Before Texaco's arrival in 1964, the Oriente was sparsely populated and its environment pristine. The indigenous peoples of the area included the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa, and Huaorani. They lived by a combination of hunting, gathering, fishing and small-scale, subsistence agriculture. The populations of these indigenous groups had been greatly reduced by prior conflict with settlers, and disease epidemics brought on by contact with the outside world, particularly during the rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nonetheless, many ancient traditions were intact, and indigenous people lived in close harmony with the forest, subtly managing its resources in sophisticated and ecologically sustainable ways. At the time, two nomadic indigenous groups, the Tetetes and the Sansahuari, inhabited the region and were as of yet uncontacted by the outside world. Shortly after Texaco's arrival, they were reported to have disappeared forever.
Elders recall the dramatic shock precipitated by the sudden arrival of Texaco into this environment in the 1960s. According to one reporter, the oil company "arrived with all the subtlety of an invading army." Oil workers showed little respect for native cultures; more than half of people in one survey recalled being treated "poorly" or "very poorly" by Texaco workers. Workers ridiculed indigenous people for their customs and ways of dress, were hostile or unresponsive to those with grievances against the company, and committed acts of sexual violence. Texaco workers introduced alcohol to communities unprepared for it; one Cofán chief died after a drinking bout. None of these social disruptions, however, were anything compared to the devastation that Texaco's oil operations themselves would bring.
"[Texaco] drilled wells and set off dynamite next to our people's houses; it was a totally different world for us. We began to live in a world very different from before, with noise, big machines and oil spills and petroleum waste products."
– Ricardo Piaguaje, President of the Secoya Federation
For many indigenous people, Texaco's oil operations all but destroyed a way of life that had prospered for centuries. A road completed by Texaco in 1972, linking Lago Agrio to the Andes mountains to the west, invited settlement by migrants from the highlands. Indigenous people who left their lands because, as a Cofán leader put it, "they didn't want to live next to a highway," never got them back. Contamination reduced fish and game stocks; those used to subsisting by hunting and gathering found it impossible to survive by those methods any longer. Indigenous cultural traditions and beliefs died alongside traditional ways of life.
The people of the Oriente now suffer an exploding public health crisis, and dire poverty is endemic. All of the traditional indigenous communities of the region have been greatly affected. Chevron claims that the Cofán have actually increased in number since its arrival in Ecuador; what Chevron won't say is that Cofán culture is in danger of extinction – the one community that still practices a traditional lifestyle is home to fewer than 80 people. Due to Texaco's operations, most ethnic Cofán and other indigenous people have been forced off their ancestral lands, or restricted to a small portion of them.