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Amazon, Ecuador

Jungle Mothers: Indigenous Women in the Amazon Are Frontline Defenders of Their Ancestral Territories

Ecuador has just made a historic decision on oil exploitation in the Yasuní National Park, a center of biodiversity in its Amazon forest. The protection of these territories demonstrates the growing leadership of Indigenous women, who face multiple threats as a result: At least 31 acts of violence against human rights and nature defenders were recorded in that region during the last five years (2018-2022).

The first installment of this special report from La Línea de Fuego, produced with the support of Earth Journalism Network, tells the story of women in this struggle and the attacks they suffer, exacerbated with each advance of extractive policies. The picture is completed with the life stories of three Amazonian leaders, who honor the legacy of being daughters and mothers of the jungle.

They seem to have been born on the move, feet and faces firm, determined to never stop. With skirts or dresses, with children or without them. Despite real and symbolic obstacles, or perhaps because of them. The state of being found in walking. “The participation of women in the history of the Indigenous movement, since the creation of the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians in the 1930s, has always been at the forefront,” highlights lawyer Adriana Rodríguez Caguana, a member of the Human Rights Andean Program at the Simón Bolívar Andean University in Quito.

“In terms of human rights, Indigenous women always generate leadership: We have experience in the fight for land, against the plantation regime or for access to education,” agrees Gina Benavides, lawyer, activist and former delegate in charge of the Ombudsman of Ecuador (DPE, for its name in Spanish). “Amazonian women are pioneers in the fight against extractivism and for the rights of nature. They are not only thinking about themselves or this country, but about the entire world,” she adds.

With each step, women have consolidated this course and modeled organizations that help them follow it. Many others have joined along the way. They leave their fears aside and move forward: “We had many threats. We were hidden, afraid. That same fear is now the desire to fight and defend what is ours," says Elsa Cerda, president of the Kichwa Guard Association Yuturi Warmi.

Elsa Cerda (third from the right) along with several of her colleagues from the Yuturi Warmi Indigenous Guard Association, in a demonstration against mining / Credit: Yuturi Warmi Facebook page.

Yuturi is the name of an Amazonian ant, protector of her colony's territory. A kind of combative mother who defends her communal home. The same role that women assume.

Many reasons

The motivations for this feminine commitment are numerous. In principle, the Ecuadorian Amazon is an unequal and violent region: Any of its general socioeconomic indicators reveal impoverishment, marginalization and lack of opportunities, but the gap is even more dramatic if the gender and ethnic components are considered. “Achieving some process of vindication is a daily struggle, due to the structural situation of discrimination that exists, even within the communities,” explains Yajaira Curipallo, delegate of the DPE for Pastaza. Installing notions such as “equity” or “empowerment,” the official clarifies, is a challenge in progress, with some clear results.

The environmental problem is another good example. For the Amazonian Indigenous peoples and nationalities, this axis runs through every particle of reality. The consequences of extractivism in its several variants add reasons for concern or rebellion for the population. And women suffer specific effects because of it: “We make the chakras [small farming areas] produce, we harvest the products... therefore, when nature is not respected, our coexistence and our way of life are damaged,” says María Cuji, former local coordinator of Women and Health of the Kichwa Nationality of Pastaza (PAKKIRU, by its Kichwa acronym).

Cuji was born in Canelos and lives in Ilipi, Villano sector, near the homonymous oil field, operated by Pluspetrol. The harmful effects of this proximity, she assures, have been evident in the environment for some time: She estimates the migration of fish from nearby rivers to be 50%, and bananas, which previously “were harvested for five or six years,” are now seeing their productive period reduced by half. Like her colleagues, in the community and in the organization, she opposes the expansion of other activities that are harmful to the environment, such as deforestation promoted by the logging industry and the installation of hydroelectric plants.

María Cuji, former local leader of Women and Health of the Kichwa Nationality of Pastaza (PAKKIRU), reflects on logging exploitation in her province. 

