For millennia, the Indigenous peoples of the western Amazon have been living in balance with the rainforest and the beings and spirits that inhabit it. We have always defended our cultures and territories. First, from the arrival of the conquerors, and now from the threat of oil companies.
Traditionally, men have assumed leadership and led us in the defense of our territories. However, that began to change in 2016. That year, the Ecuadorian government granted licenses to oil companies to explore and drill on newly-delineated oil blocks within our ancestral territories. At that time, the government of then-president Rafael Correa was using his platform to discredit Indigenous organizations in the country, such as CONAIE (the national Indigenous organization of Ecuador) and CONFENIAE (the Amazonian Indigenous organization of Ecuador). In response, a group of women met and planted the first seeds of what became the Amazonian Women Defenders of the Rainforest Against Extraction (Mujeres Amazónicas).
Even under a government that had banned marches and stigmatized our Indigenous organizations, we organized a march of Amazonian women for International Women’s Day. We did this without fully knowing what we were facing: cold, illness, and the mockery of the government. But we did it. Approximately 200 women and children of all ages arrived in Quito on March 21, 2016. That was the moment when we overcame our fear of a tyrannical government.
The men were not aware of what we were doing. They thought it was a one-day demonstration and that we would be back, but Sarayaku was left without any women. “When are they coming back?” the men wondered. “What are they doing in Quito?”
It was an extremely difficult situation. We were staying in the CONAIE headquarters—an office in Quito—and we had little water. But with the solidarity of the people of Quito who brought us food and water, we felt supported.
President Correa refused to speak with us, but we received a lot of media coverage. What we told the media is that we did not want oil exploitation. The President claimed to have created a “plurinational” state, but we were women, children, and elders from multiple Indigenous nations and peoples, and we were clear that we did not want any oil drilling on our lands.
After two years of increased threats to our lives, lands and territories, including death threats to many of the Indigenous women leaders, we marched and mobilized to Quito again. And, finally in March 2018 we were received by a new President—Lenin Moreno and his ministers. For the first time in history, a delegation of Amazonian Indigenous women were received by the highest officials in the Ecuadorian government to say no to resource extraction. We arrived at the presidential palace and handed our Mandate to President Moreno. The ministers listened but did not look up; they were all staring at the ground, not wanting to look at the women. They did not want to see the pain their decisions had caused. Those who did were moved to tears.
They claimed they would do everything possible to respond to our demands, but there has been no official response to this day. This has not stopped us. We have shared our demands with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, the Resident Coordinator in Ecuador, the Ombudsman—the highest officials in Ecuador in charge of the protection of human rights, and to the new administration of President Guillermo Lasso. We are still waiting for answers and actions.
Considering that President Lasso has proposed an auction of new oil drilling blocks in Fall 2022, we will continue to share our demands and organize in our communities, territories, regionally, nationally and internationally to protect our lives, lands, bodies and territories.
As women, we know that the violence against the forest and against the earth is directly related to the violence against women and girls. So, to protect and heal our forest and our climate, we must protect and heal our women and girls. That is the work of Mujeres Amazónicas.
—Patricia and Nina Gualinga
Kichwa Indigenous Women from Sarayaku, Ecuadorian Amazon
Catalina Chumpi, Shaur
“In our territory we have rivers, waterfalls, jungle, mountains, and the spirits with whom we coexist. We gather our strength from these beings—from the jungle, the rivers, the waterfalls, and the mountains. That is why we, the women, have decided to fight for our territories, for those lakes, those waterfalls, for the spirits. They are what give us strength. Without our land, our territory, we are nobody.”
Catalina Chumpi is a Shuar elder from an area of Pastaza Province, where the Shuar and six other Indigenous nationalities inhabit a dense, extremely biodiverse part of the Ecuadorian Amazon. In Shuar culture, the elders transmit ancestral knowledge and wisdom to younger generations. Catalina is a guardian of the sacred songs of her people and walks with her wisdom and her songs everywhere she goes.
That’s why the leadership of the Amazonian women is so important, Catalina explains. “We, the Amazonian women, are those who say ‘STOP!’ If we don’t organize, who will defend us? We must speak for ourselves and declare that we want to live, we want clean air, we want forests, we don’t want our land damaged. We don’t want capitalism that will exterminate all us Indigenous people. We want to live in peace and we want to leave the forest intact for future generations.”
Catalina’s willingness to work hard for what she believes in is not unique among the Shuar. In fact, the Shuar have a history as a warrior people. “People used to say that we are rebels, that we are warriors. [But] the Shuar were also architects and scientists,” Catalina says proudly. “We built our own houses and we made our own poison to use on our spears.” Unfortunately, due to the efforts of missionaries and colonizers to con- vert the Amazon’s Indigenous peoples to the Christian religion and culture, the Shuar language is disappearing. “In the missions they beat us to force us to speak Spanish.” The legacy of colonialism still lives on today in Ecuador, and Indigenous languages are discriminated against in the education system and in society. “Now, many young people don’t know Shuar and don’t want to learn it,” Catalina laments.
“But we still maintain our relationship with the forest,” Catalina explains hopefully, “and we have preserved some of our songs and chants, like the song my grandmother taught me to have a good harvest, or the song to keep our enemies at bay. I have faith in our songs.”
