Bearing Witness: Indigenous women fight Ecuadorian government to protect Sarayaku

Ed. note: This post is part of a series, “Bearing Witness,” highlighting indigenous women fighting for climate justice in the Americas. Read the rest of the series here.

“I don’t have words to describe my childhood, but it was beautiful. I could not ask for anything better.” Nina Gualinga grew up in the Ecuadorian rainforest, part of the Kichwa people in a region called Sarayaku. One day when Nina was seven years old, helicopters and men with guns began arriving in her Amazonian community. For months, staff, soldiers, and security guards set up explosives, dug wells, and flew helicopters over her community.

“That was the first time I feared that my land and the life that I knew was going to be destroyed,” Nina said of the experience on Democracy Now.

The men were exploring for oil. Without even notifying the people living there, in 1996 the Ecuadorian government had imposed oil concession blocks on the Sarayaku territory where Nina and 1,200 other Kichwa people lived, allowing the Argentinean General Fuel Company’s (CGC) exploration activities to threaten the local ecosystem and the Kichwa people’s way of life. CGC’s invasion prevented the Kichwa from producing food and practicing the economic, cultural, and spiritual traditions that formed their community, amounting to what the people of Sarayaku called ethnocide. CGC placed thousands of pounds of explosives in the sacred jungle of Sarayaku, and to this day, popular hunting and gathering spots are unsafe to access.

Once they understood what was happening, the community called a state of emergency and began organizing. They gathered men, women, and children in what they called Peace Camps, through which they occupied the CGC’s area of work. I spoke with Patricia Gualinga, Nina’s aunt and a key protagonist in the Sarayaku movement. “No one stayed quiet in the fight to defend the Sarayaku,” she told me. “Everyone participated — men, women, even elders who cared for the children while at the Peace Camps.”

The Kichwa women, like Patricia, were leaders within the movement and have stood as examples for similar struggles against resource extraction. “Women’s role in the defense of our territory has been fundamental — they came up with the idea that we should fight to protect our land from oil exploration altogether,” Patricia says . “The women — supported by the men — did not offer to negotiate. They demanded that the Ecuadorian government respect their wishes and commit to never explore for oil on our territories.”

In response, the Ecuadorian government did everything they could to discourage them from resisting: they sent federal forces to close off the river leading into Kichwa territory, imposed criminal charges on Kichwa leaders, and harassed community members.

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But for the Kichwa of Sarayaku, backing down was not an option. In addition to the Peace Camps, they launched media campaigns, built powerful international partnerships with organizations like Amazon Watch, and relied on global human rights tools to fight for their land. In 2011, the people of Sarayaku sent a delegation of 20 people — including Nina, who represented the youth of the Sarayaku, and Patricia — to testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) against the Ecuadorian government, claiming that the state had violated their right to free, prior, and informed consultation, recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

A year later, the IACHR ruled that never again could the Ecuadorian government begin oil exploration activities without the consent of indigenous people living on the affected land. In 2014, four Ecuadorian government ministries came to the Sarayaku community to publicly apologize for rights violations, in what is believed to be the first time in Latin America that such an apology occurred. A community of 1,200 people had changed the game in the fight against resource extraction, and set a precedent for indigenous struggles throughout the Americas. And the initial group of women leaders who started the fight for Sarayaku had set a norm for future generations of Kichwa women, who continue to be vocal leaders for their community.

Unfortunately, however big this win was, indigenous people in the Amazon still face enormous threats to their land and lifestyle. “There’s never a moment where I’ve felt that I can rest, that our land is safe,” Nina said in a recent interview with Refinery29. After Venezuela and Brazil, Ecuador has the third-largest oil reserves on the continent, which the country’s economy has come to depend on. In an effort to mitigate the destruction that years of drilling for oil has brought upon the Amazon, President Correa backed a proposal in 2010 to keep millions of barrels of oil in the ground. The Yasuni Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) initiative asked the governments of Global North countries to contribute funds that would allow Ecuador not to tap into the vast oil reserves that exist under Yasuni National Park, believed to be one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Ecuador wasn’t asking for charity — it was asking for the developed countries who consume most of the world’s fuel and contribute the most carbon to our atmosphere to pay for some of the damage they had inflicted and help to prevent more. But, unable to attract enough funding, Correa abandoned the plan and in 2014 gave oil company Petroamazonas permission to prepare for drilling in the reserve. Production could begin as early as 2016.


Nina Gualinga, international indigenous rights activist and Sarayaku youth representative to the IACHR. (Photo credit: Caroline Bennett via Amazon Watch)

In spite of this devastating news, no one is backing down, least of all the fierce indigenous women of the Amazon. In response to Correa’s decision not to pursue the Yasuni ITT proposal, 100 women from seven indigenous nationalities launched a march from Puyo to Quito, Ecuador, in the Women’s Mobilization for Life. Patricia played a crucial role in this action, and spoke when the women were welcomed into the National Assembly of Ecuador:

“We, as women, are disproportionately affected by these oil exploration. We don’t want oil expansion. We want our country to develop alternative energy plans. We want a post-petroleum economy. We want the Amazon to be valued for what it is, not just economic resources.”

Indigenous people continue to mobilize on the streets of Ecuador. I’ve covered the historic protests that rocked the country a few months ago, in which protesters – particularly women — faced violent repression at the hands of government forces. But Patricia, Nina, and the people of Sarayaku press on with plans to bring their proposal on how to address climate change to the Paris Climate Talks in December, “along with canoes, feathers, and drums, the symbols of our way of life, which is being threatened by climate change and resource extraction,” Patricia says.

The proposal offers a holistic approach to protecting the rainforest. “It incorporates things that you can’t always see, not just animals and people.” To preserve the rainforest, says Patricia, we must preserve traditions and histories which tie people to the land.

“These things hold the world together. If they disappear it will throw the whole system off.”

Header image credit: Patricia Gualinga via Monga Bay

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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