In the provinces of Sucumbíos, Napo, Orellana and Pastaza, the oil industry keeps almost 450 gas burning flares in operation. Nine girls launched a campaign to demand that they be turned off. The Court of Sucumbíos ruled in favor of the plaintiffs — advised by the Union of Those Affected by Texaco’s Oil Operations (Udapt, by its Spanish acronym) — but the deadline to complete the shutdown process expired in March of this year, without results. During the development of the case, it was also detected that the pollution emitted by these gas expulsion mechanisms is directly related to several hundred cases of cancer: 70% of them affect women.

Oil spills have been another unfortunate regional constant: There were almost 1,600 during the last decade (2012-2022). The remediation efforts were always late and partial. The pollution never completely disappeared and it branches even within people's minds and souls.

“After the 2020 spill in the Coca River, I interviewed a woman who told me: 'The river is sad, because it smells bad.' Now the children are afraid to go to bathe and that is a great impact, because they are Indigenous children and they lose the spiritual contact that they always had with water,” observes Alexandra Almeida, coordinator of the Petroleum Area at ​​the NGO Acción Ecológica.

For his part, the delegate of the DPE for Napo, Eduardo Rojas, draws attention to the indiscriminate advance of legal and illegal mining (linked, according to official sources, to criminal groups such as Los Choneros) in his province. But he warns of the responsibility of the national government in this: “In 2021, [President Guillermo] Lasso announced that he would increase protection in the Galapagos Islands against illegal fishing. That seems perfect to me. But the next day he signed decrees 95 and 151, which allow the increase of the mining extractive frontier and the drilling of new oil wells in the Amazon. So, why do they affect us, if the Constitution and the Amazon Law equate this region with the Galapagos, in terms of protection and conservation?” Rojas inquires.

Eduardo Rojas, delegate of the Napo ombudsman's office, regarding statements by former government minister Alexandra Vela, in relation to criminal groups linked to illegal mining in that province.

“One of the main problems with the system we have is that Indigenous peoples have already seen decades of oil exploitation in which there was no benefit for them. It is a history of domination in which they have always been harmed by the ecological impact of their territories,” reflects Adriana Rodríguez Caguana. For the researcher, just as extractivism has a clear sexist and patriarchal bias, the way in which Amazonian women rework their heritage of Indigenous resistance to confront it becomes a variant of “ecofeminism” that, in her opinion, “does not emerge from nowhere” and harbors the necessary power to consolidate the “development of an Indigenous feminism.”

Many ways

Years ago, the Argentine oil company Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC) tried to access the territory of the Kichwa people of Sarayaku, in the province of Pastaza. The company's strategies to start its operations collided against the decision of the local women. Although the men, at one point, seemed willing to give in: “They then gave them an ultimatum: 'If you let the oil company in, we won't make chicha for you.’ In the communities only women make chicha, but men cannot live without it. It was almost a death threat,” says Alexandra Almeida, laughing.

This is just one of the many ways in which Amazonian women have managed to organize themselves and express their points of view in recent times. Not always in an organic or continuous way, but often with that possibility in mind: “We were a group of about 15 women who made crafts. And we continue doing them. But in 2021, when the president of our community was about to accept the entry of a mining company, we decided to make our own spears and become guardians,” describes Elsa Cerda, about the origin of Yuturi Warmi, the first Indigenous guard composed exclusively of women. Today, that organization has almost 50 members and has equipment and training to carry out permanent territorial monitoring.

Productive or even social initiatives that include a strong cultural component (tourism, gastronomy, ancestral organic crops, crafts, among others) usually foster these types of spaces for training and political articulation. Lineth Calapucha, the first Kichwa woman to reach the vice prefecture of Pastaza, reveals her plans in this regard: “We are thinking about building a shelter for women who have suffered gender violence, and that a women's rights empowerment school will also operate there,” she describes. Making this project happen, she acknowledges, “would be a great dream,” given the regional shortcomings in the matter.

Lawyer and academic Adriana Rodríguez Caguana highlights the role of Indigenous women in intercultural bilingual education and the preservation of native languages. 

