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Amazon, Ecuador

Jungle Mothers: Diana Tanguila and Her Fight Against Extractivism in Arajuno, Ecuador

The second installment of this special from La Línea de Fuego, produced with the support of Earth Journalism Network, tells the story of Diana Tanguila, her life and struggle against extractivism in Arajuno, in the province of Pastaza. A story of marches, rebellion and threats, from a Kichwa and woman's perspective, to protect a large part of the biodiversity that the Yasuní nourishes.

Under the midday sun, the small urban area of ​​Arajuno burns and blinds. The cool, green edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle, a few hundred meters away, looks like an imaginary oasis seen from the shadeless streets. Movements and words drag, like sweat on the skin.

In front of a group of sculptures of dubious quality, Diana Tanguila does not repress a gesture of disgust:

"They fill this circle [roundabout] with cement plants and animals, when we are surrounded by real trees and flowers," she questions.

This canton of the Pastaza province is home to more than 40% of the Yasuní National Park Biosphere Reserve. But here, in the city, a leopard and two macaws made of concrete pretend to look at us with their painted eyes. The whole set reflects that sterile, dry and cornered nature proposed by certain soot-covered ideas of “development.”. Only 3-year-old Yarik, Diana's youngest son, laughs as he climbs among the false branches and breaks with the decorative immobility. To live is to rebel against death.

A community

Since she was a little girl, Diana knew what rebellion was about. When she was barely 4 years old, she saw her parents walk 12 days and more than 500 kilometers to Quito, together with thousands of neighbors and relatives. Fifty years before, Dolores Cacuango had shown them the way: Multitudes of Indigenous people marched with her and still continue to do so, feet and chants in step, so that their demands echo throughout the country. The Indigenous March of 1992 was the first to sit down to negotiate with an Ecuadorian president, Rodrigo Borja. And they only left Carondelet Palace — the seat of government — when they obtained recognition of the community property rights of their ancestral territories.

"My parents always instilled in me to participate in congresses, in organizational life. I admired all that work they did, like that of my grandparents."

Her grandparents came from Napo to settle in Arajuno. They raised their family on the banks of the Oglán River. Hunger and thirst do not nest near water. There they founded the communities of Elena Andy and CEPLOA (which in Spanish stands for the Pablo López of Upper Oglán Ethnoecological Community), which they later led. Later, their children — Diana's parents and aunts and uncles — inherited that dignity.

group of people
Diana Tanguila (first from the right, standing), wearing CEPLOA community clothing, with members of Arajuno Olympic Wrestling Team / Credit: Diana Tanguila's personal archive.

Communities are extended families, where leadership is assumed as naturally as any other task. Women, guardians of their mother tongue, Amazonian Kichwa, also take care of everything it names: the environment, its inhabitants, each lifecycle. Diana's mother, a teacher, toured the nearby towns giving classes and took her daughters along with her since they could walk. Almost playing, the girls mixed mathematics with traditional medicine; their first reading materials mixed with the organization of their people.

"I remember that there was a road here that did not go to any community, and I asked what was the reason. My dad told me that it was from the Shell company, that they had come to do the exploration for their wells. But at that time the oil was dry and they had to leave."

In 1941 that company entered the canton for the first time. Others came later, and keep coming. Their "visits" began to be read in defeated vegetation and fugitive animals. It was the cost of the unscrupulous search for underground treasures, regardless of the consequences on the surface. No one warned the community members of these dangers. They learned by suffering them. Hearing siren songs about improvements and services, non-existent even today.

Soon settlers and speculators from different provinces also appeared wanting to stay. The policies of the Ecuadorian Institute of Agrarian Reform and Colonization (IERAC, by its Spanish acronym) and of the National Institute of Agrarian Development (INDA) encouraged the settlement of “vacant” areas where people often already lived. Conflicts, land trafficking and deforestation arose. The Indigenous populations felt the fear of losing everything. It was necessary to travel the long and difficult path of legalizing their territories.

An organization

The Association of Indigenous Communities of Arajuno (ACIA, by its Spanish acronym) was created in 1979, to confront colonization and solicit global writing. But it was only possible to legalize it in 2011, sums up Diana.