Irene Toquetón, Sapara
Oil operations and the related influx of machinery, contamination, and people—mostly men—are a primary source of risk for the Sapara. Irene says she remembers her grandfather speaking to her about oil company activity many years ago. A company called Andes Petroleum—a consortium of two Chinese state-owned firms, China National Petroleum Corporation and China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation––signed a contract in 2016 with the Ecuadorian government for rights to oil exploration in Blocks 79 and 83, which overlap with Sapara ancestral territory.
The damage to oil-impacted neighboring communities like in Moretecocha provides Irene a clear example of the need to fight against oil companies. “I have seen how in Villano [a set of oil fields in the region exploited since 1999], where we plant plantains, it would grow but then fall down. The yucca went bad very quickly. We don’t want oil in our territory because our people live off hunting, fishing, farming.
“We also see what our relatives [in oil-affected areas] are living through . . . to have contaminated water like they have in Block 10, the fish dying, many people getting sick with cancer and many other illnesses.
“I am here to defend our territory. Not just as a Sapara woman, but united as Amazonian women—we are not just one [Indigenous] nationality, but seven defending the whole Amazon.
“If we women don’t unite, we will continue to be stepped on. Our voices won’t be heard. All of us women have to be united. That gives us strength and courage to continue our struggles defending territories. As Sapara, a life with dignity in our territory is to be able to continue to live as we live; that no one imposes on us [how we should live].”
Irene asks for support and solidarity from around the world for the Sapara and the Amazonian women. “Help us spread the word about what is happening in our territory, because we want to live in harmony with nature,” she says. “Join us in this fight, in this resistance, because we as Amazonians are fighting not just for our Amazon but for the whole world.”
Noemí Gualinga, Kichwa
“My youth in Sarayaku was very beautiful. I grew up with my parents, along with my six siblings. We all lived together, with my grandmother, all my aunts and uncles nearby. My childhood was always full with the unity of our family.”
Noemí Gualinga was born and raised in the Kichwa community of Sarayaku. In addition to the love and unity Noemí experienced as a child, the communal spirit of Sarayaku defined her early experiences and shaped how she sees the world. “I grew up watching the community mingas (workdays)—how everyone helped within the family, within the community,” she says.
“We have always organized to fight against oil companies, against mining companies, for our education; we have always been organized to do mingas—to open up new walking paths, to clean up the plaza where we meet. We didn’t have newspapers or radio, so we learned about what was happening in other cities or provinces via word of mouth. That was our way of communicating. The news outlet we used when I was young was the canoe.”
Territorial defense, Noemí makes clear, is an integral part of her and Sarayaku’s identity as Indigenous peoples. “We are nothing without our territories,” she says. “I realized this early on—when I was thirteen and saw our elders organize themselves.”
So, she says, “My hope for the future is that our territories are free! That we are left to live in peace. I want to someday hear that the women of my community and of nearby peoples are living in peace; that they are only worried about working, farming, getting together with other women, loving and caring for their children.”
This vision for the future is rooted in Kawsak Sacha (roughly translated as Living Forest). “Kawsak Sacha,” Noemí explains, “is a proposal from the Indigenous peoples of Pastaza, the Kichwa people; it was born in Sarayaku, where the hope is that anything that has to do with mining, with logging, no longer exists in this territory. Living Forest means that the forest is alive, with all its trees, the jungle, the hills, the rivers, and the beings that live within it, all of the invisible beings. And it must be us who send this message so that everyone can understand what a Living Forest is.”
Salomé Aranda, Kichwa
Suffering and oil are two threads irrevocably woven through the life of Salomé Aranda. This is not rare among Indigenous women whose ter- ritories are under the attack of extractive industries, because extraction and violence are interconnected.
Salomé was born and raised, along with seven siblings, in a Kichwa community called Moretecocha in Pastaza Province in the south-central region of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
“My father was a [subsistence] farmer,” Salomé explains. “He also hunted wild animals in the forest to feed the family. My mom also worked on the farm and raised the children.”
After finishing school, Salomé began to teach, eventually spending several years traveling to other parts of the Ecuadorian Amazon as a teacher. But educational leadership was not the only kind of leadership Salomé envisioned for herself. “From a very young age I dreamed of being a leader in the community,” she says. “As a little girl I witnessed the confrontations that our neighbors in Sarayaku had with the [oil] company.”
The Ecuadorian government granted the first oil contract for Block 10, which overlaps with Moretecocha, in 1988. Witnessing the suffering of her family inspired Salomé to act. “What I most value,” Salomé says, “is my culture, my customs, the reality that we live: this, the forest, the territory, the water.” So when she received an invitation to participate in a workshop on territorial defense, Salomé accepted. “I was looking for a way to become a defender of our territory.” Salomé was twenty-seven at the time.
Three months later, she was invited to visit Coca and see firsthand the contamination from oil companies. Coca, Ecuador, encompasses one of the worst environmental contamination sites in the world. There, Texaco—now Chevron—dumped more than 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater, spilled roughly 17 million gallons of crude oil, and left hazardous waste in hundreds of open pits dug out of the forest floor during oil operations from 1964 to 1990. Contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface streams has caused local Indigenous and campesino people to suffer a wave of mouth, stomach, and uterine cancers, as well as birth defects and spontaneous miscarriages.
“Little by little, I began to defend my territory, my rainforest, the life of my people,” says Salomé. “Now I am committed to moving forward.”
Mujeres Amazónicas is a collective of Amazonian Women, self-convened, defenders of the Amazon jungle against extractivism and social inequality.
Photos of Catalina, Irene, Nina, Noemi, and Salome by Santiago Cornejo.