“Before, from the Ombudsman's Office, we asked to do training on violence against women, extractivism and rights of nature, but many times the community government councils did not allow it. Now the gender and family leaderships have been quite activated, and it is the same organizations that ask us to work on these issues,” says Yajaira Curipallo. This growing openness has not only stimulated individual awareness and positioning, but also the emergence of organizations such as the Amazonian Women Network, the Ecuadorian Amazon Waorani Women Association (Amwae, by its Spanish acronym), and many others. Recently, several of these groups convened the First National Meeting of Organized Ecuadorian Women, in which an Agenda for Ecuador from Women, was agreed and presented to the candidates running for president in the August 2023 elections.

A point that still generates disparate perceptions is the low female presence in the senior leadership of the largest Indigenous structures in the region and the country: the Ecuadorian Amazon Indigenous Nationalities Confederation (Confeniae, by its Spanish acronym) and the Indigenous Nationalities Confederation of Ecuador (Conaie, also by its Spanish acronym). While former DPE delegate Gina Benavides considers this fact “a problem,” her colleague from the Andean Human Rights Program does not assign it as much relevance: “I think the positions are not important, because the female leaders are strong, they are representative and they are recognized in their communities. The problem is to see what happens to women who do not have political power; how does female leadership contribute in these cases to reduce gender violence and strengthen equal relationships,” points out Adriana Rodríguez Caguana.

Nathaly Yépez, legal advisor at Amazon Watch, calls for the state to play a more active role in protecting living ancestral cultures.

Many women (and several debts)

The statistics are not abundant. Nor are they often easy to corroborate, and they are scattered in records of different human rights organizations, environmentalists, and certain state agencies. But they are still useful to determine that, under current conditions, being a woman, Indigenous, and a defender of nature brings with it risk for physical and psychological safety in the Amazon. During the last five years (2018-2022), as you can see in the following statistical map, there were at least 31 cases of these characteristics in Eastern Ecuador; five of them, collective.

Several of these events aim to establish, in female groups, a feeling of helplessness and loneliness that nullifies their critical stance. Like the suspicious death of María Taant, in March 2021, which remains unpunished: The Shuar singer and activist had just received recognition from the DPE for her anti-extractivist fight, when she was run over in Taisha by a vehicle that fled without being identified. Or like the intentional fire at the home of Margoth Escobar, founder and reference of the Saramanta Warmikuna network, and the attack with stones on the home of Patricia Gualinga, leader of the Sarayaku Kichwa people.

Aggressions against women environmental defenders / Credit: Santiago García.

“We do not have a state system for the protection of defenders that allow the different levels of harassment to be recorded before reaching a level of aggression that already constitutes a crime. Unfortunately, now we only have criminal proceedings, but to access it, the level of damage to a legal asset such as life or integrity has to effectively constitute an attack," details Nathaly Yépez, legal advisor of the Amazon Watch Ecuadorian team. Benavides confirms this normative debt and adds two other pending challenges: the articulation of training processes in rights, at all educational levels, and an effective law of reparation for victims of human rights violations.

The lawyer and former ombudsman (in charge), Gina Benavides, points out the importance of having a comprehensive reparation law in Ecuador and training in a rights-based approach.

Among other fundamental guarantees, what is at risk in the Amazon is the possibility of living in a healthy environment. Women know this, because they live it daily with the intervention of any form of extractivism. “If the jungle, nature, is altered, they are altering the rights of Amazonian women,” emphasizes María Cuji, for whom the “Kawsak Sacha” (Living Jungle) proposal cannot be realized without first resolving the population's shortcomings.

Alexandra Almeida confesses to having received criticism for maintaining that Indigenous women “take on the defense of Pachamama (Mother Earth) in a different way than men.” “I believe that the fact of being a woman and defending Pachamama, which she also is, links them more closely with the feeling of protection and reproduction of life. They are very aware of not destroying what we inherit from our elders. In fact, the Ronda Suroriente is not advancing because of the resistance of Indigenous peoples, with a strong dose of women’s participation,” she clarifies.

“They are women who have faced these struggles and who give the example message that history can be changed here, with respect for the people and nature,” agrees and praises the delegate of the Napo DPE, Eduardo Rojas. Meanwhile, the borders between mothers and jungle become thinner until they form a single universe, fertile and rebellious, where only the fight for life is possible.

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in La Línea de Fuego on August 30, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Indigenous women are in the frontline to protect their territories / Credit: Gía Román.