Today, the name of the organization is the Kichwa expression Arawanu Kikin Ayllullaktakuna Tantanakuy (AKAT), which means Kichwa Original People of Arajuno. It is the base of similar provincial, regional, national and  international structures. But its strength is born in the territory, in the 27 affiliated communities, with 1,600 members who contribute 25 cents a month to sustain it. This is how the headquarters, a community kitchen, a coliseum for assemblies, a shelter and an FM radio were built. Due to some technical damage, the station is off the air. The community members are concerned about the blackout.

"In Arajuno there is coverage from only one cell phone company. And nothing else in the downtown area. If there is something to be communicated to the people who live in the middle of the jungle, it can only be achieved by radio."

Diana knows that silence and remoteness are complex challenges in the region. They are measured in deaths and denied opportunities. In hindered projects, because there are products that fail to come out and others that will never arrive. In hungry childhoods. The only thing that works without ceasing is the engine of greed, fueled by the dark fuel that bubbles under the Amazonian soil.

 Lineth Calapucha explains the project to create “multimodal harbors” to facilitate mobility to remote communities in the province of Pastaza.

After their foray in the 1940s, the oil companies never stopped coming back. Sometimes they just dug in and left, empty-handed despite themselves. In other occasions, like in Villano, they stayed and are still there. The company names may change, their financing can be public or private, but the story does not undergo important variations, and its ending, when it has one, is also usually a mirror of other known or yet to be known endings.

First they approach with seductive proposals. Those who distrust, or oppose because they know the consequences, are accused of hindering the "development" of the others. Any disagreement can trigger irreconcilable conflicts. They sow discord so that the criminal flower of ambition can sprout. Until their businesses lose profitability and they leave, leaving the human landscape as withered as the surrounding forest.

Yajaira Curipallo comments on the agenda of Amazonian women in their fight against extractivism and to win their rights.

"In my family and my community there was also division," admits Diana. "That's the first damage the oil companies do. And people are convinced by little things, by computers, by school snacks, because they don't provide health centers or schools. If we ask them that, they tell us to go to the ministry."

A young man greets us from the opposite sidewalk. He's on his way to school. He wears a sports shirt with the Pluspetrol logo on the chest. Sometimes the rights to community property and self-determination are exchanged for similar perks. Companies take advantage of the needs of others to avoid their own responsibilities; the communities — not all, not always — sell an invaluable decision at a bargain price and governments feign blindness to these forced and unequal transactions.

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Students from a school in Arajuno with clothing provided by Pluspetrol / Credit: Arajuno’s Cantonal Council for Rights Protection, Facebook page.

Diana has experienced many identical situations in her 34 years. She has also seen the successes and errors of her people in facing them. In 2008, several representatives of Petroproducción (a subsidiary of the public company Petroecuador) appeared at an ACIA assembly. They sought permission for Agip Oil Ecuador to explore the Oglán 2 Field, but they did not honor the community's right to a free and informed prior consultation. In its replacement, they offered an agreement for 18 months, with the Provincial Council as guarantor, in exchange for a 2-million-dollar investment. Although there was no shortage of critical voices, the power of the zeros raised the hands of the majority.

"The leaders can explain everything, but if the people vote for the entry of the oil company, they must to respect that mandate," Diana emphasizes.

The agreement was signed in 2012 but only the deadline was met; the economic promise was never close to being a reality. And the four hectares assigned to the project became seven, according to some calculations. Diana maintains that 14 in all were affected. They even left a considerable amount of wood to rot, which the community members felled and cut at the company's request. The assembly voted, this time to vacate the area, upon payment of compensation for non-compliance and environmental damage. Diana, accompanied by the delegate of the Pastaza Ombudsman's Office, Yajaira Curipallo, made a photographic record of the situation, which remains unresolved.

"We visited the place because I wanted to sue the company and get a protective order, so they can't re-enter. But it was not achieved," she laments.

written pages
Facsimiles of an article published in the magazine La Voz de la Confeniae N°23, with details about
the history of Campo Oglán 2 in Arajuno / Credit: Confeniae.

Agip postponed its departure until 2015: it had detected a crude deposit in Oglán that was well worth any delay. In 2019, that company was bought by Pluspetrol, which has tried to resume its activity in Arajuno since then. The usual methods — money offers, material goods and jobs — left behind all niceties, but they clashed against their own background and against a new leadership, reluctant to be swindled.

"They bothered us in the organization and in the communities. They called and say they wanted to pay to explore again. Until Libio Dahua, the president, told them that before speaking they should deposit what Agip owed in the ACIA account. They never did. Then they started harassing me."

