyo to the provincial courthouse, where a legal bid to halt the process began Thursday.

“They have come from far away to make their claim,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, head of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality.

Some, she said, had been “walking for eight hours. Some came in canoes for about three days.”

At stake is some 180,000 hectares of ancestral Amazon jungle land the Waorani want to keep free of oil exploration

The marchers represented 16 Waorani communities scattered across the dense Amazonian jungle in the north of Ecuador’s vast Pastaza province.

At stake is some 180,000 hectares of ancestral lands. Puyo, the provincial capital, is located on the eastern edge of Ecuador’s Amazon basin.

- ‘The jungle is our life’ -

There are some 3,000 Waorani people living in Ecuador's jungle

Under a large banner that read “The jungle is our life. No more oil,” the procession marched to the courthouse for the start of a hearing in their suit taken to protect their constitutional rights to the land.

The Waoranis are seeking to prevent the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources, and the Ministry for the Environment to sell exploration licences to big oil companies.

It seeks to keep the jungle area of Pastaza free of all oil exploration activities, said Nenquimo.

The Waorani, who number around 3,000, also inhabit other Amazonian provinces. Nenquimo said they had come to Puyo to ensure the state respects their lands, where she said “they live freely, healthy and happy.”

Indigenous people from 16 Waorani communities in Ecuador's Pastaza province took part in the protest

The lands are protected under Ecuador’s constitution that establishes the “inalienable, unseizable and indivisible” rights of indigenous people “to maintain possession of their ancestral lands and obtain their free adjudication.”

Former social democrat president Rodrigo Borja handed over title to some one million hectares to indigenous communities during his 1988-1992 presidency. Crucially, however, the wealth in the subsoil is owned by the state.

The Waorani protesters came to Puyo to ensure the state respects their land - even though the state nominally owns any underground mineral wealth

The constitution also enshrines the need for prior consultation on any plans to exploit the underground resources, given the probable environmental and cultural impacts on tribal communities.

The state reached an agreement with the Waorani over oil exploration in 2012, but the tribe’s leaders say they were duped.

A Waorani woman gets help with her face paint during the protest

“The state in 2012 violated our rights of free, prior and informed consultation. The government trying to sell our lands,” said Waorani spokesman Oswando Nenquimo.

The Waorani people – including two clans that remain in voluntary isolation and are enemies among themselves – are seeking court protection to avoid an oil bidding process developing, until a new consultation process can be agreed.