A woman

Diana was the first woman to reach the presidency of AKAT, in 2021. She finished her tenure in May 2023. Before that, she was vice president of the organization, and also chaired Elena Andy community. It has not been an easy road. It is not for any Indigenous woman. Even less in the Amazon, where seven out of 10 face different types of violence. Every female leader is a reflection of the stories and battles of her companions. Of crushed dreams to adjust them to the mold of the possible.

Norma Mayanshia points out the ways in which the gender gap manifests itself against Amazonian Indigenous women. 

"At school I had to study accounting, because in Arajuno there was no other career. Later I did a degree in finance at the San Francisco University of Quito, through a scholarship. I was also an athlete, a wrestler," she concludes.

She says "was" as if stopping fighting was an option in her region. As if jobs, or public health, were guaranteed by the resources that others have absorbed from the subsoil for decades, leaving them nothing but contamination and enmities. As if she had not had to create, together with several neighbors, the textile business that today adds income for their families. 

At regular intervals, a noise leaks through the open window, making conversation difficult. A bulldozer moves along the street, spreading rocks like pavement that another machine removes from the bed of the Arajuno River. Several skinny chickens riot and scatter at each passing of the vehicle; stubborn, they resume their voracious pecking in the same place, until the next stampede. Where they settle, the soil remains dry, without traces of grass. And no matter how many times you scare them away, they will always come back. Just like the oil companies.

Pluspetrol envoys returned in 2021. Diana was already president of AKAT. She received them where she now tells her story. They did not offer anything different from their past lies. She didn't change the speech either: Her people had voted to expel them and that decision was law. The oil agents did not like the blunt refusal. They tried to spread the rumor that the president did not want Arajuno's progress, and that is why she rejected their company's investments. 

When that failed, they threatened her by telephone to enter Oglán without authorization, with the support of the public force. They didn't follow through. Perhaps because they know that time, money and influence are in their favor. Like other people's doubts: “If we say ‘no to the oil company,’ what support will our communities have?” the community members often ask themselves. The Indigenous leadership would like to have more answers to that question. While the state, always absent, answers it with total discretion.

"To us, the people who live in the territory, the Ministry of the Environment is stingy with hunting permits, but it immediately gives the oil companies environmental licenses. They don't care if people get sick or die from it."

Lineth Calapucha reveals her opinion on the actions of the Ministry of the Environment. 

When extractivism intervenes, those concerns are constant, even in areas supposedly protected by the ministry itself, like CEPLOA. While pipes, towers and machinery flourish, the nature around them collapses or is poisoned. No matter how loudly sufferers scream, few listen. To promote awareness of these risks, the AKAT leadership sought support in the resistance of the Indigenous peoples of Sucumbíos, where oil ecocide surpasses even the most perverse imagination.

Eduardo Mendúa, leader of the A'i Kofán of Dureno community and director of International Relations for Indigenous Nationalities Confederation of Ecuador (Conaie, by its Spanish acronym), responded to the call. He visited Arajuno in November 2022. His narration about the ills of oil and the strengthening of community leadership concluded with an omen that Diana shuddered to remember: “My life is in danger, comrade, this may be the last time we see each other,” he told her. In February 2023, hooded assailants riddled him with bullets and fled. There are three men prosecuted for the crime, but the case is progressing slowly.

group of people
Diana Tanguila (second from the left) along with Eduardo Mendúa (fifth) and other Indigenous leaders, at the VII Congress of Conaie, held in Salasaca, Tungruahua, between June 25 and 27, 2021 / Credit: Comunidad del Milenio A’i Dureno, Facebook page.

For the peoples and nationalities of the Amazon, these crimes contain disciplinary claims. A few months ago, new authorities took over at AKAT. Diana doesn't know if they will be able to keep the oil companies out of Oglán. She fears the opposite: that impunity and corruption fertilize the miserable garden of private and state interests, where the dry flowers of development grow.

"I got worried when Eduardo was killed. I have been afraid for myself and my family, because I am also against the oil companies. But as he said: 'If they kill me, I will die with dignity defending the territory.'”

Her wet gaze, rebellious to pain, is lost in the sky. Half a dozen dark buzzards take flight. Under its lurking shadows, still alive, the jungle insists on flourishing.

This story was produced with support from Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in La Línea de Fuego on on September 1, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Diana / Credit: Gía Román.